There is a saying in the Lutheran Church, actually, it is a theological principle and a truth: Justification by grace through faith is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, that is to say, it is the article upon which the church stands or falls. Luther never said it in precisely those words, or so I am told, but he said it like this, "For if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost. And those in the world who do not teach it are either Jews or Turks or papists or sectarians." (Martin Luther, Luther's Works - Volume 26: Lectures On Galatians 1535, trans. Jaroslav Pelikan, p. 9.) Or, "This doctrine [justification] is the head and cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour..." (W 30 II, 651); "When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen" (W 40 I, 72). Rather than look each of these up myself, I borrowed the citations from a blog (http://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2009/03/justification-is-doctrine-upon-which.html).
Without our teaching on justification, the Gospel isn't the Gospel, and the church that remains is not the Christian Church as we have come to know it, but something else. We call the article of justification an "article" because there is actually only one doctrine in the Christian Church, the Gospel. Everything we teach (that people normally call a "doctrine") is just an article (or a point of teaching that is part of the whole) of the one doctrine. Of course, there is a great deal of debate about how this one article can be THE article which the church cannot do without, or tolerate being twisted and perverted, because there are so many articles that similarly qualify. Other articles of this sort include the nature of Christ, the Trinity, the vicarious atonement, and . . . - well, you get the point. All of Christian doctrine is interconnected, and if you change, distort or lose any part, the whole of our doctrine is effected. But people can hold to justification while bearing a great deal of error in other parts. Without justification, the rest of it doesn't make any sense, and it becomes another religion entirely.
That was what Paul was getting at in Galatians, when he wrote, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ." Note that Paul says that when one changes the Gospel, they lose the Gospel, and in the process they desert Christ Jesus. There is only one reason to change the Gospel, to attack Christ and destroy faith in Him. That is because Jesus Christ is the Gospel.
Of course some would say that the Gospel is bigger, broader, includes more than just Jesus. That might be true, if we understood the Gospel as a collection of doctrines, and each one could potentially be pulled out and replaced. But there is only one doctrine, and everything we consider "doctrines" within the body of Christian doctrine is, in fact, merely an article of the one doctrine. If all the parts are right, the doctrine is whole. If you change parts, you end up with something different. Change the right parts (or one might say, the wrong parts), and you destroy the entire thing, and leave something else in its place. As one of my seminary professors said, and got into a great deal of controversy for saying it, "all theology is Christology."
Of course, the saying that the church stands or falls on the article of Justification is a sort of shorthand. Theologians do that. They say something very profound, and then sum it up with a single word. You have to know the shorthand in order to make sense of the statement - or even of the single words. One needs to understand what the theologian means by "church", by "stand" and therefore also by "fall", and one needs to be able to unpack the meaning of the word "justification" in the sentence before the meaning of it can really be understood. One of the reasons that there is so much controversy in the church is that people don't always understand the same words the same way.
Take, for example, the word "church". By it we generally mean the Una Sancta, the one, holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church. But not everyone who calls themselves a Christian agrees that there is such a thing. There is little consensus that there is just one Church which contains every believer and only believers. If they all agreed to that, the ecumenical movement would die because everyone would understand that Christians are already united, and we cannot be joined with those who do not believe the truth. The word "Apostolic" means, among other things, that we share the same doctrine - the doctrine of the Apostles. The lowest-common-denominator approach to ecumenism, so popular today, rejects the requirement of sound and shared doctrine for something called "diversity". They believe that we cannot know the truth in anything but the most general terms, so doctrine must be set aside for the sake of establishing that outward unity which they think must be the true unity of the church. With some churches rejecting the deity of Christ, denying the historical reality of the resurrection, and forgetting about sins and forgiveness, the doctrinal requirements bar has been set abysmally low. Diversity actually comes to mean the open denial of the reality of anything in the religious realm, at least within the realm of "Christianity".
Justification is another word like that, shorthand. It connects to forgiveness. Lutherans understand it in terms of the verdict of God that the penitent sinner is accounted righteous with the righteousness of Jesus Christ because of the cross and the resurrection (and all that those words mean to communicate), and that verdict is received and applied to the sinner through faith with no particular merit or worthiness in the sinner, but by the grace of God. Grace, in this sentence, is defined as "the new attitude of favor in God toward us (sinful men) for Christ's sake".
Different church bodies - different confessions - understand the nature and the cause of justification in different ways. They have to because they understand human nature and sin (both original and actual sin) differently too. Some churches reject the idea of original sin. Others accept original sin as a reality, but connect the forgiveness which Jesus purchased and won on the cross only to original sin and not to actual sins (the sins you actually do by doing wrong or failing to do what is right).
I hope that by this point in the article you have begun to feel like every step forward in defining and describing justification makes the whole enterprise more involved and potentially confusing, because it is. I cannot define a word without using several other words that really need to be defined too. Every definition gives us another point at which other confessions can (and often do) disagree. To do a thorough job of just the definitions would require a book of considerable size. Then we need to establish how these words are connected to one another and relate to one another in the shorthand of the theologian. The complexity and intensity of topic is one of the reasons many people throw their hands up and walk away from the attempt to understand doctrine. It is not that it is too deep and too hard to manage, but that their expectation - and their desire - is for something simple that will not challenge them. They want a "Kum Bai-ya" and "Jesus Loves Me" sort of simple religion. I guess that is why the diversity/ecumenical movement appeals to so many people. There is nothing that you are required to know or believe there.
But hopefully you can see how the nature of the faith can become something dramatically different if you take a turn in these definitions without measuring your course against what the Scriptures actually say. If forgiveness from Jesus is not complete, you have a different religion than ours, in which your sins have been atoned for and completely forgiven for Christ's sake. In that other religion, you have to do something else to work off the guilt of the sins that Jesus has not forgiven. Now it may be that what Jesus has accomplished has made it possible for you to pay for your own sins - the ones Jesus did not deal with on the cross (in this alternate religion) - but the gospel that emerges from such a theological system is strikingly different than the Gospel of the full and free forgiveness of sins by grace through faith.
The picture of God and of our relationship to Him is altered by such a doctrinal shift as well. God becomes an angry judge, and something of an accountant of sins compensated for versus sins still needing some retribution, rather than our loving, gracious, heavenly Father. We see similar, although not identical, shifts in who God is and what He is like and how we approach Him when our theology rejects the gifts of the Sacraments and makes of them mere memorials or ordinances which we are required to perform but which bring no forgiveness or grace to the believer. God must then require something from us before He can be gracious toward us, and justification as pure gift must go away.
When the gift has been replaced by some sort of expectation laid upon the sinner before or concurrent with the good will and favor of God, the nature of our worship must be altered too. We cannot gather, as Lutherans tend to talk about their worship, to receive the gifts of God in Word and Sacrament, but we must assemble to give God something, some evidence of a right disposition or some praise and glory to invite His good will toward us. Worship is then our gift to God, in the attempt to entice Him to accept us and be merciful toward us. We "worship" to give, rather than to receive. Of course, in such a system, we cannot know if we have done the right stuff, or enough of the right stuff to accomplish our mission, which breeds uncertainty and insecurity. It also has historically had the effect that when the religious fervor dwindles, the worshipers tend to give less and less, and we end up with massive assemblies singing mindless ditties as "praise songs" with the expectation that the senile old man in the sky is actually pleased with our effortless efforts and we have done our part by entertaining ourselves.
When forgiveness is cheap and easy, we end up not investing ourselves in it or taking it too seriously. When forgiveness is difficult, and dependent on our works or attitudes, we can never be sure that we have actually gotten there and been forgiven. We human beings also tend to continually reduce the nature of the work we must do to get that forgiveness so that our religion doesn't make our lives too difficult - but even that doesn't reduce our uncertainty. That monster can only be destroyed with the actual Gospel from the Bible.
Forgiveness - Justification - is not cheap. It required the suffering and death of the very Son of God. It is not easy, as the cross illustrates for us. But it is free to us, the gift of God's grace poured out on all mankind and received through faith (not on account of or because of, but through faith). If you start changing the elements of the teachings (or articles) of the Gospel, you end up with something entirely different: a different hope, a different expectation, a different understanding of God and our relationship to Him, and a different religion. You do different things in worship because you have different goals and expectations.
And the church becomes something different. It changes from a family of the beloved in the Lord to something akin to a labor union. We end up sharing the same task: "we are all trying to get to the same place" rather than being those who share the same gift and glory! They still call it "church", but they mean something decidedly different by the word. If you change the article of justification, the Church is replaced in the hearts and minds of those attending and participating with church. No longer is it the Una Sancta, but the voluntary assembly of like minded people seeking to please God by their own efforts. We all use the same words to describe what we are and what we are about, we just mean different things by those words.
Change the article of justification, and the Church falls - it doesn't cease to exist, you just cease to participate in it. You have a different idea of what it is, and of how to locate it when you need it. We Lutherans use the marks of the church, they have some other criteria to find it - usually by the sign out in front of the building! Without Justification by Grace through Faith, you do not have the Gospel and you do not have the Church.
Yours in the Lord,
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