I was asked by a reader of this blog to address the issue of justification. More specifically, I was asked to address the relation between Lutheran and Reformed views of the doctrine. Are they agreed upon this issue?
There certainly are great similarities between the two confessions on the topic. Both understand justification as a forensic term referring to the imputation of righteousness to the believer, and a non-imputation of sin due to one's connection with the death of Christ. It is received by faith alone apart from good works.
This is not the end of the discussion-there are some serious differences.
For one, the Lutheran Confessions do not limit justification to its forensic aspects. Luther states, for example, in the Smalcald Articles Part III, Article XIII.1 "What I have hitherto and constantly taught concerning this I know not how to change in the least, namely, that by faith, as St Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ." Here, as well as in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (I can provide several citations if necessary), justification can be used in a forensic manner, or to refer to the initial change of heart in the Christian which is also wrought by faith. Later Lutheran tradition tended to equate justification more-so with the forensic element so as to not confuse justification and sanctification. The Formula of Concord makes a more clear distinction between justification and regeneration.
Lutherans have seen justification as the center of the ordo salutis. It is not merely one aspect of the reception of salvation for the Christian- it is the heart of all of the gifts given by Christ. There has been much debate in the Reformed world, especially in recent years, over this issue. Some have claimed that union with Christ, in contradistinction to Lutheranism, is the central soteriological motif for historic Calvinism. Justification is merely one blessing of many which flows from this union. Lutheranism, in general, has seen union with Christ as a consequent gift to justification. (Solid Declaration Article III:54)From my reading of Luther's 1535 Galatians commentary however, it seems that Luther sees justification as subsequent to union. Even so however, justification is still the central aspect of salvation, not union.
Perhaps more important than these other two distinctives is the sacramental context in which justification is placed in Lutheranism. The faith which justifies is not an immediate direct gift of the Spirit as in Calvinism; it is mediated through word and sacrament. For Lutherans, the statement "baptism justifies" is synonymous with "faith justifies." The reality of one's justification is then played out through partaking weekly of the Eucharist, and receiving Christ's forgiveness through the words of absolution. The Reformed would shy away from these statements, and see sacraments as covenant badges, not means of justification.