Roman Catholic apologists frequently claim that Martin Luther illustrated his teaching on justification by comparing it to snow covering a pile of dung. They quote this derisively, saying it is clearly unbiblical. Yet no one has ever been able to cite the passage it comes from. I asked Eric Gritsch about this once, and he confirmed it as genuine, but even he couldn’t say where it could be found.
I think it comes from a passage in Luther’s “Sermon on Our Blessed Hope” (and I’m not alone in this, as some more fair-minded Catholic apologists have pointed to this text, too).
We see grain sowed in the ground. Reason now asks: What happens to the grain in winter that has been sowed in the ground? Is it not a dead, moldy, decayed thing, covered with frost and snow? But in its own time it grows from that dead, moldy, decayed grain into a beautiful green stalk, which flourishes like a forest and produces a full, fat ear on which there are 20, 30, 40 kernels, and thereby finds life where only death existed earlier. Thus God has done with heaven, earth, sun and moon, and does every year with the grain in the field. He calls to that which is nothing that it should become something and does this contrary to all reason. Can He not also do something which serves to glorify the children of God, even though it is contrary to all reason?
And when we look at it in context, his intent is clearly not to say that justification is a dusting that doesn’t have any impact on our reality–instead, he’s talking about our hope of glorification, which cannot be seen, and can’t be understood by reason, but can only be believed.
But if you want to talk about Luther’s views on justification, why go to obscure texts using metaphors that can easily be taken out of context? Why not go to those passages where Luther speaks clearly about justification?
I think the place to go is the Smalcald Articles, which Luther prepared to highlight what he thought were the most important issues in the dispute with Rome. It represents, as it were, his “last will and testament.”
4] 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.
5] 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.
Later, he speaks of the relationship between faith and works.
Part III, Article XIII. How One is Justified before God, and of Good Works.
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, 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.
2] 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. 3] 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. 4] We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true.
So for Luther, transformation is indeed important. We are changed. Good works do follow. The Word that justifies is effective, because it is the Word that created us in the beginning. On this point, see this passage from 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.
In justification, God speaks to us a Word declaring us to be righteous. That Word does change us, but we do not point to the change, which is gradual, to bolster our hope when we doubt–instead, we cling to the Word, which ever remains something spoken to us, which is sure and certain. Likewise in Luther’s epistemology, we do not trust the results of reason, but cling to the revealed Word—the Word and the Sacraments are the “coverings” by which we can apprehend God as he wishes to be apprehended.
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)
Luther was not a systematic theologian. This is one of the ways in which he differs from Calvin and the Reformed school, which wanted to construct a theological package in which everything fits together nicely. Luther was, first and foremost, a Biblical scholar. He tried to understand the text as written, even if it didn’t always harmonize precisely with what another text says. Moreover, Luther was a person 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? And the answer for Luther 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.
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.
Justification, for Luther, is inseparable from the sacraments. This is where we see most clearly what he understood justification to be. Let’s take a look, first, at 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.
He enlarges this idea in 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. He held, as the Augsburg Confession states, that “private absolution should be retained and now allowed to fall into disuse” (AC 11). Luther’s Small Catechism, used by every Lutheran denomination for catechesis, 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.
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.
Returning to where we began, the one article where Luther brings together snow and dung is not in the context of justification, but is in the context of a sermon on our hope of glorification. Luther’s teachings about justification are very clear, and unambiguous, and appear in many places. If you want to grapple with Luther, go to these texts, and see how justification appears when he speaks of the redemption we have in Christ, and the confidence that we can have when our doubts assail us. But see, too, that it isn’t a doctrine that appears in isolation. It gives us hope, but at the same time, it shows that we are indeed being sanctified, and we do have the hope of glorification–and all of these are in Jesus Christ.