The Ancient Doctrine of Justification

You have heard that everyone should seek for their justification and righteousness from Christ, and how also this righteousness comes to us by Christ’s death and merits. You heard also that three things are required to obtain our righteousness, that is, God’s mercy, Christ’s justice, and a true and living faith (out of which springs good works). Also it has been declared at length that no one can be justified by their own good works, and that no one fulfils the Law according to the full demands of the Law.

St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians proves the same, saying “If there had been any law given which could have justified, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). And again he says, “If righteousness is by the Law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21). And again he says, “You who are justified by the Law, have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). And furthermore, he writes to the Ephesians in this way: “By grace you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God, and not of works, lest any one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In short, the sum of all Paul’s argument is this: that if justification comes by works, then it does not come by grace; and if it comes by grace, then it does not come by works. And to this end tend all the Prophets, as St. Peter says in Acts 10: “All the prophets testify about Christ that through his name, all those who believe in him shall receive the cancellation of sins” (Acts 10:43).

Faith alone in the early church
In the same way, all the old and ancient authors, writing in both Greek and Latin, speak about being justified only by this true and living faith in Christ. Of these, I will especially go through three: Hilary, Basil, and Ambrose. Saint Hilary says these words plainly in the 9th Canon on Matthew, “Faith alone justifies.” And Saint Basil, a Greek author, writes thus: “This is a perfect and a whole rejoicing in God: when someone does not advance themselves for their own righteousness, but acknowledges themselves to lack true justice and righteousness, and to be justified by faith alone in Christ.” And Paul, he says, “glories in the contempt of his own righteousness, and looks for his righteousness from God, by faith.” These are the very words of Saint Basil. And Saint Ambrose, a Latin Author, says these words, “This is the ordinance of God, that those who believe in Christ should be saved without works, by faith only, freely receiving cancellation of their sins.” Consider diligently these words: without works, by faith only, freely we receive cancellation of our sins. What can be spoken more plainly, than to say that freely without works, by faith only, we obtain cancellation of our sins?

These and other similar sentences, that we are justified by faith only, freely, and without works, we often read in the best and most ancient writers. Besides Hilary, Basil, and Saint Ambrose as mentioned before, we read the same in Origen, Saint Chrysostom, Saint Cyprian, Saint Augustine, Prosper, Oecumenius, Phocius, Bernardus, Anselm, and many other Authors, Greek, and Latin.

Nevertheless, this sentence, that we are justified by faith alone, is not meant by them in the sense that justifying faith is alone in a person, without true repentance, hope, charity, dread, and the fear of God, at any time and season. Nor when they say that we are justified freely do they mean that we should or might afterwards be idle, and that nothing should be required on our part afterwards. Neither do they mean that being justified without good works we should therefore do no good works at all, which we shall discuss further later. But this proposition, that we are justified only by faith, freely and without works, is spoken to take away clearly all thoughts of our works having merit, since they are unable to deserve our justification at God’s hands. It most plainly expresses our weakness and the goodness of God, the great infirmity of ourselves and the might and power of God, the imperfection of our own works and the most abundant grace of our Saviour Christ. It therefore wholly ascribes the merit and deserving of our justification to Christ alone, and his most precious blood shedding.

This faith the holy Scripture teaches us. This is the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion. All the old and ancient authors of Christ’s church do approve this doctrine. This doctrine advances and sets forth the true glory of Christ, and beats down the vainglory of mankind. Whoever denies this is not be counted a true Christian, nor as one who sets forth Christ’s glory, but as an adversary to Christ and his gospel, and one who advances the vainglory of mankind.

Misunderstandings of this doctrine
So this doctrine is most true, that we are justified freely without any merit of our own good works (as Saint Paul expresses it), and freely by this lively and perfect faith in Christ only (as the ancient authors used to put it). Yet this true doctrine must also be truly understood and most plainly declared, lest carnal people should make of it an excuse to live carnally, following the appetite and will of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And because no-one should be mistaken by misunderstanding this doctrine, I shall plainly and briefly declare the right understanding of it, so that no one can justly think it is an excuse for carnal liberty, to follow the desires of the flesh, or that it encourages any kind of sin to be committed, or any ungodly living to be indulged.

First, you must understand, that in our justification by Christ, our responsibility and God’s responsibility are not the same. Justification is not our responsibility but God’s, for we cannot make ourselves righteous by our own works, neither in part nor in whole. For that would be the greatest arrogance and presumption that Antichrist could set up against God, to affirm that someone might, by their own works, take away and purge their own sins, and so justify themselves. But justification is the responsibility of God alone, and is not a thing which we render to him, but which we receive from him. It is not something we give to him, but which we take from him, by his free mercy, and only by the merits of his most dearly beloved Son, our only Redeemer, Saviour, and Justifier — Jesus Christ.

So the true understanding of this doctrine — that we are justified freely by faith without works, or that we are justified by faith in Christ alone — is not that our own act (to believe in Christ) or that our faith in Christ (which is within us) is what justifies us and earns our justification for us. For that would be to count ourselves justified by some act or virtue that is within ourselves. But the true understanding and meaning of it is that although we hear God’s word, and believe it, although we have faith, hope, charity, repentance, dread, and fear of God within us, and do however many good works — yet, we must renounce the merit of all our said virtues, of faith, hope, charity, and all other virtues and good deeds, which we either have done, shall do, or can do, as things that are far too weak and insufficient, and imperfect, to deserve cancellation of our sins and our justification.

Therefore, we must trust only in God’s mercy, and that sacrifice which our High Priest and Saviour, Christ Jesus the son of God, once offered for us upon the cross. By this we obtain God’s grace, and the forgiveness both of our original sin in baptism as well as all actual sin committed by us after our baptism — if we truly repent, and turn sincerely to him again. In this matter of forgiveness for sin, St John the Baptist (although he was a very virtuous a godly man) pointed the people away from himself, and pointed them to Christ, saying “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). In the same way, as great and as godly a virtue as living faith is, yet it points us away from itself, and sends or points us to Christ, that only by him may we have cancellation of our sins, or justification. So that our faith in Christ says to us (as it were) thus: “It is not I that take away your sins, but it is Christ only, and to him alone I send you for that purpose, renouncing all your good virtues, words, thoughts, and works, and only putting your trust in Christ.”

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