Home > Brandenburg, Mix 'n Match > The History of the Doctrine of Justification

The History of the Doctrine of Justification

July 21, 2008

When I googled the “reformation doctrine of justification,” I got 1450 sites. “Reformational doctrine of justification, ” 45 sites. “Reformed doctrine of justification,” 4040. “Reformers doctrine of justification, 106. Many reformed claim justification as a doctrine originated by the reformers out of their study of Scripture.

Not many histories of the doctrine of justification have been written. A few have been penned by reformed theologians. When you read the table of contents of the very few volumes, you will get the history of the doctrine in the Old Testament, next in the Apostolic Age, then in times of the patristics, and finally you jump to the reformation. They read as though there was an actual total apostasy of the doctrine of justification. The reformed writers say that you can see justification implicitly in the early and late church fathers, but not until the reformation do you see the doctrine developed. Is that true?

A Gap in the History of Justification

If that is true, that is, that the New Testament doctrine of justification stopped with the patristics and wasn’t revived again until the reformation, then many would have a good argument for a total apostasy. The doctrine of justification, after all, is the gospel. We are justified by faith and have peace with God. That’s salvation. Certain reformed evangelicals, like the former head (2006-2007) of the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society), Francis Beckwith, who recently “returned” to Roman Catholicism from evangelicalism, use the lack of history as a basis for pushing eject from evangelicalism. The Vatican named Beckwith their person of the year for 2007. Part of his argument for returning was the lack of continuity historically between the church fathers and his faith. He believed Catholicism was historically consistent. If we really can’t find justification between the fourth century (and then only implied) and the 16th century, a 1200 year gap, that is quite a leap of historical inconsistency.

A large percentage of fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals make the gospel, that is, the doctrine of justification by faith, their only separating doctrine. They separate based upon the gospel, which to them is the essential doctrine of Christianity. All other doctrinal matters are tertiary. So here they have the essential, the thing they separate over, and it was non-existent for 1200 years. Talk about separation, 1200 years of separation! Yet, they say that this is the doctrine that they unify over.

Bridging the Gap

How do Protestants bridge this chasm? Ad Fontes. Ad fontes? Yes, ad fontes. If all else fails, quote some Latin. The Reformers said “go back ‘to the sources,'” the ad fontes. Forget about history and forget about tradition; just look at Scripture. To a large degree, I’m with them on that. Erasmus put out the Greek New Testament. The Reformed (Owen, Turretin, the Westminster Divines) published some big-time defenses of the preservation of Scripture. Perfect preservation was a reformation doctrine. Other Latin. Sole Scriptura. And Sole Fide. Scripture Alone and Faith Alone. They didn’t need a history. Their standard was the original sources, the Scriptures themselves, preserved perfectly, and from that they got their justification-by-faith-alone doctrine.

Of course, now the Protestants and the Conservative Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists aren’t as sure on the sources. They say “back to the doctrines!” They say that none of us can be sure on the exact words. That would require too much fide. So they don’t believe the doctrine of perfect preservation. They ignored the evidence of that part of their history when textual criticism came along. It’s sort of like saying that George Washington didn’t exist, but they’re still willing to let go of preservation. They still have the reformation doctrine of justification that can be found among the teachings of Scripture and that’s the big one.

So is this all true? Aside from the New Testament, did the doctrine of justification by faith appear first during the reformation? Do all of us receive our doctrine of justification from the Protestant Reformation, after years of dormancy or apostasy? A big problem for the Protestants of whatever denomination is that they don’t have a history. And if you are a Catholic, you have a history, a very embarrassing one. I don’t say either of those to attack any Protestants or Roman Catholics. I say them as statements of fact. They don’t have a history, but Baptists do. I recognize that the English separatists don’t believe this. They still cling to the reformation for their history. But we Baptists do have historic evidence for the doctrine of justification.

The Pre-Reformation History of the Doctrine of Justification

I especially refer to two early separatist, New Testament groups, the descendants of the apostles, who never joined the Roman church: the Waldenses and the Albigenses. Evidence exists of both of these two groups believing in the doctrine of justification by faith.

Ancient Waldensian literature abounds with evidence that the Waldenses had a sound doctrine of soteriology or salvation, insisting on justification by faith alone, hundreds of years before Luther. For instance, the author of the 12th-Century treatise “On the Purgatory Dream” makes these statements [Samuel Morland, The History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piemont, Gallatin, Tennessee: Church History Research and Archives, 1982, 162-163]:

But St. Peter shows, Acts 15, that the hearts are purged by faith, and that faith is sufficient to cleanse evil, without any other outward means. . . . Where the apostle shows, that Christ so loved His Church, that He would not cleanse it by any other washing, but by His own blood.

J.H. Merle D’Aubigne (History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1987, p. 30) writes:

From their mountain heights the Waldenses protested during a long series of ages against the superstitions of Rome. They contend for the lively hope which they have in God through Christ – for the regeneration and interior revival by faith, hope and charity – for the merits of Jesus Christ, and the all-sufficiency of His grace and righteousness.

V. Raymond Edman (The Light in Dark Ages, Wheaton, Illinois, Van Kampen Press, 1949, p. 301) writes:

As to their doctrinal views there is little dispute: they held to . . . justification by faith, and a life of good works together with stout denial of the value of priestly absolution or intercession of saints and angels, or the existence of purgatory, or the authority of the Roman Church.

E.H. Broadbent (The Pilgrim Church, Southampton, England, Camelot Press, 1985, p. 130) writes:

In Strassburg in 1212 the Dominicans had already arrested 500 persons who belonged to churches of the Waldenses. . . . Their leader and elder, named John, declared as he was about to die, “We are all sinners, but it is not our faith that makes us so, nor are we guilty of the blasphemy of which we are accused without reason; but we expect the forgiveness of our sins, and that without the help of men, and not through the merit of our own works. . . .” They did not admit the claim of the great professing Church to open or close the way of salvation, nor did they believe that salvation was through any sacraments or by anything but faith in Christ, which showed itself in the activities of love.

Antoine Monastier (A History of the Vaudois Church, New York, Lane and Scott, 1849, p. 52) relates this account of how the Waldenses, under the name of Ultramontanes or dwellers beyond the mountains, were condemned by a Catholic monk:

Gilles relates that a barbe of his name having gone into a church at Florence, heard a monk who was preaching exclaim “O Florence! What does Florence mean? The flower of Italy. And so thou was until these Ultramontanes persuaded thee that man is justified by faith and not by works; and herein they lie.”

Tremendous and highly reputable research was finished by the historian Pierre (Peter) Allix, who wrote two significant volumes on the histories of these peoples: Some Remarks on the Ecclesiastical History of the Ancient Churches of Piedmont (Originally published in 1690 and 1692. Revised in 1821. Oxford.). He writes in his preface:

Their faith was in most things the same with that which our Reformers taught in opposition to the Church of Rome; and after all the endeavors that have been used to blacken them by the most horrid calumnies, as well as to destroy them by the cruelest inquisitions and crusades, the innocency of their lives, and the exemplariness of their deaths, makes them to be justly gloried in as the true authors of the Reformation.

On page 95 of his comments on the Waldenses, Allix writes:

When Bishop Gerard, of Arras and Cambray, charged the Waldenses with abhorring (Catholic) baptism, they said baptism added nothing to our justification, and a strange will, a strange faith, and a strange confession, do not seem to belong to, or be of any advantage to a little child, who neither wills, nor runs, who knows nothing of faith, and is altogether ignorant of his own good and salvation, in whom there can be no desire of regeneration, and from whom no confession of faith can be expected.

Also from the research of Allix among many concerning their held doctrine of justification by faith are these statements:

First, They say it is clear, that when God pardons sin, he doth it not with any respect to the merit of any man, but of mere grace; whence it follows evidently, that the remission of sins cannot be attributed to a man’s confessing of them; for if it were so, we must own that the remission is no longer of free-gift, but that it is a recompense given by God to the merit of him that confesseth.

Secondly, They say, if it be confession that procures a man the pardon of his sins, what will become of that passage in the third chapter of the Epistle to Titus, where it is expressly declared, that God hath saved us of his mercy, and not according to the works of righteousness that we have done? Or how shall we explain that in the ninth of the Romans, that it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy We know, that the first grace that God works in us is the remission of sins: now if this grace be absolutely the effect of the mercy of God, it cannot be the effect of confession, which by consequence is not necessary to salvation.

In addition to all this, we have actual confessions of faith from the Waldenses, dating back to 1120, which among many other things, instruct in justification by faith:

That Christ is our life, and truth, and peace, and righteousness – our shepherd and advocate, our sacrifice and priest, who died for the salvation of all who should believe, and rose again for their justification.


The doctrine of justification by faith is not a reformation doctrine. It is a Scriptural one for sure, but it is the doctrine of those who remained separate from Roman Catholicism centuries before the reformation. The Protestants were surely martin and johnny-come-lately in the matter. The heritage of faith is found in the historic Christians who are the ancestors of the modern, separatist Baptists, at least the Waldenses and Alibigenses. They were part of the line of truth that fulfilled Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His church. Only some would depart from the faith; not everyone. Some didn’t apostatize with the false church and with them lies our history and our legacy of justification by faith.

  1. July 21, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Amen! A true blessing and a needed reminder.

  2. July 22, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Great article. Thank you for that research. The idea that the gospel was lost for over a 1,000 years is ludicrous. Just like the idea that only an apostate church existed for the same amount of time.

    Good stuff.

  3. J Warren
    July 22, 2008 at 7:03 am

    I enjoyed this post. Thanks Pastor Brandenburg,

    John Warren

  4. July 22, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Thanks. Travis I thought you summed it up nicely with the lost gospel and the lost church beliefs. That’s the reformed view.

    So this article says that justification is not a reformed doctrine. It also exposes reformed history. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, don’t have a pre-19th century history. Sikhs don’t have a pre-15th century history. Protestants don’t have a pre-16th century history, except for Roman Catholicism. The history of Protestantism is Roman Catholicism. They say this themselves. Does that reflect a Scriptural view?

    I call on all reformed and Protestants to come to the line of truth away from their line of error.

  5. July 22, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    I think your dates on the reformation are wrong. Wasn’t it 1830?

    Utah Mormons make great hay over the “total apostasy” theory. They’re actually shocked every time I debate that point with them. They think that all “Protestants” agree to a total apostasy. I think it makes it easier for a cult to establish themselves in soil fertilized with clean slate. That way there’s nothing to contend with and no explanations need be given.

  6. July 23, 2008 at 2:37 am

    >”The heritage of faith is found in the historic Christians who are the ancestors of the modern, separatist Baptists, at least the Waldenses and Alibigenses.”

    This sounds dangerously close to the now discedited “Trail of Blood” that Baptist historian McGoldrick and other Baptist scholars have corrected.

    Baptist historians have made clear that Waldenses and Alibigenses were spiritually dangerous heretics. The fact that a small group of heretics managed to get a few things correct for 100 years or so is insufficient proof for jumping the 1200 chasm of history. The doctrine of justification by faith alone (Sola Fide) remains a reformation doctrine.

    Now, if you’d like to argue that justification is by faith, but not by faith alone, then you’ll likely be able to span the historical chasm.

    God bless…


  7. July 23, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Hi Timothy! Thanks for commenting!

    I challenge you to read the article and notice the sources. It’s interesting that the trail-of-blood has become a pejorative. I believe these sources, I gave, are credible. They certainly aren’t a landmark group. On the other hand consider this review of McGoldrick by David Rice, who is at Rutgers University:

    McGoldrick’s arguments are less than satisfying. In his chapter on the Albigenses, he admits the bias of his Roman Catholic sources and then proceeds as though it is of no consequence. Reading Catholic accusations of Albigenses that label them “dualists” is like taking HUAC reports as evidence that Civil Rights groups were Communists. This is a terrible error of historiography. In the chapter on Anabaptists, he provides many samples of Anabaptist belief that are supposedly inconsistent with modern Baptist belief: the trinity of man, the primacy of the New Testament, the refusal to swear oaths, and the free will of man. His assertion that baptists do not hold these beliefs is inaccurate. The majority of baptists may not hold these beliefs(especially the Southern Baptist Convention), but significant numbers of them do. His reasoning would be like pointing out that since ancient Roman Catholics did not believe in Papal infallibility or the immaculate conception of Mary, the modern Catholic Church is not descended from them. Also in the chapter on Anabaptists, McGoldrick claims that the Anabaptists did not believe in the primacy of scripture, and then provides a quote in which an Anabaptist challenges a “scribe” to a debate saying he will recant if proven wrong by scripture. He ignores his own data when convenient. These sorts of errors occur throughout the book. McGoldrick makes Carroll’s error all over again by eagerly interpreting facts to fit his bias.

    McGoldrick was a “former” Landmark Baptist, who turned Protestant and universal church. He had an axe to grind. If you too are Protestant and universal church, you too will enjoy a guy that supports your view of a total apostasy of the doctrine of justification.

    I think you also need to deal with Matthew 16:18 and 1 Timothy 4:1 in a presuppositional apologetic.

  8. July 23, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Good stuff! A faith-filled view of history. God has always promised to keep a true remnant, and that the gates of Hell would not be able to conquer the true church; therefore there were always believers through history – even if it is hard to trace them hundreds or thousands of years later. Interesting to note that most church history books that have survived have been predominantly Catholic – even ones written today. That is why I appreciate all those BAPTIST historians from the 18th and 19th centuries that have written their BAPTIST histories of the churches (including showing where the Waldenses and such like once stood). A different breed than all those reconstructionists today!

    Matthew 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.


  9. Don Heinz
    July 23, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    The historical truth is that the Waldenses and Albigenses were far from a remnant many times in history before the reformation. I don’t have the quotes on hand (I am leaving tomorrow for a conference). But, time and time again we read from historians that were not sympathetic to the Anabaptist cause that the Anabaptists had filled Europe and beyond. That is far from what I would consider failure.

  10. July 23, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    One who wishes to read J. T. Christian’s reliable history of Baptists from the first century to the present can find it at:

    One will also find a work there on the Great Commission proving Baptist church succession from the only infallible history book, the Bible.

  11. ct
    July 27, 2008 at 6:48 am

    >The doctrine of justification by faith is not a reformation doctrine. It is a Scriptural one for sure, but it is the doctrine of those who remained separate from Roman Catholicism centuries before the reformation. The Protestants were surely martin and johnny-come-lately in the matter.

    My goodness. Read Calvin for starters. I don’t have my books with me currently. The Reformers knew there is nothing new under the sun.

    1. Certain doctrines come up for historical highlighting and debate for timely historical reasons. Justification by faith alone was the powerful doctrine that emerged during the Reformation. That doesn’t mean it was an unknown doctrine prior, any more than to say there were no orthodox Trinitarians before that doctrine was established by church council, etc.

    2. The Waldensians became what is known as Huguenots. Like all Christians who follow the Bible they were not dogmatic on issues of so-called sacraments (i.e. one can find evidence of credo and paedo among the Waldensians).

    3. Remains of Cathar and Waldensians influence in France (Cathar is a synonym with Puritan, both groups referred to themselves as ‘the godly’ – as did Calvin refer to himself and the other Protestants as the godly) influenced John Calvin and all the reformers. The Roman Catholic Beast church destroyed the histories of the bible-believing Christians they massacred and told and repeated endless lies about them. They did the same to the reformers. You’re correct to imply Cathars weren’t ‘gnostics’ and ‘manichaens’ and so on. They were bible-believing Christians that inflamed the wicked anger of the Beast church and its followers.

    4. You forget the Morningstar of the Reformation John Wyclyffe. And others of his time. No Protestant has ever stated the Reformation arose from nothing. I mean, grail literature had a role in cultivating the Reformation. Whatever could begin to break the stranglehold the Beast had over Christendom.

    5. The name ‘Protestant’ is a name given to the Bible-believing Christians who fought the Roman Beast. It is not different than the name Cathar or whatever. It also means one who confesses and witnesses to the Word of God. To say ‘Protestant’ as if the people who were called that just appeared suddenly in the 16th century is silly.

    6. I would be called a baptist, but I understand why Calvin and Zwingli (later in life) upheld infant baptism. Both can be quoted as saying the so-called sacrament are basically for the dumb who need a visual showing of the inward truth of regeneration by the Word and the Spirit. But the practical necessities of war demanded they fight the insanity of the anabaptists who were not the adults during that war for the Word of God.

    7. Trail of Blood is a reality. It is disparaged by Romanist-leaning establishment Christians (who fear man so much they cringe if they hear anything that wasn’t given to them directly some one of their seminary professors). But that trail of blood is what leads to Geneva, not Munster.

  12. ct
    July 27, 2008 at 7:12 am

    “While writing the Seneca Commentary [Calvin’s first book written prior to his conversion] Calvin lived in the house of a cloth merchant, Etienne de la Forge, a devout Waldensian from Piedmont. This man was an ardent reader of Luther and a fearless propagandist of Protestantism. He made a practice of distributing to the poor packages accompanied by tracts and passages of Scripture, and he kept open house for religious refugees from the Netherlands. Calvin must have observed these evidences of incautious zeal, for which de la Forge would later pay the penalty of death by fire. Who can say what influence Calvin’s host ultimately had upon his religious attitudes?”

    From the History and Character of Calvinism by John T. McNeill

  13. August 2, 2008 at 6:54 am


    You’re also aware that most everything that we’ve heard about the Albigenses, Waldensians, etc. comes from extremely biased, Catholic shources, right? Not credible.

  1. No trackbacks yet.
%d bloggers like this: