The doctrine of justification is the most controversial issue in the history of Christendom. It was the material cause of the Protestant Reformation, the issue that led to the most serious fragmentation of the Christian church in its history. The debates it raised in the sixteenth century were not over minor details of theology. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers understood that what was at stake in the controversy was nothing less than the gospel itself. When, at the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone and placed their anathema upon it, it was not their intention to place an anathema on the gospel. But if the Reformers were right, then that is exactly what they did, and they thereby anathematized themselves.
Luther declared in the sixteenth century that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. Calvin used a different metaphor; he said it is the hinge upon which everything turns. At one point, when Luther was engaged in debate with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Erasmus turned on Luther and attacked his position. Luther thanked Erasmus for not attacking him on trivial matters and expressed his appreciation that the debate in which they were engaged touched the very heart of the church itself. If Luther’s assessment is true, and justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls, then it follows that justification is the article upon which we stand or fall as individuals. Justification has to do with the justice and righteousness of God. God is just. Biblically, justice is always defined in connection with righteousness. To say that one is just is at the same time to say that one is righteous.
God is the absolute standard of all righteousness. As our Creator, He is also the supreme, sovereign judge of heaven and earth. The Bible clearly indicates that the One who is the judge of all is Himself perfectly just and righteous.
In one sense, that is very good news for us. To live in a world governed by an unjust being would be a dreadful thing to contemplate. We would have no hope for the ultimate triumph of justice in such a world. So it is good news for us that the ruler and judge of all things is Himself good and righteous.
In another sense, that is very bad news for us, because we are not just. The Scriptures make it clear that this just and righteous God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world, including all of us who are not just and righteous.
People today hardly get exercised about the doctrine of justification, which was a matter for which our forefathers were willing to die, and many did die. In Oxford, England, in the sixteenth century, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake for their confessed faith in the Reformation doctrines, including the doctrine of justification by faith alone. On a particular street in Oxford, a tiny sign marks the spot where they were executed. I watched people cross the street paying no attention to the mark or to the commemorative plaque. Although people today do not get exercised about a doctrine like justification, it was the issue that changed the whole Western world in the sixteenth century.
Part of the reason for this modern disinterest may be our concept of the last judgment. The idea of a final judgment to which all people will be subjected has all but disappeared from our thinking, and even from the preaching in most of today’s pulpits—despite Jesus’ repeated warning that we all will stand before God, and that every idle word that we speak will be judged.
Here is the dilemma. If God judges people according to His perfect standard of righteousness, then those who are unjust will be in serious trouble. The psalmist asks, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps.130:3).The obvious answer is that no one could stand. We are all guilty of violating the commandments of our Creator, and at some point, we will be called on to stand before His judgment seat.
Even people who believe that there will be a judgment often believe that God is so kind and merciful that He will overlook our sins and grant unilateral pardon and forgiveness, so there is nothing to fear. That idea is foreign to the New Testament. The sober warning of Christ and of the Apostles is that God, in His perfect judgment of us, will judge all men according to their works and will reward the righteous and punish the unrighteous. We can look forward to receiving a reward that corresponds to our merit or punishment for our demerit. That may seem fine until we realize that we have no merit of our own, and that all we will have to offer God on the day of judgment will be our demerits.
The psalmist declares, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Ps.139:7–8).“You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar....Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (vv.2, 4). The Scriptures reveal a God who is omniscient, so He does not need someone to give Him a list of what we have done. He knows everything about our lives.
We must not flee to the popular understanding that when God forgives our sins, He also forgets our sins. When the Scriptures tell us that He remembers our sins no more when He forgives them, the point is not that He has a sudden lapse in His divine memory. Rather, the point is that He does not hold what we have done against us ever again.
God’s forgiveness is not automatic and universal, but it is part of justification. When a person is guilty before a righteous God, there is nothing more important than to understand how that guilt can be removed and how God’s forgiveness can be attained. How can an unforgiven person become forgiven? How can an unjust person be justified or be considered just in the sight of God? There are not many issues in theology more serious than that. The controversy of the sixteenth century boiled down to this: How can we be saved? How can we, as unjust people, possibly be reconciled to a holy and righteous God? This is the greatest issue we face in our entire lives—the question of our personal redemption.
This excerpt is adapted from Truths We Confess by R.C. Sproul. In Truths We Confess, now thoroughly revised and available in a single, accessible volume, Dr. Sproul introduces readers to this remarkable confession, explaining its insights and applying them to modern life. Order the hardcover book today.
Since Christ took on a human nature in His incarnation, does that mean that God has changed? From one of our live events, R.C. Sproul and Derek Thomas help us think carefully about the two natures of Jesus.
If you have a biblical or theological question, just visit ask.Ligonier.org to ask your question live online.
The Reformation churches have some wonderful slogans that are chock full of important truths. Sometimes, however, these slogans can be misconstrued, misreported, and misunderstood. With the possible exception of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), none of these slogans has been mangled more often toward greater mischief than ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). According to historian Michael Bush, much of what we think we know about this slogan is probably wrong. The phrase is not from the sixteenth century. I have searched hundreds of documents in a variety of languages from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda does not occur in them. Neither does the phrase semper reformanda (always reforming). Certainly, the Reformed writers spoke of a "Reformed church" and of the necessity of reformation. But men such as Calvin, who published a treatise on the need for reformation in 1543, did not use the phrase. The Dutch Reformed minister Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620-77) first used something like it in 1674 when he juxtaposed "reformed" with "reforming," but he did not say, "always."
The Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Koelman (1632-95) expressed similar ideas and attributed them to his teacher Johannes Hoornbeek (1617-66), who himself was a student of the great Gijsbertus Voetius (1589-1676). None of them added the phrase secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God). The source of that phrase is almost certainly the twentieth-century Princeton Seminary professor Edward Dowey (1918-2003).
Van Lodenstein and the others were part of a school of thought in the Netherlands that was closely connected to the English Reformed theology, piety, and practice represented by such writers such as William Perkins (1558-1602) and William Ames (1576-1633). They identified themselves as part of a "Further Reformation" (Nadere Reformatie). Like Perkins, Ames, the divines of the Westminster Assembly (1643- 48) in the British Isles, and the great international Synod of Dort (1618-19), this school of thought was concerned that the church not lapse back into error and darkness. It wanted the church to continue to pursue purity of doctrine, piety, and worship.
The full phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (the church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God) is a post-World War II creature. It was given new impetus by the modernist Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), who used variations of the phrase with some frequency. Mainline (liberal) Presbyterian denominations have sometimes used variations of this phrase in official ways.
In effect, the phrase is most commonly taken to mean "the church is reformed but needs to be changed in various ways." It is frequently invoked as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with Reformed theology as received and expressed by the Reformed churches in the Reformed confessions (for example, the Belgic Confession, 1561; the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563; the Westminster Standards, 1648). Thus, in 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the USA rejected the historic Christian and Reformed understanding that Scripture is the inerrant (does not err), infallible (cannot err) Word of God written. Ironically, under the modern misunderstanding of the phrase the church reformed, always reforming, the denomination moved away from the Reformed view and adopted a view taught by the Anabaptist radical Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525) that the Reformers knew and rejected.
When Calvin and the other Reformed writers used the adjective reformed, they did not think that it was a thing that could never actually be accomplished. Late in his life, Calvin remarked to the other pastors in Geneva that things were fairly well constituted, and he exhorted them not to ruin them. He and the others thought and spoke of reformation of the church not as a goal never to be achieved in this life, but as something that either had been or could be achieved because they believed God's Word to be sufficiently clear. That is, what must be known for the life of the church can be known and, with the help of God's Spirit and by God's grace alone, changes could be made (and were being made) to bring the doctrine, piety, and practice of the church into conformity with God's will revealed in Scripture. That's why they wrote church orders and adopted confessions—because they believed that reformation was a great but finite task.
They did not imagine that the theology, piety, and practice of the church Reformed according to Scripture was inherently deficient such that it needs to be augmented by other traditions. Unlike many today who invoke these words, the Reformed did not see reform as a justification for eclecticism, borrowing a bit of this and a bit of that for a theological-ecclesiastical stew. They were not narrow, however. They were catholic (universal) in their theology, piety, and practice. They sought to reform the church according to the Scriptures, but they paid close attention to the way the early fathers read and applied Scripture, and, where those interpretations withstood scrutiny (sola Scriptura), they adopted or restored them.
Another of the more pernicious abuses of the slogan semper reformanda in recent years is its invocation by adherents of the self-described Federal Vision movement. The adjective federal in this context has nothing to do with civil politics; rather, it refers to Reformed covenant theology. The advocates of the Federal Vision adopted this name for their movement to highlight either the need to change Reformed theology or to recover an earlier version, depending upon which of them you ask. They agree, however, that every baptized person is given a temporary, conditional election, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, adoption, and so on. After baptism, it is up to the Christian to do his part to retain what was given by grace. They speak of the "objectivity of the covenant." They typically do not accept the Reformed distinction between the covenants of works and grace, between law and grace, or between law and gospel. They reject the Reformed doctrine that there are two ways of communing in the visible covenant community (the church): inwardly and outwardly. According to the Federal Vision, no one is finally regenerate, elect, or justified until the last day. They either redefine or mock the historic understanding of justification by divine favor alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) as "easy believism." Like the modernists who would take us back to the Anabaptists on the doctrine of Scripture, advocates of the Federal Vision seek to take us back to the pre-Reformation church in the doctrine of salvation, and as they do so, they invoke the slogan ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.
When Calvin and others in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wrote of the church reformed and of the necessity of reforming the church, they were expressing their consciousness that, because of sin and its effects, the church tends toward corruption. Within just a few decades of recovering the gospel of free acceptance by God through faith alone, the Protestants nearly lost that precious truth in the 1550s. Reformation can be and has been achieved in this life, but it is not easy to retain it. By the time of late-seventeenth-century Geneva, the church had enjoyed the ministry of some of the most courageous ministers and professors in the Reformation: William Farel, John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Theodore Beza, and Francis Turretin, to name but a few. By the early eighteenth century, however, the Reformation was virtually extinct in Geneva, and has not yet been fully recovered.
There is much truth in the slogan the church reformed, always reforming, but it was never intended to become a license for corrupting the Reformed faith. We should understand and use it as a reminder of our proclivity to wander from that theology, piety, and practice taught in Scripture and confessed by the church. Certainly, our confessions are reformable. We Protestants are bound to God's Word as the charter and objective rule of Christian faith and practice. Should someone discover an error in our theology, piety, or practice, we are bound by our own confessions and church orders to hear an argument from God's Word. Should that argument prevail, we must change our understanding or our practice. But we should not, under cover of this late-seventeenth-century slogan, subvert what Scripture teaches for a continuing, never-ending Reformation that leads us away from the heart and soul of what we confess.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.
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Due to changes in local restrictions for large gatherings, we have reopened registration* for our 2021 National Conference, Right Now Counts Forever. For a limited time, save $120 off the regular rate when you register to join us on March 18–20 in Orlando.
In addition, we are pleased to announce that John MacArthur will join us as a speaker. Other speakers include Voddie Baucham, Sinclair Ferguson, W. Robert Godfrey, Joel Kim, Steven Lawson, Stephen Nichols, Burk Parsons, Michael Reeves, and Derek Thomas.
Marking fifty years since the founding of Ligonier Ministries, our National Conference in 2021 will consider the eternal significance of our everyday lives by equipping us today to better serve the Lord, love our neighbors, and make Christ known. With our glorious future in view, Christians do not have less of a stake in the present, but infinitely more. As Dr. R.C. Sproul so often reminded us, right now counts forever.
A special online rate is now available through November 21. Register today and save $120 off the regular rate.
* Please note: We intend to comply with local, state, and federal guidelines for large gatherings. As a result, all registrations made as of October 29, 2020, are conditional per local restrictions that determine current capacity. We encourage you to register as soon as possible. If local authorities reinstate capacity limits prior to the event, we will begin notifying those who registered most recently and work backwards. Any impacted registrants may request a refund or convert their registration into a donation. Lord willing, we hope to see you in Orlando.
The official blog of Ligonier Ministries, founded by theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul in 1971 to help Christians know what they believe, why the believe it, how to live it, and how to share it.