The Doctrine of Justification by Faith

One of the most distinguishing features of western Christianity is its insistence that the basis of salvation is not any form of human privilege, merit, or achievement, but the gra- ciousness of God. The idea is found throughout the New Testament, particularly in the letters of Paul. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works” (Ephesians 2:8–9).

As we noted earlier, the implications of these ideas were explored and clarified during the Pelagian controversy (1.5.6), in which Augustine of Hippo argued that such actions and behavior were the result, not the cause, of being accepted by God. Divine acceptance was an act of grace, which resulted in the moral and spiritual transformation of the sinner. God’s grace was essential at every stage in the Christian life. Humanity was fallen, damaged and wounded by sin, and needed healing and restoration – something they could not achieve themselves.


In many ways, the Reformation can be seen as a replay of some of the leading themes of the Pelagian controversy. Protestantism sided with Augustine in this dispute, regarding him as a generally trustworthy interpreter of the Bible, and defender of divine grace. These issues lay at the heart of the reforming program of Martin Luther at Wittenberg (3.3.2). Throughout the late 1510s, Luther and his colleagues sought to renew Augustine’s reform- ing agenda in the face of what they believed to be a fresh outbreak of Pelagianism within the contemporary church. Although historians have noted that this represents an unac- ceptable generalization, involving an unjustified extrapolation from a local situation to the entire church, there is little doubt that Luther and his colleagues had some valid grounds for concern.

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