Lutherans get all worked up when you mention the “chief article”. It had better be justification or else you’re in danger of hell-fire. And if you grew up in the Lutheran church, or have listened to three or more Lutheran sermons – especially at synodical or governing body gatherings – then you’ve probably hear the phrase, attributed to Luther: “Justification is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls.” Interestingly, we don’t actually have Luther saying this quote anywhere quite like this. What he have him saying is:
Quia isto articulo stante stat Ecclesia, ruente ruit Ecclesia – or – Because if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses” (WA 40/3.352.3)
Apparently, the phrase, “The article of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls,” was a proverb attributed to Luther by one, Balthazar Meinser. (See here for the research upon which I stand or fall.) Of course, the two phrases are very similar and can easily be seen as the same, and I wouldn’t really argue otherwise. So why point it out? Because as often as this phrase is thrown around by Lutherans, especially when they’re defending the Lutheran church against other altars, using it as a kind of a priori bedrock of being orthodox, it can become stale and even meaningless. It is good to remember that the article of justification does not stand alone, but is part of the corpus of doctrine, an article, albeit a chief article, among many.
The Smalcald Articles; specifically Part II, Article I: The Chief Article, reads thus:
The first and chief article:
- That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.
- And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6.
- Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace,through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f
- Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.
- Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.
The point is to say that there is no way other than by the works and merits of Jesus by which we are justified. It rightly proclaims and teaches that the faith of the Church is that we are justified only by the work and merit of Jesus Christ who alone is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. For His sake only are we made righteous. It echos the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession. This is the faith of the Church. Any teaching that puts anyone else’s works or merits up as a reason or part of the reason or even a help in our salvation and justification is contrary to this chief article that Christ alone justifies.
It is easy to see why the proverb that “justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls” so easily makes it’s way into sermons and blogs and all things Lutheran. But in truth, this chief article quoted above, which is the faith of the Church, can’t be distilled to that oft-quoted (or perhaps misquoted) phrase. It can’t be distilled to such because part and parcel of this article is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It echos article IV of the Augustana, but only after first echoing article III: Of the Son of God. In order to be justified one must first have the justifier.
In fact, justification (by grace alone through faith alone) is only significant if one first encounters Jesus. Jesus must come first. So the St. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “There, that man, He is the justifier.” Oh! There is a justifier! What needs justifying? You do! Now the sinner can thank God that the justifer justifies, and that without any effort or merit on the part of the sinner. In other words, by grace alone. But Jesus comes first.
This probably doesn’t rock anybody’s world. As I said, it’s all sort of self evident. To have justification one must have Jesus, and when one encounters Jesus, one encounters justification. But that’s just it: one must encounter Jesus. As often as we Lutheran types poo-poo the charismatics for their talk of encountering Jesus, or the mystics of all denominations and altars of talking about encountering Jesus, it’s not actually untrue. One must encounter the Son of God for forensic justification to matter.
It is the way that one encounters the Son of God that may be untrue. One does not encounter the Son of God by his or her own preparations, as if we can bring ourselves into His presence or raise ourselves up to His throne room. No, quite the opposite; the sermon the incarnation preaches loudest is that He must come to us and make His home with us. He must come and unlock and open heaven’s doors to us. The trouble with the mystics is not that they want and seek to encounter Jesus, but that they suppose and teach that such encountering happens in ways not given in the apostolic teachings. The only way we encounter Jesus is for Him to present Himself to us.
He does this through and by His Church by the proclamation of the Gospel (AC V). The Gospel is the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead. This is chief proclamation of the Church, proclaimed by all (“for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes in the future,” 1 Corinthians 11:26). First proclaimed by the faithful women of the tomb and then spread abroad by the apostles and held fast by the Church catholic. Jesus is risen from the dead! We encounter the risen Christ through this proclamation. But we have not thereby entered into fellowship with Him. For that to happen the Spirit must open our ears so that we believe (trust) that not only is Jesus risen from the dead – a forensic fact – but that His resurrection means something for us. It means that we, too, will be raised from the dead. And if we are raised from the dead, then there is something more than this life that ends in death. That something more is to be with the One who is risen, and reigns over life and death, heaven and hell, and all things in between.
This faith (trust), isn’t an academic faith that faith alone justifies or that justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. This faith – trust in the promises of God in Christ via His work and merit – is our participation, as St. Peter writes, of the divine nature. Not to become divine ourselves but to participate in the divine nature, namely to escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:3-4). This is really nothing other than what St. Paul writes when he teaches us that when we partake of the table of the Lord we are participating in the body and blood of Jesus – participating in Christ – who is risen from the dead and incorruptible.
We are led then, from outside where the proclamation that Jesus is risen from the dead – a proclamation all creation proclaims, eagerly awaiting the reveling of the sons of God (Romans 8:19) – to the inside of the Body of Christ wherein we are united to Christ through the mysteries that unite us to Him. The mysteries (the sacraments), which include and find their source in the proclamation of the gospel, are how we encounter the living Christ. In these encounters, believing on Him whom the Father sent, that He is the Son of God who has redeemed mankind from sin, death, and the power of the devil by His work and merit, we are justified. But apart from Him we die. Apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Him we are unknown. Apart from Him we are damned.
That is why sacramental participation is so vital. That is why the mysteries can never be separated from justification. That is why to say that what we really need is Jesus without also meaning that what we really need are the sacraments is to divide the Christ from His work and to put asunder what God has joined together. That is why to say that Sunday morning preaching is more important or better than the sacraments is to put a stumbling block before those that would believe. In truth, the sacraments are the sermon and the Divine Homily is in, with, and under them.
It would not be too bold to say that there is no justification apart from the sacraments because their is no justification apart from Christ. And to have Christ is to have His sacraments. And there is no Christ apart from His sacraments (1 Corinthians 4:1), which means that forms matter. Not every form must be uniform, but every form must conform to the Christ who encounters us when and where He has said He will encounter us. What of faith? Faith is not absent in any of this, but is the trust that God does not lie based on the truth that Jesus is risen from the dead.
One objection remains: does this mean that unless I participate in the sacraments I cannot be saved? Like many such ultimatums, this is a false dichotomy that serves only to sever. The answer is both yes and no. If the faith one has is that participation alone justifies; that would make the ritual the justifier (the Latin ex opere operato). But the ritual is not the justifier, but Christ. But if the faith one has is that the sacraments are Christ, as the Scriptures teach, then He is the justifier. This is why it is important that we make the distinction in our teaching that participation in the sacraments is an act of true faith in Christ, and not of faith in our participation.