Justification by Faith: A Present Reality or Future Declaration?

By David Mappes

On Oct. 31, 1517, a young, pious Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses points to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther wrestled with how a perfect, holy, sinless God could ever accept a sinful, unrighteous person into His righteous presence. Luther and the Reformers came to understand that God Himself paid the full price of sin through His Son, Jesus, and that God’s gracious forgiveness was available through faith alone. At the point of faith as a sinner identifies with Christ, God declares that sinner to have the righteousness of Christ credited to that person’s account, removing all guilt so that the Christian is not judged for sins.

During this time, much of the Roman Catholic Church had embraced the medieval teaching of Thomas Aquinas. He believed that justification entailed a cooperative process of moral transformation. As a person cooperates with God, grace is infused so the person eventually attains an intrinsic, inherent, ethical righteousness leading to complete justification. The Church envisioned justification as a process of spiritual renewal (sanctification) made available by infused grace through the sacraments so that the person is made righteous. Since few would ever attain sufficient righteousness through moral transformation to enter into God’s presence, upon death, the person would be ushered into purgatory, where further grace would be infused with the eventual outcome of attaining complete righteousness and being welcomed into God’s holy presence.