This article is about Thomas Cranmer's view of justification, faith and good works.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1989. 3 pages.

Cranmer's Doctrine of Justification

Recent statements issued by the Anglican and Roman Catholic international commission make it more than ever the duty of Christians to understand where our Reformers stood on the doctrine of justification. Cranmer's influence on the English Reformation was immense. His view of justification deserves to be corres­pondingly well understood.

Thomas Cranmer's sermon Of the Salvation of Mankind reinforces a concern voiced in his Preface. Salvation is more than cerebral clarification or correct head-knowledge. To exchange Reformed orthodoxy for Roman heterodoxy is necessary but not sufficient.

For the right and true christian faith is, not only to believe that holy scripture and all the aforesaid articles of our faith are true, but also 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.

Cranmer's sermon on salvation is the 'Homily of Justification' referred to in Article XI, Of the Justification of Man. It is therefore the official Reformed Anglican statement on the subject. As with Luther, Cranmer was anxious to set the true gospel over against its Roman perversion. Rome had taught, partly under Augustine's influence, that justification was by an infusion of grace at baptism, thereby confusing justification with sanctification. In other words, we are justified before God by inherent righteousness. While Christ merited salvation for sinners, none are saved without the merit of good works. Therefore we are justified by faith and works, since faith is mere assent and insufficient without love and obedience. Assurance of salvation is never attainable in this life, and the faithful are entirely dependent on the priesthood and the sacramental system for their progress in justification. What then was Cranmer's alternative to Rome's way of salvation?

Cranmer emphatically denies that we are justified before God by an inherent righteousness. Our best efforts are imperfect, so every man must seek 'another righteousness, or justification ... that is to say, the remission, pardon, and forgiveness of his sins and trespasses ... And this justification or righteousness, which we receive by God's mercy and Christ's merits, embraced by faith, is ... our perfect and full justification.' In short, justification is not an infusion of grace but the forgiveness of sins. It must not be confused with sanctification, the process of inward renewal (although this necessarily accompanies justification).

Cranmer insists that 'this justification be free unto us,' rather than something earned. Yet a price had to be paid to satisfy the injured justice of God. And since we had no resources with which to pay, God himself 'provided a ransom for us; that was the most precious body and blood of his most dear and best beloved son Jesu Christ, who, besides his ransom, fulfilled the law for us perfectly. And so the justice of God and his mercy did embrace together, and fulfilled the mystery of our redemption.' Therefore, our acceptance before God depends not on our deserving, 'Christ himself only being the cause meritorious thereof'. If the work of Christ is the sole meritorious cause of justification, there are two other causes: God's 'great mercy and grace' and, 'upon our part, true and lively faith in the merits of Jesu Christ, which yet is not ours, but by God's working in us'. Therefore, the sinner contributes nothing to his salvation, but 'only a true and lively faith'. In short, we are justified by grace alone through Christ alone, received by faith alone.

The Reformers' stress on 'faith alone' brought forth every anathema Rome could devise. If justification is by faith alone, then the most unholy rascal on earth can assume he is saved! However, Rome really misrepresented the Reformers at this point. Cranmer was careful to explain that justifying faith 'doth not exclude repentance, hope, love, dread, and the fear of God, to be joined with faith in every man that is justified; but it excludeth them from the office of justifying: so that although they be all present together in him that is justified, yet they justify not together'. Cranmer further insists that good works necessarily accompany faith also. Approving of the best medieval writers, he even agrees that we are not 'justified without our good works'. In one sense therefore, no one is justified by faith alone, for faith is never isolated from other graces. But Cranmer's point is that nothing wrought in us or performed by us is ever capable of meriting justification since it is neither perfect nor in excess of our duty. How then is sola fide 1 to be understood? Strictly in the context of merit. 'But this proposition, that we be justified by faith only, freely, and without works, is spoken for to take away clearly all merit of our works: Sola fide is then opposed not to good works in themselves, but to their supposed merit'. It really means 'faith in Christ only ... that we be justified by him only', for 'Christ is now the righteousness of all them that truly do believe in him'.

Cranmer is careful to insist that faith is no more the ground of our justification than our good works are. Had he done otherwise, he would have repeated Rome's error of justification by an infusion of grace, since faith is the fruit of regeneration:

So that the true understanding of this doctrine, we be justified freely by faith without works, or that we be justified by faith in Christ only, is not, that this our own act to believe in Christ, or this our faith in Christ, which is within us, doth justify us, and merit our justification unto us (for that were to count ourselves to be justified by some act or virtue that is within ourselves): …

Faith therefore has no more strength or merit than any other grace, despite its unique role:

As great and as godly a virtue as the lively faith is, yet it putteth us from itself, and remitteth or appointeth us unto Christ, for to have only by him remission of our sins, or justification. So that our faith in Christ (as it were) saith unto us thus: It is not I that take away your sins, but it is Christ only.

In short, it is more accurate to say that we are justified, not by faith, but by Christ the ground or object of faith.

The last thing Cranmer could be accused of is an antinomian 'easy- believing' view of justification. The Homily of Faith makes plain that justifying faith is an obedient, working faith.

For the very sure and lively christian faith is, not only to believe all things of God which are contained in holy scripture; but also ... to obey and serve him in keeping his commandments, and never to turn back again to sin. Such is the true faith that the scripture doth so much commend.' Cranmer speaks of two kinds of faith: 'a dead and an unfruitful faith, and a lively faith, that worketh by charity: the first to be unprofitable, the second necessary for the obtaining of our salvation; the which faith hath charity always joined unto it, and is fruitful, bringing forth all good works.

That is, we are only justified by a good-works-producing faith. In the Homily of Good Works, Cranmer positively discourages antinomianism. He quotes Chrysostom, who says 'faith of itself is full of good works', concluding: 'So that this is to be taken for a most true lesson taught by Christ's own mouth, that the works of the moral commandments of God be the very true works of faith, which lead to the blessed life to come.'

It is plain therefore that Cranmer is only concerned to defend a gospel which produces holiness. Unsanctified believers are a contradiction in terms. But Cranmer does more than vindicate the Reformed view of the gospel before his Roman critics. Taking the offensive, he actually outguns them. He argues that, contrary to its sanctimonious image, true Romanism does not really produce saints at all! As for the monastic ideal of obedience, chastity and poverty, Cranmer shows that Roman super-spirituality is really no true spirituality either. And why? Because Roman legalism destroys Christian holiness by supplanting God's law with man­made traditions, superstitions and rituals:

Thus was the people, through ignorance, so blinded with the goodly show and appearance of those things, that they thought the observing of them to be a more holiness, a more perfect service and honouring of God, and more pleasing to God, than the keeping of God's commandments.

It cannot be denied that Cranmer's theology of justification, faith and good works is an authentic exposition of the teaching of Paul.


  1. ^ Latin for: 'by faith alone' 

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