2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed Ninety-five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, to a church door in 1517, little could he know the tidal wave of religious change that was about to be unleashed upon the Christian world. At the core of the theological debate he would become a central voice in was the doctrine of justification. How can sinful and broken people ever find peace and restoration with a holy God? 

The answer to this human dilemma could be found in the Scriptures. An answer was also provided by the Church (who in the pre-printing press days held near exclusive access to the Bible). The Church’s answer had much to do with man working hard to secure God’s grace and living under the constant fear of death, purgatory, and God’s wrath.

Even as a monk, Luther personally agonized over the concept of justification wondering how he could ever live up to the righteousness that God required. Over time, studying Augustine and reading the New Testament, Luther came to the belief and eventually a burning conviction that the Church had misrepresented the great hope of the gospel of Jesus.

In Luther’s words:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1984), Kindle Locations 832-841.

The teaching of justification by faith became the cause and significance of the Lutheran church’s existence.[1] Luther, however, did not arrive at this doctrine fully-formed, nor did he originate the doctrine in a theological vacuum. Luther’s understanding of justification by faith was formed in his theological toil as a medieval monk.

This post is more academic in writing style than usual, but if you’d like a short history short history of the Church’s understanding of justification in the centuries preceding Luther, then read on.

Augustine (c. 354-430)

To understand the medieval context related to justification it is helpful to begin earlier with the theologian who Luther would depend much upon. Augustine known as “The Doctor of grace” wrote much about God’s grace and justification.[2] He described grace as a free gift of God to man, something not earned as a wage.[3] This notion of grace would inform the theology of the Church into the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, by the time of Thomas Aquinas, semi-Pelagian views on grace and justification were taking root. Aquinas would transform them further.

Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274)

The “Angelic Doctor,” greatly inclined to Aristotle, became a primary force in reshaping the Catholic doctrine of justification in relation to grace and human merit.[4] Aquinas’s Summa Theologica would become the cornerstone of the Church’s doctrine. According to Aquinas, man must merit grace by works. He believed that righteous good works are within one’s power to perform and so earn God’s grace. Grace, then, is a “higher force” which God adds to further accomplish works meriting eternal life.[5] Therefore, man and God work in a synergistic relationship toward eternal life.[6]

Describing this interplay, Thomas writes, “Man, by his will, does works meriting eternal life; but … for this it is necessary that the person’s will should be prepared with grace by God.”[7] Drawing from Aristotelian philosophy, Aquinas describes four necessary actions for the justification of sinful man:

  1. God’s initiating grace
  2. The movement of man’s free will in faith
  3. The concurrent movement away from sin
  4. Then God’s act of forgiving sins.[8]

Within the forgiving process of God, Aquinas further developed the theology of purgatory as a place for those whose soul needs further purging of forgivable sins prior to entering heaven.[9]

Purgatory and Indulgences in Later Medieval Theology

This doctrine of purgatory was expanded by the Church in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries making it part of the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church. In so doing, justification became a process not necessarily completed until after death.[10] By the bestowing of indulgences the Church professed to release some of the “treasury of merit” available to her which could in turn reduce the need for temporal punishment of sins (as in purgatory).[11]

Luther and Justification

Luther’s criticism of the selling of indulgences became the fulcrum of his protests against the Roman Catholic Church. Beginning with his posting of the Ninety-five Theses, Luther challenged the doctrine and authority of the Church in the forgiveness of sins and the justification of the ungodly.[12] Through his studies as a monk, particularly in studying Paul and Augustine, Luther would embrace a theology of justification which was much more in line with the Augustinian past. According to Luther, man was justified by grace through faith alone.

Luther expounds his theology of justification through the mechanism of two types of righteousness. The first is an “alien righteousness” by which he refers to the righteousness of Christ, which is brought to man by grace.[13] This righteousness is given to man in a glorious exchange: Christ died for our sin, we live by his righteousness. The second righteousness is an outworking in man of the first. In “actual righteousness,” man does good works in response to and enabled by God’s grace. These works are directed toward God, in acts of holiness and toward others, in acts of love to one’s neighbors.[14]

Two revolutionary corollaries to Luther’s theology of justification were the rejection of Church’s Thomistic notion of merit and Luther’s concept of simultaneously sinner and saint.[15] First, if man is justified by the grace of God alone through faith alone, then Aquinas’s idea of man meriting grace by his own good works must be rejected. Secondly, since man is justified with an alien righteousness, his own sin is forgiven but yet remains.

In his doctrine of justification by faith alone Luther thoroughly undermined the entire merit system of the Catholic Church which provided the motivation for the selling of indulgences, which was the spark that lit protesting fire of this brilliant and feisty German monk.


[1] Olli-Pekka Vainio, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions Ser.: Justification and Participation in Christ : The Development of the Lutheran Doctrine of Justification from Luther to the Formula of Concord (1580) (1) (Leiden, NL: BRILL, 2008), 1-2. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

[2] Grudem, Wayne A.; Allison, Gregg (2015-10-27). Systematic Theology/Historical Theology Bundle (Kindle Locations 54750-54751). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Grudem, Location 54762ff.

[4] N. P. Feldmeth, “Medieval Theology,” Global Dictionary of Theology, edited by William A. Dyrness, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (InterVarsity Press, 2008), accessed 2/15/2017, https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/ivpacat/medieval_theology/0

[5] Grudem, Locations 54854-54857.

[6] Ibid., Locations ‪54860-54861.

[7] Ibid., Locations 54862-54863. Quoting from Summa Theologica.

[8] Ibid., 5485ff.

[9] Ibid., 54886ff.

[10] Ibid., Locations ‪54910-54912.

[11] John D. Woodbridge, James III, and Frank A, Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), Locations 2253-2288.

[12] Grudem, Locations ‪54954-54956.

[13] Ibid., Locations 54957-54970.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., Locations 54995-55002.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s