The Justification by Grace through Faith: Three Reformed Perspectives

Faith, for the Protestants of the Reformation movement, proved to be more than just “an attitude which goes beyond [any] available evidence”[1] but, more importantly, seemingly “[had] a moral rather than an intellectual meaning [to it, conceptually].”[2] What this means, in other words, is that faith, as a standalone moral concept, represented a measuring stick by which Protestants came to understand the meaning of living a Christian life. In this connotation, then, “the [Protestants] stressed the importance of living by faith, which alone makes a person righteous.”[3] Righteousness, in this regards, points to faith as the prime, overarching ingredient of a Christian’s character –it “refers to dogma, [as something] which is believed [as well as] trust in a person which is essentially relational to character.”[4] So, while a Christian is expected to live their life by faith with the intent of personifying righteousness, faith, for the Christian character, is an essential point of justification, since “it is not so much in strict terms that we are saved by [faith]: rather we are not saved without it.”[5] To be saved, specifically, refers to God’s grace. It is from this linking God’s grace to faith, faith to the Christian life, the Christian life to righteousness, and the possibility of righteousness to an underlying justification comes to bear in each of the aforementioned interrelationships that Protestants arrived at the idea of justification by grace through faith –this idea attempts to address “the problem of how one is absolved, or acquitted, of [their] past actions, or how [they] acquire [their] new being as a Christian.”[6] Subsequently, in the justification of grace through faith, there exists justification through Christ as it is defined in the Pauline doctrine of justification of faith.[7]

Though Protestants preached in favor of a justification of grace through faith, they, concurrently, railed against works of righteousness.[8] Nevertheless, there was, indeed, a general consensus among the Protestant faithful about the necessity of Christians leading a classically-defined Christian life build upon the notions of obeying the law and doing good works. As connected as the concept of justification of grace through faith is to the notion of achieving good works in accordance with the law, there are three noteworthy Protestant leaders that crafted their respective reformed movements by advocating differing views about that connectedness: Martin Luther and the Lutheran movement, Ulrich Zwingli and the Swedish reform movement, and John Calvin and the Calvinist movement.

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[1] William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 166.

[2] Geddes MacGregor, ed., Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy (New York, NY: Paragon House, 1989), 241.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 246.

[5] Ibid.

[6] William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 275.

[7] This is referring to Paul’s doctrine of justification of faith which is contrasted with the justification simply by way of law. Of this, Paul not only writes, in Galatians 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing,” but further explains, in Galatians 5:4-6, “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

[8] To be clear, “works of righteousness” denotes something tangible that can be tested or expressed evidentially, which points to Paul, who implores in 2 Corinthians 13:5a-b, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves.”

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