The place of justification in the Protestant understanding of salvation has recently been criticized from a number of quarters. Common to many of these criticisms is the concern that though justification may be important, it is not the sole means by which the Gospel is narrated in Scripture – and if this is so, so the criticism goes, the doctrine of justification has overshadowed many other important parts of the Gospel for the church. Why have Protestants given such prominence to justification, when salvation is so much more than a change of legal status before God?
The simple answer is that Protestants in the reformation tradition originally believed (correctly) that justification was a hotly contested doctrine, and must therefore be defended in proper Biblical form. It was a necessary part of the Gospel and without which the Gospel could not be told in faithful ways. In similar fashion one might say that the resurrection is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls – in those times when the empty tomb is a contested claim (as is the case in the present day). Defense of the resurrection would not mean the denial of any other important element of the Gospel (such as the death of Christ, without which the resurrection would not make much sense). It would mean that in times of controversy, the church must faithfully witness to difficult doctrinal claims in the face of opposition. The church fails in its mission when it simply succumbs to the pressures of the day by not proclaiming what may be offensive to the wider culture. The church ought not be offensive, but when the church fails to affirm elements of the Gospel which the culture finds offensive, then it fails to stand faithfully on its only true foundation.
So with justification. Protestants defended the centrality of justification because this doctrine protected an essential element of the Gospel – that Divine justice and mercy came together in the death of Christ on our behalf. They defended the claim at a time when it was otherwise being denied. In that sense the church stood or fell insofar as they proclaimed precisely those elements of the Gospel which were under attack.