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Ten years after Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, Lutheran theologians and princes began to work on a statement of faith that became the Augsburg Confession (1530). By this point, it was clear that a defining article of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification, since one of the priorities for evangelical believers, as Protestants were then known, was to confess clearly how Christians come to benefit from the grace of God through Christ. Thus, after offering articles on God, sin and the work of Jesus, the Lutherans, as they would later be called, offered a fourth article, “Of Justification.” The article clearly stated that we cannot be justified before God by our “own strength, merits, or works,” that we are justified for Christ’s sake, and by faith.

It was a good start. What the Augsburg Confession had done was significant, for it summarized the basic building blocks of a thoroughly biblical doctrine. But the article on justification was brief, shorter than the Augsburg article on “New Obedience” and much shorter than the article on “Repentance.” And it was unclear: the justification article ended with a glance at Romans 3 and 4 when it said that God imputes faith as “righteousness,” but it did not explain what this means.

It was not long before Reformed Protestants were writing their own confessions, and once the movement started, it seemed as though it would not stop. At its peak, or perhaps at a very high plateau, almost fifty confessions and catechisms were produced in twenty years. Nearly every one of these summaries of Scripture dealt with the doctrine of justification. But an especially important cluster of confessional documents appeared during the early Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation: the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

Article 23 of the Belgic Confession, like the earlier Lutheran statements, focuses on the free gift of forgiveness through Christ and the wonder of our deliverance from the judgment that Adam earned and that his descendants deserve. The author of the confession, soon to be a brave martyr, beautifully described the Christian’s righteousness, by which he may have understood the Christian’s forgiveness.

Article 11 of the Thirty-Nine Articles offers a terse comment on justification but pauses to remind the reader that the doctrine of justification is not only “wholesome” but “very full of comfort.”

Question and answer 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism does not mention justification at all, but absence of a word does not keep the catechism from teaching the concept. Typical of the Heidelberg Catechism, the answer doesn’t make sense without the question, but once the two pieces are put together, the package is personal, almost private. The problem of a guilty conscience and the privilege of God’s saving blessings in Christ are discussed in the most intimate of pronouns: “I have grievously sinned” yet God treats me “as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me, if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.” Follow-up questions explore the role of faith (Q&A 61), our own good works (Q&As 62–64), and the origin of faith, rejoicing that faith comes “from the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments” (Q&A 65).

We are justified by His grace. It is not for anything worked in us or done by us—not even our believing earns us standing with God.

The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism (unlike the Thirty-Nine Articles) began a practice of backing up their teaching with footnotes citing the Bible, which are often called “proof-texts.” This is a benefit to readers even if, for those who know their Bible well, there is no real surprise in the texts that are used. After all, some parts of the Bible speak more clearly to the subject of justification than others. The Belgic Confession cites a couple verses from the Psalms and from Romans 3 and 4. The Heidelberg Catechism texts are drawn almost entirely from the New Testament, with many references to Romans 3–4, Galatians 2, Ephesians 2, and a few more references to the inspired writings of the Apostles Paul and John especially, as well as others. Christians who take the time to look up each passage will be richly rewarded.

With the Heidelberg Catechism, another puzzle piece falls into place. Here it is clear that in justification we are declared righteous: God “imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.” But after a step forward, there is a step to the side, for it is unclear how forgiveness fits with justification. The Heidelberg Catechism presents the blessing of forgiveness in its treatment of the sacraments, of preaching, and of the Lord’s Prayer, but it is less clear than the Belgic Confession that forgiveness is tied to justification.

The fact that the Belgic Confession highlights one truth and the Heidelberg Catechism underlines another hardly matters to those who use them. Indeed, most churches who use one of these texts use both, and they add the Canons of Dort as well, accepting the three texts together as the Three Forms of Unity for their churches and a fulsome summary of Scripture’s teaching on essential topics.

The Canons of Dort were penned in 1618–19 in response to errors being taught in the Netherlands. The canons make five points under four headings, famously simplified as the “five points of Calvinism.” The canons correct misunderstandings about God’s predestinating grace, the extent to which human beings are damaged by the fall, the nature of God’s grace, and more. Strangely, the Synod of Dort, which authored the canons, decided not to tackle in depth errors about justification—even though the same set of problematic teachers (called Remonstrants or Arminians) were confused about that doctrine too. Indeed, references to justification in the Canons of Dort appear in passing. Errors about justification are mentioned, the unity of the plan of redemption is emphasized (“those whom [God] justified he also glorified,” as stated in Rom. 8:30), and many verses mentioning justification are quoted. But they are not explained.

The final major confessional statement of the Reformed churches comes in the form of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its accompanying Larger and Shorter Catechisms, penned and “proof-texted” between 1646 and 1648 by the Westminster Assembly (1643–53), a gathering of theologians meeting in England and enjoying the assistance of a handful of Scottish theologians too.

The first task of the Westminster Assembly was to revise the Thirty-Nine articles. When the assembly arrived at article 11, on justification, it decided that it needed to make major changes. First, the revised article needed to offer a clear definition of justification, for the assembly had concluded that justification must be the Bible’s umbrella term for a credited righteousness on the one hand and divine forgiveness on the other—two distinct but united aspects of the one doctrine of justification. Second, the assembly’s revised article would need to explain the ground or basis of justification. On what basis can our sins be forgiven and Christ’s righteousness imputed?

The task of revising was eventually abandoned, and the assembly wrote new texts. It turned out that chapter 11 of the new confession was also on justification. It is immediately clear that the assembly, even in writing something new, was building on what was old, as we can see in one clear, but comprehensive, opening paragraph:

Those whom God effectually calleth He also freely justifieth (Rom. 8:30; Rom. 3:24); not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them (Rom. 4:5–8; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21; Rom. 3:22, 24– 25, 27–28; Titus 3:5, 7; Eph. 1:7; Jer. 23:6; 1 Cor. 1:30–31; Rom. 5:17–19), they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness, by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God (Acts 10:44; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9; Acts 13:38, 39; Eph. 2:7, 8).

Here the teachings of earlier confessions are finally brought under one roof, including scriptural passages oft-cited in the Three Forms of Unity. Harking all the way back to the earliest Lutheran confession, and more importantly and foundationally to the Bible itself, the confession shows us that it is God who justifies, and He does so freely, needing nothing from us. We find our salvation “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). We are justified by His grace. It is not for anything worked in us or done by us—not even our believing earns us standing with God. It is “in him,” Christ, that “we have redemption”—that is, in Christ. We are justified “through his blood.” It is because of Him that we find “the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).

Ultimately, we are assured that God established Jesus Christ as the only One we need for our justification. He is our wisdom, our holiness, and our redemption. And He is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30–31). God justifies us by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ to us. This is the Bible’s teaching, and it is this teaching that is recovered and transmitted in increasing clarity in these evangelical creedal summaries, culminating in the post-Reformation confessions of the Christian church. Praise the Lord for the blessing of justification that we receive through the Lord Jesus Christ, and which He has taught His people by the power of His Holy Spirit.

The Fundamental Question

The Doctrine of Sanctification Confessionally Defined

Keep Reading The Doctrine of Justification

From the October 2021 Issue
Oct 2021 Issue