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Reformation and Justification

You could smell the sweat, the discomfort in the classroom. Pastors-in-training, some of them in the employ of my own church, sat in my classroom at a local Christian college. It was time for an exam. An oral exam. A bit of Socratic tough love for an easy A. 

“Sam, tell me what justification means,” I said.

My student blushed and looked around vainly for help. “Um… being made righteous?” 

“Oh,” I said, “so after a person is justified, their lives are immediately righteous, and they start doing good things, right?” 

“Um… no?” 

“Tony, help Sam out,” I said, letting Sam off the hook.

“After you’re saved you’re supposed to do good works,” he said. 

“So, we teach salvation by works, is that what you mean?” I said. 

“No, no. Um, it’s like, well, like…”

These were Bible majors in a Christian college. Juniors and seniors. Most of this particular group had grown up in Christian homes, attending youth groups and church on a regular basis. 

Yet none of them could articulate what is arguably the single most important doctrine in the salvation-package, the doctrine of justification by faith — the very doctrine that revolutionized the life and impact of Martin Luther.

To be more specific, my students were unable to articulate the difference between being made righteous and being declared righteous, the very wedge that Luther would use to unintentionally split the church. 

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. ~Martin Luther

Justification is the main hinge on which salvation turns. ~John Calvin

Knowing the centrality of justification, I have made exploring this doctrine a huge part of most of my classes for aspiring ministers. It is a foundational doctrine. Just as cracks in a wall point to a shifting foundation, so chaos in the church points to a defective doctrine of justification. 


Imagine being the proud owner of a vintage car. A friend suggests spending some time tinkering under the hood. A few days later, you’re checking fluids together, setting the points, adjusting the timing, and tuning things up. Your friend points to the carburetor and says, “Let’s yank that thing out.”

You immediately object. “The car can’t run without a carburetor! Besides, that thing is bolted to the engine, and it connects with pretty much every other system under the hood. Friends don’t let friends mess with carburetors!”

Friends don’t let friends mess with the doctrine of justification by faith either. 

The doctrine of justification by faith is bolted tightly to the engine of Scripture. It interconnects with the doctrine of God, the doctrine of human nature, the doctrine of Christ, of salvation, of the church, and even of eschatology. 

When they made justification by faith the paramount doctrine of the Reformation, Luther and Calvin identified the one doctrine that makes all the other doctrines go.  

Unless we are crystal clear on this doctrine, we will muddy the waters of salvation, defame the character of God, fracture the stability of the church, and create a doctrinal vacuum that will suck in all sorts of error and chaos. 

Catholics and Protestants Together

What do evangelical heavyweights of yesteryear, such as Charles Colson, Pat Robertson, J.I. Packer, and Bill Bright have in common with Catholic theologians including Peter Kreeft and Cardinal John O’Connor of New York?

They are all signatories of a 1994 ecumenical screed called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”1 — which was then praised by the evangelical mother ship, Christianity Today.2

Criticisms flew fast and furious from R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur,  John Ankerberg, and a host of others. I believe rightly so. 

I am Italian. Not only do I eat well, but I also have many Catholic family members and friends. I love them dearly. Many are saved, which is wonderful. I often say, “If you are going to be Baptist, be a saved Baptist. If you are going to be Catholic, be a saved Catholic. If you are going to be [insert Christian denomination here]” — you get the idea.

Even so, the Catholic Church has never rescinded its official denunciation, affirmed at the Council of Trent, of Luther’s teaching. Here are some notable examples of that feisty declaration of A.D. 1563. As you read, for the word anathema, substitute the word damned, and you’ll catch the flavor. 

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

Translation: you’re saved by works, not by faith alone, and if you disagree, to hell with you. 

If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

Translation: you better be a really good person, and grace alone can’t save you, and, by the way, stop arguing with this, or double damn you! 

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

Translation: Okay, yes to faith, but yes to works too, or just go to hell already. 

This is official Catholic doctrine. It is the opposite of evangelical doctrine, and intentionally so. That is why the Council of Trent met in the first place. 

While there are many points of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals, some points of disagreement are, by any rational standard, insurmountable. This is why the 1994 document produced immediate controversy. 

In fairness to the writers, they did enumerate significant differences that remained between Catholics and Evangelicals. They even state, “We reject any appearance of harmony that is purchased at the price of truth.”3 

But they proceed to sacrifice truth on the altar of harmony. They go so far as suggesting it is better for us to get along and cooperate in “the enormous challenge of our common evangelistic task” than to argue with each other’s positions, or try to “proselytize” from each other’s camps. 

But wait. How can we have “a common evangelistic task” if we are preaching different gospels? If the way of salvation is at stake, isn’t it worth fighting for? If the source of all truth is at stake, shouldn’t we fight for that too? I don’t care what church you’re in, if you’re not saved, my job is to proselytize  you. No apologies. 

Why do I bring this up?

I bring this up because the same impulse toward harmony and love that propelled this document to front page news a quarter century ago still troubles the church today. The same truths remain points of contention — however, the front has shifted. It is no longer simply a Catholic/Evangelical divide. Now, it is an Evangelical/Evangelical divide too.    

Whether in Luther’s day, or in the era of Catholics and Evangelicals Together, or in our post-emergent, post-modern moment,  the truths under contention are still the same. Those truths are the authority of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) and the doctrine of Justification by Faith (Sola Fide). 

Apparently, the devil has two demonic SWAT teams — one to disrupt discussions of epistemology, and the other to confuse  discussions about the way of salvation.. 

If we don’t get these two doctrines right, we won’t get anything right, and we’ll end up doing a lot of unbiblical stuff to make God nice to us, such as, say, buying indulgences, making salvation a journey with no beginning, praying to Mary instead of to God himself, and sliding down the slippery slope to universalism and the great evangelical disaster of a Crossless gospel. 

So, what is justification by faith?

What is Justification by Faith?

Justification is first and foremost an act of God. God does something by his wisdom, power, justice, and love. We are the beneficiaries. What does God do?

God declares a believing sinner to be righteous. That’s what he does. It is the most counterintuitive thing in the world. God finds a smelly, ragged, guilty sinner, who only believes, and declares before the Supreme Court of the Cosmos that said sinner is officially righteous and perfect in the eyes of God. 

This makes the devil spitting mad. It also makes legalists spitting mad, for similar reasons. 

The key word is “declaration.” 

1 You can read the entire text here: retrieved April 3, 2019.

2 Timothy George, “Catholics and Evangelicals in the Trenches,” Christianity Today 38/6 (May 16, 1994) 16.

3 Paragraph 4

To read the rest of Chaos, please pick up the book!

[Please click here to be notified when the book is released.]

You might have caught some changes in file names, podcasts episode names and titles, because I have basically changed the numbering system to make the whole structure of the book more clear, it’s a work in progress. I’m also changing chapter titles…

With this episode Bill continues giving away most of this book, as he shares it with you on the podcast. The message is urgent. The message is timely. If it strikes a chord with you, please share it with your friends. I appreciate your prayers.

There has never been a more important moment in the life of the modern church. It is time for us to return to our roots and seek God as never before.

Here’s the Table of Contents (subject to change)


Preface: Fire on the Horizon
Intro: As Goes the Church

Part One: Disturbing Trends in Today’s Church
1. The Giants Have Perished
2. Cheap Epistemology
3. The Song that Never Ends
4. For the Love of All That’s Holy
5. Whatever Happened to Hell?
6. Modern Day Pharisees
7. Kingdom Mania
8. The Discipleship Captivity of the Church
9. The Whole Bible for the Whole Church
10. The Leadership Captivity of the Church
11. How the Church Murdered Grace

Part Two: The Revival We Need
12. Reformation and Scripture
13. Reformation and Justification by Faith
14. Some Theology Concerning Revival
15. Some History Concerning Revival
16. Proclaim Christ

Afterword: What’s an Evangelical?

If you enjoy it please subscribe and share it with your friends. Thanks.

Please click here to be notified when the book is released.


1 Michael J. Kruger, “Why We Can’t Unhitch from the Old Testament” from the Gospel Coalition, retrieved June 19, 2020 from

2 Stanley, Andy. Irresistible (p. 103). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

3 Ironside was the popular pastor of Chicago’s historic Moody Church. You can find his booklet in the public domain here:

4 Stanley, Andy. Irresistible (p. 97). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

5 From a personal conversation reported at and relieved, June 28, 2020.

6 In the Gospel Coalition podcast for December 18, 2018 retrieved June 19, 2020 from

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