Article XI: Of the justification of man

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XI: Of the justification of man
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.

Martin Luther had a charming image to describe justification. He said we humans are like piles of dung covered by snow. We look good from the outside, but inside we’re just dung. Human nature, wrecked by original sin, is dung. We are justified, and that’s the snow which makes us look and seem OK.

It’s commonplace to say that context is everything. For me, this image of snow and dung is hardly inspiring. Perhaps it was very effective in 16th century Germany. We can just be glad that Thomas Cranmer didn’t include this imagery in the Great Litany or something.

Luther was reacting against the excesses of works-righteousness theology, with its emphasis on church rituals to secure salvation. Like most other aspects of our theology, when things get out of balance, the Gospel is distorted. Too much emphasis on our works (that is, our attempt to earn our salvation) results in a futile life, in which we can never be good enough. Too much emphasis on grace or justification, and our actions no longer matter. Too much emphasis on works, and the church becomes a cruel gatekeeper. Too much emphasis on justification, and the church becomes irrelevant. This tension has always been present in Christ’s followers. If you don’t believe me, go read James and Romans and get back to me.

Indeed, this conversation can degenerate into an how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin sort of chatter. Jesus certainly never gave long theological discourses! However, it is important for the church to be clear on what must be a nuanced position. Our salvation is God’s gift to us — a completely unearned gift. And in response, we will want to do good works. They are the fruits of our faith, not the foundation of it. (See next Article for more on this.)

The main point of the Anglican doctrine of justification is that we don’t have to engage in a Sisyphean task to earn our salvation, our freedom. That is accomplished for us through God’s grace. To be sure, the church has a place in this task, as people are grafted into the Body of Christ in baptism. We are then “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Do you find the notion of justification by faith alone comforting or disturbing? Why?
  • Do we deserve to be saved? Why or why not?
  • Read Romans 4 and James 2. Which one do you find more compelling? Can their views be reconciled?
  • Reading Romans 4 and James 2 (and the Elizabethan Homily on Salvation as a bonus), where does the church fit into all this? Where do you fit into all this?

Remember, O Lord, what you have wrought in us and not what we deserve; and, as you have called us to your service, make us worthy of our calling; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Image courtesy of flickr user Question69.

Previous: Article X: Of free will
Next: Article XII: Of good works

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1 Response

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    Those that say they have faith….

    The reconciliation of Romans and James comes from the word “say.” Works will proceed from faith, when faith is there. You won’t have to say anything about it.

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