In 1523, a bitter Cambridge don wrote in the margin of John Fisher’s Assertionis Lutheran Confutatio these words: “Luther wantonly attacks, and raves against, the Pontiff… He accuses a whole council of madness; it is he who is insane!.. oh, the arrogance of a most wicked man!” Yet thirty-three years later, this man went through the martyr’s flames for his Protestant faith, embracing Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. The man was Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556). He would be instrumental in bringing the Reformation to England and making justification by faith alone the official teaching of the newly founded Church of England, which incidentally, took place on January 15, 1535.

What was Cranmer’s understanding of the formula, “Justification by Faith Alone”? Why did he consider justification to be a “most certain and wholesome doctrine for Christian men”? And what bearing may his doctrine have on our lives in the twenty-first century?

For Cranmer, justification was a forensic standing with God, whereby the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believing sinner’s account. Repeatedly in his Homily of Salvation, Cranmer makes reference to Christ’s merits alone—his obedience to the Law and His death on the cross for us—being imputed to us: “God sent… our savior Jesus Christ into this world to fulfil the law for us, and by shedding his most precious blood to make a sacrifice and satisfaction… to assuage his wrath…” “The most precious body and blood of his own dear and best beloved Son Jesu Christ; who besides his ransom, fulfilled the law for us perfectly.” Elsewhere he wrote, “So that Christ is now the righteousness of all them that truly do believe in him. He for them paid their ransom by his death. He for them fulfilled the law in his life. So that now in him and by him every true Christian man may be called a fulfiller of the law.”

This justification came by faith alone. For Cranmer, true and justifying faith is, “a firm trust in the mercy of God promised for Christ’s sake, whereby we maintain… and conclude with certainty that he is merciful and propitious even to us.” Faith is “to have a sure trust and confidence in God’s merciful promises to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ; whereof doth follow a loving heart to obey his commandments.”

In his Homily of Salvation, he gave eloquent expression to the personification of faith which safeguarded one from regarding faith as a work: “It is not I (faith) that take away your sins, but it is Christ only; and to him only I send you for that purpose, forsaking therein all your good virtues, words, thoughts, and works, and putting your trust in Christ.” Such faith looks entirely away from any work within a person—even our faith!— and looks only to the Savior for forgiveness of sins and salvation. Here, faith is full assurance of pardon, for it is based not on oneself, but rather on Christ’s objective work.

Such faith is faith alone. Even our Spirit-produced fruit is not to be trusted. Rather, faith rests entirely in Christ’s work for us.

Such faith is faith alone. Even our Spirit-produced fruit is not to be trusted. Rather, faith rests entirely in Christ’s work for us: “But this saying, that we be justified by faith only, freely, and without works, as being unable to deserve our justification at God’s hands; and thereby most plainly to express the weakness of man and the goodness of God,… the imperfectness of our own works and the most abundant grace of our Saviour Christ; and thereby wholly for to ascribe the merit and deserving of our justification unto Christ only and his most precious bloodshedding.”

Though Cranmer asserted that faith is a “lively thing” that produces non-self conscious fruit, Cranmer’s doctrine of justification was firmly and solely tethered to Christ’s keeping of the Law for us and His substitutionary atonement, “his most precious bloodshedding”—a fact that we are in danger of losing in our day. Hence, justification is a life-giving doctrine, based on the objective work of Christ outside of us, freeing our consciences to live a life of joy and love as we stand in the unchanging grace of God.

Though he was a faltering jar of clay, Thomas Cranmer was a vessel of honor who carried the doctrine of justification to England. The need of our present day is to revisit the doctrine of justification, for we live in a time when even Reformation churches are compromising or denying Christ’s substitutionary atonement. It is easy to forget or to capitulate to the enemies of God the wonderful Gospel that our Reformation fathers handed down to us through suffering and martyrdom. For the health of Christ’s Church and for the comfort and assurance of our own souls, we must return to the doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness and to the foundation Luther and Cranmer laid for the Church.

We must return to the doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness and to the foundation Luther and Cranmer laid for the Church.

Christ’s righteousness freely imputed to our account and our sin imputed to Him on the cross is our assurance before the majesty of God and our only and sufficient source of hope and joy. Such humble, yet bold, assurance will cause the Church to once again stand firm for the glory of God. Where else in heaven or on earth can be found a sweeter truth that is “A Moste Certeine, and Holesome Doctrine for Christian Menne”?

This post adapted from the author’s article, “Factitive or Forensic? Thomas Cranmer and the Doctrine of Justification,” published in Churchman Journal and used with permission.