Justification and Evangelical Christianity: A Historical Concern -- By: Philip H. Eveson

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 06:4 (Fall 1997)
Article: Justification and Evangelical Christianity: A Historical Concern
Author: Philip H. Eveson

Justification and Evangelical Christianity: A Historical Concern

Philip H. Eveson

At a time when people are questioning the evangelical Protestant teaching and emphasis on the doctrine of justification, it is important that we appreciate what the Reformers and their successors believed concerning this doctrine and why they considered it to be so crucial. Evangelical Christians have stressed justification by faith alone because they have regarded it as of the very essence of the gospel and essential to the life and witness of the church and the individual. Where justification has been revised, its significance has been diminished and its cutting edge has been blunted.

The Roman Catholic Church has always played down the importance of the subject and that is to be expected. It will not allow any such biblical teaching to stand over against it to judge and challenge its traditions, errors and false practices. What is disturbing is to find evangelical leaders and scholars indicating, by what they say or do, that justification is not the major concern that evangelicals of the past believed it to be.1

The revelation that God justifies the ungodly, not by their good works but solely through reliance on Jesus Christ, came as an immense relief to Martin Luther. Later in life, as he looked back on the great discovery he had made in Paul’s writings, he could testify. “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”2

Luther had grown up with the idea that to be right with God it was necessary to carry out the requirements of the church, participating in its rites and ceremonies and engaging in acts of mercy and other good works. It was expected that every baby born in “Christian” Europe would be automatically baptized into the church and eventually be confirmed and begin to receive “the divine food of the

eucharist.” Through these means people were told that they were saved from everlasting torment in hell. If they committed one of the deadly sins, known as “mortal sins,” they were then back on the road to damnation. A second way of escape, however, was open to such people. They could be saved again by the sacrament of penance. This involved displaying a contrite spirit, confessing the deadly sin to a priest and receiving forgiveness from him. The priest would also tell the penitent what he must do to make amends for his sin. The penitent would be instructed to offer more prayers, do more works of mercy, etc.

In addition, there were everyday, or “venial,” sins that Chris...

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