At the forefront of the recovery of biblical doctrine in the Reformation of the sixteenth century was the doctrine of justification. In fierce opposition to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith and works, with all of its accompanying practices, such as the buying and selling of indulgences and the doing of penance, the Reformation restored and advanced the gospel truth of justification by faith alone. What must strike every son and daughter of the Reformation as an extraordinary display of God’s faithfulness is the fact that the Reformers spoke with one voice on both the importance and substance of the doctrine of justification. The leading Reformers did not agree on all points of doctrine, and most notable was their sharp division over the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and the interpretation of Jesus’ words “This is my body.” However, on the doctrine regarded to be of paramount importance as the article of a standing or falling church— justification—there were no significant differences among the leading Reformers. In his classic work on justification, the Scottish preacher James Buchanan goes so far as to say, “The entire unanimity of the Reformers in regard to the substance of the truth which they held and taught, is one of the remarkable facts in history.”1 Indeed, this unity is one of the enduring legacies of the Reformation worth celebrating today by all who love and defend the truth of justification by faith alone.
The main lines of the Reformers’ doctrine of justification can be sketched following the three points marked out by church historian and theologian Alister McGrath, who writes, “The distinctive positions of Lutheran and Reformed Orthodoxy on justification are most easily expounded and compared when considered under three headings; the nature of justification; the objective grounds of justification; the subjective appropriation of justification.” 2 The Reformers taught that justification is, as to its nature, a legal act of God consisting of the gracious remission of sins and the imputation of the obedience of Christ. The objective ground of justification is the lifelong obedience and passion of Jesus Christ. The instrument whereby justification is subjectively appropriated is faith.
In this article, our spokesman for the Reformers’ doctrine of justification is Heinrich Bullinger. Why Bullinger? First, most readers of the Standard Bearer are well acquainted with the writings of the oft-quoted Martin Luther and John Calvin, especially on the doctrine of justification. However, Christ employed a great host of men when He reformed His church in the sixteenth century and it is good for us be acquainted with more of them. Bullinger (1504-1575) was the Swiss Reformer who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich.
Secondly, Bullinger is a worthy representative of the Reformers because his teaching was as widespread and influential as any. He was a prolific letter-writer who corresponded with hundreds of people ranging from students to the great ecclesiastical and political leaders of the Reformation all throughout Europe, producing over 12,000 letters—more than Calvin, Luther and Zwingli combined. His 124 books, not counting his thousands of tracts and letters, were initially in greater demand than Calvin’s and he became known throughout Europe as the “Shepherd of the churches.”3
Our presentation of Bullinger’s doctrine of justification relies upon his two most famous and influential works. The first source is The Decades (1549-1551), which consists of fifty topical sermons divided into five groups of ten sermons each (thus, five “decades”). All fifty sermons together constitute a massive work greater in size than Calvin’s Institutes. Bullinger’s goal was to use The Decades to teach theology to the literate among the laity and to provide sermon content for the many unqualified preachers in the early days of the Reformation when seminary training was sorely lacking.4
Our second source is the fifteenth chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1562 (hereafter, Confession) entitled “Of the True Justification of the Faithful.”5 This confession penned by Bullinger is regarded as his most systematic and mature theological statement. It is one of the foremost expressions of Reformed doctrine that was either adopted or at least highly approved by nearly all the Reformed churches in its day.6
Bullinger defines justification as a legal act of God whereby He graciously acquits guilty sinners, imputes to them the righteousness of Christ, and makes them heirs of everlasting life. First, Bullinger considers justification a legal or forensic act. He writes, “To justify is as much to say as to quit from judgment and from the denounced and uttered sentence of condemnation,”7 and that justification “is a law term belonging to courts where judgment is exercised.”8 It is evident that Bullinger was conscious of the Roman Catholic teaching that justification was not a strictly legal act regarding the sinner’s standing before God’s law but also a restorative act whereby God infused righteousness into the sinner and renewed him so that the sinner is justified, at least in part, because of something good within him.
Second, justification consists in acquittal or forgiveness of sin. Bullinger teaches, “But we are justified— that is, acquitted from sin and death,”9 and, “It followeth therefore that justification is the remission of sins.”10
Third, included in the gracious act of justification is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Nowhere in his sermon on justification in The Decades does Bullinger ever explain the ‘positive’ aspect of justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (what is given), but only the ‘negative’ aspect, which is the forgiveness of sins (what is taken away). But in the Confession when he took up a consideration of the cross of Christ as the ground for justification, he taught that “it is God alone that justifieth us, and that only for Christ, by not imputing unto us our sins, but imputing Christ’s righteousness unto us.”11
Additionally, Bullinger explained that Christ is the believer’s righteousness in justification not only because Christ perfectly satisfied the justice of God by making payment for the sins of His people in His death on the cross but also by fulfilling the whole law with lifelong obedience:
Moreover our Lord fulfilled the law, in that he did most absolutely in all points satisfy the will of God, being himself the holiest of all, in whom there is no spot, no evil concupiscence, nor any sin; in him is the love of God most perfect, and righteousness altogether absolute; which righteousness he doth freely communicate to us that are most unperfect, if we believe and have our hope fast settled in him.12
Finally, justification makes one an heir of everlasting life. Not only is the sinner freed from condemnation and the punishment of everlasting death, but with righteousness the sinner obtains the right to eternal life with God in heaven. To justify, instructs Bullinger, “signifieth… to give inheritance of life everlasting.”13
Regarding the second major component of the Reformation’s doctrine of justification, Bullinger explains that the obedience and suffering of the Son of God, culminating in His death on the cross, is the ground or basis for the sinner’s justification. All that justification is as a legal pronouncement of God the Judge has its basis in the cross, by which Christ paid for the sins God remits and obtained the life God bestows. Bullinger teaches
that Christ before the judgment seat of God, when sentence of condemnation was to be pronounced against us for our offences, took our sins upon his own neck, and purged them by the sacrifice of his death upon the cross, and that God also laid upon Christ our fault and punishment so that Christ alone is the only satisfaction and purging of the faithful.14
Bullinger did not fail to see the pastoral comfort of this doctrine over against Rome’s soul-terrifying denial of the cross. Rome taught that those justified in the cross of Christ can still suffer the temporal judgments of God as payment for sin and finally must go to purgatory at death and suffer purging fires in the soul as just punishment for sins. For a child of God, the only thing worse than suffering some grievous affliction is a heart vexed by the thought that God is angry and one’s suffering is divine retribution for sin. Bullinger instructs, “But those afflictions, howsoever they be patiently suffered of the faithful, do not yet wash sins away, nor make satisfaction for misdeeds.” The afflictions God sends to His children never come as punishment for sin but try and purify their faith, which trial by fire “is the end and use of afflictions. And by this means the glory of Christ endureth pure and uncorrupted.” 15
Third, the aspect of justification to which Bullinger devotes his lengthiest explanation is the truth that justification is received by faith alone. In the Confession, Bullinger begins his treatment of “by faith alone” by teaching, “But because we do receive this justification, not by works, but by faith in the mercy of God and in Christ; therefore, we teach and believe, with the apostle, that sinful man is justified only by faith in Christ, not by the law or by any works.”16 Bullinger is careful to explain that “justification is attributed to faith, chiefly because of Christ, whom it receives, and not because it is a work of ours, for it is a gift of God.”17 Faith is not the one good work we perform to become justified. Faith as the gift of God is an instrument by which the believer receives and embraces the righteousness of Christ.
The Reformed confessions
We hear the one voice of Bullinger and the other Reformers in our Reformed confessions, and that voice of the confessions is most important because the churches officially judge it to be the voice of Scripture. The churches have judged that what our Reformed confessions say about justification is not merely what a great cloud of uninspired Reformers taught, but what the holy men of old—Moses, David, Habakkuk, Luke, Paul, and more—have said in perfect unison as inspired by the Holy Spirit (with no contradiction in James!).
The Reformed confessions speak with one voice on justification, and they clearly teach the three fundamental elements of the Reformation’s doctrine of justification. First, justification, as to its nature, is a legal act consisting of “the remission of sins” (Belgic Confession, Art. 23) and God’s gracious work whereby He “imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 23). Second, as to its basis in the cross, we confess that “Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness” (BC, 22), so that we rely and rest “upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone….” (BC, 23). Third, regarding the appropriation of justification by the instrument of faith, “we justly say with Paul that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works” (BC, 22). We confess that we are not “acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of [our] faith” (HC, LD 23) for faith is “only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness” (BC, 22), “and that I cannot receive and apply the same [Christ’s righteousness] to myself any other way than by faith only” (HC, LD 23).
What if the Reformers did not agree on the three fundamental questions of the nature, ground, and instrument of justification? Were it even possible, what if they agreed on other points of doctrine and worship but contended with each other on justification? What if only one or two spoke like the prophets and apostles but the rest were entering pulpits, universities, and the countryside heralding another gospel that only appeared to be different than Rome’s? If the Reformers did not speak with one voice on justification, would there have even been a Reformation? If the Reformers did not agree on the article of a standing or falling church, would there even be a Reformed church? If the Reformers did not agree on the heart of the gospel, would there even be a gospel? Then what about “The Three Forms of Unity” in which Reformed churches confess one doctrine of justification and, in that doctrine, have sweet unity? How could those confessions have been born?
God be thanked and praised for His great work in Christ Jesus to cause so many weak and fallible men like Bullinger to be united on justification at that critical moment of reformation. They were united in their understanding of and commitment to what Scripture says about justification, united in their own experience of its blessedness, united in their abhorrence of Rome’s corruption of it, united in their earnest contending for it, united in their resolve to live a holy life according to it, and then, united in their clear, warm, consistent, polemical, and beautiful communication of it in their preaching, lecturing, and writing to the hungry and thirsty souls of guilt-stricken sinners. All for the glory of God and His Christ!
May the God of the Reformation ever give us this one heart and voice!
1 James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 152.
2 Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 231.
3 George Ella, “Henry Bullinger (1504-1575): Shepherd of the Churches,” in The Decades of Henry Bullinger, ed. Thomas Harding, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), x-xlix.
4 Joel Beeke, “Henry Bullinger’s Decades,” in The Decades, lxxx.
5 Readers may be familiar with this Confession thanks to Prof. R. Cammenga’s ongoing exposition of it in the Standard Bearer.
6 Bullinger also wrote a book, not translated into English, called: The Grace of God that Justifies Us for the Sake of Christ through Faith Alone, without Good Works, while Faith Meanwhile Abounds in Good Works. That long title earned Bullinger the honor of being the only theologian to have put into the title of a book his entire doctrine of justification, including his rebuttal of Rome’s contention that justification by faith alone undermines sanctification.
7 Bullinger, The Decades, I.6, 105.
8 Bullinger, The Decades, I.6, 105.
9 Bullinger, “The Second Helvetic Confession” in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 863.
10 Bullinger, The Decades, I.6, 106.
11 Bullinger, “Confession” in Creeds, 863.
12 Bullinger, The Decades, III.8, 249.
13 Bullinger, The Decades, I.6, 105.
14 Bullinger, The Decades, I.6, 107.
15 Bullinger, The Decades, I.6, 110.
16 Bullinger, “Confession” in Creeds, 863.
17 Bullinger, “Confession” in Creeds, 863.