In this series of posts on the Thirty-nine Articles, we now reach Articles 9-14, and the doctrine of justification. This is part of a broader discussion about salvation, which is the theme of Articles 9-18. The recurring emphasis of Articles 9-14 is our great need of this salvation.
9. Of Original or Birth-sin
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, ‘Phronema Sarkos’, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
Every human being is born into a human race which has collectively turned away from God, and we therefore deserve God’s wrath from birth (Eph 2:3). This is the ‘original sin’ described in Article 9. But this isn’t a design flaw: God made humanity good (Gen 1:31), with ‘original righteousness’, but the first human beings fell into sin, taking the whole human race with them. Adam, legitimately representing all of us, elected to leave that place of union with God, and sought to take control of his own destiny. But in reality his actions brought about a hard border between humanity and God, who had been the source of our righteousness. (See Article 50 for more.) Even though ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1, NIV), this struggle with sin continues even after conversion. Christians are told to ‘Put to death … lust, evil desires’ and the like, because of which ‘the wrath of God is coming’ (Col 3:5-6, NIV), and Christians are not to think that they have no sin (1 Jn 1:8). We are free from the penalty of sin, but we are not yet free from the power or the presence of sin.
If we believe that the good news of salvation extends to everyone without exception, then it must be the case that everyone without exception stands in need of salvation. And for that reason (among others) we need to retain a doctrine of original sin.
10. Of Free-Will
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing [i.e., preceding] us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.
We might be tempted to think that we just need to tell ourselves, loud and clear, ‘Pull yourself together! Try harder! Stop sinning!’ But Article 10 reminds us that our situation is much worse than that. It’s not a matter of looking deep inside for that spark of love for God, because deep down we do not love God. The problem is with our will. We don’t desire God. We don’t even want to desire God. The solution must come from outside. God must act first, giving us the gift of his Son, and only then is it possible for our will to be set free. In John Barclay’s language, Article 10 speaks of the priority of God’s grace: God’s gift to us comes first, prior to anything we might give to God.
11. 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.
12. Of Good Works
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
Articles 11 and 12 need to be read together. The issue here is not whether good works are necessary for salvation, but whether we are saved because of our good works. A healthy tree will necessarily bear fruit, but the fruit does not make the tree healthy. It works the other way round. In John Barclay’s language, Article 11 speaks of the incongruity of God’s grace: God gives his gift to us even though we do not deserve it. But then, once we have received God’s grace, our lives necessarily begin to bear fruit in the form of good works.
Gerald Bray explains why the doctrine of justification by faith alone is such good news: ‘Without it, we would be in a state of constant anxiety, forever trying to please God but never quite certain that we have succeeded. To be justified by faith alone is to be set free from that anxiety and have the confidence that we have fellowship with God even though we have not deserved it’ (Bray, 74).
Article 11 mentions one of the Homilies, but we will wait until Article 35 before discussing them.
13. Of Works before Justification
Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
Really? When a non-Christian seemingly does something good, they are actually sinning against God? The point is that God looks at a person’s life as a whole. If my whole life is directed against God, then even if something I do, when considered in isolation, might be described as a good deed, it does not look so good in the context of my life as a whole. As with Articles 9, 10, 11 and 12, Article 13 asserts that whoever we are, and whatever we have done, we all stand before God equally deserving of his condemnation, and equally in need of his grace.
14. Of Works of Supererogation
Voluntary Works besides, over, and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants [Luke 17:10].
Article 14 may seem a bit obscure to us. It seems that, in the merit theology of the middle ages, people thought they could do more than God required them to do, and could therefore get the upper hand on God, as it were, gaining ‘credits to set off against other misdemeanours elsewhere, even those committed by other people’ (Bray, 82).
Bray concludes his comments on Article 14 with words that could easily summarise Articles 9-14 as a whole: ‘God loves us and saves us in spite of ourselves, a truth which is at the very heart of the Gospel and is the foundation of our assurance of salvation’ (Bray, 83).