Through Whom and How the Corruptions of
the Article of Justification Were Refuted


(From Loci Theologici [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1989], Vol. II, pp. 471-73.)

We have said that in the history of the church we must especially note that God in all periods has raised up witnesses who testified against these errors and led the church away from the pharisaic and philosophical swamps to the fountains of Israel, so that to the doctrine of this locus, based on prophetic and apostolic foundations, its purity has been restored uncorrupted, as it has been divinely revealed. In making this observation we should particularly consider on what occasions and how marvelously in an indirect way (so to speak) He once again kindled the genuine light of this doctrine, when it seemed almost completely extinguished. We shall call attention to only a few of the many examples which are extant.

The older writers judged that with severity of discipline in receiving the lapsed, people could be held to the work of pious devotion and be deterred from security and levity which lead to sin. So they would at times speak with greater harshness and rigor about repentance after falling and about the remission of sins, as we can read in the book of the Shepherd, cited above. Irenaeus, 4.45, cites the statement of a certain elder who had heard the apostles preach: “To those of former times the death of the Lord was the cure and remission of their sins, but in the case of those who sin now, Christ does not die for them any longer, but the Son will come as a judge. Therefore we ought to fear lest after knowing Christ we do something which is not pleasing to God, for we do not have the remission of sins again, but shall be excluded from His kingdom.” These statements of this elder are sufficiently hard and unyielding. But Clement in his Stromata, 2, says, “Repeated and continuous penances are of no value. Therefore it is evident that it is not repentance to seek forgiveness for those things wherein we sin often,” etc.

Thus some of them granted only one public and solemn repentance to anyone. And they tormented the souls of the penitent over a period of several years with their teachings regarding satisfactions before they were received back into the church. Hence the true doctrine of repentance, grace, faith, and the free remission of sins was greatly obscured, something the fathers failed to notice because of their overconcern with discipline.

Therefore the Montanists first, and later Novatian with his Cathari, began to deny entirely to those who lapsed after Baptism any repentance or remission of sins, even if they had true contrition and faith. There is extant a book by Tertullian regarding repentance where he simply cuts off all hope of forgiveness to those who lapsed and then returned to the faith. In a frightful and Montanistic spirit he wipes out the sweet consolations of Luke 15 regarding the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.

The Novatians called themselves the Cathari [the purified ones]. They imagined that they had no need for repentance because they were clean of sins. As to the rest of the people, who were contaminated by sins, even if in true acknowledgment and detestation of sin they fled in faith to the throne of grace, seeking forgiveness, the Novatians simply denied that there was any hope of grace and remission of sins for them. Afterwards (as Ambrose tells us) they softened their stand and said that God could, to be sure, remit sins to penitents of this kind, but that man must not determine this for himself on the basis of the Word of God with any degree of certainly, or announce it to another person; but when they had done everything required for true repentance, it must be referred to God whether He is willing to remit the sin, and thus the penitent believer must remain in a state of doubt.

When consciences were horribly disturbed by these controversies, which destroyed hope and brought shame upon Christ, the fathers, warned by these events, began to pay attention to that which they had not noticed when they were concerned only about discipline. They began more carefully to look into the teaching of Scripture regarding sin, repentance, grace, faith, and remission of sins and to study the unfortunate statements they and others had made which supplied the seeds for Novatianism. They retracted these statements and corrected them according to the norm of the Word of God. This can be noted in at least one of Cyprian’s writings. In this way, marvelously, at that time some light of the true doctrine concerning repentance, faith, and remission of sins was again restored, a doctrine which, by turning in the direction of overly severe discipline, would have altogether become extinct if through Novatian the fathers had not been aroused to consider the Law and the testimony.

Afterwards statements that were more oratorical and extravagant than pious and correct rang out in the churches concerning free will, minimizing original sin and extolling the efficacy of the Law and the perfection of the righteousness of works, even of works of supererogation, and the righteousness of faith lay there in obscurity. Then God, in order to open the sleepy eyes of the doctors of the church to look more diligently at the teaching of Paul, permitted the church to be so disrupted by Pelagianism that it appeared that the very foundations of the entire Christian religion were about to collapse. At this point Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine recognized what they had not noticed before, namely that while they themselves and the other ancient fathers had been so preoccupied with stirring up zeal for good works, they had made many statements which did not agree with the analogy of faith. Augustine retracted many such statements. Jerome in his Dialogus adv. Pelagianos condemned many statements which we can read not only in the writings of the ancients but also in the very books of Jerome himself. Thus in an indirect way God again restored some light to the doctrine of the free remission of sins and other articles which otherwise would have been completely lost in the progress of time.

Augustine states in regard to Psalm 101 that the pagans condemned the teaching of the church by saying, “You have destroyed discipline and perverted the morals of the human race by giving to men an opportunity for repentance and by promising immunity for all sins; and thus men do evil, secure in the fact that all things will be forgiven them when they have been converted.” Such objections some people tried to refute by changing the doctrine so that they restricted grace and in hyperbolic language extolled other teachings to the skies. But Augustine, after he learned his lesson from the Pelagian controversy, came to realize that the church was not being helped by this kind of thinking and that the truth was only being perverted and ultimately lost. For just as they should not do evil that good may come of it, so they should not teach falsely in order that the truth might be defended and retained.

Augustine is correct and truthful when he says in De Civitate Dei, 16.2, “Many points pertaining to the catholic faith have been stirred up by the cunning trouble making of heretics, so that we have had to defend these points against them, consider more carefully, define more clearly, and preach more powerfully. The question has been raised by the adversary, and the opportunity is present for better learning.” This point is certainly most true in church controversies.

It is also useful to observe that the ancient writers spoke with the greatest security (as Augustine says) – and most unfortunately – concerning this article when they were engaging in general rhetoric in sermons and homilies, or when they were carrying on a debate with heretical adversaries. But when they were forced to deal with those passages in which we find the sedes doctrinae of the matter, then the actual evidence of the divine revelation convinced them to explain this doctrine more correctly and properly, as we can see in the commentaries of Origen, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, and others.

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that sometimes even monks who had preached at great length on merits and the righteousness of works learned the correct understanding of the article of justification, not in their idle contemplations, their sharp disputations, or their rhetorical declamations, but in serious trials, when the conscience was pressed down by a true sense of sin and the wrath of God, as if it had been dragged before His tribunal. For there, as the conscience worriedly looks around and wonders how it can escape the judgment of damnation and stand in the sight of God, it learns to understand Paul’s statement in Rom. 3:28.

Thus Anselm and Bonaventura speak entirely differently regarding the article of justification in their disputations than they do in their meditations. There are some lovely statements in the meditations of Augustine and Anselm and in the Soliloquy of Bonaventura. Bernard [of Clairvaux] also speaks far more fittingly than the others about the article of justification, because he is not carrying on some idle debate but is presenting his conscience before the judgment of God as if it were to state its case, and from this come the most beautiful thoughts in Bernard’s writings. There is also in existence a little book which sometimes goes under the title of Contemplations of an Uneducated Man, and it is my opinion that this book was written, since the doctrine of justification had been changed in various ways, in order that uneducated people might know the best way of understanding the true meaning of this locus, if their consciences were troubled by an examination of the divine judgment. For there all other concerns, no matter how sharply and splendidly argued, immediately vanish away.

It is in recent memory, and ought to be noted for all posterity, by what events God in our own age brought the doctrine of justification out of densest darkness back into the brilliant light of His Word. For when Christ and His benefits had been quite buried, the impudent trafficking in Masses, indulgences, merits, and invocation of saints ruled in the church, together with sophistic and unending disputations regarding satisfactions. This memory won the minds of many good people over to Luther from the very beginning when, by presenting the torch of divine revelation, he uncovered these impostures and showed the true fountains of comfort.

“Chemnitz, the greatest theologian of the Sixteenth Century”
-- Theodore E. Schmauk

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