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Article 11 — Of the Justification of Man

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Posted by Ash Carter, 11 Mar 2017

Ash Carter unpacks the teaching of the 39 Articles on the crucial doctrine of justification by faith alone.

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

All of the Protestant churches, at the point where they split from Rome, produced doctrinal standards to explain why they were no longer part of a unified Western church. The 39 Articles arose out of a desire to explain both the commitments of the Church of England, and the errors of Rome. After ten Articles on the nature of God, Scripture, and the predicament of man, Article 11 takes us to the heart of Reformation doctrine. The same priority is seen in the homilies, where the Homily on Justification comes third.

For Cranmer, and the Anglican Reformers this is a critical doctrine. Indeed, the homily states plainly, ‘this is the strong Rock and foundation of Christian Religion’, so much so that ‘whosoever denieth, is not to be accounted for a Christian man’. This is a primary doctrine; to deny it is to not be a Christian at all. Yet the article is at pains to stress that it is a doctrine very full of comfort.

The Church of Rome taught (e.g. Council of Trent, Session 6 Chapter 5) that the grace of God, earned by Jesus, is infused into the soul of the believer. The believer then co-operates with God in living a holy life and thus, on the final day, the believer will be justified by God on the basis of the good works achieved in co-operation with grace. Rome taught, in other words, that the basis of justification is the life of the believer, which will be good enough if grace has been received and the believer has worked hard enough. This doctrine is offensive to the gospel, for Paul says that all works have to be excluded from justification ‘so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:9). It robs Christ of the glory which is his. As the article says, “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not of our own works or deservings” (emphasis mine).

Article 11 directs us to the Homily on Justification, where Cranmer makes clear in the first place that every man is guilty of sin before God, so that ‘every man of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness’. God is perfect, and he demands perfect obedience from us. Since we cannot obey God, we are rightly under condemnation. Justification brings us into the courtroom of God, and we are guilty as charged. But what we are incapable of doing, Christ did for us.

First, he came ‘to fulfil the Law for us’. When we put our faith in Christ, we are brought into such a relationship with Christ that Martin Luther calls it a marriage. Christ’s righteous life becomes ours, and our sin becomes his. We do not, therefore, come to stand before God, offering our imperfect lives to him and trusting that this will be good enough. Instead, we stand before God with the perfect life of Christ credited to our account, so that God can justly say that we are righteous in his sight.

Secondly, Christ then, ‘by the shedding of his most precious blood’ made ‘a sacrifice and satisfaction’. The guilt of sin needed to receive the punishment of death. Christ, standing in our place, took the full anger of God at all our sin and paid the full penalty for sin. Cranmer therefore affirms Paul’s statement ‘No man is justified by works of the Law’ for it is “only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

This doctrine preserves the honour of Christ as the only Saviour, but it also magnifies God’s justice. If God accepted our incomplete obedience it would demonstrate that his standards are less than perfect, and so would undo the very nature of God. But the work of Christ proves that God is both perfectly righteous, and full of mercy, as Romans 3:26 teaches. God is able today to declare righteous those who will stand before his judgement seat clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

What, then, must the Christian do? Cranmer is very careful at this point. On the one hand, it affirms that a truly justified person will not then be idle; rather, we will ‘render ourselves unto God wholly with all our will, hearts, might and power, and serve him in all good deeds, obeying his commandments during our lives’. Yet, on the other hand, he will not allow us to think that our good works play any part in our justification: ‘we must renounce the merit of all our said virtues’. Our deeds may indeed be good, but they are never good enough. Justification ‘is not a thing which we render unto him, but which we receive of him’. Even faith is not a good work, but only the means by which we claim the promises of Christ.

How, then, us this doctrine “very full of comfort”? It is in this: that the believer can have total assurance of salvation before God. The Roman Catholic, whose judgement is in the future, and whose case rests on their good deeds, can never have assurance of salvation. Have I done enough good? What if I do something bad tomorrow that tips the scales against me? The committed Catholic will be full of anxiety, as indeed Luther was before his conversion.

But we know that justification is not by works, but purely by the merits of Christ. We do not look to our own deeds, but the perfect and completed work of Christ, imputed to our account. Our position is so certain that the future judgement has been declared now — and in declaring it so, God has made it so: ‘You are my children’; we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17-21). Yes, we will continue to sin. But we confront our sinfulness, bring it to the cross, repent and walk away free men and women, justified by faith in Christ alone.

Ash Carter is curate of Westminster at One and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester on the ecclesiology of Richard Baxter. There’s another reflection on Article 11 from our Formulary Friday blog, here.

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