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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 7. Justification by Faith.


The subjective principle of Protestantism is the doctrine of justification and salvation by faith in Christ; as distinct from the doctrine of justification by faith and works or salvation by grace and human merit. Luther’s formula is sola fide. Calvin goes further back to God’s eternal election, as the ultimate ground of salvation and comfort in life and in death. But Luther and Calvin meant substantially the same thing, and agree in the more general proposition of salvation by free grace through living faith in Christ (Acts 4:12), in opposition to any Pelagian or Semi-pelagian compromise which divides the work and merit between God and man. And this is the very soul of evangelical Protestantism.1111    Only in this sense can it be called Augustinian; for otherwise Augustin’s conception of justificatio is catholic, and he identifies it with sanctificatio. Moreover he widely differs from the Protestant conception of the church and its authority. Luther felt the difference in his later years.

Luther assigned to his solifidian doctrine of justification the central position in the Christian system, declared it to be the article of the standing or falling (Lutheran) church, and was unwilling to yield an inch from it, though heaven and earth should collapse.1212    Articuli Smalcaldici, p. 305 (ed. Rechenb., or 310 ed. Müller): "De hoc articulo [solam fidem nos justificare] cedere or aliquid contra illum largiri aut permittere nemo piorum potest etiamsi coelum et terra et omnia corruant. (Acts 4:12; Isa. 53:3). Et in hoc articulo sita sunt et consistunt omnia, quae contra papam, diabolum et universum mundum in vita nostra docemus, testamur et agimus. Quare opportet nos de hac doctrina esse certos, et minime dubitare, alioquin actum est prorsus, et papa et diabolus et omnia adversa jus et victoriam contra nos obtinent." Luther inserted in his translation of Rom. 3:28, the word allein (sola fide, hence the term solifidianism), and the revised Probebibel of 1883 retained it. On the exegetical questions involved, see my annotations to Lange on Romans 3:28. This exaggeration is due to his personal experience during his convent life. The central article of the Christian faith on which the church is built, is not any specific dogma of the Protestant, or Roman, or Greek church, but the broader and deeper truth held by all, namely, the divine-human personality and atoning work of Christ, the Lord and Saviour. This was the confession of Peter, the first creed of Christendom.

The Protestant doctrine of justification differs from the Roman Catholic, as defined (very circumspectly) by the Council of Trent, chiefly in two points. Justification is conceived as a declaratory and judicial act of God, in distinction from sanctification, which is a gradual growth; and faith is conceived as a fiducial act of the heart and will, in distinction from theoretical belief and blind submission to the church. The Reformers derived their idea from Paul, the Romanists appealed chiefly to James (2:17–26); but Paul suggests the solution of the apparent contradiction by his sentence, that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love."

Faith, in the biblical and evangelical sense, is a vital force which engages all the powers of man and apprehends and appropriates the very life of Christ and all his benefits. It is the child of grace and the mother of good works. It is the pioneer of all great thoughts and deeds. By faith Abraham became the father of nations; by faith Moses became the liberator and legislator of Israel; by faith the Galilean fishermen became fishers of men; and by faith the noble army of martyrs endured tortures and triumphed in death; without faith in the risen Saviour the church could not have been founded. Faith is a saving power. It unites us to Christ. Whosoever believeth in Christ "hath eternal life." "We believe," said Peter at the Council of Jerusalem, "that we shall be saved through the grace of God," like the Gentiles who come to Christ by faith without the works and ceremonies of the law. "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved," was Paul’s answer to the question of the jailor: "What must I do to be saved?"

Protestantism does by no means despise or neglect good works or favor antinomian license; it only subordinates them to faith, and measures their value by quality rather than quantity. They are not the condition, but the necessary evidence of justification; they are not the root, but the fruits of the tree. The same faith which justifies, does also sanctify. It is ever "working through love" (Gal. 5:6). Luther is often charged with indifference to good works, but very unjustly. His occasional unguarded utterances must be understood in connection with his whole teaching and character. "Faith" in his own forcible language which expresses his true view, "faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing and it is impossible that it should not do good without ceasing; it does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is put, it has done them already, and is always engaged in doing them; you may as well separate burning and shining from fire, as works from faith."

The Lutheran doctrine of Christian freedom and justification by faith alone, like that of St. Paul on which it was based, was made the cloak of excesses by carnal men who wickedly reasoned, "Let us continue in sin that grace may abound" (Rom. 6:1), and who abused their "freedom for an occasion to the flesh" (Gal. 5:13). All such consequences the apostle cut off at the outset by an indignant "God forbid."

The fact is undeniable, that the Reformation in Germany was accompanied and followed by antinomian tendencies and a degeneracy of public morals. It rests not only on the hostile testimonies of Romanists and separatists, but Luther and Melanchthon themselves often bitterly complained in their later years of the abuse of the liberty of the gospel and the sad state of morals in Wittenberg and throughout Saxony.1313    The weight of Döllinger’s three volumes on the Reformation (1848) consists in the collection of such unfavorable testimonies from the writings of Erasmus, Wizel, Haner, Wildenauer, Crotus Rubeanus, Biblicanus, Staupitz, Amerpach, Pirkheimer, Zasius, Frank, Denk, Hetzer, Schwenkfeld, Luther, Melanchthon, Spalatin, Bugenhagen, and others. They give, indeed, a very gloomy, but a very one-sided picture of the times. Janssen makes good use of these testimonies. But both these Catholic historians whose eminent learning is undeniable, wrote with a polemic aim, and make the very truth lie by omitting the bright side of the Reformation. Comp. on this subject the controversial writings of Köstlin and Ebrard against Janssen, and Janssen’s replies, An meine Kritiker, Freiburg i. B. 1883 (Zehntes Tausend, 227 pages), and Ein zweites Wort an meine Kritiker, Freib. 1883 (Zwölftes Tausend, 144 pages).

But we should remember, first, that the degeneracy of morals, especially the increase of extravagance, and luxury with its attending vices, had begun in Catholic times in consequence of discoveries and inventions, the enlargement of commerce and wealth.1414    Even Janssen admits this, but is silent about the greater corruption in Rome. See his Geschichte des Deutschen Volkes I. 375 sqq. Comp. his Ein zweites Wort an meine Kritiker, p. 82. Nor was it near as bad as the state of things which Luther had witnessed at Rome in 1510, under Pope Julius II., not to speak of the more wicked reign of Pope Alexander VI. Secondly, the degeneracy was not due so much to a particular doctrine, as to the confusion which necessarily followed the overthrow of the ecclesiastical order and discipline, and to the fact that the Lutheran Reformers allowed the government of the church too easily to pass from the bishops into the hands of secular rulers. Thirdly, the degeneracy was only temporary during the transition from the abolition of the old to the establishment of the new order of things. Fourthly, the disorder was confined to Germany. The Swiss Reformers from the start laid greater stress on discipline than the Lutheran Reformers, and organized the new church on a more solid basis. Calvin introduced a state of moral purity and rigorism in Geneva such as had never been known before in the Christian church. The Huguenots of France, the Calvinists of Holland, the Puritans of England and New England, and the Presbyterians of Scotland are distinguished for their strict principles and habits. An impartial comparison of Protestant countries and nations with Roman Catholic, in regard to the present state of public and private morals and general culture, is eminently favorable to the Reformation.



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