Justification In Church History
The Reformation and Post-Reformation (1517-1700)

by J. V. Fesko

The Reformation (1517-65): Luther and Calvin

With the cry of the Renaissance, ad fontes, “to the sources,” the theologians of the Reformation studied the Scriptures in the original languages. From their study of the Scriptures, the Reformers concluded that “to justify” meant “to declare righteous,” not “to make righteous.” It was, of course, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64) who made a significant impact upon the church’s understanding of justification. Luther argued that sinners cannot be righteous through their own good works, but that it is only faith in Christ that justifies the ungodly. The unrighteous are justified by faith, therefore, and it is the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to the believer. It is in the writings of Luther and Calvin where the doctrine of imputation comes to the foreground.

In the winter of 1515-16, early in his career, Luther commented on Romans 3:28, “For we hold, recognize and affirm, we conclude from what is said that a man is justified, reckoned righteous before God, whether Greek of Jew, by faith, apart from works of the law, without the help and necessity of the works of the Law.” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, LW 25 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1974), 33.) Luther’s exegetical spade work eventually was codified in early Reformation confessions such as the Augsburg Confession (1530), which explains that justification is by faith alone:

“Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (Augsburg Confession 4, Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds, 2:60).

The Reformed win of the Reformation gave similar expression to its understanding of justification.

Calvin defined justification as “the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that is consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, LCC 20-21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.11.2.) Calvin largely appealed to three central tests to support his definition (Rom. 4:6-7; 5:19; 2 Cor. 5:18-21). Unlike Augustine, however, both Luther and Calvin made the important distinction, but not separation, between justification and sanctification. Luther, for example, saw the need for the law in the life of the believer after his conversion, which was informative for good works and sanctification. In Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians, which reflects his mature thought on the doctrine of justification, Luther writes:

“The matter of the Law must be considered carefully, both as to what and as to how we ought to think about the Law; otherwise we shall either reject it altogether, after the fashion of the fanatical spirits who prompted the peasants’ revolt a decade ago by saying that the freedom of the Gospel absolves men from all laws, or we shall attribute to the Law the power to justify. Both groups sin against the Law; those on the right, who want to be justified through the Law, and those on the left, who want to altogether free of the Law. Therefore we must travel the royal road, so that we neither reject the Law altogether nor attribute more to it than we should. (Luther, Lectures on Galatians, LW 26 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963), 343. Regarding the development in Luther’s though see Carl Trueman, “Simul peccator et justus: Martin Luther and Justification,” Justification in Perspective, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 73-98, esp. 74.)

In the end, Luther saw a need for the law in the life of the believer so that it could guide him in his good works. Moreover, one easily sees Luther rightly recognized the two extremes of antinomianism and neonomianism.

Luther saw a necessary connection between justification and sanctification which was manifest in the importance he placed on the law:

“Here, then, we have the Ten Commandments, a summary of divine teaching on what we are to do to make our whole life pleasing to god. They are the true fountain from which all good works must spring, the true channel through which all good works must flow. Apart from these Ten Commandments no action or life can be good or pleasing to God, no matter how great or precious it may in the eyes of the world. (Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 428. Luther also says: “Therefore it is not without reason that the Old Testament command was to write the Ten Commandments on every wall and corner, and even on garments. Not that we are to have them there only for display, as the Jews did, but we are to keep them incessantly before our eyes and constantly in our memory and to practice them in all our works and ways. Each of us is to make them matter of daily practice in all circumstances, in all activities and dealings, as if they were written everywhere we look, even wherever we go or wherever we stand. Thus, both for ourselves at home and abroad among our neighbors, we will find occasion enough to practice them Ten Commandments, and no one need search far for them” (Larger Catechism,” 431).)

So, then, Luther believed that good works were necessary for salvation as the fruit of one’s justification, not as the ground of justification. To this same end, Calvin gave expression to his famous analogy: “The sin by its heat, quickens and fructifies the earth, by its beams brightens and illumines it. here is a mutual and indivisibly connection. Yet reason itself forbids us to transfer the peculiar qualities of the one to the other.” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.6.)

In this way we can see that Calvin and Luther, as well as other Reformers, could appropriate that which they believed was scriptural but at the same time depart from the church fathers when they believed they were in error. Calvin, for example, dissects Augustin’s thought on justification and traces it as it comes through the Middle Ages through Peter Lombard (c. 1095-1160):

“It is clear from their own writings that in using the term “grace” they were deluded. For Lombard explains that justification is given to us through Christ in two ways. First he says, Christ’s death justifies us, while love is aroused through it in our hearts and makes us righteous. Second, because through the same love, sin is extinguished by which the devil held us captive, so that he no longer has the wherewithal to condemn us. You see how he views god’s grace especially in justification, in so far as we are directed through the grace of the Holy Spirit to good works. Obviously, he intended to follow Augustin’s opinion, but he follows it as a distance and even departs considerably from the right imitation of it. For when Augustine says anything clearly, Lombard obscures it, and if there was anything slightly contaminated in Augustine, he corrupts it. The schools have gone continually from bad to worse until, in headlong ruin, they have plunged into a sort of Pelagianism. For that matter, Augustine’s view, or at any rate his matter of stating it, we must not entirely accept. For even though admirably deprives man of all credit for righteousness and transfers it to God’s grace, he still subsumes grace under sanctification, by which we are reborn in newness of life through the Spirit. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.15)

Here we see quite clearly that Calvin interacted with patristic and medieval theology, which of course illustrates the organic nature of the Reformation to earlier church history. (On Calvin’s use of patristic theology, see Anthony N.S. Lane, John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999). And, more broadly, for the use of the patristics in Reformation theology, see Irena Backus, The Reception of the Church Father in the West, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 2:537-700. Likewise we see Luther, for example, who interacted with medieval theology and was familiar with both the via antiqua and via moderna, yet carved his own path in his own theology (see Oberman, Dawn of the Reformation, 120; idem, The Reformation [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 18-21). In this sense, the Reformation is certainly a continuation of theological development that began in the earliest days of the church. However, this does not mean that the Reformers adopted those trends and position they believed were faithful to Scripture.

In addition to the critical use of patristic and medieval theology, we also see the refinement of the law-gospel hermeneutic during the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Both Lutheran and Reformed theologians employed the law-gospel hermeneutic, namely recognizing those portions of Scripture that brought moral demands upon the believer that “everything that condemns sin is and belongs to the proclamation of the law. (Formula of Concord 5.3-4 in The Book of Concord, ed. Kolb and Wengert, 500.) By contrast, the gospel is “the kind of teaching that reveals what the human being, who has not kept the law and has been condemned by it, should believe: that Christ atoned and paid for all sins and apart from any human merit has obtained and won for people the forgiveness of sins.” (Formula of Concord 5.5 in Book of Concord, 500.)

In the writings of Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83), one of the chief authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, which is the authoritative catechism for the Dutch and German Reformed tradition, the use of the law-gospel hermeneutic is employed in terns of the covenants of nature and grace, which fins its parallel in Westminster’s covenant of works and grace:

“The law contains the natural covenant, established by God with humanity in creation, that is, it is known by humanity by nature, it requires our perfect obedience to God, and it promises eternal life to those who keep it and threatens eternal punishment to those who do not. The gospel, however, contains the covenant of grace, that is, although it exists, it is not known at all by nature; it shows us the fulfillment of Christ of the righteousness that the law requires and the restoration in us of that righteousness by Christ’s Spirit; and it promises eternal life freely because of Christ to those who believe in him. (Larger Catehism 36, in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. and trans. Lyle D. Bierma et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 168-69)

In fact, Ursinus elsewhere states, “The doctrine of the church is the entire and uncorrupted doctrine of law and gospel concerning the truth of God, together with his will, works, and worship.” (Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1852; Phillipsburg, NJ P&R, n.d.), 1) Ursinus was not alone in this observation.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Calvin’s successor at Geneva, wrote, “Ignorance of this distinction Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.” (Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. James Clark (Lewes, UK: Focus Christian Ministries, 1992), 41-43.) Calvin could likewise observe that the medieval Roman Catholic theologians confused the categories of law and gospel or promise

“by saying that works of their intrinsic goodness are of no avail for meriting salvation but by reasons of the covenant, because the Lord of his own liberality esteemed them so highly. Meanwhile they did not observe how far those works, which they meant to be meritorious, were from fulfilling the condition of the promises unless preceded by justification resting on faith alone, and by forgiveness of sins, through which even good works must be cleansed of spots. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.17.3.)

Continental Reformed theologians were not alone in affirming the law-gospel hermeneutic, as one can find similar statements in the writings of British theologians such as William Perkins (1558-1602). (Expounding upon the application of Scripture in preaching, Perkins writes: “The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel” (The Art of Prophesying [1606; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996], 54-56.) From this we conclude, “As far as the law-gospel distinction is concerned, it is as integral to Reformed theology (embedded in federalism) as it is to Lutheranism.” (Michal Horton, “Law, Gospel, and Covenant: Reassessing Some Emerging Antitheses,” WTJ 64/2 (2002): 287).

Taken from Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine by J.V. Fesko in his chapter titled “Justification In Church History” pages 20-25.


Transcribed by iustitia aliena