This is the sixth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.
“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.” This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther. There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification. However, so did other Reformers. For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1). However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin. Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638). In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.” From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.
To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine. Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous. This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ. In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner. Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure. What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility. Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection. That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.
Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel. Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news. In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22). That obviously goes far beyond justification. The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more. Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond. It is of prime importance. Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us. This, again, is because of its relational significance. Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.
Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”? To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians. In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision. Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God. This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 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. (Galatians 1:6-9)
Those are powerful words! If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell. If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell. Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake. A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell. On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.
In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers. I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ. I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology. I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration. There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness. There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father. There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation. The list could go on. If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it. I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.