The Pivotal Issue in the Reformation: The Doctrine of Justification
“Being justified freely by His grace through
the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” —Romans 3:24
There were many vital issues leading up to the 16th Century Reformation, issues which received much-needed attention during the period of the Reformation. One such issue was the enforced celibacy of the priests, depriving them of God’s institution of marriage, as revealed in Genesis 2: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (v. 24). One of the God-given purposes for marriage is made known in I Corinthians 7: “To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (v. 2). Mandatory celibacy — prohibition of marriage for priests and other clerics — brought about (and is still bringing about) fornication, adultery, scandals, and other horrible offenses. Four hundred years before the Reformation, the priests still had the freedom to enter into marriage. However, one of the Roman Catholic Popes, around the 12th Century, made a decree that all the priests, from that point in time forward, must lead a single life. The Augsburg Confession reports that, following the issuing of this ungodly decree, there was “such resistance that the Archbishop of Mainz, when about to publish the Pope’s decree concerning this matter, was almost killed in the tumult raised by the enraged priests. And so harsh was the dealing in this matter that not only were marriages forbidden for the future, but also existing marriages were torn asunder, contrary to all laws, divine and human” (The Concordia Triglotta, Article XXIII, Sections 12 and 13, page 63). Other weighty issues during the years of the Reformation were the worship of saints (not only Mary), the Mass, forced private confession, traditions placed above the commandments of God, and the abuses carried out and often publicly displayed by those in the Papal office.
However, the pivotal, the chief, the most important issue in the Reformation was how are sinners justified before God [how are sins forgiven before God]. John Tetzel’s selling of indulgences (written assurances that sins were forgiven for a certain payment of money) was a Catholic-approved, unscriptural way of dealing with this issue. People needed to do something themselves (pay some money or do some “good work” prescribed by the priest) to earn forgiveness for their sins. This practice of selling indulgences (and other similar practices) sent the deceptive message to the people at that time that they could justify themselves before God, that they could buy their way into heaven, that they could lessen the suffering of their loved ones in “purgatory” (a fairy tale, a place that does not exist), and that they could do certain “good works” to earn favor before God. The message of earning forgiveness and justification before God was a terrible lie preached to the people; it gave the people a false comfort, an empty assurance, and a counterfeit hope. This fraudulent message profaned the name of God and blatantly contradicted what He clearly and repeatedly teaches in His Holy Word.
The Word of God, which, Jesus says, “is [the] truth” (John 17:17b), makes abundantly clear that no human being can earn forgiveness for even one sin; no person can do anything or contribute anything at all in order to be justified before God. This is why there are NO Bible passages (in the previous paragraph) to support the Roman Catholic answer to the question: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30b). It needs to be remembered that the Law of God, the divine standard for all people, demands perfect compliance as Jesus Himself affirmed in Matthew 5: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (v. 48). When a man came to Jesus with the question, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25b), the Savior said to him: “What is written in the Law? How readest thou?” (v. 26). The man came back with the right answer when he gave this reply: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (v. 27). This answer accurately set forth what the Law of God required in order “to inherit eternal life.” After hearing the man’s answer, Jesus told him: “Thou hast answered rightly; THIS DO, AND THOU SHALT LIVE” (v. 28). If people want to have everlasting life in heaven by what they do (what they contribute) according to God’s Law, God’s Commandments, then they must realize that this divine standard of the Law cuts them no slack; it demands total and constant obedience. An example of God’s demands in His holy Law is given to us in Leviticus 19, where the Lord God Himself declared: “Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2). Even the slightest disobedience of God’s Law brings total guilt on the violator. James, in his Epistle, confirmed this truth in these words: “Whosoever shall keep the whole Law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (2:10). The Apostle Paul, in Romans 3, said: “Now we know that what things soever the Law saith, it saith to them who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (vv. 19-20). These truths from Scripture reject and condemn the premise that existed at the time of the Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church, that justification before God was attainable partially or completely by human “good deeds, good works.” So, at the time of the Reformation, there was a “head-on collision” between the Roman Catholic, false teaching on how sinners are justified before God and the Scriptural, true teaching on how sinners are justified before God.
The Scriptural doctrine of justification, by God’s grace and mercy alone, was indeed wonderfully restored and most certainly, awesomely brought back to the people (to the whole world) during the time of the Reformation. We can never sufficiently and adequately thank our God for this great work of restoration; we owe Him unending praise and worship for bringing back, in its full splendor, with its everlasting comfort, this priceless gem of His teaching on justification.
This doctrine of justification is (and always has been and will ever continue to be) the chief, the pivotal, and the most important doctrine (teaching) in Scripture. All teachings of God’s Word are good and important, but the teaching on justification is the most important teaching of all. The doctrine of justification was the chief, the pivotal, and the most important teaching of God’s Word since the Scriptures were penned, also at the time of the Reformation, and it is still the chief, the pivotal, and the most important teaching of God’s Word in our time.
In this teaching of justification, God “foreordained [planned, determined] before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:20), before the creation of the world, that Christ as the Redeemer (vv. 18-19), as the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8b), would be the “propitiation” [the ransom, the full payment] …for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). This was, therefore, all God’s work, since there were no people existing before “the foundation,” before the creation, of the world. All of this was (still is and will always be) most certainly true as an objective fact and reality outside of faith, prior to faith, and before there were any human beings to accept and believe it. What a “strange,” yet marvelous teaching this was for the precious souls at the time of the Reformation to hear, announcing to them the “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10b), tidings which had been systematically hidden from them for so many years! How wonderfully comforting this teaching was in comparison to the empty, opposite message to which these souls had been enslaved for hundreds of years!
This teaching of justification sets forth the fact that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses [not charging their sins] unto them, and hath committed unto us the Word of reconciliation [the precious news of the Gospel]. … For He [God] hath made Him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin [Christ was sinless], that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him [in Christ]” (II Corinthians 5:19 and 21). God, out of His infinite grace and mercy, did not charge or impute the sins of the transgressors unto them, but instead charged them all to Christ as their Substitute, as the Prophet Isaiah declared in Isaiah 53, where we read that “the Lord hath laid on Him [on the Messiah, on Christ] the iniquity of us ALL” (v. 6b). Yes indeed, God gave the gift of forgiveness, the gift of the non-imputation of sin, to the world of sinful men, not on account of being paid a certain amount of money for an indulgence, but on account of the vicarious (substitutionary) sinless life and innocent suffering and death of Christ Jesus, “the Just for the unjust” (I Peter 3:18a), as the “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10b; see also vv. 12 and 14) payment that satisfied His justice, that cleared all the spiritual debts owed to Him by every sinner who has lived (including those living at the time of the Reformation), by every sinner who is living (including each of us), and for all sinners who will live up until the final day of this world). This is brought home precisely in Romans 3, where the Apostle Paul announces by inspiration of God that the “all” in verse 23 who “have sinned and come short of the glory of God” are the same “all” who are “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24).
In this teaching of justification, our gracious God has given certainty to the “world” (II Corinthians 5:19) of sinners that their sins have been totally pardoned, not because of anything which they have done, but solely and only because of what “Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24b) has vicariously, as their Substitute, done for them, in their behalf, namely, having secured righteousness for every soul of man (Romans 3:21-22; 5:19) by His perfect obedience of God’s Law in their place, and having secured pardon for their sins by assuming their guilt and paying its penalty by His innocent suffering and death (I Peter 2:24a; 3:18). Christ became “the Propitiation [the perfect satisfaction] for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Thus the foundation of the changeless teaching of justification is and always has been the active and passive obedience of Christ Jesus.
Why was the active obedience of Christ necessary for our justification? God, in His Law, demands perfect obedience of all people (Matthew 5:48; Luke 10:28b; James 2:10); and since Adam, Eve, and all of their descendants failed to meet and carry out that divine demand, God, “full of compassion …and of great mercy” (Psalm 145:8), “anointed” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:17-21) Jesus of Nazareth to “fulfill” (Matthew 5:17) His Law in the place of sinners. This perfect, active, substitutionary obedience by Christ for every single sinner resulted in God’s declaring the world of sinners righteous in His sight, as the Apostle Paul sets forth this glorious teaching in Romans 5, where we find these priceless words: “As by the offense of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness [the perfect obedience] of One [Christ Jesus] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience [the] many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One [Christ Jesus] shall [the] many be made righteous” (vv. 18-19). This is the revelation of the active obedience of Christ Jesus, His work of perfectly obeying all the commandments of God for all transgressors of His Law.
For the people at the time of the Reformation, who were held by Rome to the obedience of the Law for their forgiveness and salvation, this teaching of the active obedience of Christ for the world of sinners gave them the certainty that God’s Substitute and Savior for the world completely and totally fulfilled God’s Law for them and gave them the rich blessing of righteousness before God on account of that perfect fulfillment of the demands of God’s Law. This Gospel, these “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:14), brought special “comfort” (Isaiah 40:1) to those during the Reformation who, before hearing of this Gospel, had been troubled in their minds because of their sins and burdened with their guilt at not being able to do enough to secure salvation by the works of the Law.
Why was the passive obedience of Christ necessary for our justification? God, in His justice and holiness, hates “all workers of iniquity” (Psalm 5:5b) and reveals His “wrath …from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18a). Therefore all sinners are truly deserving of nothing but God’s hatred and wrath on account of their sins, that is, God’s punishment, both in this life and in the life hereafter, deserving of all of this from the time of their conception and birth (Psalm 51:5). St. Paul teaches in Romans 6:23a, that “the wages of sin is death,” eternal death, “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46a). But our God, “not willing that any should perish” (II Peter 3:9b) in the “torments” (Luke 16:23) of hell, out of “the multitude of His lovingkindnesses” (Isaiah 63:7b) and His “tender mercy” (Luke 1:78a), gave to “the world” (John 3:16a) “His only begotten Son” (v. 16b), who “once [only once] suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh” (I Peter 3:18a). This “Jesus” (Luke 1:31b), as the Apostle Paul assures us, “made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8), all out of “the multitude of His lovingkindnesses” (Isaiah 63:7b) and His “tender mercy” (Luke 1:78a). The Prophet Isaiah reports that “the Lord hath laid on Him [the Messiah, the Savior] the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth. He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth” (53:6b-7). This was the passive obedience of “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Again, the blessed Gospel of what Christ perfectly suffered for poor sinners to pay for all of their sins brings real comfort to those who are troubled in their minds because of their guilt before God. For the people at the time of the Reformation, who were taught that they had to turn away God’s anger from themselves and to earn His forgiveness by doing good works and making sacrifices of their own to merit His favor, the passive obedience of Christ came as “good news,” “for by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified,” the writer to the Hebrews assures us (10:14); “there is no more offering for sin” (v. 18). “The redemption of their soul is precious,” the Bible tells us in Psalm 49:8. No one can redeem himself to God; no one can “redeem his brother” (v. 7) to God. Only Christ, God’s Son and the Redeemer of the world, could pay that ransom and buy us back from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13).
This active and passive obedience by Christ for “all” (Romans 3:23) sinners, this “redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), brought about God’s objective, universal justification of “all” (Romans 3:23-24) as a priceless gift of His grace, that gift which God earnestly wants “all men” (I Timothy 2:4a), all people of all ages, to know about and to receive for their subjective, personal justification, as St. Paul makes clear in Romans 3, verse 28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law.” Now, whoever receives and believes in this Savior “is not condemned” (John 3:18a) for their sins, but has and enjoys the everlasting gift of “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1b).
The gratitude of those in Reformation times who were brought to know, to accept, to believe, and thus to receive the benefits of justification moved them willingly to sacrifice their reputations, their earthly possessions, and their very “lives” (I John 3:16) to demonstrate their love for Him who “first loved [them]” (I John 4:19) and to “show forth the praises of Him who [had] called [them] out of darkness into His marvelous light; which in time past were not a people, but [were] now the people of God; which had not obtained mercy, but now [had] obtained mercy” (I Peter 2:9b-10).
Since the Scripture doctrine of justification presents the only true way to everlasting salvation, it is the most important teaching of the Christian religion, the only true and saving religion, which teaches what God has graciously and mercifully done for the world of sinners “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24b). All other religions, including Roman Catholicism, teach what sinners must do, partially or completely, to earn God’s favor in order to get into heaven. Let us, therefore continue to hold fast to and boldly confess (John 8:31-32; Hebrews 10:23; II Timothy 3:14; I Peter 3:15) the Scripture doctrine of justification “without wavering,” defend it against its enemies, ever support it as a precious treasure restored unto us in the Lutheran Reformation and preserved for us yet today, and continue to grow in gratitude to our gracious God for this priceless doctrine which gives us “the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:57) — victory over “the curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:13), victory over “death [and the] grave” (I Corinthians 15:55), victory over “all sin” (I John 1:7b) and over “the devil” (I John 3:8b).
As believers in this most precious doctrine of justification, we can confidently declare with the Apostle Paul: “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, ye rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? …We are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. …[Nothing] shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” (Romans 8:31b-35a; 37; 39b).
— R. J. L.