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Doctrine of Justification: Its Use and Definition according to Gerhard

This post is adapted from the latest edition in Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces series, On Justification through Faith.

Ultimately the true and salutary use of free justification is seen in serious trials and pangs of conscience. Outside of [times of] testing, the persuasion of one’s own righteousness reigns in men’s hearts. This must be set against the curse of the Law, the savageness of sin, and the severity of God’s judgment. After the fall of our first parents, it is inbred in us that we seek a remedy for sin and merit for reconciliation within our own selves, just as the servant (in Matt. 18:26) took upon himself to pay everything. But this is a vain persuasion which the true and spiritual use of God’s Law destroys and extinguishes.

How the Doctrine of Justification Is to Be Used

Consequently, all the things which have been said up to this point about the free justification through and because of Christ must be assigned to the following:

(1) To the lovely recognition and confession of God’s righteousness and mercy. For a wonderful measure of divine righteousness and mercy shines in our justification because God accepts the obedience and satisfaction of Christ in our place and because of this absolves us of our sins. “Our righteousnesses are like the rags of a menstruating woman. But You, O Lord, are our Father” (Isa. 64:6, 8). “To You, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us confusion of face. We do not present our supplications before You on the grounds of our righteousness but on the grounds of Your great mercy” (Dan. 9:7, 18).

(2) To the sure comfort of the conscience, because nothing at all can encourage and comfort the soul weighed down by the burden of sin and terrified by the sense of God’s wrath except the free promise of the Gospel about the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake: “God set forth Christ as the propitiation through faith in His blood” (Rom. 3:25). “Therefore with confidence let us approach the throne of His grace that we may receive mercy and find grace for timely help” (Heb. 4:16).

(3) To the giving of evidence of true faith and a happy heart through good works. Because Christ as Mediator gave a satisfaction of such great value for our sins, it is surely right for us to hate sins seriously. Because we are made partakers of so great a benefit through Christ, and this out of the free mercy of God, therefore it is right for us to present ourselves as pleasing through the true and serious pursuit of holiness. Because true and saving faith is effective through love, it surely will be necessary for us to demonstrate our faith through good works. “Where sin abounds, grace has abounded still more” (Rom. 5:20). “What shall we say? Shall we remain in sin that grace may abound? By no means. For how shall we who have died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1–2). “Neither the immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers” (etc.) “will obtain the kingdom of heaven. These you have been, but you have been washed, you have been sanctified, but you have been justified,” etc. (1 Cor. 6:9, 11). This is as if he is saying, “Because you have been justified, you must no longer indulge your sins.” “Christ gave Himself up for us to redeem us from every iniquity and to cleanse for Himself a people acceptable and who pursue good works with a certain zeal” (Titus 2:14).

The Definition of Justification

From the above we establish the following definition of justification. Justification is the act of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by which He forgives the sins of the sinner who truly believes in Christ, apart from any works or merits of his own, out of pure grace and mercy for the sake of the obedience and satisfaction of Christ the Mediator and Redeemer; imputes the righteousness of Christ to him; receives him to eternal life—and all this for the glory of His name and the salvation of man. To this one true God, our most kind Father, who chose us in Christ, His Son, before He laid the foundations of the world; who in the fullness of time sent His Son, born of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law; who out of His pure grace and mercy called, justified, and glorified us through and because of this only Mediator of ours: to Him be praise, honor, and glory to the eternity of the never-ending ages. Amen.

Blog post is adapted from Theological Commonplaces: On Justification through Faith, pages 460–61. English translation © 2018 Concordia Publishing House.

Johann Gerhard (1582–1637) was a great Lutheran theologian in the tradition of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Martin Chemnitz (1522–86) and the most influential of the seventeenth-century dogmaticians. His monumental Loci Theologici (twenty-three large volumes) is still considered by many to be a definitive statement of Lutheran orthodoxy. Gerhard was born in Quedlinburg, Germany. At the age of fifteen, he was stricken with a life-threatening illness. This experience, along with guidance from his pastor, Johann Arndt, marked a turning point in his life. He devoted the rest of his life to theology. He became a professor at the University of Jena and served many years as the superintendent of Heldburg. Gerhard was a man of deep evangelical piety and love for Jesus. He wrote numerous books on exegesis, theology, devotional literature, history, and polemics. His sermons continue to be widely published and read.


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