Suppose we respond to the gospel call. Perhaps God is Arminian and, with the help of prevenient grace, we mustered some faith from within. Or perhaps God is a Calvinist and it was all by grace. We can, at the moment, sidestep this question we love to ponder. Instead we ask, simply, what now?
For the Arminian and the Calvinist the answer is the same. It may sound impertinent, but the next step is for God to fulfill his part of the agreement. For if we turn to Christ in faith the promise is that our sins will be forgiven.
Justification is the process by which this occurs. And it is done in response to our faith.
Justification allows us to stand without the stain of sin before a holy God. We present ourselves righteous before God. Consider that for a moment: Through justification we are made righteous before God.
But not really—that is we cannot really stand before God without the stain of sin. We are still sinners. This is quite the puzzle—the conundrum which we must unravel in this study—that we are made acceptable before God while at the same time we are sinners. Luther understood this oh-so-clearly, and described it as Simul iustus et peccator - "At the same time righteous and a sinner".
What caused the Reformation? Luther (and the Reformers) believed that scripture taught simul iustus et peccator. The Roman Catholic Church, as we will see, considered this heresy. According to Roman Catholicism you cannot be righteous and a sinner—they are mutually exclusive.
We are not going to argue the case yet. We will just introduce some thinking on the matter. First of all. let's look the scriptural attribution as to the sole source of the justification—God. In Romans Paul writes:
And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
He justified. We do not justify ourselves, God justifies us. Rome and the Reformers agreed on this point. But that is about all they agreed on.
Rome, we will see, believes, reasonably at first blush, that for a person to be righteous before God, that person must be, in fact, righteous. Truly righteous. Stands to reason. But Rome also believes in Original Sin and man’s fallen nature. And therein lies the problem. Even supposing a man could achieve actual righteousness before God—it would not last long. Rome understands this—the Catholic Church recognizes that a righteous man is in a state of highly unstable equilibrium, like a ball resting on a small peak. The slightest perturbation—a single wayward thought, and the condition of righteousness is lost, and the ball of righteousness rolls down the hill into oblivion. The sinner must then actively seek to restore himself through the complex system of penance provided by the Church.
The Reformers taught a very different view—a forensic view of justification. In this view, man does not “really” become righteous. He is declared righteous by God. It is a legal declaration. God says: I will treat you as righteous because my son was righteous, and I will impute his righteousness to you. I know that you still sin—but I am going to regard you as if you had no sin. Simul iustus et peccator. And it is once-for-all for a believer.
Rome accused the Reformers of creating a legal fiction that impugned God’s character. The Reformers accused Rome of ignoring the plain teaching of scripture and taking for herself the role of justifier. Each side declared the other guilty of the unthinkable crime of teaching a false gospel—and the Reformation was off and running.
It was not about indulgences for pardon from temporal punishment of sin.
It was not about Marian doctrine.
It was about how we can present ourselves before a holy God.