The Gospel Before the Reformation


When Martin Luther discovered the truth that God justifies the ungodly by faith alone apart from works, he said that he felt “altogether born again” and that he had finally entered the gates of paradise. The former monk had wrestled with his sin, God’s law, and the unsatisfying rituals of the medieval church for years, and, although he was scrupulous in his efforts to please God through confession and obedience, his conscience remained burdened with a sense of unforgiven sin.

A Spiritual Breakthrough
The breakthrough occurred as Luther pored over Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Here he found that God’s righteousness was not merely an attribute of God, but a gift that he bestows upon those who trust in Jesus Christ (Rom 1:16, 3:21-23). Most importantly, this gift is received by faith alone, without the addition of any work of obedience or ritual. At the moment of faith, while the sinner is still ungodly, God justifies him and imputes to his account the perfect righteousness of his Son (Rom 4:5). This declaration cannot change throughout the believer’s life. Justification is a fixed status that is based solely upon Jesus’ sinless life and atoning death. Faith-motivated obedience will inevitably flow out of the life of the justified sinner (Rom 6:1ff), but one’s works are not the basis of his or her right standing with God (Rom 4:6-8; 5:1).

The light that broke upon Luther’s soul beamed across Germany and into greater Europe, warming the hearts of countless people who had been blanketed with the frost of the church’s elaborate centuries-old sacramental system. Some who found freedom in Christ would labor like Luther to spread the gospel far and wide. John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli are the most well-known names, but many others, including Theodore Beza, John Knox, and Philipp Melanchthon, would take up pen and pulpit to declare the riches of God’s grace to a religiously burdened people.

Was Luther’s Doctrine an Innovation?
Since the Reformation, evangelicals have found in the doctrine of justification by faith alone a source of unremitting joy and spiritual stability. It is balm to a wounded conscience and bedrock to our assurance. We thank God for the clarity wrought by these men in the sixteenth century.

But not everyone agrees that Luther’s discovery accords with the teaching of the historic Christian church. Roman Catholic theologians then and now accuse Luther and the Reformers of theological innovation and doctrinal novelty. Wherever Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone originated, they say, it cannot be found in church history.

Are these Roman Catholic apologists correct? Were Luther and the Reformers guilty of misreading the Bible and crafting a 16th century heresy? Nathan Busenitz argues that such a suggestion cannot be sustained after an honest look into church history.

In his book, Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel from Christ to the Reformation, Busenitz, assistant professor of Theology at the Master’s Seminary, demonstrates that the church has always held—from the apostles to Luther—that salvation is by God’s grace through faith alone. While there are some theologians who said it better and others whose clarity was occasionally mingled with confusion, the gospel of grace can be found in the church from the first through the sixteenth century.

To make his case, Busenitz examines the writings of church theologians and apologists, beginning with Clement of Rome (died c. 100 AD) who wrote,

And so we, having being called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Making his way through church history, Busenitz samples key passages from the writings of Polycarp (c. 69-160), Irenaus of Lyons (c. 130-202), Origen (c. 182-254), Marius Victorinus (c. 290-364), Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379), Ambrose (337-397), Ambrioaster (c. fourth century), John Chrystostom (c. 347-407), Jerome (347-420), and Augustine (354-430), all of whom articulate a gospel of grace that is received by faith alone.

Augustine and Justification
Busenitz hovers over Augustine for several pages because Roman Catholic theologians claim that Augustine taught a view of justification that does not comport with the Reformed view. Specifically, it is argued that Augustine didn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification like the Reformers did. This distinction was paramount with the Reformers because they were convinced that in order for a sinner to actually make progress in sanctification, he first needed an unchangeable declaration of righteousness that was not dependent on his sanctification. Furthermore, Roman Catholic theologians claim that Augustine did not teach that a person received justification by faith alone, but through love.

Busenitz addresses each of these claims by examining Augustine’s writings themselves. What we find is that, while Augustine’s definition of justification at times lacked clarity due to his dependence on the Latin Vulgate, he nevertheless did maintain a distinction between justification and sanctification and defined justification in forensic terms. Augustine writes:

When someone believes in him who justifies the impious, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer, as David too declares that person blessed whom God has accepted and endowed with righteousness, independently of any righteous actions. What righteousness is this? The righteousness of faith, preceded by no good works, but with good works as its consequence.

Augustine also affirmed that we are justified by faith apart from works, but he was careful to assert that true justifying faith must manifest itself in love toward God and others. This emphasis on the necessity of love as a fruit of justifying faith is found in the Reformers, and, just like the Reformers, Augustine emphasized that our capacity to love God is ultimately a gift of God’s grace.

This emphasis on the necessity of love as a fruit of justifying faith is found in the Reformers, and, just like the Reformers, Augustine emphasized that our capacity to love God is ultimately a gift of God’s grace.

Busenitz continues his trek through church history by studying the writings of several post-Augustine theologians and pastors like Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444), Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-457), Marcus Eremita (Fifth Century), Fulgentius of Ruspe (c. 462-533), Ildefonsus of Toledo (c. 607-667), Bede (673-735), Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), and Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).

Busenitz spends a little extra time on Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) because he was one of Luther’s most-quoted medieval theologians. When we see how clearly Bernard articulates the biblical doctrine of justification by faith, we can understand why the German reformer appealed to him so often. Consider just these two excerpts:

Nobody will be justified in His sight by works of the law….Conscious of our deficiency, we shall cry to heaven and God will have mercy on us And on that day we shall know that God has saved us, not by the righteous works that we ourselves have done, but according to His mercy.

Grace freely justifies me and sets me free from slavery to sin.

The aim of Busenitz’s book to show that the Christian church has held to a gospel of free grace ever since its inception over 2000 years ago. In appealing to their theological fore-bearers, the reformers weren’t claiming that statements from past theologians are ultimately authoritative. In the end, the Reformers appealed to Scripture to argue for the truth of justification by faith. Nevertheless, it was also appropriate for them—and us—to appeal to church history for “secondary affirmation” (163). Busenitz’s work provides us with easy access to the most relevant texts from history so that we might see for ourselves that Christ preserved his gospel of grace throughout the ages, from the apostles, to Luther, and now to us.

Related Articles