– that justification by faith without works is the chief article of the Christian faith, the article on which the Church stands and falls (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae);
– that justification exclusively is God’s work by which he for Christ’s sake forgives us our sins and declares us righteous before him;
– that justification takes place freely by pure grace, without any condition of services in return from our side;
– that the resurrection of Christ is our justification through faith alone;
– that justification is offered to us in the means of grace, in order that we there may receive it and firmly believe that we, although we are sinners, in Jesus Christ are perfectly holy and righteous before God;
– that everyone who believes in Jesus will be justified and blessed while those who reject the gift of justification will remain in their sins and under the wrath of God.
Justification is a biblical-legal term for the remission of sins. It’s a divine verdict, in which God the Most High by grace acquits us from all sins, ascribes to us Christ’s righteousness and declares us for his sake to be righteous before his eyes. Such forgiveness is not given in any other religion.
This high and glorious verdict of justification is the most precious content of Christianity and its very heart. Without this all Christian faith has no life and inner coherence. No man can endure before God without being justified. Nobody can have the Holy Spirit, observe God’s commandments and live as a child of God without first being justified. What makes the Christian Church a “communion of saints” it the very fact that it consists of justified sinners.
When the Scripture talks about our salvation it never speaks about any righteousness coming from us, but of “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22). We are not justified by our own righteousness or our efforts to become good people, but through a “foreign” righteousness, belonging to someone else, namely Jesus Christ. By faith we grasp his righteousness and may count it as our own.
The righteousness by which we are justified is the one that Christ had when he rose from the dead on the third day. It doesn’t consist of anything else than the forgiveness of sins for us. For he who died for our sins was raised acquitted from them. When God raised Christ from the dead, he proclaimed his Son’s victory over sin and death and sets him forth as the forgiveness of sins for all men in the whole world. Thus Jesus walks out of the grave as the “The LORD our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). He is “the Sun of Righteousness” from whom the healing rays of justification and forgiveness are shining down over all sinners on earth.
The Bible emphasizes everywhere that the grace of justification must be must be received in faith if we are going to be saved. So does also the Lutheran Church: “His resurrection from the dead is our justification by faith alone” (Luther). Christ “was raised again to reign, and to justify and sanctify believers” (Apology, III, Trigl. p. 119).
But faith is no condition for salvation in the sense that we deserve the remission of sins by our faith. The grace is always free, or as it is beautifully put in Latin: Gratia gratis est. The Bible describes faith as the plain opposite to every kind of righteousness through law or works. Man in his own ways is always trying to be set free by giving God good works as a payment. But faith is the empty hand without anything to offer. Faith is only receiving the gift from God, without contribution of anything. Since it’s all about a gift of pure grace, it just cannot be received in another way than by faith. To be saved by “grace alone” (sola gratia) is thus equivalent to being saved by “faith alone” (sola fide). This alone saving faith nobody can produce by himself. It is kindled by the Holy Spirit in the heart of repentant sinners through the Gospel of justification.
God forgives and justifies here and now. The Gospel is not just information about what happened long ago. The Gospel of the resurrection continues and is repeated in the Word and the sacraments with the same saving power as was present in Christ’s resurrection. Through these very means God acts and talks to individuals that they might receive Christ’s resurrection in faith and with a joyful certainty say: “This is mine!” True faith does not search for the remissions of sins in the inner corners of the heart, in feelings, dreams, spiritual experience and things like that. The Formula of Concord says: “all our righteousness is to be sought outside … ourselves (extra nos) and of all men, and rests alone upon Christ the Lord” (Trigl. p. 935). True faith searches for the God of justification where he wants to be found: in the external means of grace. Only there a sinner is joined with the resurrected Christ and receives the blessed benefits of his saving righteousness.
The preaching of the Church will always be misleading in some way if the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is not allowed to stand in the center. The justification is the very hub from which the wheel spokes radiate and are kept together. Upon this cardinal article all other Christian doctrines hang. The Lutheran Confession reflects a deeply biblical and spiritual insight when it says: “If this only article remains pure on the battlefield, the Christian Church also remains pure, and in goodly harmony and without any sects; but if it does not remain pure, it is not possible that any error or fanatical spirit can be resisted” (Formula of Concord, Trigl. p. 917).
Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases. (Ps. 103:2-3)
I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness… In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely. Now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Jer. 23:5-6)
But to you who fear My name, the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings. (Mal. 4:2)
We believe in Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification. (Rom. 4:24-25)
The God of our fathers raised up Jesus ... Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31)
Therefore as by the offense of one, judgment to condemnation came upon all men, even so by the righteousness of One, the free gift unto justification of life came upon all men. (Rom. 5:18)
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21).
For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17)
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-24)
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Rom. 3:28)
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Rom. 4:5)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. (Eph. 2:8)
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:1)
Also they [our churches] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4. (Augsburg Confession, IV, Trigl. p. 45)
But, although this doctrine is despised by the inexperienced, nevertheless God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it brings the greatest consolation, because consciences cannot be set at rest through any works, but only by faith, when they take the sure ground that for Christ’s sake they have a reconciled God. As Paul teaches Rom. 5, 1: Being justified by faith, we have peace with God. This whole doctrine is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified conscience, neither can it be understood apart from that conflict. (Augsburg Confession, XX, Trigl. p. 55)
We confess ... that the same Christ suffered and died to reconcile the Father to us; and that he was raised again to reign, and to justify and sanctify believers. (Apology, III, Trigl. p. 119)
Moreover, in this passage [Rom. 5, 1], to justify signifies, according to forensic* usage, to acquit a guilty one and declare him righteous, but on account of the righteousness of another, namely, of Christ, which righteousness of another is communicated to us by faith. (Apology, III, Trigl. p. 205 f.).
* forensic = legal (court term)
This article concerning justification by faith (as the Apology says) is the chief article in the entire Christian doctrine, without which no poor conscience can have any firm consolation, or can truly know the riches of the grace of Christ, as Dr. Luther also has written: If this only article remains pure on the battlefield, the Christian Church also remains pure, and in goodly harmony and without any sects; but if it does not remain pure, it is not possible that any error or fanatical spirit can be resisted. (Formula of Concord, Th. Decl, III, Trigl. p. 917)
The first and chief article is this,
That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4, 25. And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1, 29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53, 6. Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3, 23 f.
Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3, 28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3, 26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.
Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4, 12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53, 5.(Smalcald Articles, Trigl. p. 461)
… the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ. (Smalcald Articles, Trigl. p. 499)
Therefore the righteousness which is imputed to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law, and paid for [expiated] our sins. … This righteousness is offered us by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel and in the Sacraments, and is applied, appropriated, and received through faith, whence believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, the grace of God sonship, and heirship of eternal life. (Formula of Concord, Th. Decl. III, Trigl. p. 919 f.)
But here very good attention must be given with especial diligence, if the article of justification is to remain pure, lest that which precedes faith, and that which follows after it, be mingled together or inserted into the article of justification as necessary and belonging to it, because it is not one or the same thing to speak of conversion and of justification.
For not everything that belongs to conversion belongs likewise to the article of justification, in and to which belong and are necessary only the grace of God, the merit of Christ, and faith, which receives this in the promise of the Gospel, whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, whence we receive and have forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, sonship, and heirship of eternal life.
Therefore true, saving faith is not in those who are without contrition and sorrow, and have a wicked purpose to remain and persevere in sins; but true contrition precedes, and genuine faith is in or with true repentance [justifying faith is in those who repent truly, not feignedly]. (Formula of Concord, Th. Decl. III, Trigl. p. 923)
Accordingly, since in our churches it is acknowledged [established beyond controversy] among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession that all our righteousness is to be sought outside the merits, works, virtues, and worthiness of ourselves and of all men, and rests alone upon Christ the Lord, it must be carefully considered in what respect Christ is called our Righteousness in this affair of justification, namely, that our righteousness rests not upon one or the other nature, but upon the entire person of Christ, who as God and man is our Righteousness in His only, entire, and complete obedience. (Formula of Concord, Th. Decl, III, Trigl. p. 935)
all kinds of false doctrines that contrary to the Scripture teach, for example,
– that justification by faith is not enough for salvation, but must be complemented by man’s own works (synergism);
– that the justification is something else other than the remission of sins;
– that Christ has not gained the remissions of sins for all people;
– that all, irrespective of belief or unbelief, will be saved (false universalism);
– that faith in some way is a meritorious work;
– that justification is only a reminder of or information about a universal forgiveness given in the past and not a divine act of forgiveness today through the Word and the sacraments;
– that God justifies sinners in other ways than through the external means of grace (the ways of enthusiasts and fanatics).
O Lord God, who Yourself have prepared a way to righteousness and salvation for us sinners and have revealed it in Your Gospel, a clear, bright way, on which even fools will not be led astray,
We pray You, give us grace, that all of us may not only know this way but also walk in it and continue in it until our final, eternally blessed goal is reached. Oh, enlighten our understanding so that this way may not be foolishness to us, and rule our hearts that it may not be an offense to us.
On this way You have already filled millions of sinners with comfort in life and death and have finally permitted them to arrive in Your eternal kingdom. Do that also to us sinners, and to that end bless Your Word also in this hour, for the sake of Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, our Lord and Savior. Amen.
C. F. W. Walther