The Comprehensive Soteriology of 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 2 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. If you missed it, make sure to catch up with Part 1 from last week and come back to read Part 3 and Part 4 in the coming weeks.

Against the Reformers, the medieval Catholic church believed that “justification by faith alone” paid no regard to the good works of loving God and loving men and that it was a most intolerable heresy that greatly threatened the salvation of men. 

In response to this accusation, Luther clarified the doctrine in his 1519 sermon titled “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in which he divides “righteousness” into two categories. The first kind of righteousness is from Christ, an alien righteousness, the “righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith.” This righteousness is accomplished by Christ himself. It is outside of man and has nothing to do with him. Luther believed that “this righteousness… is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant… just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride’s and she all that is his – for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh.” In his 1520 letter titled “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther explains that it is faith which unites the soul with Christ, “as a bride is united with her bridegroom,” and “by the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s.” “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.” 

The main difference from medieval soteriology is that Luther does not believe in the infusion of grace into the soul of man, by which he is progressively made righteous before finally being justified. Luther believes that by faith, God unites the soul of man with Christ and instills the external righteousness of Christ directly into a man’s life so that he becomes righteous. But Luther does not believe that this alien righteousness of Christ is instilled into man all at once. Rather, it is progressive in nature, continuing throughout a man’s entire life. When this external righteousness begins to be instilled into the life of a believer, he is made righteous unto salvation, and as it continues to be instilled, it continually removes sin until perfection is attained. 

This first alien righteousness is basic and essential, and it necessarily produces the second type of righteousness in us – the righteousness that is proper to us and worked out in our lives. This second righteousness is what the church at the time declared as the “manner of life spent profitably in good works.” The second righteousness comprises three parts: “slaying the flesh and crucifying desires,” “love to one’s neighbor,” and “obedience and fear toward God.” Someone who understands a bit about medieval soteriology will immediately recognize that the second kind of righteousness that Luther speaks of is actually the same righteousness that the Catholic church was teaching at the time – the “charity” by which man is made righteous before God and for which he is repaid with eternal life and salvation. The difference is that Luther considered this internal righteousness that is worked out in the lives of believers as the fruit of that external righteousness that enters the lives of believers and originates in Christ. The first kind of righteousness is basic. It makes us righteous before God, giving us eternal life. This first kind of righteousness and the eternal life which are instilled into the life of the believer will inevitably produce the second type of righteousness. The first kind of righteousness, the alien righteousness, is given to us by divine initiative; the second kind of righteousness, the internal righteousness, is our response to God. The second, internal righteousness has Christ as its goal, so that the saints may live a life like that of Christ’s. 

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We can clearly see here that Luther did not actually entirely reject medieval soteriology but rather that he clarified, defined, and refined it. This is in accord with how all orthodox doctrines have typically developed throughout church history. It is a maturing of the soteriology of the universal church into its final form. Unfortunately, unlike what happened with the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, the development of this doctrine led to a hostile schism within the Western Church (even though the filioque controversy in the doctrine of Trinity led to a schism between the Eastern and Western Church, doctrine was not the main issue there).

The contribution of Luther lies in his proposing a model for the doctrine of soteriology that is more consistent with Scripture and that more fully explains it. This model can be summarized as follows: 1) Man’s righteousness before God is subdivided into the alien righteousness of Christ and the fruit of Christ’s righteousness – internal and proper righteousness; 2) man’s salvation and eternal life are established upon the righteousness of Christ, being a reward from God to Christ, who already accomplished this salvation apart from us; 3) this external righteousness of Christ does not require any good works or effort from man but is given to man solely through his trust in Christ, so that he is made righteous before God and immediately rewarded with eternal life. The greatest difference between this revised soteriology and that of the Middle Ages is that the righteousness which God requires of man becomes the righteousness which Christ accomplishes on behalf of man. It emphasizes faith in the righteousness which Christ accomplished, by which man is united to Christ and receives his righteousness. In this way, he is counted righteous by God and inherits eternal life.  

Luther knew well the impact this doctrinal revision had on the entirety of soteriology. [1] While emphasizing “justification by faith,” Luther strove to keep the whole edifice of soteriology complete, so that the whole of soteriology would not be reduced to merely “justification by faith” – the problem of “antinomianism” in Romans 6. When Luther emphasized “justification by faith,” he simultaneously stressed that a person who has received the righteousness of Christ and been justified will inevitably work out internal righteousness and that this life of continually growing in righteousness has as its goal the image and likeness of Christ until it attains perfection. On this point, Luther actually maintained continuity with medieval soteriology and did not allow soteriology to stop at salvation through justification by faith alone. He maintained that it continues until salvation is finally completed in the life of believers when they are made righteous from within. In this way, Luther observed the Bible’s comprehensive understanding of soteriology while preserving the entire framework of soteriology. For Reformers like Luther, justification by faith was immensely rich and must necessarily imply resurrection and sanctification. This is a much deeper understanding of this doctrine than that of many in our day, and it cannot but lead us into a righteous and sanctified life of loving God and man.  

Twenty years later in 1539, Calvin went one step beyond Luther’s “two kinds of righteousness” in his response to a letter from Cardinal Sadoleto (contemporaneous with Calvin’s second Latin edition of the Institutes) in which he clearly puts forward the doctrines of “justification” and “sanctification.” On the one hand, he refutes Sadoleto’s argument by clearly pointing out that Christ’s righteousness is man’s only hope: “By His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for us.” This is the objective salvation that God has accomplished in Christ. On the level of our subjective experience, according to the Bible, the righteousness of faith is when we embrace Christ through faith and enter into union and communion with him. What is more, Calvin uses the term “imputation” when emphasizing that salvation stems only from God’s goodness. By using the term “imputation,” Calvin introduces the legal concept of imputation, further clarifying the doctrine of justification.  

On the other hand, whereas Luther, in Two Kinds of Righteousness, cites 1 Cor. 1:30 to demonstrate the “external righteousness” of Christ (the first type of righteousness mentioned in this work), Calvin differs by using this verse to introduce the doctrine of sanctification. This illustrates that although the Reformers denied that good works play any part in justification, at the same time they claimed that good works are absolutely required in the lives of the righteous, thereby preserving the comprehensive nature of salvation: 

“Therefore, if you would duly understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the Apostle teaches (1 Cor. 1:30) has been given to us for justification and for sanctification. Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life. On the contrary, where zeal for integrity and holiness is not in vigor, there neither is the Spirit of Christ nor Christ Himself; and where Christ is not, there is no righteousness, nay, there is no faith; for faith cannot apprehend Christ for righteousness without the Spirit of sanctification.”

Calvin was more thorough in maintaining the fullness of soteriology. Not only did Calvin emphasize the inseparability of justification and sanctification, looking at their effects on man and pointing out that justification (the first and most basic kind of righteousness Luther mentions) necessarily leads to sanctification (the second, internal kind of righteousness), he also subsequently based the fullness of both on the fullness of the personhood of Christ and the Holy Spirit by using 1 Cor. 1:30. He taught clearly and simply that all of the benefits of Christ’s finished work of salvation, including justification and sanctification, come through union with Christ to those favored by God. As Bavink explains, this kind of soteriological method that is based on God rather than man established a firm foundation for soteriology and more thoroughly safeguarded the fullness of the doctrine. 

In Book III of his Institutes, Calvin attempted to construct a complete and sound doctrine of salvation that is rooted in God and which makes both justification and sanctification indispensable. This laid a solid foundation for the establishment and development of Reformed soteriology. [2] Unfortunately, even though Luther, in both “Two Kinds of Righteousness” and “The Freedom of a Christian,” clearly stated that the life-giving reality of “union with Christ” is at the core of salvation, later Lutheran theology, by emphasizing man’s part in justification by “faith,” placed faith at the center, making it an active principle in salvation and the decisive factor within the whole economy of salvation. With this soteriological framework that makes man the dominant factor in salvation, Lutheranism eventually brought forth a kind of deterministic faith and concluded that men may lose their salvation because of their lack of faith.


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] This revision of this doctrine drastically impacted medieval ecclesiology and ecclesial practices, but this is outside the scope of this paper. 

[2] Calvin’s attempt at constructing this complete, God-centered soteriology not only included justification and sanctification but also a systematic explanation about how justification does not exclude good works but perfects them. See Institutes of the Christian Religion, sec. III, 16 (This explanation appears in the first edition of 1536). Eventually, the saints shall rise from the dead and become perfected. See Institutes of the Christian Religion, sec. III, 25 (This appears in the fifth Latin edition of 1559). Calvin also talks about the rewards God gives man throughout the process of sanctification according to his grace and promises. SeeInstitutes of the Christian Religion, sec. III, 18 (This appears in the second Latin edition of 1539). Moreover, Calvin is also structurally different from Luther in that he stresses that “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity (divine initiative), to be grasped and possessed by us in faith.” See Institutes of the Christian Religion, sec. III, 11-1. He considers man as playing a subordinate, passive role in receiving this grace by faith, thus rooting soteriology in God. Lastly, Calvin also orients the goal of soteriology toward God, teaching that everything including justification and good works have God’s glory as their aim. SeeInstitutes of the Christian Religion, sec. III, 13-1; 16-3.

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