What is the Reformation message about justification by faith?
To answer this question, I’m going to focus on Martin Luther, the primary instigator of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was, first and foremost, a Biblical scholar and not a systematic theologian. He tried to understand the text, as written, even if it didn’t always harmonize precisely with what another text says. Second, Luther was a man for whom questions of spirituality were primary. He didn’t want to understand the abstractions of an ordo salutis—he wanted to have his inner turmoil (Anfechtung) eased. The primary question for Luther was, in the face of personal doubts, and the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil, where does one turn for assurance of acceptance with God?
The answer of the medieval church was a complex mix of faith and works. Justification covered past sins, infused you with grace (the transformative power of the Holy Spirit) and pointed you in the right direction. You made your way forward by faith, receiving additional grace in the sacraments, supported by the other members of the communion of saints. You could do works above and beyond what was required, and these could help provide satisfaction for sins confessed, or you could apply them to other Christians (through indulgences). When Luther doubted, he was told to be diligent with his monastic practices. Catholicism, after the Pelagian controversy, had said that all this process began with “prevenient grace”—you were sinful and God had to take the first step toward you. But the nominalist school of thought, in which he was trained, argued that man had free will, and could take the first step toward God (“facere quod in se est”—“work out what is in you”). God would then reward that step with grace.
But for Luther the answer was simple. When assailed by doubts, you cling to the external Word that proclaims God’s gracious forgiveness of sin in Jesus Christ. 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.
As noted in the Augsburg Confession, art. 4,
It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5.
This justification is not something that happens once at the beginning of the Christian experience. Rather, it is a Word constantly spoken to us. AC 5:
To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.
We see Luther’s understanding of Justification most clearly in his teaching on the sacraments, especially Baptism. From the Small Catechism:
Baptism is not merely water, but it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s Word. . . . It effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare. . . . [Baptism] signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new man should come forth daily and raise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God’s presence.
From the Large Catechism:
[Baptism] is not simply a natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water—praise it in any other terms you can—all by virtue of the Word, which is a heavenly, holy Word which no one can sufficiently extol, for it contains and conveys all the fullness of God. From the Word it derives its nature as a sacrament, as St. Augustine taught, ‘Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum.’ . . . 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.’
Luther also had continuing appreciation for confession, and it is inseparable from his understanding of justification. Lutheranism in fact held that “private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse” (AC 11). Luther’s Small Catechism has a section on how to teach people to confess (and an order for private confession and absolution is in the worship books of all Lutheran bodies).
Confession consists of two parts. One is that we confess our sins. The other is that we receive absolution or forgiveness from the confessor as from God himself, by no means doubting but firmly believing that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.
This “third sacrament” “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.
And this, again, is through confession and absolution. Luther had a problem not with the sacrament, but with it being seen as a coerced obligation (and with the way it was tied in to a theology of satisfaction and penance).
If you are poor and miserable, then go and make use of the healing medicine. He who feels his misery and need will develop such a desire for confession that he will run toward it with joy. But those who ignore it and do not come of their own accord, we let go their way. However, they ought to know that we do not regard them as Christians . . . . If you are a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles for confession, not under compulsion but rather coming and compelling us to offer it. For here the compulsion must be inverted; we must come under the command and you must come into freedom.
Now, does this Word merely “declare” something without accomplishing anything? Not for Luther. Consider what he says in Two Kinds of Righteousness (LW 31:297ff)
There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds.
The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith. … This righteousness … is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant. …
Through faith in Christ, therefore, 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. …
Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone–while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ–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, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear toward God. …
This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence ….
Therefore through the first righteousness arises the voice of the bridegroom who says to the soul, “I am yours,” but through the second comes the voice of the bride who answers, “I am yours.” Then the marriage is consummated; it becomes strong and complete in accordance with the Song of Solomon [2:16]: “My beloved is mine and I am his.” Then the soul no longer seeks to be righteous in and for itself, but it has Christ as its righteousness and therefore seeks only the welfare of others.
Luther’s best explanation of the Word’s power comes 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.
To summarize what we’ve covered up to this point–Luther argues that when we are troubled by doubts, or tempted by the devil, we are not to look at what we are or can do, or even to the effects of the Word within us; rather, we are to look to the Word itself. This is related to Luther’s epistemology, in which we cannot trust intuition or feeling or the results of reason, but cling to the revealed Word.
Luther’s understanding of justification is also related to his understanding of predestination and free will. Predestination is, as one of my professors once said, simply justification by faith viewed from God’s perspective. God is the one who justifies by grace, by his sovereign decision, through the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. God is in control, and we are not—so we have nothing in which to boast. Luther is countering the medieval theologies that put so much emphasis upon what a man could–and must–do.
He says in Bondage of the Will:
“This, therefore, is also essentially necessary and wholesome for Christians to know: That God foreknows nothing by contingency, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, ‘Free-will’ is thrown prostrate, and utterly dashed to pieces.”
Luther took his understanding of providence and predestination from the same sources as Augustine—namely, from Paul, the Prophets, and the Psalms. They emphasize that God is in control of human history and all of creation. Nothing happens apart from him. This affirmation of God’s omnipotence is what gives rise to “the problem of evil.” If we deny God’s power, ala the process theologians, why should we trust him? But if we emphasize that sovereignty, ala Calvin, why should we exert any effort at all?
Now Luther, in Bondage of the Will, is arguing with Erasmus as a humanist, an optimistic believer in the goodness and possibilities of the human creature. He also has in mind the nominalist theologians of the via moderna, who imagined (as we have already stated) that man could, apart from grace, take the first step toward God (facere quod in se est). Luther exalts God’s sovereignty to humble the arrogance of those who would try to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
But when Luther in that same book turns to pastoral application, his tack is very different. He says that this “hidden God” (Deus absconditus) of predestination is not the “revealed God” (Deus revelatus) of the Gospel. 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)
So in the matter of predestination, God is decisive—he is the one who justifies us in Christ. He does so through his Word of promise. To this Word we cling, by faith. But it doesn’t come to us from within, only from without. We hear it in the preached Word and, embodied, in the “visible Word” of the sacraments (Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Confession). This Word is effective, and begins its work of change immediately. This work is not instant, as Luther notes in “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” We don’t, therefore, look within and measure our progress—this would lead us to despair. Instead, we always go back and hear and cling to the external Word of the Gospel.
Is the Gospel complicated for Luther? Not at all. He thought a child could understand it. And this is how he wanted parents to teach their children:
As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.
The First Article.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
What does this mean?–Answer.
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.
The Second Article.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
What does this mean?–Answer.
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.
The Third Article.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; one holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
What does this mean?–Answer.
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.