Theology can be confusing. Lutherans say that there is just one doctrine, the Gospel, and all else is but an article of that one doctrine. Then we Lutherans will say that there are two doctrines: Law and Gospel. Then we say that Christ is the center, and all theology is Christology. Of course, we believe and teach that the article of the justification of the sinner before God, by grace through faith, is the "Chief Article", the article upon which the church stands or falls. It can be so confusing.
But each of those confusing statements is actually saying pretty much the same thing. Each one looks at the issues from a slightly different perspective, but they are all talking about the Gospel - and the Gospel is all about the forgiveness of sins, which is "justification". Without the Gospel, the Law only condemns and always condemns us. So, the Gospel is absolutely critical. Scripture teaches both Law and Gospel because the Law is so necessary if we are going to honestly face our sins and hopelessness in sin. The Gospel tells us what God has done for us to set us free from the curse of the Law and the condemnation we have earned and deserved. Christ is the center of it all. He is the main actor, and the one who has come down from heaven to take our burdens and bear our sins and atone for our guilt and save us. Since Christ is true God, and reveals the nature and the will of God to us, theology is always about Christ, which is because He is the fountain and source of the Gospel which rests on the foundation of the justification of the sinner before God. So, justification is the single article which either demonstrates the existence of a church as true Church or identifies it as a false and useless enterprise of men, leading away from eternal life.
Our topic this month is that single article - the one upon which the church stands or over which it stumbles and falls - the article of Justification.
Justification: If a church gets that right, it will teach clearly about almost everything. If a church gets justification wrong, it will mislead people in almost everything it teaches, and will ultimately prove itself not to be of the Church. No teaching of the Christian faith is disconnected from justification. Some are directly connected, and some are distantly connected, but everything the church teaches as church is connected to justification, and if the article on justification is clear and sound, all the other teachings will be too.
Mind you, some churches teach things that have nothing to do with religion, such as driving, or 'English as a second language', or 'how to quilt'. Pagans and open unbelievers can drive just as well as the humblest Christian. Jews and Moslems can speak English as well (sometimes) or quilt with great skill, just as well as a faithful Lutheran. The doctrine of justification does not inform these skills or change this sort of teaching ordinarily. It might make a difference in the instructor - and it should - but the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins does not change one's response to a red light when driving a car, or at least it shouldn't.
Justification touches on everything of the faith which we teach. It leads us to do certain things as church - for example in our worship services - and not to do others. If you change the doctrine of justification (did you notice that I have changed from the word "article" to the word "doctrine"? The two words can be interchangeable in certain contexts.) you change how you will answer many questions, how you will teach many things - and what you will teach - and you might well change what you will do and will not do. Illustrating that is going to take a couple paragraphs.
Justification is the declaration of God that sin is forgiven. The sinner is declared righteous - or just - by God for the sake of Jesus Christ: His life of perfect holiness, His taking upon Himself our sins and suffering what we deserve on account of our sins and dying on the cross the death which the Law of God imposes as a sentence on the sinner - "The soul that sins, it shall die" and "the wages of sin is death" and "On the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." These Bible passages are just representative of the many places where God declares His judgment on sin and sinners.
When Jesus died in our place, and God raised Him from the dead on the third day, God counted Christ's death as our own, and declared us redeemed and forgiven - justified. That verdict was declared and the judgment of God was carried out in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning. The good news of that judgment - the Gospel - is proclaimed in the preaching of Jesus Christ as Savior, and when we proclaim, as Jesus commanded, "repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His name", Luke 24:47.
The previous two paragraphs require certain things be accepted as true, or you must change those paragraphs, and therefore change the Gospel, or the article on Justification. One of those things you must now accept, if you accept those two paragraphs as true, is that your justification happens outside of you, and is not dependant upon your behavior, or choices, or will. It is objective. It is also bigger than you. It is, in fact, for the whole world, meaning the entire human race. He died for all, says the Bible.
There is nothing you can do about what Jesus has done. You cannot improve on it, and you cannot invalidate it. The only power a person has in this matter is to reject it and refuse to be set free from sin and death and hell by Jesus Christ. You do that by unbelief. That unbelief can be through ignorance - that they have never heard - or by rejection. If they have not heard, those who know the truth share in the responsibility to speak the truth to them in love. Those that reject the truth once they have heard it, and refuse to be rescued, invite their own condemnation and destruction.
Even when one believes, it is not their belief that saves them, but the work of Jesus. He has suffered and died. He has borne the wrath of God, and His righteousness is declared to be ours just as our guilt was taken on by Him. Faith merely receives what God has worked through Jesus. Faith is like the pipe that carries the water to your faucet. It doesn't cause the water, or create the water, but brings the water which another has provided.
Justification stands first, and everything we believe and everything we do as church must fit in with justification. We can assess various doctrines and church practices in the light of justification and understand why some of them are not acceptable. They simply contradict what the article on justification teaches.
For example, there once was the custom of 'buying' your pews in church. It was probably meant as a harmless fund-raising practice. Nonetheless, the practice implied that wealth was more deserving, and that we could buy our place in the grace of God. But Christ has won for all the gift of life, and gives freely, so how could we dare to charge for it? I am certain that few ever intended to 'sell' the grace of God, but the practice hinted at it and camouflaged the free grace of God in forgiveness. Selling indulgences in the time of Luther was similar, and much more deliberate, and hid the glory of Christ in our justification by both charging for it, which suggested that our actions could determine our own status before God, and made the free gift of God not free, but into a 'product' sold by the church hierarchy.
Decision theology - the idea that I can or must choose to be a Christian, and "make Jesus Lord of my life" by decision or prayer or public confession of a prescribed sort - is also rejected on the basis of the article on justification. The fundamental premise of 'decision theology' is that Jesus has done everything I (and everyone else) need done for their salvation, so that all I have to do is choose/ decide/accept/pray the prayer, or whatever the final step is. Logically, of course, if Jesus did everything for everyone except this once final step, the difference between the saved and the damned rests with what those who are among the saved did, which the damned did not. Jesus, then, is not the Savior, strictly speaking, because everyone - saved and damned alike start at the same point, and the saved did what they needed to do to save themselves, while the damned did not.
Works righteousness is similar, just differing on where one starts, in the issue of holiness (or preparedness for going to heaven), in order to do what is necessary to get to heaven, and how much good work one must do to be securely saved. But the article on justification says that Jesus did it all, and pours out the gift of forgiveness and life everlasting to all men and women everywhere, which is received through faith (as through the pipe), or rejected by unbelief. Any teaching which takes the responsibility from God - or the credit (Glory) for our being saved from Christ must change the article on justification, and therefore the whole Gospel.
Galatians teaches about this. The Galatian Christians were being taught by a group of false teachers that they had to be fully Jews before they could be really Christian. That meant circumcision. Nothing was said to change what Jesus had accomplished - they just said that there was a certain amount you had to do to get yourself ready. The end result was that what you did made what Jesus did work, or not. Your preparation was added to the work of Christ, and so Jesus' work was made effective. Paul condemned this as "another gospel, which is really no gospel at all" and said that if anyone, including an angel from heaven contradicted the gospel which he, Paul, proclaimed, "let him be accursed."
Luther goes to lengths in the Smalcald Articles to show how certain practices common in the Roman Church in his day were contrary to the article on justification. Just one example was purgatory. Purgatory is presented as a place of temporary punishment, where one goes to pay for the sins which mark them as not yet ready for heaven. Besides the fact that there is no mention of such a thing in the Bible, the doctrine of purgatory teaches that we, and not Jesus, pay for our sins. They teach that Jesus paid for Original Sin, but we are responsible through penance and good works to compensate for our sins - and those left uncovered by merits and grace when we die are up to us to pay for in purgatory. This belief is contrary to the teaching on justification in which it is all accomplished by Jesus and given as a gift of His grace to those who do not deserve it. "Only Christ, and not human works, can set souls free (Galatians 5:1)" (Concordia, p. 291, paragraph 12 on the top of the right hand column)
The Gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ has done it all, and so we are forgiven, and eternal life is ours as His free gift. "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved." Everything we need done for our salvation has already been done. That is the Christian faith. If you change that gospel, and add something we must do in order to be ready, or to retain the grace of God once we possess it, you change the entire gospel into something about us and not about Jesus Christ, and about what we do, think, or say, and not about what Jesus Christ has done, and has won for us, and gives to us freely. The faith then becomes about our doing - and often about our feeling something. In short, it becomes another religion entirely.
The Christian Church stands on the article of justification. Where that is clear, the Church stands and holds forth the comfort of the Gospel and the hope of salvation. Where the Gospel is exchanged for works and human effort and deciding, that other religion with the gospel which is really no gospel at all takes the place of the Christian faith and the Church falls, and is replaced by a sinister doppelgänger which offers something you earn, where the religion is about you and what you do and think and say, instead of about Jesus Christ and what He has done and won for you, and is not the Church at all.
Thankfully, even in the counterfeit, they use the Bible, and the Holy Spirit leads some men and women to faith in Christ by the power of the Word, just as He does in the Church - and so they believe the gospel and not its counterfeit, and belong to the Church while they erringly attend the doppelgänger. That is called a "fortuitous inconsistency". It is not, however, safe or healthy, and it is not recommended. God's people should strive to always be where the Chief Article, the one upon which the Church stands or falls, is taught in all of its clarity and power.
Yours in the Lord,
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