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Justification: The Article upon Which the Church Stands or Falls

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“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Martin Luther is generally remembered on this Reformation Day for the posting of the 95 Theses, statements for debate on repentance and the sale of indulgences. But a more complete statement of faith prepared by Luther is the Smalcald Articles. It was Luther’s hope that this document would be used for discussion at a general council of the Church or, should he die before such a council was held, that it would be regarded as his “last will and testament.”

The Smalcald Articles clearly establish the differences between Romanism and Lutheranism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Article I. It reads:

The first and chief article is this:

1 Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25).

2 He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

3 All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25).

4 This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)

That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:26]

5 Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].

For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.[i]

Article I is short, to the point, and like Luther himself, pulls no theological punches. Notice how many of the passages cited come from our Epistle, Romans 3:19-28. It is easy to see why this pericope was chosen for Reformation Day.

The key teaching of Lutheranism, “The article upon which the church stands or falls,” is justification—particularly, justification by grace through faith in the work of Christ. “Justification” has to do with being or being made or being declared “just,” or “righteous,” or “right.” Scripture teaches that we are justified by Christ, who took our sin into Himself and atoned for it on the cross and who imputes (or credits) to us His righteousness. When we are united to Christ—which happens by Baptism, in Holy Communion, and when we receive His Word—we are justified, freely, apart from any works of our own. To believe, trust, and depend on the fact that Christ saves us is to be justified by faith.

Now, it might seem that justification is another theological term whose meaning has been lost in today’s secular climate. Christianity is about the forgiveness of sins. But many people today do not think they have need to be made right with God. “Sin” is thought to be an outmoded concept.

And yet people today still search for “justification” for themselves and what they do. They still crave approval, and they want to consider themselves to be good and right. And when they fail to measure up even to their own standards or that of their peers—let alone God’s standards—they tend to construct explanations and  excuses that would exonerate them. It turns out that justification is the article on which we all stand or fall. It’s just a matter of where we look for our justification.

We can look for justification in our political or ideological beliefs: “I am good despite my personal failures, because my cause is just.” Post-modernism can be a way to justify ourselves: “The truth I reject is nothing more than a construction, so I am blameless in rebelling against it.” We can seek justification through atheism: “God does not exist, so no one can condemn me.” Or we can simply seek to justify ourselves by comparison: “Nobody’s perfect, but at least I’m better than so-and-so.” These are all attempts at self-justification. They are endless mental exercises by which we can consider ourselves to be good.

But something is missing in these attempts: a correct understanding of sin and personal culpability for that sin. Many believe there is no such thing as objective morality to sin against. They assume morality is purely subjective, varying from one culture or one person to another. No one has the right to “impose” his personal morality on anyone else. And yet, those who reject the very possibility of moral truth, are constantly making moral judgments of others: demanding social justice, human rights, and ethical approaches to the environment.

We tend to frame conflicts with others as arguments over moral transgressions—“You’re selfish!” “You don’t really love me!” “That’s not fair!”—with both parties accusing each other and defending themselves. Our transgressions still leave us with guilt, which can torment us for the rest of our lives. And yet we still tend to insist that “I am a good person.” If someone else considers us “bad” or “wrong,” we defend ourselves—with excuses and arguments maintaining that our vices are not bad but good, even something to be celebrated. In truth, we do not need to be righteous in order to be self-righteous.

Far from being an outdated theological concept, justification is a preoccupation, if not an obsession, for people today. We always feel the need to show that we are right. At work, online, in our casual conversations, in our relationships with others, we are always seeking approval, scoring points, making excuses, and defending ourselves. At the same time, we are also always accusing and judging others. Often, such criticism is not dispassionate moral analysis, but attempting to cover our own flaws by highlighting the far greater flaws of others. Underlying the need to be justified is our yearning for affirmation, for thinking that our existence matters, for our need to think that our life is worthwhile.

Not only do we judge and justify ourselves and one another; we also judge and justify God. “How can God allow evil and suffering in the world?” both believers and non-believers ask. “He must not be good.” Against that accusation, believers can form arguments to justify God, as if He needs our help to explain His motives and actions. Non-believers, ironically, justify the intellectual concept of a righteous God by concluding that such a being does not actually exist.

But the problems of evil and suffering do not go away even when God’s existence is rejected. No longer is the question “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” but “Why does existence allow evil and suffering?” If God cannot be justified due to the evil and suffering in the world, existence itself cannot be justified for the same reasons. If existence cannot be justified, life is meaningless, absurd, pointless, and (in a tragic number of cases) not worth living.

But what if, instead of having to justify ourselves, God Himself gives us the approval, affirmation, and assurance that our existence matters, that despite our many, obvious shortcomings, our lives have His approval? He does! We do! The incessant desire to justify ourselves is put to rest when we are justified by Christ.

How does Christ justify us? By dying.

The Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature. Instead of living in earthly glory as we might expect and as He was certainly entitled to, He chose to be born in poverty and to live a life of homelessness. But He did good works—by healing the sick, raising the dead, reconciling people who had been at each other’s throats—and His teaching blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the persecuted, and so on. Jesus’ goodness was evident to all, even to His enemies, who hated Him for it. He accomplished what other human beings throughout history have always tried to do but failed: He was justified by His good works.  

Nevertheless, Jesus did not escape accusations, judgments, and condemnation. He was, in fact, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. While others have supposedly died an innocent death, Jesus is the only person to have truly died an innocent death. At His execution, though, He fully exerted His divine power by doing something that defies our capacity to understand or to imagine: He took the evils of the world—that is to say, the sins of the entire human race—into Himself. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). St. Paul put it even more strongly: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When on the cross Christ “bore our sins in His body,” He also took the punishment that we deserve. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The “wonderful exchange” also means that Christ’s righteousness—along with access to the Father, freedom from guilt, and eternal life—become ours. God the Father now counts our sins as belonging to Christ. He also counts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. Thus, when we face the judgment of God the Father, He will consider all of Christ’s good works—His healings, His acts of love, His obedience to the Father, His perfect fulfillment of the Law—to be ours. This is what it means to be justified by Christ.

This is unbelievable, one might think. It would be tremendous if it were true, but how could it be? How could God become a human being? How could anyone—even God—bear another person’s sins, let alone the sins of the entire world? It staggers the mind. It is beyond understanding. Interestingly, Luther agrees. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him,” he writes in the Small Catechism. Essentially, Luther admits, “I believe that I cannot… believe.”

Notice how Luther anticipates—and repudiates—the mindset of both the modernist and the postmodernist. “I believe that I cannot by own reason… believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the “Age of Reason.” So much for modernism. Human reason is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts. “I believe that I cannot by my own… strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the will to power. So much for postmodernism. Exerting our own power or effort is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts.

So how do we? Luther goes on to explain: “But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith, this belief and trust in Christ, is a gift from outside ourselves. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, creates our faith. Rather than human reason or power, faith is how we receive Christ Jesus. God does this by calling me through the Gospel, His means of grace—Word and water, body and blood—which creates, sustains and grows faith.

For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the “chief article” on which the Church stands or falls. Every other key teaching—the Sacraments, Scripture, worship, vocation, the two kingdoms, prayer, the Christian life—has as its keystone our justification by Christ.

And it is also the chief article on which individuals stand or fall. Restless hearts and anxious minds find peace in justification. Frenetic lives of self-justification have rest in the salvation of Jesus Christ. The incessant need to prove our own worthiness and our failure to ever do so are nailed to the cross, buried in the tomb, and put to death forever. What Good News!

 We confess: “[We] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a). That is to say, by God’s grace, for Jesus’ sake, you are righteous and holy; you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 262–263). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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