- One of the defining ideas of the Protestant reformers was that humans are justified in God's eyes by grace working through faith alone. Martin Luther wrote that justification "is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God." In 1530, the Augsburg Confession of Faith, written to explain the Protestant position to the Roman Catholic community, affirmed, "that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith. . . . This faith God imputes for righteousness."For Luther, the doctrine grew out of his Bible study in the context of his objections to the selling of indulgences. He rejected the idea that human acts, such as the purchase of an indulgence, could become the agent of attaining salvation. Instead, faith (trust) in the Gospel message of the saving acts of Jesus Christ was alone the necessary and sufficient condition of salvation. His arguments were put forth in writings such as the early "Treatise on Christian Liberty" (1520) and became a theme to which he frequently returned.Trained as a lawyer, John Calvin explained justification in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), "A man will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous."Justification by faith does not deny the importance of good works. However, for the Reformers, such works were not the basis of one's relationship to God, but an outgrowth of that relationship. Gratitude for salvation should lead to a life of goodness that manifests in outward actions - devotion, kind acts, obedient behavior, and so forth.Protestants, born in conflict with Roman Catholicism, tended to accuse Catholics of preaching a salvation by works. Although Protestantism (as derived from Luther and Calvin) and Catholicism teach different schemas of the Christian life, 20th-century theological explorations by Protestant and Catholic scholars have tended to see that difference in far less divisive terms than those of the 16th century.Protestants and Free Church believers have also argued among themselves on the meaning of the doctrine. The tendency to reduce faith to mere verbal or intellectual assent to Protestant doctrines began even in the 16th century and has been a perennial temptation. At the same time, elevation of justification by faith has occasionally led to a disparagement of piety, good works, and/or obedience to the law. In addition, church leaders have often accused other denominations and movements of denying, distorting, or subverting the doctrine. In the 18th century, for example, Presbyterians accused Methodists, who preached a doctrine of manifesting faith in activity, of reverting to a Pelegian or works righteousness teaching. Methodists responded by accusing Presbyterians of antinomianism - so emphasizing God's election of the faithful as to discount the need to follow God's law.In the 20th century, the doctrine of justification by faith has been challenged by various theologians, who have proposed radically different understandings of the Christian life and the nature of salvation. In some of these schemes, Christ is viewed basically as an exemplar to which human beings should conform their lives in an attempt to improve natural human goodness and godliness.With the popularity of various forms of individualism, the church has confronted the tendency to view salvation in purely essentialist and individual terms. Popular forms of Protestant teachings have emphasized the nature of faith as establishing the individual's personal relationship with God in such terms as to suggest that the role of the church is secondary. Protestant teachings have, however, always assumed that salving faith also serves as an entrance into the community of believers, that is, that faith also manifests as life in a worshipping fellowship.Both liberal and conservative Protestants, however, would affirm that faith is essential to their understanding of Christianity. Such faith is contrasted to a simple assent to the church's teachings or submission to its behavioral demands.The major branches of Protestantism have seen faith as a response of the whole person, including the mind. Faith not only leads to piety and action, but also to a reasoned understanding of its intellectual underpinnings, which should engage the believer through Bible study, theological reflection, and a comprehension of one's place in history.Further reading:■ H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphey, and Joseph Burgess, eds., Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1985)■ D. A. Carson, Right with God: Justification in the Bible and the World (Exeter, U.K.: Paternoster, 1992)■ Don Kistler, ed., Justification by Faith Alone (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994)■ Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2 vols., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)■ Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.