But the great question is: What was the Protestant Reformation about? What did Martin Luther rediscover? What did he find when he went back to the Scriptures? And you see, therefore, that it is something which is vital and about which we should be absolutely clear. So another good way of testing ourselves is to picture ourselves seated at a table with an examination paper in front of us and here is the question: ‘Give an account of the doctrine of justification by faith only.’ Do you know what it is that makes you a Protestant, what it is the marks you off from the Roman Catholics? That is the test.
So, let us look at this doctrine together, and perhaps the best approach is historical. Why was Martin Luther in trouble before his conversion? What was wrong with him before this truth suddenly dawned upon him? And what is wrong with all who are vague and indefinite and uncertain about the whole question of justification by faith? Now it was not that Luther had not heard of the term ‘Justification’, because he had. What was wrong with him was that he had the wrong view of it. In other words, he had the typical Roman Catholic view of justification by faith. Roman Catholics claim to teach that doctrine, but they never say ‘justification by faith only’. They regard that as the Protestant heresy.
First, then, let us look at this Roman Catholic error and in its essence it is this: the Roman Catholic Church confuses justification with sanctification. And that had been the trouble with Martin Luther before his conversion. The Roman Catholic view of justification is, first of all, that it means and includes forgiveness of sins and they are all right at that point. But they add that the sin inherent in us is taken out of us for Christ’s sake. And they do not even stop at that. They go on to say that in justification there is a positive infusion of grace into us and that, of course, comes by means of baptism. They say that in the act of baptism, grace is actually infused into the person who is baptised and that is a part of justification. Forgiveness, removal of sin—yes—but also the infusion at baptism of a positive righteousness, and not merely a positive righteousness, but the life of God as well.
And then Roman Catholics go on to say that justification is progressive. Of course, they are quite consistent there. If there is this infusion of grace, that is going to grow and develop, the justification must be progressive. Furthermore, typically, they have to go further and they even say it can be lost if we become guilty of what they call, ‘mortal sin’. But then, if we do lose it, they say that we can regain it by going through the sacrament of penance and the process of regaining it will be completed in purgatory.
Now that is the characteristic Roman Catholic view and that was the view that was held by Martin Luther before his conversion. But then, you remember, the story of his life goes on to tell us that suddenly he saw a statement in the Scripture. He had read it many times before but he had never truly seen it. This is what he saw: ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Rom. 1:17)—and these words absolutely changed everything for him. His whole life was revolutionised; he became an entirely different man. He suddenly saw that all his past ideas on justification had been quite unscriptural, utterly false, and the moment he saw this, he experienced a great liberation of his soul. He began to preach this truth and so began the great and mighty work of reformation.
Exactly what, then, did Luther see? It was that justification is a judicial act of God in which He declares that He regards those of us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, as righteous on the grounds of the work and merit of Christ. God imputes and ascribes Christ’s righteousness to us, and we rest on that by faith. That is what Luther saw. As a result, in a moment, he knew that he was right with God. Luther’s problem had been that of job: ‘How should a man be just with God?’ (Job 9:2). How can a man stand in the presence of God? That was the problem that oppressed the mind and heart of Luther. There he was, a monk in his cell, asking, ‘How can I put myself right with God?’ He fasted, he prayed, he sweated, he did good deeds, and yet the whole time he was more and more aware of the blackness and darkness of his own heart and of the utter unutterable righteousness and holiness of God. And he was trying to fit himself, to make himself just, along that Roman Catholic way, and he could not, but there he saw it suddenly. God declares him righteous, and he is righteous, because God says so, because God puts to his account the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is the historical background in which we should rejoice more and more. The crux of the matter is this: the great mistake we all tend to fall in, as Luther had done, with regard to justification, is that we tend to think that justification means that we are made righteous or good or upright or holy. But that is quite wrong. In justification we are not made righteous, we are declared to be righteous—the thing is quite different. To say that in justification you are made righteous is to confuse it with sanctification. Justification is something legal or forensic. It is God, as the judge, who is responsible for administering His own law, saying to us that as regards the law He is satisfied with us because of the righteousness of Christ. Justification is a declaratory act. It does not do anything to us; it says something about us. It has no reference to my actual state or condition inside; it has reference to my standing, to my position, to my appearing in the presence of God. Now that is the biblical doctrine of justification. That is what Luther discovered; that is what he began to preach and, in a sense, he spent the rest of his life in preaching it. It is the great central doctrine of all Protestantism and in every great revival you will find that this always comes to the forefront. It was what Whitefield used to preach, as did John Wesley.*
*Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1997). God the Holy Spirit (167–170). Wheaton, IL: Crossways Books.