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).