Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Call it the watchword of the Reformation. It was one of the great solas of the movement. It is often referred to as the material principle of the Reformation. It is the heart of the gospel—the gospel recovered by the Reformers.
To what are we referring? But of course, to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Despite their diversity, this was the truth that united the Reformers and the various branches of the Reformation. This was the gospel that the Reformers trumpeted. This was the issue, more than any, that separated them from Rome. For the sake of this truth, not just Luther, but they all were willing to “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also . . . .”
At its heart, the Reformation was a doctrinal movement. The chief concern of the Reformers was truth—the truth of the Word of God. The Reformation aimed to “reform” the church by rooting out false doctrine and its attendant evil influences on morals and church life. The heresy that the Reformers unanimously rejected was the teaching of the doctrine of justification (salvation) by faith and works. That error they vigorously opposed as contrary to the truth of the gospel. That error they rejected as a denial of the cross of Jesus Christ. That error they repudiated as the root out of which had grown so many evils in the church of their day.
The Struggle in Luther’s Own Soul
Before the Reformation became a movement in the church, the Reformation was an experience in Luther’s own soul. Apart from his own personal experience, Luther could never have been the Reformer that he was. As God used Moses’ experience in deserts of Midian to prepare him to be the deliverer of His people, and as God used David’s years tending his father’s sheep as preparation for his becoming the king of Israel, so God used Luther’s own personal experience to fit him to be the mighty Reformer of God’s church.
“How can I be righteous before God?” That was the troubling question that vexed Luther’s soul. The Roman Catholic Church answered Luther’s question by saying that a man must earn his righteousness before God. By what we do, by our own works, we merit our standing before God. Our righteousness depends partly on the work of Jesus Christ, but also partly on our own work. Luther believed that teaching of the church. For that reason he entered a monastery as a young man. Becoming a monk or a nun was considered an especially good work. But just as he could not resolve his soul-struggles outside the monastery, neither could he do so after entering the closed world within the monastery. Try as he might, he could not quiet his accusing conscience. He could not come to assurance and peace before God.
It was, however, sometime after God had led Luther into the monastery that He also brought him to the resolution of his spiritual struggles. It was especially by Luther’s study of the epistle to the Romans that God caused him to see that the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is not our own righteousness. It is the righteousness of God, the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed—a key word—by God as a free gift to all those who believe on Jesus Christ. The righteousness by which we are saved, therefore, is an alien—another key word—righteousness, not an inherent or acquired righteousness. We are saved not because of our works, but because of the work of Christ.
This has often been referred to as the “Tower Experience,” because this truth came home to Luther on an evening as he studied in his cell in the tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Luther later described the experience.
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just [in Himself] and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet . . . . This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven . . . (Quoted by Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p. 65).
At last Luther had found the answer to his question. Or, rather, God had given Luther the answer to his question. “How can I be righteous before God?” Not by works, but alone by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Peace at last!
At the time that God brought Luther to the resolution of his own spiritual struggles, he could not have imagined that he would be the instrument of God to restore the truth of justification by faith alone in the church. Soon enough, however, this became apparent. Through circumstances arranged in His providence, God moved Luther to go public with his defense of the truth of justification. The occasion was the indulgence-hawking of Tetzel. Luther blasted this crass form of salvation by works, the selling of the forgiveness of sins for money. He expressed his opposition publicly by nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg. In Theses #32 and #33 he wrote:
Those who believe that through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers. We must especially beware of those who say that these pardons from the Pope are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God.
In Thesis #52 he wrote: “Vain is the hope of salvation through letters of pardon, even if…the Pope himself were to pledge his own soul for them.”
Justification by faith alone. This was the crux of the Reformation, the great hinge upon which the whole Reformation turned. Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
With these scruples Rome tortures poor consciences to death…one scourges himself with rods, another ruins his body with fasts and vigils, and all cry with the same mad zeal, “Lo here is Christ! Lo there!” For these monstrous things we are indebted to thee, O Roman See, and thy murderous laws and ceremonies, with which thou hast corrupted all mankind, so that they think by works to make satisfaction for sin to God, Who can be satisfied only by the faith of a contrite heart!
In another place he wrote:
A Capuchin [an order of monks] says: wear a grey coat and a hood, a rope around thy body, and sandals on thy feet. A Cordelier says: put on a black hood; an ordinary papist says: do this or that work, hear mass, pray, fast, give alms, etc. But a true Christian says: I am justified and saved only by faith in Christ, without any works or merits of my own.
Luther stood publicly for justification by faith alone apart from any works, because he (and the others) were convinced that this was the teaching of the Word of God. Of that we must be convinced if we are going to make the same bold defense of this doctrine today. The Bible teaches this great truth, which is the heart of the gospel, in Romans 3:21, 22: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference.” The apostle adds in verse 26, “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” And verse 28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” This is also Paul’s teaching in Galatians 2:16: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
The Reformers stood for justification by faith alone because of Scripture’s clear teaching that salvation is by grace alone. Grace alone demands faith alone. This was what the Reformation was and did. It restored to the church gracious salvation. Salvation does not depend at all upon man, but is the free gift of God to man—man who is totally unworthy of salvation and altogether unable to contribute to it. This is the gospel. Salvation by faith alone because salvation is of grace alone—that is what Paul proclaims in Romans 4:16, “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace . . . .” Since man’s salvation is wholly attributed to the grace of God, justification must be by faith, by faith alone, by faith apart from any and all works. Works, works of any kind, do not contribute to justification. They are neither the whole nor any part of our justification.
Justification by faith alone. This is the gospel! This was the Reformation! This is the heritage of the Reformation!
The Issue of the Day
The great issue that was at the heart of the Reformation remains today as great an issue as ever it was. The great need in the church today is the same as it was in the days of the Reformation. For there are many Tetzels gone out into the church, deceiving multitudes with another gospel that is not the gospel of sovereign grace.
Rome has never recalled Tetzel. He continues to hawk his doctrine of salvation by works as boldly as he did in Luther’s day. And his pope and church remain as impenitent in their God-dishonoring, grace-denying, man-exalting teaching as ever. Rome at the time of the Reformation, and Rome today, repudiates the gospel truth of justification by faith alone. Rome does not deny justification by faith, at least not explicitly. Rome in fact loudly affirms justification by faith. Along with that, Rome teaches that justification is a work of God, even a gracious work of God. But Rome vehemently denies that justification is by faith alone. Man is justified by faith and by works.
Rome’s official teaching has been confirmed by her new pope, Benedict XVI. His Sunday address on August 26, 2007 was entitled “All can enter eternal life, but the door is narrow.” In that address he declared that
[t]he path to eternal life is open to all, but is narrow because it’s demanding, asks for commitment, abnegation, and the mortification of selfishness…it is not on the basis of alleged privileges that we shall be judged, but on the merit of our deeds . . . . Good works are the ‘passport’ that will let us enter eternal life.
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Rome made clear her rejection of the Reformation gospel of justification by faith alone and insisted on the false teaching of justification by faith and works. Among other things Trent declared:
If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will: let him be anathema (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, p. 112).
The anathemas of Trent have been reaffirmed in the more recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ominously the Catechism asserts that “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom” (p. 483). That assertion opens the door for a reaffirmation of Rome’s teaching of justification by faith and works.
The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful (p. 486).
In recent years various evangelicals have reached accords with Roman Catholicism on the doctrine of justification by faith. The mainline Lutheran denominations throughout the world, including the largest Lutheran denominations in the United States and Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, have reached agreement with Rome. The “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” is a sellout of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The organization known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) is made up of prominent evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians in dialogue. They have publicly expressed basic agreement on the doctrine of justification. Both ECT I (“Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium”) and ECT II (“Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Gift of Salvation”) contain concessions—fatal concessions—on the part of evangelicals to Rome on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
And then there is the insidious threat of the Federal Vision (Delusion) movement, the tenets of which are being enthusiastically promoted today in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. The basic error of the Federal Vision men is their teaching of a conditional covenant. This is just the teaching that, within the covenant, salvation is dependent initially and continually on the fulfillment of certain conditions. In other words, the salvation of the members of the covenant is not by faith alone, which faith is the gift and work of God, but is dependent on man, and is due to man’s cooperation with God. Which is to say, salvation is not by faith alone, but by faith and works.
This is the issue of the day. We must see this to be the issue of the day.
We have something to say on this issue. Something to say to the enemies who are attacking the truth. Something to say to those in the Reformed churches who are bringing in damnable heresies. Something to say to those who are tempted to be deceived. Something to say to ourselves by way of warning. What we have to say is nothing new. What we have to say the Bible says. What we have to say the Reformers said. What we say is that we are justified by faith, and by faith alone.
This is the truth. This is God-glorifying gospel. This is peace of conscience and assurance of heart. For now and for the future.