It has been called the “main hinge upon which religion turns” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 3.11.1). The doctrine of justification by faith alone is easily the most significant issue arising from the period of the Reformation. Its significant lay in the fact that justification by faith makes the believer a passive recipient instead of an active cooperative.
The Medieval understanding of justification by faith was not entirely defined and there was no consensus on exactly how it occurred. Several common features of the period’s theology of justification, however, are important to note. Firstly, justification involved, at some level, man’s cooperation with the grace of God. So, within Thomas Aquinas’ system, divine grace empowered man to cooperate with God, and such effort was rewarded with eternal life. William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, saw things slightly differently. Cooperation, they said, was possible without God’s grace, and in fact as long as you did your best God would grant you the grace you needed.
Secondly, the Medieval systems saw justification as a process. Man’s cooperation with God’s grace in in cleansing himself took time. It occurred in actual steps not a singular event. There was no distinction within Medieval theology between justification and sanctification. The failure of this conflation dates as far back as Augustine. Justification was the process of becoming righteous. So, even early Luther, would articulate a similar view. Korey Maas quotes this early Luther when he writes:
Still understanding cooperation with grace to be an essential aspect of justification, he explained that Christians are called righteous “not because they are, but because they have begun to be and should become people of this kind by making constant progress.” (“Justification by Faith Alone,” Reformation Theology, 519).
Luther would, of course, go on to develop quite a different view of justification, but early on he was as much an heir of the time as others.
Thirdly, Medieval theology understood the nature of justification as an actual ontological change in the believer’s morality. That is, justification was not simply a declaration of righteousness on the part of God for the one who has faith in Christ (the Protestant view). Rather, justification was the process of the sinner actually becoming righteous. Maas clarifies:
That is, the change understood to take place in the justified was not merely a declared change in status; sinners were accepted by God not simply because he reckoned them righteous. Rather, they were accepted because they had, in fact, to a sufficient degree, become righteous. (517)
It was, then, an earned righteousness not an imputed righteousness that justified man before God.
The crucial issue for the Reformers was the preservation of God’s sole activity in salvation. If salvation is all of grace, then the reception of that grace is all of faith. More pointedly, that faith is not a work of the believer, but rather is to be understood as trust (Luther’s colleague Phillip Melanchthon was crucial in articulating this particular distinction). The believer is a passive recipient of salvation, not a cooperative agent. Salvation is entirely monergistic.
The righteousness credited to the believer, then, is not his own but is an “alien righteousness.” It is an external righteousness, it is Christ’s righteousness, imputed to the believer apart from works. Melanchthon defended this articulation in the “Apology of the Augsburg Confession.” There he said:
“Justify” is used in a forensic way to mean “to absolve a guilty man and pronounce him righteous,” and to do so on account of someone else’s righteousness, namely, Christ’s, which is communicated to us through faith.
There is nothing even approach synergism in the justification of sinners. Sinful man brings nothing to the equation except his sin.
Lutherans were not the only ones to articulate this particular view of justification by faith alone. The uniformity across Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Reformation movement further emphasize just how important this doctrine was. Its recovery is crucial for the preservation of the gospel. Salvation is God’s activity. It is all of God and all of grace and ours only through faith, which is not a work of cooperation.
We who are the heirs of the Reformation need to hold fast to the distinctions developed by the Reformers. We need to maintain the difference between earned and imputed righteousness, the difference between sanctification and justification, and the distinction between faith as trust versus faith as cooperation. We are always tempted to fall prey to the self-righteousness in our own hearts. We are prone to emphasize what we must do to be deserving of grace. We are prone to think of faith in terms of trusting God to empower us to help ourselves. We are prone to think of faith in terms of our obedience to believe, instead of God’s gift which makes obedience possible. Faith is the passive response to God’s gift of grace, not our active cooperation with Him. The preservation of that distinction is the difference between the true gospel and false one.