Reformation Relevance: Justified by faith

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Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Martin Luther were the most significant theologians and architects of the Lutheran Reformation. Melanchthon served alongside Luther at the university in Wittenberg, and was the chief drafter of the Augsburg Confession. In the following writing, Melanchthon articulates what it means to be justified by faith according to the New Testament. — Editor

We must carefully consider the term “faith” and see what Paul is doing when he says that we are not justified by our works but by faith in Christ. This is new language to Roman ears, and we must at the very beginning seek the genuine and simple interpretation of it. To be justified by works means to obtain forgiveness of sins and to be righteous or accepted before God by reason of our own virtues or deeds. On the other hand, to be justified by faith in Christ means to obtain remission of sins, to be counted as righteous, that is, accepted by God, not because of our own virtues but for the sake of the Mediator, the Son of God. When we understand this word this way, then we can see how this proposition that we are justified by faith, which is the voice of the Gospel, is used by Paul in opposition to the other concept, which is the voice of human reason or the Law, that we are justified by works. As the Baptist cries, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world;’ John 1:29, so Paul wants to present this doctrine to us, and he teaches that remission of sins and reconciliation are given to us for the sake of the Son of God and not for the sake of our virtues.

Thus, when he says that we are justified by faith, he wants you to behold the Son of God sitting at the right hand of the Father as the Mediator who intercedes for us, and to understand that your sins are forgiven you because you are considered or pronounced just, that is, accepted, for the sake of His own Son, who was the Sacrifice. Therefore, in order that the word “faith” may point to this Mediator and apply to us, “faith” refers not only to historical knowledge but also to trust (fiducia) in the mercy promised for the sake of the Son of God.

Thus, this statement that we are righteous by faith must always be understood as correlative, that is, connected with being righteous by trusting that we have been received by mercy for the sake of Christ, and not because of our virtues. This mercy is laid hold on by faith or trust. Paul says this in order that he may present to us this Mediator and Lamb, take away from us our glorying in our own righteousness, and testify that we have been received by God for the sake of this Propitiator.

There is no doubt that this is Paul’s thinking, and it is absolutely clear in the church that his opinion is correct and true. All the saints confess that even if they have new virtues, yet they do not receive remission of sin or reconciliation because of them but only for the sake of the Son of God, the Propitiator. Therefore we must understand the statement, “By faith we have remission;” to mean that by this trust we are received for the sake of God’s Son.

But there are those who reply to this discussion that it is absolutely ridiculous and meaningless to say that “having been justified by faith we have peace with God;’ Rom. 5:1. They do not understand what it is to have a struggle of conscience with fears and doubts, when one is anxious about the remission of his sins; and they do not know the tremblings which take place in true repentance. If they would consider these things they would know that terrified hearts seek consolation outside themselves, and this consolation is the trust with which the will rests in the promise of mercy given for the sake of the Mediator. Faith embraces both trust in the mercy of God and knowledge of the historical events, that is, it looks to Christ, of whom it is necessary to know that He is the Son of the eternal God, crucified for us, raised again, etc. The historical facts must be applied to the promise or the effect of His work, as it is set forth in this article, namely: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Again this article warns that faith must be understood as trust. For to him who does not trust that his sins are forgiven him, the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” are useless.

— Excerpted from Philip Melanchthon, The Chief Theological Topics: Loci Praecipui Theologici 1559, trans. J.A.O. Preus, 2nd English ed. 150-51 © 2011 Concordia Publishing House. Used with permission.

Posted August 11, 2016

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2 Responses to Reformation Relevance: Justified by faith

  1. Martha A Pinnnow August 12, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

    Will the LCMS be publishing a reading list of appropriate books to read in this the 500th anniversary of the reformation? If so will there be discussion guides to go with them?

    • LCMS Church Information Center August 12, 2016 at 12:55 pm #

      Thank you for your comment. Please browse the website of Concordia Publishing House at http://www.cph.org to see what they have to offer for Reformation books and discussion guides. They can also be reached by phone at 1-800-325-3040.

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