The doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone is central to the teaching of the Reformation. It stood as a key to Martin Luther’s own exegetical insight at the beginning and wellspring of the Reformation.

The importance of this biblical and doctrinal insight to both Lutheran and Calvinist forms of Protestantism can easily obscure the fact that the Reformation view of justification was not always the doctrinal view of the church and that neither the early church nor the medieval church recognized the principle of justification sola fide. Additionally, the patristic and medieval tradition, together with several of the first Reformers—notably Luther and Martin Bucer—did not make an absolute distinction between justification and sanctification. Bucer spoke of a double justification according to which believers were both counted and made righteous. Nonetheless it is the “sola,” by faith alone, to the utter exclusion of works, that is the distinctive characteristic of the Protestant and Reformed teaching and the reason Luther, Calvin, and the later Protestant tradition affirmed categorically that justification is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the “article of the standing or falling of the church.”

Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith rests on a view of faith as trusting or faithful apprehension of divine things, an utter trust in the grace of God that sets aside all trust in worldly things and in salvation attainable by human means. This faith itself is unattainable by human means and must be brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit on the human heart. It is this faith alone that justifies. Luther insisted that the correct understanding of Rom. 3:28 requires the addition of sola, “alone,” to the translation. Forgiveness and righteousness are graciously imputed by God on the ground of this faith. Indeed, for Luther, faith itself justifies inasmuch as it is faith that apprehends Christ and appropriates his righteousness. This is not to say, however, that justification can be grounded even in part on Christian love or on works, as if faith were an act or choice of the individual. Sin remains in the justified who, on the basis of their own acts, can never be worthy before God; and faith is an inward openness to God, a setting aside of our own merit, a negation of our insufficient moral striving. For Luther, as for all subsequent Lutheran and Reformed thinkers, the believer is simul iustus et peccator, “at once justified and a sinner.”

Philipp Melanchthon’s early systematization of Protestant theology was crucial to the development not only of Lutheran but also of Reformed doctrine. With Luther, he identified justification as the chief article of the Christian faith. Perhaps more consistently than Luther, Melanchthon regarded justification as a forensic act, but very much in the spirit of Luther he also insisted justification was intimately connected with the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. The initial order of salvation proposed early on by Melanchthon moved from contrition or sorrow for sin to faith and, on the basis of faith, to the forgiveness of sins, understood forensically as justification, and the regeneration of the believer. Faith, therefore, provides the ground both for the counting righteous and for the making righteous of believers—and it precedes both justification and regeneration or sanctification.

Calvin offers a clarification and codification of his predecessors’ teachings. Like them, he was concerned to separate justification from any notion of works righteousness but also to retain the connection between justification and the new life in Christ. He therefore spoke of a twofold grace (duplex gratia), by which believers are both reckoned righteous in Christ and sanctified by his Spirit (Inst 3.11.1). Calvin insisted on the parallel and connection between the divine acts of counting the believer righteous and making the believer righteous: justification and sanctification are grasped together. But Calvin equally clearly removed all consideration of works and of personal righteousness from the basic calculus of justification, which is entirely forensic. A person is justified when counted righteous—“who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith” (Inst 3.11.2). Faith therefore is not merely knowledge and assent. It is also a profound heartfelt or volitional acceptance of Christ that grounds the application of God’s grace to believers.

Calvin’s emphasis on faithful acceptance of Christ and his benefits as the basis of justification points toward the profound connection in his theology between justification and the substitutionary atonement effected by Christ. Believers are counted righteous because of the righteousness of Christ who stands in their place and fulfills the righteousness and obedience required by God of human beings. Since individuals remain sinful after they are counted righteous through faith, Calvin can also argue a double justification—first of the sinner and then of the works of the justified sinner, which now are counted righteous insofar as they are offered to God in and through the grace of Christ.

Just as Calvin had offered a still clearer view of the utterly forensic character of justification than any of his predecessors, so the later Reformed tradition continued to sharpen the distinction between justification and sanctification. The development of Reformed orthodoxy in the late sixteenth century saw the formulation of a more strict view of the order of salvation in which calling, regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, and glorification were understood not only as distinct moments in the order but also as strictly separate in significance and, to a somewhat greater degree than had been typical of the Reformers, were explained in terms of the fourfold Aristotelian causality. Nonetheless, Reformed orthodox dogmatics, notably the Leiden Synopsis (1626), continued to follow Luther and Calvin in identifying justification as “foremost” and genuinely foundational doctrine of Protestantism. Justification is not, therefore, an infusion of righteousness but a judicial act of God that declares a believer righteous by grace apart from any personal merit. The orthodox declared that in this act God sits as a judge, but on “the throne of grace” rather than on “the throne of righteousness,” inasmuch as the divine righteousness no longer stands over against human unworthiness as a ground of judgment.

Unlike Luther, but quite in the tradition of Calvin, the orthodox indicated it is not, strictly, faith that justifies but grace in Christ. Faith, defined as consisting not only in knowledge and assent but also and primarily as a faithful apprehension of Christ and of Christian truth by the whole person, provides the inward means of receiving God’s grace. Since, moreover, faith itself is a gift of God’s grace and not something initiated by the believer, there can be no confusion of faith with works. The efficient cause of justification is the grace of God, while the material cause is neither faith nor works but the righteousness of Christ applied against the case of the faithful but still sinful person. Righteousness remains inherent only in Christ and belongs to the believer by imputation.

Protestant orthodox writers also drew lines of connection between justification and other doctrines somewhat more clearly and pointedly than the Reformers. Thus, justification, as well as the faith on which it is grounded, is identified as a result of election and, in the theology of strict predestinarians like Samuel Maresius (1599–1673), as an eternal forensic act executed in time. Similarly, the idea of double justification is connected more clearly and fully by the orthodox with the inward working of grace and the Spirit in believers, with the inherent but imperfect righteousness brought about in believers in their regeneration and sanctification, and with the freely given obedience of believers to the law considered according to its third use.

After the orthodox codification of Reformed doctrine, the most notable discussion of the doctrine of justification in the Reformed tradition is Karl Barth’s. Barth attempted both to sum up the Reformed insights and to refashion them in the light of his own highly Christocentric model of theology. Barth’s teaching builds on a conception of justification as a totally gracious temporal act of God in Christ rooted eternally in “God’s freedom for man” as it is expressed in Jesus Christ. For Barth, justification must be understood as God’s eternal decision for humanity in Christ who, in the cross and resurrection, is himself both elect and reprobate. Justification, therefore, remains a justification of the unrighteous, an acquittal by God opening for the sinner a new future grounded in faith. Thus, in his basic definition of the believer as “at once justified and a sinner” and in his insistence on justification as occurring by faith alone apart from all works, Barth remains faithful to the Reformed tradition. What is original to Barth is the way justification binds together time and eternity in Christ’s own election and reprobation—granting that earlier Reformed theology understood election, but not reprobation, in Christ and viewed both decrees as directed toward human beings as individuals.


Barth, CD IV/1–2; G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, trans. L. B. Smedes (1954); J. Calvin, Inst 3.1–4, 14–16; W. Dantine, Justification of the Ungodly, trans. E. W. and R. C. Gritsch (1968); H. Küng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (1981); A. E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2 vols. (1986); A. Ritschl, A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, trans. J. S. Black (1872).

CD Karl Barch, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T, Clark, 1936–69)

Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.; Edinburgh: Westminster/John Knox Press; Saint Andrew Press, 1992), 201.

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