By Dr. Herbert Samworth

In our second article on the doctrine of justification, we will trace the history of this doctrine from the Patristic Age to the Reformation.

Theologians often speak of what they call “the development of doctrine.” This does not mean that the church has invented new doctrines throughout its history. What it does mean that the church gains a deeper understanding of what the Scriptures teach on a certain doctrine. This results in a clarification of the original intent of what the Scripture says or the author’s intended meaning. The doctrine has been in Scripture all along but new insights or clarifications of its meaning and application are now apprehended.

One might legitimately ask the question why this occurs if the doctrine has been on the pages of God’s Word since it was written. The answer to this question is that the Church frequently has faced new situations and challenges that revealed the need for a clearer restatement of the doctrine itself.

Such was the case with the doctrine of justification. In the Patristic times, although the doctrine of justification was not explained in the same detail as were other doctrines, there was an agreed consensus that the grace of God and the righteousness of Christ were the basis of the sinner’s hope for acceptance with God.

Tragically, this Patristic understanding was lost during the Medieval times and only recovered by Martin Luther and others at the time of the Reformation. It is our purpose in this article to study these events. As the study of Church History is the study of the loss and recovery of the Gospel, we will note that this critical doctrine was obscured by being overlaid with non-Biblical terminology. But in the providence of God, it was gloriously recovered by Luther and others. We will divide our discussion into three sections: the times of the Church Fathers, the Medieval decline, and the Reformation.


Many will be surprised to learn that the Church Fathers, or Patristic theologians, were not as clear on the doctrine of justification as many have been led to believe. This is despite the claim that the Reformers made when they stated that their doctrine did not differ materially from what had been taught by Jerome, Augustine, and others. There are two responses that can be given to this.

First, the doctrine of justification, or how a person can have a right relationship with God, did not receive the same amount of attention and study as did other doctrines during the time of the early Church. The main doctrines under attack included the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, and the doctrine of man.

The first attack was on the nature of God Himself. Orthodox theology upheld the doctrine of the Trinity and Jesus was indeed God. These theological differences were definitively answered at Church Councils at Nicea, Ephesus, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. The Creeds taught that God exists on the high level of Trinity and that Jesus is God. One should also know that these discussions also defended the deity of the Holy Spirit.

Following the triumph of Nicene theology were discussions concerning the Person of Christ Himself. Various views were put forth that denied that Jesus possessed two wills, that He truly was God and was a man. Many of these controversies occurred concurrently with the disputes over the doctrine of God and were settled definitively with the confession that Jesus is both true God and true man.

The individuals who were involved in these controversies included Tertullian who upheld the doctrine of the trinity and Athanasius who taught that Jesus was God and not the first created being as Arius taught.

Following these controversies, Augustine, whom many consider to be the greatest of the Church Fathers, entered into another theological battle. This was fought over the doctrine of man or anthropology with Pelagius, a British monk. The Council of Orange upheld the teaching of Augustine that man was totally sinful and needed the grace of God. Basically Augustine taught the inability of man to change apart from the power and grace of God. He made the salvation of man totally dependent upon God.

In the second place, there were other teachings that Augustine contributed to the theology of the Church that distorted the Biblical teaching of justification. In the first place, he taught that to justify means to make righteous; a moral change in the person. There is evidence that he rejected the idea that to justify meant to declare righteous or a change in one’s legal status. Augustine’s interpretation of the nature of justification was to have tremendous consequences during the subsequent history of the Church.

Augustine also taught that the term justification described the entire course of the Christian life. He did not limit it to the declaration that the individual is righteous due to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Augustine used justification to describe all that took place in the life of the Christian from conversion until his final glorification. This idea was expanded during the Middle Ages and obscured the legal nature of justification.

Throughout this time, there was agreement that salvation was by God’s grace through faith without much detailed explanation. Salvation was of God and it was sufficient to meet the need of man who was lost in his sin. There was not a detailed explanation regarding how that grace was conferred upon man. Man needed the grace of God and God freely gave that grace to men in Christ.


The Medieval Ages saw a decline in the manner by which the doctrine of salvation was taught by the church. Although many reasons and explanations can be given as to why this took place, the basic reason was that the Church assumed the role of mediator between God and man.

With the great increase in the power of the Bishop of Rome, the Church of Rome gained in importance and prestige. It was not long before teachings alien to the Bible began to taught by the Church. There was the growth of the sacramental system by which the sacraments, increased to seven from the original two, could confer grace. The emphasis on the saints who by their works were able to do more than what God required allowed the teaching of what came to be known as the Treasury of Merit. This was a supply of grace that could be given to those who were in need. Of course, only the Church had the authority to do this.

When the increased emphasis on the efficacy of the sacraments to convey grace coupled with Augustine’s view that justification included the entire Christian experience, it was not strange to find that the Biblical doctrine of justification was nearly lost. Baptism was portrayed as the entrance into the Christian life with the power to regenerate and pardon original sin. Grace was infused into the individual and he was now capable of co-operating with that grace to advance to perfection in the Christian life.

When other non-Biblical doctrines such as purgatory, penance, prayers for the dead, etc. were added to the Church’s teachings, the Gospel was nearly lost. Here and there were individuals who maintained the true belief in the Gospel of grace but there were not many.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy that occurred in the Medieval Ages was the loss of the Scriptures in the hearts and lives of the people. Although people desired to own a complete copy of the Scriptures, this was not to be realized until the invention of printing by moveable type. Nevertheless, there is evidence to believe that the people did possess an understanding of God’s Word. When the knowledge of the Scriptures was lost, they were open to receive non-Biblical teaching.

The Scriptures themselves were available only in the Latin language and the worship service, or the Mass, was conducted exclusively in Latin. The focal point of the service itself was the Eucharist or the Celebration of the death of Christ. This only added to this general ignorance of the Gospel itself.


It is impossible to separate the recovery of the Biblical doctrine of justification from Martin Luther. The story of his life provides a commentary on how this precious truth was rescued from its obscurity.

Most people are acquainted with Luther’s life and his struggles to find peace with God. Despite the fact that he was an Augustinan monk, Luther did not have peace of heart. It was through his study of the Psalms and Romans that Luther saw on the pages of God’s Word a gracious God Who saved sinners through Christ. This marvelous salvation was received by faith alone, not by the reception of the sacraments. It is necessary to emphasize that Luther came to this position over a period of months, if not years. However, once he grasped that he was justified through the merits of Christ alone and God’s righteousness was not an impossible standard to which he had to attain but God’s free gift in Christ and received by faith alone, Luther’s life was totally transformed.

It is entirely possible that Martin Luther would have lived his entire life and ministered as a monk with this truth remaining a personal possession. However, an event that shook his life, and ultimately the world occurred. This was the sale of indulgences in Mainz.

In order to repay a debt to the Fugger family, Archbishop Albrecht needed to raise funds. Pope Leo X cooperated by permitting an indulgence to be proclaimed in his bishopric. John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, was the preacher who proclaimed this indulgence. Indulgences, or the remission from the temporary punishment of sin in Purgatory, had first been proclaimed in connection with the Crusades, the attempts to liberate the Holy City of Jerusalem from infidel hands. Finding they were a lucrative source of income, the Popes continued to issue them.

When Luther heard that this indulgence was being proclaimed, he reacted with great indignation. He knew that the Germans, desirous to have their relatives and loved ones, loosed from the fires of Purgatory, would purchase them. Luther was aware that the income from these indulgences would be used to sustain the sordid lifestyle of many in Rome. He was convinced that the Church was using the natural compassion of the German people for their relatives and friends as a means of extorting money from them.

Also it did little to calm Luther when it was reported that Tetzel had a jingle that spoke of the supposed efficacy of the indulgences. It went something like this:

When the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from Purgatory springs.

According to Luther this was nothing less than commerce in the immortal souls of men. Interestingly enough at this time, it does not appear that Luther rejected the efficacy of the indulgences themselves. We must always keep in mind that Luther was a monk who lived in Medieval times. He came slowly to the knowledge of the truth.

Luther was so incensed that he wrote his ninety-five theses and posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. So it was through these historical circumstances that the Reformation began.

It is not possible to trace through all the events that followed from this declaration. However, the great doctrine that was recovered was the truth that justification is by faith alone. A person can stand in the presence of a holy God, clothed not with his own righteousness, but with the righteousness of Christ imputed to his account.

The full explanation of this doctrine was worked out over a period of time and it is true to say that different Reformers placed their emphasis on differing aspects of this cardinal doctrine. However, it is a fact that when the doctrine of justification was recovered from its obscurity, what was recovered was nothing less than the Gospel itself. What was nearly lost in the darkness of the Middle Ages had, in the providence of God, been set free to work in the hearts of men.

Let us allow Martin Luther himself to have the final word on this great subject. He speaks not as a theologian but as a Christian. Although it is a lengthy extract, it well merits being read carefully.

I, Dr. Martin Luther, the unworthy evangelist of the Lord Jesus Christ, thus think and thus affirm: That this article, namely, that faith alone, without works, justifies us before God, can never be overthrown, for Christ alone, the Son of God, died for our sins; but if Christ alone takes away our sins, then men, with all their works, are to be excluded from all concurrence in procuring the pardon of sin and justification. Nor can I embrace Christ otherwise than by faith alone, He cannot be apprehended by works. But if faith, before works follow, apprehended the Redeemer, it is undoubtedly true that faith alone, before works and without works, appropriates the benefits of redemption, which is no other than justification, or deliverance from sin. This is our doctrine; so the Holy Spirit teaches, and the whole Christian Church. In this, by the grace of God, will we stand fast. Amen.

It would have been well if all who profess the Lord Jesus Christ had adopted Luther’s confession. However, as we shall see in our next article, the doctrine of justification by faith is once again coming under attack.