This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 11 states:
XI. Of the Justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
This Article gives us the heart of the classic reformation teaching of justification by faith. Very nearly quoting Romans 3:28-30, Article 11 simply sets before us the reality that we are not “accounted righteous before God” because of “our own works or deserving,” but because of “the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Merit is an important term, especially among teachers of the faith during the time of the Reformation. Many had supposed that one could accrue divine merit through good works (especially fasting, almsgiving, and prayer), and that this merit contributed to one’s justification. In short, if you do good works, you become a good person.
But such an idea is mistaken. In Article 9, On Original Sin, we saw that “The doctrine of original sin teaches us that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.” Similarly, here, we find that we are not justified because we do good works, but rather, we do good works because we are justified. As St. Paul put it, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:8-10). In short, we are justified by God’s grace on account of our faith, by the merit of Christ, not of our own merit. Good works is what we are justified and saved for, not by. The next few Articles go on to address human works in various instances. Be it sufficient, at this point, to say that no quality or quantity of human efforts can bring about justification from our sins.
This, Article 11 adds, is a doctrine “very full of comfort.” Knowing that it is Christ’s merit that saves us, and not our own, liberates us from the endless rigmarole of trying to be better people, trying to make sure our good outweighs our evils, trying to earn our way into heaven. Although it is humiliating to realize that our works can never merit our salvation, it is ultimately comforting that, despite ourselves, Christ has lifted us out of the mire of sin and death, and set our feet upon the solid ground of his Gospel of life eternal.
Finally, it should be noted that this Article makes reference to “the Homily of Justification.” This is from “The Book of Homilies,” a collection of sermons published during the English Reformation. For a period of time, preachers were running rampant proclaiming their partisan positions in the pulpit, and so these sermons were written and ordered to be read in the churches to the exclusion of all others. Thus, this book was, in its day, an official teaching document for the Church in England. The full text of the Homily of Justification (also called the Sermon on the Salvation of Mankind) can be found online: