This Friday, October 31, is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day back in 1517 that Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses on Indulgences.” Justification by faith alone, the hallmark of the movement, wasn’t just one doctrine among many, but was for Luther the “chief article” which must critique all that the church says or does.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s there was widespread debate in the Seventh-day Adventist Church over justification. Much of the debate was in reaction to provocative claims by Australian layman Robert D. Brinsmead in his magazine Present Truth, echoed by his Anglican associate Geoffrey Paxton in The Shaking of Adventism. Together with Australian Adventist theologian Desmond Ford they sought to persuade Adventists to accept a version of justification by faith drawn largely from Reformed writers such as James Buchanan (The Doctrine of Justification, 1867) and a Reformed interpretation of the Lutheran “Formula of Concord.”
I bought into their interpretation at the time, but this shifted when I was a graduate student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, studying under professors such as Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson. One of the shocking surprises of my Lutheran education was that the Lutheran understanding on justification was not so easily reduced to the forensic and accounting metaphors favored by Ford-Brinsmead-Paxton. Going from the post-Reformation scholastic formulas to the dynamism of the Reformation itself, I saw justification as something with more power, more life, than the sterile dogmatism they offered.
Lutheranism is not reducible to Luther, but it cannot be understood without considering Luther’s background. For reading in this area, I’d suggest Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, or Eric Gritsch, Martin: God’s Court Jester. An Augustinian friar, Luther was formed in the via moderna, the nominalistic scholasticism of Gabriel Biel. Catholic theologians have said that “Luther rebelled against a Catholicism that wasn’t really Catholic,” because nominalism presented a warped view of grace and works that allowed for works done apart from grace to be regarded as meritorious. A nominalist slogan was facere quod in se est– work out what is in you–take the first steps toward God, and God will reward you. This philosophy, combined with a spirituality of ascent (from Pseudo-Dionysius, translated through Franciscan mysticism), and the submission, obedience, hard work of the Augustinian rule made the spiritual journey an athletic contest in which a neurotic young monk, overwhelmed by feelings of personal sin and unworthiness, was a non-starter.
In the face of his inner turmoil, his anxieties or “Anfechtungen,” brought on by the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Luther sought assurance. Where can one turn for assurance of acceptance with God? And the answer he came to, through study of Paul and the Psalms, was simple—you cling to the external Word. You do not count your “Brownie points,” you do not measure your success, you do not stack your indulgence certificates, you do not evaluate the quality of your experience or weigh your doubt against your faith. You cling to the Word of God in Christ.
A key experience was probably when Staupitz asked the fretful Luther to recite the Apostles’ Creed. When he came to “I believe in … the forgiveness of sins,” Staupitz said that was the problem—he believed in it abstractly; he believed in the forgiveness of sins of others, but he didn’t believe God forgave his own sins.
Luther’s theology of justification was a working out of the answer he found to his own anxiety—and he worked it out in lectures on Biblical books, in sermons, and in polemical tracts. He was not a systematic theologian. This is important to remember. It’s one of the ways in which he differs from Calvin and the Reformed school, who were able to construct a theological package in which everything fit together nicely. Later Lutherans, readopting scholasticism, would do that. For a taste, see Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. And between Luther and later Lutheran orthodoxy stood Melanchthon, who attempted to turn Luther’s personal insights into the confession of faith of a people.
One of Luther’s important early sketches of his understanding of justification is his 1519 pamphlet, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in which he draws a distinction between the imperfect righteousness of our own obedience and the alien righteousness of Christ, which is “the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith ….”
Through faith in Christ … Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. … This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he. It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness. For this is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam. It accomplishes the same as that original righteousness would have accomplished; rather, it accomplishes more. …
… This alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone … is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone. Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow. For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.
The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness. This is that manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self … In the second place … in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear towards God. …
This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence. … This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin.
Some speak as if this “alien righteousness” is an abstraction–but for Luther, it is a person, it is the person of Christ. He is our righteousness, and he transforms us. We do not trust in the things we do, but we trust in Christ.
In 1529, he summarized the gospel in his Small Catechism:
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
The gospel for Luther is Christocentric; Jesus is the focus, his life, death, and resurrection life. He has purchased us, delivered us; the Spirit brings us to faith in him, having called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified us. It is interesting that in this most basic summary the forensic/legal/accounting metaphors are completely absent. All those metaphors, though, are meant to emphasize that we don’t bring our own efforts into consideration–and this summary makes the same point. It is Jesus’ blood that has purchased us; it is the Holy Spirit who calls us to faith in him.
The following year the “Augsburg Confession,” written by Philip Melanchthon, was presented to the emperor by the evangelical princes in 1530. It begins by summarizing the teaching of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds on God and the redemptive actions of Christ, adding in between a statement on the fall—the predicament that necessitated salvation: “since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost.” Now come the critical articles:
Article IV: Of Justification
Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
Article V: Of the Ministry
That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. …
Article VI: Of New Obedience
Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17, 10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.
Let’s summarize some of the key points:
- Christ’s, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins
- We are freely justified for his sake, through faith, when we believe that we are received into God’s favor and forgiven because of this
- The Holy Spirit comes to us through the preached Word and the sacraments, and creates this justifying faith in us
- Faith bears fruit in works, but we don’t cling to these works for our justification
Justification is through faith in Christ’s atonement; this faith is created in us through the work of the Holy Spirit through the external “means” of the Word and Sacraments. We can better understand this part by looking at Luther’s understanding of the sacraments.
Starting with baptism, look at how Luther described it in his Small Catechism:
Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word. … It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. … It is not the water indeed that does [these great things], but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost …
Justification is by the word, and that word comes to us both audibly, through the preached Gospel, and visibly, through the sacraments. Melanchthon’s “Apology [or ‘Defense’] of the Augsburg Confession,” art. 13, explains it this way:
… God, at the same time, by the Word and by the rite, moves hearts to believe and conceive faith, just as Paul says, Rom. 10, 17: Faith cometh by hearing. But just as the Word enters the ear in order to strike our heart, so the rite itself strikes the eye, in order to move the heart. The effect of the Word and of the rite is the same, as it has been well said by Augustine that a Sacrament is a visible word, because the rite is received by the eyes, and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore the effect of both is the same.
Baptism thus shows us through a physical acting out what justification by faith alone is really about: believing in and clinging to the word of promise. In the “Large Catechism,” Luther hammers this point home:
Our know-it-alls, the new spirits [the Reformed and Anabaptists] assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. We answer: It is true, nothing that is in us does it but faith, as we shall hear later on. But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life…. Now, these people are so foolish as to separate faith from the object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances. No matter where he speaks—indeed, no matter for what purpose or by what means he speaks—there faith must look and to it faith must hold….To appreciate and use Baptism aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and we must retort, “But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.”
Pay attention to the critical issue of how we respond to fits of doubt and anxiety–we cling to the promise of the external word; we rememember our baptism. That’s the reason for all the emphasis on objectivity; it is, as I said at the beginning, rooted in Luther’s only experience of how he came to peace and assurance: he believed the Gospel.
For this reason, Luther also had continuing appreciation for confession–he saw it as another way in which we hear the Gospel’s promise spoken directly to us by someone who has just heard us admit our sins. He radically altered the Catholic understanding and practice of confession, however, by rejecting the idea that we could provide satisfaction for our sins (Christ did it!) and by denying that it was obligatory (or even possible) for Christians to name all their sins. He sometimes referred to confession as a “third sacrament,” while at the same saying it “is really nothing else than Baptism.” Luther elaborates in the Large Catechism.
Baptism remains forever. Even though we fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access to it so that we may again subdue the old man. But we need not again have the water poured over us. Even if we were immersed in water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, and the effect and signification of Baptism would continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned . . . . Thus we see what a great and excellent thing Baptism is, which snatches us from the jaws of the devil and makes God our own, overcomes and takes away sin and daily strengthens the new man, always remains until we pass from this present misery to eternal glory. Therefore let everybody regard his Baptism as the daily garment which he is to wear all the time. Every day he should be found in faith and amid its fruits, every day he should be suppressing the old man and growing up in the new. If we wish to be Christians, we must practice the work that makes us Christians. But if anybody falls away from his Baptism let him return to it.
Luther’s emphasis on the sacraments, understanding them as the “visible word,” preserves, rather than detracts from, the centrality of the word in justification.
And that word of forgiveness spoken by God is not a “legal fiction.” That Word is effective, as Luther said in his commentary on Genesis (LW 1:17, 21-22):
…[I]n the beginning and before every creature there is the Word, and it is such a powerful Word that it makes all things out of nothing. . . . [T]he words ‘Let there be light’ are the words of God, not of Moses; this means that they are realities. For God calls into existence the things which do not exist (Rom. 4:17). He does not speak grammatical words; He speaks true and existent realities. . . . We, too, speak, but only according to the rules of language; that is, we assign names to objects which have already been created. But the divine rule of language is different, namely: when He says: ‘Sun, shine,’ the sun is there at once and shines. Thus the words of god are realities, not bare words.
The Word creates a new reality. Jesus transforms us when he joins himself to us. Justification must produce fruit in our lives, the fruit of a new obedience. But we don’t look to that in time of doubt. When we are troubled by doubts, or tempted by the devil, we are not to look at the effects of the Word, but to the Word itself.
This is likewise related to Luther’s epistemology. How do we know about God? Can reason tell us what God is like, as the medieval scholastics supposed? No, Luther said. Just as we cannot trust our own feelings or works in the matter of justification, so we cannot trust our own reason when we seek to understand God; instead, we must cling to the revealed Word. We can know nothing about God apart from his revelation in the Word and the Sacraments. This revelation is at the same time a concealment, for God only allows us to see that part of him which he wishes to disclose.
Those who want to reach God apart from these coverings exert themselves to ascend to heaven without ladders (that is, without the Word). Overwhelmed by His majesty, which they seek to comprehend without a covering, they fall to their destruction. (LW 1:14)
But when Luther in that same book turns to pastoral application, his tack is very different. He says that this “hidden God” (Deus absconditus), the God of glory and majesty, the God whose word has eternally predestined all that must happen, is not the “revealed God” (Deus revelatus) of the Gospel. He believed in predestination, just like Calvin and Zwingli. But he didn’t see any point in focusing on that, or in trying to figure it out, or in trying to reconcile that with God’s promise of mercy. Worrying about the hidden God can drive one mad—we need to cling to the Word.
God must therefore be left to himself in his own majesty, for in this regard we have nothing to do with him, nor has he willed that we should have anything to do with him. But we have something to do with him insofar as he is clothed and set forth in his Word, through which he offers himself to us and which is the beauty and glory with which the psalmist celebrates him as being clothed…. Diatribe [Erasmus], however, deceives herself in her ignorance by not making any distinction between God preached and God hidden, that is, between the Word of God and God himself. God does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he also wills many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his word. Thus he does not will the death of a sinner, according to his word; but he wills it according to that inscrutable will of his. It is our business, however, to pay attention to the word and leave that inscrutable will alone, for we must be guided by the word and not by that inscrutable will. (LW 33:139-140)
In both justification and in revelation, we cling to the Word, not to our fears.
“The Smalcald Articles” is Luther’s theological “last will and testament,” his summary of the Reformation faith. Justification is “the first and chief article.”
- That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4, 25.
- And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1, 29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53, 6.
- Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3, 23f
- Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3, 28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3, 26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.
- Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4, 12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53, 5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.
XIII. How One is Justified before God, and of Good Works.
- 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, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.
- And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ.
- Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1, 31: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well.
- We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true.
Luther’s consistent and clear teaching on the necessity of works has often been ignored. Christians do good works. They must. But they do not add to our justification. They do not further us towards God. We do them because God’s Word has changed us; his Word bears fruit in our lives. The point is that we do not trust in them or raise them up to God to get his attention. We cling to the Word. We cling to Jesus.
Because our works are not the basis of our justification, but spring forth as a result of the change wrought in us by Christ and the Holy Spirit, they can be done freely, without fear or coercion. That’s the point of his tract, “On the Freedom of a Christian,” and the paradox he sets out: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” As a poet quoted by Henry Ironside once put it:
I would not work my soul to save;
That work my Lord has done;
But I would work like any slave
From love to God’s dear Son.
The problem with Ford, Brinsmead, and Paxton was that in the name of the Reformers they denied something the Reformers held critical–the transforming power of the Gospel. They supposed justification to be a blanket that didn’t effect what was underneath, playing into the Catholic myth that Luther said justification by faith alone is a sprinkling of snow on a pile of dung. They did this to undercut the emphasis of other Adventists on sanctification (derived from Wesley). You have to keep the two together–Luther did, even though Lutheranism, and some others who used his name, didn’t always.
Justification became a topic of renewed discussion between Catholics and Lutherans in the 1990s, culminating in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which suggested that all differences had been resolved. I initially bought into this optimistic assessment, but gradually saw that the agreement was a smokescreen; key issues such as indulgences and satisfaction were never discussed–the very issues that sparked the Reformation. But modern liberal Lutheranism (as represented by the Lutheran World Federation and the ELCA) and Catholicism share this–they spend little time talking about justification, and lots of time emphasizing a social gospel which assumes human effort can transform the world into the kingdom of God.
The Reformation message of justification by faith alone still needs to be heard. It needs to be heard by men and women who tremble on account of their sins. It needs to be heard by those who imagine that their spiritual exercises and good deeds will bring them closer to God. It needs to be heard by those who suppose that their lives do not need to be changed. It needs to be heard by those who imagine religion to be nothing more than a way to make the world a better place. And it needs to be heard and proclaimed by those who have the final gospel message to proclaim to the world.