The Justification System – by Faith or Works?


If I were to ask you “What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Martin Luther,” what would you say?

Most Protestants would probably say “justification by faith” or something along those lines. Over the past 500 years since the Reformation, Luther’s name has become almost synonymous with justification through faith alone. The story  of his incessant internal struggle to find peace with the all-righteous God during his years in the monastery, and his subsequent break-through experience of “the just shall live by faith” has become legendary. 

But what exactly was it about the Catholic system that drove him to such despair? To understand what was going on in Luther’s soul,  we must examine one essential aspect of medieval Catholic doctrine: how justification with God is obtained.

Medieval Catholic Salvation

Within the Catholic salvation system, there is a certain cooperation on an individual’s part with the grace God has given him.  The church did not believe in “justification by works” per se, but neither did it believe in justification by faith alone. Luther was later to say not that the church believed in justification by works, but that this system amounted to justification by works. “Get in by grace, stay in by works” may be a good way to understand this process.

Surprisingly, at the time of the Reformation, the church had not yet  made an official proclamation as to the exact method of obtaining  salvation and forgiveness of sins. There was, however, a generally-accepted belief regarding this process.  Let’s examine the following chart step by step. (Brace yourself, it’s pretty complex!)

Adapted from a chart in historian Dr. Reeves’ YouTube lecture “Late Medieval Background.”

(Please keep in mind that the system I am describing concerns medieval Catholicism and I’m unsure how much of this is still in effect today.) But the process goes like this:

 A baby is born and within seven days he or she is baptized. At baptism, the infant is “regenerated,” that is to say, original sin is removed. The holy spirit then comes in and the child is infused with grace.  At that moment he or she enters into the purest state possible in this life, the state of grace.

The goal of the Christian life from this point on is to “work out” that baptism. It’s the cooperation with God that I mentioned earlier. God infused you with grace, now you need to exercise it.

Throughout the Christian journey, you obviously sin at times. Sin pulls you out of the state of grace; it dirties that pure white state you received at baptism, and therefore must be confessed. Confession is a major part of the system, but you can’t simply confess to God or to your neighbor whom you’ve wronged; you have to confess to a priest. 

Contrition, Confession, Absolution, and Penance

In order to be restored to the state of grace, there is a step by step process which must be followed. The first step is to feel contrition; you must be sorry for your sin. Then you confess to a priest and he absolves you, as they call it.  He pronounces that you are forgiven. But according to church teaching at that time, the punishment for sin falls into two categories: eternal and temporal. Absolution only remits you of eternal punishment in hell. (Why? I don’t know.) You are still required to “make satisfaction” for temporal punishment or the penalty of sin.

So the priest will assign you certain penances, anything from praying a certain number of  “Our Father’s” or “Hail Mary’s” to giving alms to going on pilgrimages and the list goes on. These good works are supposed to make satisfaction for the penalty of sin as well as strengthen you against the next temptation.

Indulgences and Purgatory

The Christian life basicly revolves around this circle of “sin, confession, penance and return to the state of grace” until the end of the journey. You then go to purgatory for one final purging of the soul – a time to work out the last of the penance you owe before  finally entering heaven.

The last major piece to the salvation puzzle is indulgences. They are very complex in themselves and frequently misunderstood, so we’ll cover them in more detail later. But the original purpose of an indulgence was to reduce one’s time in purgatory.

For example, say the penance assigned to you for a particular sin was praying 100,000 “Our Father’s.” (I’m exaggerating!) Since you’re never going to be able to pray that much before you die, you’ll have to make up for all those unsaid prayers in the fires of purgatory. To rescue people from hundreds of extra years in flames, the church invented a further means of (so called) grace in the form of indulgences. By buying an indulgence, you essentially pay the church (i.e. priests and monks) to do penance for you. Priests and monks have the responsibility of performing mass daily as well as saying prayers at 7 specific time periods each day. So it’s kind of an exchange deal where you fund them in their prayers and other good works, and they perform penance on your behalf.

Whew, we made it through! I know this was a lot of information, so if you only take one thing away from this post, let it be this: people were taught that God required something of them in order to receive full forgiveness. As we move from here into Luther’s formative years in the monastery, it’s this concept of  him needing to “make satisfaction with God” that will play the biggest role in shaping his Reformation breakthrough.


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