In celebration of Reformation Day, I thought I would post half of a project I recently completed for my Systematic Theology III class. My professor asked me to answer two questions in five to seven double-spaced pages. The first question was on Martin Luther and the doctrine of justification. Below is the question, followed by my answer:
What is the difference between Roman Catholicism and Martin Luther on the doctrine of justification? In order to find out, you should read the material in Erickson['s Christian Theology], and then consult one of the following sources: The New Dictionary of Theology, The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, The Encyclopedia of the Reformation, or The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Which (Luther or the RCC) do you think is correct? How does this issue affect our understanding of the evangelistic task?
The doctrine of justification is widely understood to be the material cause of the Reformation. The disagreement between Roman Catholicism and Martin Luther on this issue led to a split in Western Christendom which continues to this day. As Millard Erickson summarizes, "Justification is God's action pronouncing sinners righteous in his sight. We have been forgiven and declared to have fulfilled all that God's law requires of us. Historically, it was this issue that preoccupied Martin Luther and led to his break from the Roman Catholic Church." With this historical significance in mind, what is the difference between Roman Catholicism and Martin Luther on the doctrine of justification? And which one is correct? Both questions must be answered and their practical significance applied.
The difference between Roman Catholicism and Martin Luther on the doctrine of justification can be seen in which word they use when explaining the way a believer is pronounced righteous—infusion or imputation. Roman Catholics following the Council of Trent understand justification primarily as an infusion of grace which changes an individual's spiritual and moral nature. Therefore, justification is a process where believers actually become righteous. Ultimately, a Christian earns eternal life as he or she becomes righteous. Martin Luther strenuously opposed this view, holding that justification is a declarative act whereby God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the believer. Christ's righteousness justifies a Christian, not his or her own righteousness or good works. Essentially, justification is transformative in Roman Catholicism, whereas justification is declarative for Martin Luther.
When considering both positions, Martin Luther clearly advocates the correct view. First, the biblical word "justification" itself (as well as its cognates) is a forensic, or legal, term. It refers to a judicial act of declaring a verdict of acquittal. An individual is legally declared "not guilty." As J. I. Packer states, "There is no lexical ground for the view of Chrysostom, Augustine, and the medieval and Roman theologians that 'justify' means, or connotes as part of its meaning, 'make righteous' (by subjective spiritual renewal)."
Second, the Roman Catholic position is not consistent with biblical texts on justification. For example, Romans 4:2-5 says, "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.' Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." In this passage, the Apostle Paul contrasts justification by works and justification by faith. He explicitly denies that a person gains their righteousness through works. Believers are counted as righteous through their faith in Jesus Christ, which is demonstrated through the example of Abraham.
The righteousness that saves is the righteousness of another—Jesus Christ. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares, "For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Consequently, a Christian's justified standing before God is an alien righteousness. In Philippians 3:9, Paul explains his own personal relationship with Christ as ". . . not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith." Faith alone is the instrument through which Christ's righteousness leads to justification and salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 summarizes this truth: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Works have no role in being declared justified before God.
A main biblical Roman Catholics use to support their position is James 2:14ff. After James also uses Abraham as an example, he concludes by saying, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (v. 24). Nevertheless, when understood in context, James is not disagreeing with Paul. Erickson is correct notes, "James in no way denies that we are justified by faith alone. Rather, his point in this passage is that faith without works is not genuine faith; it is barren (v. 20). Genuine faith will necessarily issue in works. Faith and works are inseparable." Works are the inevitable result of justification, but they in no way lead to justification. One must not forget that Ephesians 2:10 follows vv. 8-9 (mentioned above): " For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Martin Luther was right in his understanding of the doctrine of justification.
When a person holds to the biblical teaching of justification, how does it affect our understanding of the evangelistic task? There are two ways in which evangelism will be impacted. First, a Christian's witnessing encounters must center on a call to embrace Jesus Christ and his redemptive work through faith alone. This saving faith includes turning away from sin in repentance, and turning toward Christ as Savior and Lord. An individual must believe and trust in Jesus' atonement alone, whereby one's punishment was paid for by Christ, and Christ's perfect righteousness was credited to the individual. Complete reliance on Christ in faith is what brings justification. No good works and no sacrament results in righteousness. Our only hope is Jesus Christ.
Second, evangelical believers must recognize the need to evangelize Roman Catholics. If they hold to the gospel taught by the Roman Catholic Church, then they are trusting in a false gospel. They will not be justified. The Apostle Paul warns about those who believe in the preaching of a different gospel: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." A Roman Catholic will only be saved through the biblical gospel of justification through faith alone.
In our doctrine and in our evangelism, we should declare together with Martin Luther that justification is "the doctrine by which the church stands or falls."
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 968.
J. I. Packer, "Justification," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1984), 594.