The Importance of Justification by Faith Alone

In the 19th century, some historians tried to analyze the various streams of Protestantism in terms of a central dogma. Alexander Schweizer thought that it was predestination. He said that the central dogma of the Lutherans was justification. From what I can tell from the secondary literature, he also believed that this was sort of a basic principle from which all other dogmas were deduced. This sort of methodology has been rejected by most modern historians.

However, as I have read classic Reformed theology, I have found that they generally did believe in a central dogma. They believed that it was justification by faith alone. This did not mean that it was a theological axiom from which all other theology was deduced. Rather, it meant:

  1. That the purity of this doctrine was basic to purity in all other doctrines.
  2. That any error in this doctrine was extremely dangerous.
  3. That this doctrine, above all, was to be defended, explained, and meditated upon.
  4. That this doctrine was the foundation of all true religion and holiness.
  5. That the true Church could not be maintained without this doctrine.

In this post, I would like to demonstrate this from the writings of several different theologians from several different regions and eras.

Herman Witsius (1636–1708, Holland), The Economy of the Covenants, 2.8.1: “The pious Picardians, as they were called in Bohemia and Moravia [i.e., the churches of which John Huss was the most prominent example], valued this article at its true price when in their confession of faith, Art. vi. speaking of justification, they thus write: ‘this sixth article is accounted with us the most principal of all, as being the sum of all Christianity and piety. Wherefore our divines teach and handle it with all diligence and application, and endeavor to instill it into all.’”

Thomas Watson (1620–1686, England), A Body of Divinity, 226: “Justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity. An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation. Justification by Christ is a spring of the water of life. To have the poison of corrupt doctrine cast into this spring is damnable.”

Leiden Synopsis (written by four professors of theology from Leiden, 1625): “The topic of justification in theology is easily foremost and most saving. If it be obscured, adulterated, or overturned, it is impossible for purity of doctrine to be retained in other loci or for the true Church to exist.”

Francis Turretin (1623–1687, Switzerland), Institutes of Elenctic Theology: “This must be handled with the greater care and accuracy as this saving doctrine is of the greatest importance in religion. It is called by Luther ‘the article of a standing and a falling church.’ By other Christians, it is termed the characteristic and basis of Christianity — not without reason — the principal rampart of the Christian religion. This being adulterated or subverted, it is impossible to retain purity of doctrine in other places. Hence Satan in every way has endeavored to corrupt this doctrine in all ages, as has been done especially by the papacy.”

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711, Holland), The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2.341: “Justification . . . is the soul of Christianity and the fountainhead of all true comfort and sanctification. He who errs in this doctrine errs to his eternal destruction. The devil is therefore continually engaged in denying, perverting, and obscuring the truth expressed in this chapter and, if he does not accomplish this, to prevent exercise concerning this truth. . . One must therefore be all the more earnest to properly understand, defend, and meditate upon this doctrine.”

Antonius Walaeus (1573–1639, Holland), Loci Communes, 746: “This article is of such high moment, that Luther himself, Chemnitz, and all the writers of the Reformed Church were always of the opinion that it is the foundation of the whole Reformation and the source of all our true consolation and gratitude.”

Johannes Vanderkemp (1664–1718, Holland), Sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, 1.479–480: “What think ye, hearers, have not we reason to boast, that we alone possess the pure doctrine according to the word of God, when we teach that the sinner is justified before God by faith only, on account of the perfect righteousness of Christ, through the free grace of God? Is not this doctrine the only foundation, and the principal article of the whole Gospel? . . . But what will this boasting avail us, if we ourselves do not make a profitable, comfortable, and sanctifying use of our doctrine?”

Archibald Alexander (1772–1851, America), Treatise on Justification: “But a sound view of this point is intimately connected with correct opinions on all other articles of primary importance; and an error here, cannot but vitiate the whole system of theology, of which it forms a part. This is a central and a cardinal point in theoretical, as well as practical religion; and the degree of error on other articles, may be inferred, from the degree of departure from the truth, in regard to this.”

Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583, Germany), Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 324–325: “The doctrine of justification, which now follows, is one of the chief articles of our faith, not only because it treats of those things which are fundamental, but also because it is most frequently called in question by heretics. . . And such is the importance of these doctrines that if either one of them be overthrown, the other parts of our faith easily fall to pieces. Hence it becomes necessary for us to fortify and establish ourselves, especially in these doctrines, against all the assaults of heretics.”

John Calvin (1509–1564, Switzerland), The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.1: “The method of justification has been but slightly touched, because it was necessary, first to understand that the faith, by which alone we attain gratuitous justification through the Divine mercy, is not unattended with good works, and what if the nature of the good works of the saints, in which part of this question consists. The subject of justification, therefore, must now be fully discussed, and discussed with the recollection that it is the principal hinge by which religion is supported, in order that we may apply to it with the greater attention and care. For unless we first of all apprehend in what situation we stand with respect to God, and what his judgment is concerning us, we have no foundation either for a certainty of salvation, or for the exercise of piety towards God. But the necessity of knowing this subject will be more evident from the knowledge itself.”

18 Replies to “The Importance of Justification by Faith Alone”

  1. Phil, I thought you might come up with some good quotes to add to this list. Thanks for your help! That is a good one.

  2. Here's another great Calvin quote from his reply to a letter from Cardinal Joseph Sadolet (1539):

    "You, in the first place, touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. Is this a knotty and useless question? Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown. That doctrine, then, though of the highest moment, we maintain that you have nefariously effaced from the memory of men. Our books are filled with convincing proofs of this fact, and the gross ignorance of this doctrine, which even still continues in all your churches, declares that our complaint is by no means ill founded.

    "…I will not now enter upon a full discussion, which would require a large volume…Here, however, I will briefly explain to you how we speak on this subject.

    "First, We bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to sist his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God: and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith."

  3. Amen to your post. This is the battle I've been fighting ever since I became an Anglican. The Reformed Episcopal Church decided justification by faith alone is no longer essential to a true church so they merged with the Anglo-Catholics in the Anglican Church in North America.

    Also, many Anglican and Reformed scholars and ministers wish to allow that Anglo-Catholics are not heretical by saying that "justification by faith alone" is an important doctrine but it is not "the" Gospel.

    From your quotes here it would seem that justification by faith alone IS the root and foundation of "the" Gospel. Even the 39 Articles of Religion from the English Reformation upholds that doctrine. How Anglo-Catholics and Federal Visionists could say that justification by faith "alone" or "only" is not essential to the Gospel is beyond me.

    Article XI
    Of the Justification of Man
    We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

    De Hominis Iustificatione
    Tantum propter meritum Domini ac Servatoris nostri Jesu Christi, per fidem, non propter opera et merita nostra, iusti coram Deo reputamur. Quare sola fide nos iustificari, doctrina est saluberrima, ac consolationis plenissima; ut in Homilia de Iustificatione hominis Fusius explicatur.

    Provenance

    Based on the Confession of Würtemberg.

  4. Have you heard the prayer of humble access in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer? Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's interaction with the Lutherans influenced his revision of the English prayer book. It reads:

    WE do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

    The Lord's Supper

  5. Thanks, Wes!

    We just had a great discussion about justification last night during our Q&A time at church. It is amazing to me how easy it is for good, solid Christians to get derailed by secondary issues, and as a result forget to cling to the precious Gospel, particularly the beauty of the doctrine of justification. Properly understood, and well ingrained in us, it can prevent a whole lot of trouble and heartache. When we forget it or fail to attend to it diligently, it is far too easy to slip into pride or despair, two enemies that rob us of our joy in the Lord and in His salvation.

  6. Thanks for this, Wes! Of course, there’s also Johann Heinrich Alsted, the *Reformed* theologian from whom we get the exact phrase “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.”

  7. Martin, your whole comment was terrific. I especially appreciate the last bit about pride and despair being two manifestations of the gospel having been lost or obscured. You also rightly observed that our joy resides in the Lord and in *His* salvation, which loops back to the pride or despair which inevitably results when we try to add anything to what He has already done (as if anyone really could!)

  8. Thanks Eileen,

    Preaching through Galatians awhile ago, it occurred to me that this is why Paul is so upset in that letter. Imagine saying, in effect, to God: “What you’ve done for me through your Son is not enough.” That’s what adding our own efforts does, when it comes right down to it.

    And that’s worth getting angry about. It insults God. And it harms His people at the same time. Talk about a lose/lose situation!

  9. This is a common misconception and an American one given to you at the hands of your father John Locke. The first dogma is reformed worship not the gospel.

    Calvin says,
    “If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence among us and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz. a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.” John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church. pg. 13 (ed. H. Beveridge [Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844])

  10. Thank you for the quotes. The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is what separates the True Church from the False Churches which reject this Doctrine.

  11. Have you ever seen someone argue: “Belief in the doctrine of Sola Fide doesn’t save someone”?

  12. Thanks for this, Wes. Excellent collection of quotes. I especially appreciate a Brakel’s statement: “Justification . . . is the soul of Christianity and the fountainhead of all true comfort and sanctification.” There is no doubt in my mind that JBFA has priority – pastorally (to comfort troubled consciences) and in terms of true piety (graciously compelling a life of gratitude, lived for the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbor).

  13. Wes
    According to Carl trueman it was John Owen ( Vol.5, p.67 in Works)who ascribed this saying to Luther-‘Amisso articulo justificationis, simul amissa est tota doctrina Christiana’-” When the article of justification is lost, the whole of Christian teaching is lost at the same time”. (‘John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man’- AshGate Publishing Limited, 2007, p.101)

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