As the Thirty-nine Articles turn from the examination of our guilt, Article 11 comforts those humbled by Articles 9 and 10. These speak of the "fault and corruption of the nature of every man, wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God." Here is the good news of God’s grace: justification is not by works, but purely by the merits of Christ. It is also here that we have the first example of the relational character of the Anglican confession in our historical formularies where the article directs the Christian believer to the First and Second Book of Homilies (See also Article 35).
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.
The doctrine of justification by faith alone lay at the heart of the Reformation and was promulgated as early as 1536 in the Ten Articles (Article 5) that preceded Cranmer’s 1553 Forty-Two Articles. 1553 was much shorter, more of a note pointing to the Homily of Justification (its proper title is A Sermon of the Salvation of Mankind by Christ Our Saviour, From Sin and Death Everlasting) to discover what the reformed Church of England understood on by justification by faith alone. It is clear that Archbishop Parker again drew from the reformed Württemberg Confession in writing a fuller definition here.
For Cranmer and the Anglican divines that followed him, this is a first order doctrine. The explanatory Homily of Justification says that “this is the strong Rock and foundation of the Christian Religion… whosoever denieth, is not to be accounted for a Christian man” (Bray, Homilies 26). Any teaching that contradicts this article is heretical. A Christian must believe it. Notice also how the article says clearly that it is a doctrine, “very full of comfort.” The next time we will read this description is in article 17, Of Predestination and Election. The language is deliberate, as both underline the necessity of God’s grace alone for such truths to be possible for a lawless and rebellious humanity.
The Roman Catholic Council of Trent confused justification and sanctification. Rome taught that the grace of God, earned by Jesus, is infused into the soul of the believer at baptism. The believer then cooperates with God in living a holy life and thus, on the final day, the believer will be justified by God on the basis of the good works achieved in cooperation with grace: “[adults] may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace” (Session 6 Chapter 5). In contemporary Catholicism, justification is the forgiveness of sins, but also includes, “the sanctification and renewal of the inner man” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, rev. ed.; 2012 [paragraph 1989]). For the Roman Catholic, justification is a process that entails the ongoing appropriation of God’s righteousness by which one is continually justified: As the Catholic Catechism says, “Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life” (paragraph 2027). The glory of justification is human merit. It is the fact that God graciously provides his Spirit so that sinners can live lives that please God and establish merit, in other words, to enable them to live lives that are meritorious.
But the article says the opposite: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not of our own works or deservings." The ground of our justification is the external, forensic work of Christ alone. How opposed is the Anglican doctrine of justification from the Roman Catholic, and how opposed to the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Galatians, Romans, and in many other places in the Bible. We are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ, based upon what he has done for us not what we do. Not by the works of the Law but by the hearing of faith. Our position is so certain that the future judgment has been declared now—and in declaring it so, God has made it so. We are his children; we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17-21). This is what the article means when it says that its doctrine is "very full of comfort." The believer can have total assurance of salvation before God.
It is the pondering of depths of God’s gift of justification by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we produce the fruits of a saving faith. As Cranmer writes at the conclusion of his homily on justification:
And the said benefits of God deeply considered, do move us for his sake also to be ever ready to give ourselves to our neighbours, and as much as lieth in us, to study with all our endeavor, to do good to every man. These be the fruits of true faith, to do good as much as lieth in us to every man; and above all things and in all things to advance the glory of God, of whom only we have our sanctification, justification, salvation, and redemption. To whom be ever glory, praise, and honor, world without end. Amen. (Bray, 30).
Anglicans offer the true and full gospel that is the whole Christ. The sinner is not only not guilty, but we are perfectly righteous in Christ. He is also working in you to make you holy; he is sanctifying you that you will more and more die to sin and live to righteousness.
For previous articles in this series, see:
One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)