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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Did Martin Luther Invent “Justification” 500 Years Ago?

In recent years, some evangelical scholars have been drawn to the traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox charge that the doctrine of justification taught by the Protestant Reformers is a novelty.

Not quite. First, the Greek verb for “to justify” means to declare righteous, not to make righteous. It is often contrasted in its immediate context with the verb “to condemn” rather than “to make sinful.” Second, the ones being declared righteous in the verses above are described as ungodly. But sin was not imputed to David (Rom. 4:8).

This gift of righteousness comes not by the law but by the gospel (vv. 13-15) Abraham’s faith clung to the promise of what God would do. That is why it was “counted to him as righteousness” (vv. 21-22). The one who trusts in Christ “instead of his own righteous deeds” goes home justified (Luke 18:10-14).

The doctrine of justification doesn’t rest simply on a verb here or there. It is the whole teaching of the Scriptures that God will provide the sacrificial skins to cover our nakedness (Gen. 3:21). The whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament pointed forward to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

A host of other passages elucidate this great exchange on the cross, our charges were nailed to Christ (Col. 3:13-14); we are counted as righteous in Christ so that no one can lay a charge against God’s elect (Rom. 8:33-34). The “Great Exchange” of Christ’s robe of righteousness for our filthy rags is the scarlet thread running from Genesis to Revelation. That’s justification in a nutshell.

So it’s not surprising that we find this wonderful news across the pages of the ancient fathers. In the second-century Epistle to Diognetus (ch. 9) we read, “He himself took on him the burden of our iniquities, he gave his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible and immortal One for the corruptible and mortal.”

John Chrysostom proclaimed that Christ “does also make them that are filled with putrefying sores of sin suddenly righteous. And it is to explain this, ‘That he might be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus.’ Doubt not then: for it is not of works, but of faith” (Homily 7 on Romans).

Augustine’s teaching especially helped the Reformers rediscover this good news. Christ was made sin, “just as we are made righteous, our righteousness being not our own, but God’s, not in ourselves, but in Christ” (Handbook on Hope, Faith, and Love, ch. 41).

To be sure, the Reformation put the puzzle pieces in place, but the pieces were there all along. And in spite of confusion and error, the Great Exchange at the heart of justification remains what it had been for the Apostle Paul: “The power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

Adapted from Michael Horton, “Did Luther Invent Justification?,” Modern Reformation, July/Aug 2016. Used by permission.