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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

This justification is called an act


by Faith is therefore rather

the description of a religious experience within the believer; and the meaning of the experience is simply this. The believer, who because he has faith--the faith which is the gift of God, which is our life and which regenerates--is regenerate and a member of the Christian fellowship, and is able to do good works and actually does them, does not find his standing as a person justified in the sight of God, his righteousness, his assurance of pardon and salvation, in those good works which he really can do, but only in the mediatorial and perfectly righteous work of Christ which he has learned to appropriate in faith. His good works, however really good, are necessarily imperfect, and in this experience which we call Justification by Faith the believer compares his own imperfect good works with the perfect work of Christ, and recognises that his pardon and salvation depends on that alone. This comparison quiets souls anxious about their salvation, and soothes pious consciences; and the sense of forgiveness which comes in this way is always experienced as a revelation of wonderful love. This justification is called an act, and is contrasted with a work; but the contrast, though true, is apt to mislead through human analogies which will intrude. It is an act, but an act of God; and divine acts are never done and done with, they are always continuous. Luther rings the changes upon this. He warns us against thinking that the act of forgiveness is all done in a single moment. The priestly
absolution was the work of a moment, and had to be done over and over again; but the divine pronouncement of pardon is continuous simply because it is God who makes it. He says:

"For just as the sun shines and enlightens none the less brightly when I close my eyes, so this throne of grace, this forgiveness of sins, is always there, even though I fall. Just as I see the sun again when I open my eyes, so I have forgiveness and the sense of it once more when I look up and return to Christ. We are not to measure forgiveness as narrowly as fools dream."(401)

In the Protestant polemic with Roman Catholic doctrine, the conception of Justification by Faith is contrasted with that of Justification by Works; but the contrast is somewhat misleading. For the word justification is used in different meanings in the two phrases. The direct counterpart in Roman Catholic usage to the Reformation thought of Justification by Faith is the absolution pronounced by a priest; and here as always the Reformer appeals from man to God. The two conceptions belong to separate spheres of thought.

"The justification of which the mediaeval Christian had experience was the descending of an outward stream of forces upon him from the supersensible world, through the Incarnation, in the channels of ecclesiastical institutions, priestly consecration, sacraments, confession, and good works; it was something which came from his connection with a supersensible organisation which surrounded him. The justification by faith which Luther experienced within his soul was the personal experience of the believer standing in the continuous line of the Christian fellowship, who receives the assurance of the grace of God in his exercise of a personal faith,--an experience which comes from appropriating the work of Christ which he is able to do by that faith which is the gift of God."(402)


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