The Middle Ages and the Reformers – Reflections on “Justification” and “Sanctification” in the Reformation

Editor’s note: As the Chinese house church engages the question, “What is the church?” it recognizes the all-important preceding question, “What is the gospel?” The result is that the house church finds itself contemplating what can be gleaned from the depths of church history. The following is Part 1 of a lengthy paper written by a Chinese pastor on the topic of reformed soteriology and its pastoral implications. The paper hopes to train and encourage other urban Chinese house church pastors, and as such is an interesting insight to the theology shaping portions of the house church. It was originally published in Kosmos, an online and print magazine focusing on theological and cultural issues in mainland China. Make sure to come back and read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 in the coming weeks. 

Carl Trueman, a church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, believes that the Reformation was essentially a pastoral reformation that sought to recover the doctrine of salvation. The basic question it asked was soteriological in nature: “How can man be saved?” And its scope encompassed every domain of personal and ecclesiastical life. These truths revealed in scripture, however, were only held by reformed minorities.

The distinction between justification and sanctification was the greatest contribution of Protestants to soteriology. It has also presented the greatest pastoral challenge since the time of the Protestant Reformation. Slight variations of these doctrines have led to huge differences in pastoral practice. They have also often led to related discussions about “gospel and law,” “legalism and antinomianism,” and so on. The greatest practical challenge is not whether one can fully articulate from a theological perspective the doctrines of justification and sanctification and how the two are related (even though few pastors can even do this). Rather, the greatest challenge concerns how the two become disconnected in practice, leading to an imbalance where one is emphasized over the other. Either justification gets emphasized at the expense of sanctification, leading to antinomianism, or sanctification gets overemphasized at the expensive of justification, leading to legalism. 

If we compare Protestantism to medieval and modern-day Roman Catholicism, we see that the root cause of the Protestant struggle lies in the question “How can man become righteous before God?” The point in time wherein man becomes righteous gets pushed forward from the end of life to the beginning of faith. Due to the unique nature of medieval soteriology and ecclesiology, even though the Reformers diligently sought to preserve the comprehensive nature of salvation, continually emphasizing sanctification, in practice, the change in the timing of justification often led to soteriology being reduced to an individualistic “justification by faith” (this is very common among Chinese churches). This individualism not only weakens the fullness of soteriology but also separates soteriology from ecclesiology.

The Soteriology of “Justification by Faith” During the Middle Ages

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ places salvation at the center of the Christian faith. The arrival of Christianity is closely connected to and stems from the question “Who is Jesus?” The central message of the Book of Acts is, “The Messiah revealed in Old Testament prophecies is the Savior who died and rose again, and Jesus is this Messiah” (Acts 17:2-3). In the early church, this question was further refined through discussions about the person of Jesus Christ (who is Jesus in his nature?) and about the salvific work of Jesus Christ (what did Jesus accomplish and how is his salvation applied to man?). The former led to the ecumenical creeds on the Trinity and Christology; the latter led to the grace-based soteriology of Augustine in the Western Church. 

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Augustine cared earnestly with the heart of a pastor for the salvation of each and every soul. His soteriology was developed in response to Pelagianism. It deals primarily with the role of man in salvation – is salvation the result of God and man working in cooperation, or is it solely the result of God’s own active grace without any human contribution? This debate about soteriology reached a conclusion at the Council of Orange in 529 AD and the verdict was declared as Church orthodoxy. Man is completely fallen and cannot, by his “free will,” turn back to God; not only does God’s redemptive plan stem from his active grace in eternity, but every man’s heart will only turn to God through the arrival and operation of God’s active grace; and a person who receives the grace of God has the ability and obligation to do good. Unfortunately, this doctrine that completely renounced semi-Pelagianism was lost in church history for about a thousand years until it was discovered again on the eve of the Council of Trent. Thus, questions about how grace comes to man and about what role man’s free will and works play were never completely answered within medieval soteriology, leading to the continual appearance of various forms of semi-Pelagianism.

Unlike that of Irenaeus and the Eastern Fathers, the focus of Augustine’s soteriology concerned the question of how a sinner could become righteous before God. This question became the focus of traditional soteriology in the Western Church, and the later development of soteriology and sacramentology all revolved around this issue. In the Western tradition, the word “justify” [1] means something different in the Vulgate than it does in the Greek because it implies a change initiated by God. As the church fathers said, “Only those who have been made righteous by God are justified.” The unclear concept of “justification” became the main struggle of soteriology in the history of the church. The medieval theologians tried their best to exegete related scriptures comprehensively and systematically in order to present a comprehensive soteriology that connected to anthropology and ecclesiology. [2]

After several hundred years of hard work, especially through the contributions of Aquinas, the Western Church developed a comprehensive doctrine of soteriology in the Middle Ages. Even though this doctrine had not received a standard, canonical exposition before the Council of Trent, the content was relatively consistent with the works of Thomistic bishops. In this doctrine of soteriology, it was Aquinas’s anthropology that became a key issue.

People in the Middle Ages understood that everyone is a sinner before God. There is evil in our human nature, sin in our actions, and also original sin which we inherited from Adam. God is not only wholly righteous but also requires men to be perfectly righteous. When Christ comes again, he will judge the entire world. How, then, can a man face the judgment of God? How can a sinner be made righteous before God, be set free from punishment, and obtain eternal life? The soteriology of medieval Catholicism is unusually complicated and is intricately linked to the seven sacraments of the church. In summary, men are saved entirely by God’s active grace, and the work of Christ enables men to receive the grace of God. Grace is something that God bestows upon men. It is a tangible “thing” that enters into the soul, giving the soul a certain nature that responds to God and enables men to live out the active righteousness within them, until they finally become righteous, are spared the punishment of hell, and obtain eternal life. 

Medieval soteriology not only carries all kind of historical baggage and presuppositions, it is also the product of attempting to synthesize the entire Bible through systematic exegesis. One important verse was Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” According to Herman Bavinck, before Luther, most church fathers and scholastic theologians interpreted “the righteousness of God” as “formal and active justice that makes God just and causes him to punish sinners and the unjust.” The gospel reveals a God who displays his justice in judgment, and this God who will execute final judgment is the Christ who will come again. The work of Christ brings about salvific grace for men, and through baptism, administered by the church, grace is infused into the souls of men, so that men may be cleansed of the original sin of Adam and of the sins they have committed. Men will then begin to live out active righteousness (that is, a life of faith, hope, and love), and through the help of the other sacraments, they finally become righteous and are prepared to face the final judgment of Christ. Christ will judge a man according to the fruit of his lifelong labor, and if he has become righteous, he will enter heaven; if not, he will enter purgatory for further purification.

It is important to note that in the history of Christianity, no vital doctrine has ever been based solely on one portion of scripture. Thus, rather than saying that their understanding of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 became the main exegetical basis for a soteriology of “justification,” it is better to say that this exegesis presupposes a framework of salvation in the gospel – that God is the righteous Judge and Arbiter in the gospel and that he obligates internal righteousness from men while repaying the righteous with eternal life. 

Medieval soteriology can be summarized as follows: 1) Divine grace actively comes upon man and is infused into the life of sinners, removing the original sin of Adam and removing the sins committed by man, bringing man into a state of grace and enabling him to perform righteousness of his own initiative; 2) God, in his mercy, by merit of condignity, grants eternal life as a reward for good works to those who have received grace and who diligently live lives of love for God and man; 3) whether a man enters heaven in the presence of God after death depends on whether he bears the fruit of love, receiving the pleasure of God and being rewarded with eternal life; 4) with the exception of the Pope and those living people who have been canonized as saints, nobody can be assured of having eternal life while they are still living; 5) the sacraments of the church have a real, effectual function, being used by God to bestow grace and forgiveness upon men. This is the Roman Catholic soteriology of “justification” that is generally spoken of, and it forms the background for the soteriology of the Reformation. 

The Reformers’ Doctrine of Justification

Much unlike the medieval view of justification, Bavink and Heinrich Denifle point out that reformers like Luther held that “the righteousness of God” refers to the righteousness that is displayed by God on the cross, seen in God’s judging the unrighteous sin of this world on the cross (because the world nailed God to the cross) and in Christ’s simultaneous substitution for his elect people, the righteous for the unrighteous. On the one hand, Christ satisfied the justice of God and propitiated the wrath of God towards sinners by making atonement for them; on the other hand, Christ became righteous through his own active righteousness, earning all of God’s rewards and accomplishing the work of salvation apart from us. God not only removes the sins of those who trust in Christ through Christ’s atonement, he also makes them righteous by giving to the elect the righteousness of Christ through faith. For man, only faith in the finished work of Christ (this faith is also given by God) is sufficient for the forgiveness of our sins and to be counted righteous before God. Men are justified solely by trusting in the work of Christ; virtue and good works cannot help in any way. 

The Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith” is an entirely different paradigm from the medieval doctrine of “justification by faith.” [3] It emphasizes the following: 1) The righteousness of Christ, outside of us, has earned acceptance and eternal life from God, and salvation is essentially the ministry of Christ to us (what he has accomplished for us) and not a requirement of us; 2) through our faith in Christ, not only are our sins given entirely to Christ and forgiven, the righteousness of Christ is also, once and for all, credited to us, so that what we receive is a “passive righteousness” – a righteousness earned by Christ that is outside of us; 3) through the righteousness of Christ we become righteous, being declared and counted as righteous by God; 4) the salvation and righteousness accomplished through Christ’s death and resurrection is entirely sufficient to save each of God’s elect without the need of our work. 

In retrospect, the Reformation is truly a Copernican Revolution in the history of soteriology, a kind of paradigm shift from “geocentrism” to “heliocentrism.” The soteriology of the Roman Catholic church and its corresponding pastoral practices are remarkably cumbersome and complicated, akin to geocentrism, with its focus on us – what kind of person Christ makes me become through God’s grace. The soteriology of the Protestants, on the other hand, is simple and clear, akin to heliocentrism, with its focus on what Christ has done – what kind of person Christ became on my behalf through God’s grace.  


English translation provided by Moses, Brent, and the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.

[1] Translator’s note: In English, Roman Catholics and Protestants both use the same word (“justify”) to refer to two different ideas of how man is “made righteous” before God. In Chinese, however, two different words are used to distinguish the two doctrines. The Roman Catholic view of justification is translated as “becoming righteous” (chengwei yi成为义), while the Protestant view of justification is translated as “declared righteous” (cheng yi称义). Similarly, the English phrase “justification by faith,” which is used by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, is translated into Chinese as either “becoming righteous by faith” or “being declared righteous by faith,” depending on which understanding of justification it is referring to. In this paper, we have used the traditional English term “justify” to refer to both Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines. 

[2] In Cur Deos Homo, Anselm only solved the problem of atonement but not that of justification. See also Aquinas, Summa Theologica, sec. I-II, Q113, Art1. 

[3] Translator’s note: See the above note regarding the two Chinese translations of the phrase “justification by faith.”

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