Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Is Luther’s description of the doctrine of Justification by Faith still apt?

“The Sun which illuminates God’s Church”
Is Luther’s description of the doctrine of Justification by Faith still apt?

If there is one thing that people know about Martin Luther it is the notion that he formulated the doctrine of Justification through faith alone. Others might go one stage further and note that Luther owes much of his theological worldview to the Writings of St. Augustine and before that St. Paul, particularly Romans chapter 1v17 and chapter 3v27-29, therefore expressing some understanding that Luther, who championed the principle of sola scriptura: Christian doctrine can not be formulated from non-biblical ideas, rediscovered rather than formulated the doctrine.

For in it (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith: as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Rom 1v17. It is to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Rom 3v27-29. (NRSV)

Luther was a prodigious writer and it comes as a surprise to many that he did not pen one work which can be seen as a specific explanation of his thinking on justification by faith through grace. That is not to say that he did not intend to: in his translation of Romans Chapter 3 he wrote

Let this be enough for the present. If God gives me grace, I shall have more to say about this in the tract “On Justification”. L.W. XXXV, P198

He never wrote it. On the face of it this would appear to be a disadvantage, but it is not: had Luther written a work on the doctrine, it would no doubt have become the definitive word on the topic and the development of further insights would have been more difficult. One could also argue that sifting through Luther’s writings to get a sense of his thinking on justification is to gain a deeper understanding of the man and his wider theology.

Luther’s theology of justification by faith through grace:

In order to consider whether his teaching on Justification remains contemporary we need, first, to have an overview of that teaching and how Luther arrived at his position. The problem here lies in being selective as his writings are extensive.

For Luther this doctrine was “The proposition of primary importance” L.W. IV, P400. Where it is missing there can be no true foundation for faith and men will turn to other doctrines for their ideas and develop a mishmash of theological thinking. “This article is the head and cornerstone which alone begets, nourishes, builds, protects and preserves the church: without it the church can not subsist one hour.” St L, XIV, P168. This doctrine is the knowledge of saving grace and in Luther’s view, if the doctrine of Justification by faith through grace should fall so would the church:

On this article rests all that we teach and practice against the Pope, the devil and the world. Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubts about it, otherwise all is lost. BC, P292

For Luther the doctrine of justification through faith alone could never be just one of a series of doctrines. For him it is the one fundamental article of faith on which everything else depends:

As I often warn, therefore, the doctrine of justification must be learned diligently. For in it are included all the other doctrines of our faith. If it is sound all the others are sound as well. L.W. XXVI, P283

There have been those who argue that Luther put too much stress on this doctrine but it was his contention that he was not playing theological semantics but emphasising the new relationship possible between the sinner and God through the death of Christ. Luther would always return to the importance of this doctrine because otherwise there was no atonement and the crucifixion was meaningless.

In short, whoever does not know the doctrine of justification takes away Christ the Propitiator. L.W. XXV1, P28. If it is he alone who takes away our sin, then it cannot be with our works. L.W. XXXIV, P91

When Luther insists that justification is through faith alone, sola fide, he is clear that this faith is not something that man can will himself into: that faith is itself the gift and activity of God. “When God creates faith in man, that is as great a work as if He were to create Heaven and Earth again.” L.W. XXX, P14. As in the creation, Luther argues, God did not have the assistance of the created, so in God’s recreation of an individual, that man is remade without his cooperation. “For the Holy Spirit works faith in us and through this faith we reign in the image of God we lost in paradise.” L.W. XX11, P285. It is a faith not simply in God but a faith which is focused on the person and work of Christ, particularly Christ crucified.

Luther’s frequently expressed contention was that others wilfully misunderstood his position. When Luther translated the Bible into German he inserted the word alone into Romans 3.28 when it was not in the original Greek. He insists that there is nothing innovative in sola fide and that many others, including St. Paul, St. Ambrose and Thomas Aquinas had understood the text in that way. His argument was that to convey the meaning of the Greek text in German the addition of “only” was a necessity.

Whoever would speak plainly about this cutting away of works will have to say, “Faith alone justifies us, and not works”. The matter itself, as well as the nature of language, demands it. L.W, XXXV, P195

The other area of misunderstanding is the position of “good works” in the Christian life which Luther was regularly criticised for wanting to suppress. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Luther makes it clear repeatedly that good works are the marks of obedient discipleship and he accepted the teaching of the Epistle of James: “For, just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” James 2v26. (NRSV)

[It is] a perverse idea that righteousness is to be sought through them, for that makes them appear good outwardly, when in truth they are not good. They deceive men and lead them to deceive one another. L.W. XXX1, P363. When I exalt faith and reject such works done without faith, they accuse me of forbidding good works. The fact of the matter is that I want very much to teach the real good works which spring from faith. L.W. XLIV, P34.

A Christian’s confidence before God does not depend on anything he has done or may do because even his highest motives are tainted with sin. A Christian’s confidence lies only in what God has done for him in Christ. Justification and the eschaton are, therefore, closely related: those who are justified by faith are characterized by an expectation of the coming of Christ (Heb 9.28, 1 Thess 1.10). The New Testament church is seen to be waiting in anticipation for the return of Christ to the extent that some have to be reminded not to neglect their daily work. (2 Thess 3.10-11). Christians today have that same hope, although the passing of time has dulled it. We acknowledge it more than we anticipate it: we do not have the same urgency of the early church, but we still hold the doctrine and it is properly linked to justification.

Luther proceeds from topographical to theological discussions in the certainty that all who die in faith have their place in God’s word and Christ’s promise. Althaus, P412, 1972

The Law and the Gospel:

Another of the principles of Lutheranism is that of “the law and the gospel” and to define it in relation to preaching and evangelism is to put the article by which the church stands or falls to practical use. The distinction between law and gospel is a logical appendix to the doctrine of justification by faith which relates directly to how the Christian seeks to help others develop their spiritual understanding.

The law has to be proclaimed primarily so that people are convicted of their sinfulness and come to an awareness that they are condemned. The law demands what no individual can give: a pure heart; perfect obedience; perfect fear and perfect love of God. Lex semper accusans: the law always reveals sinfulness and accuses us. These are often unpopular ideas and there are those who try to make the gospel more palatable to the contemporary ear by playing them down. Nevertheless, without a conviction of sin, the gospel’s message of salvation and redemption loses its impact: through Christ the newly justified are freed from the accusations and condemnations of the law. The gospel is the message of liberation because Christ is the fulfilment of the law.

Law and Gospel are in indivisible partnership and in both preaching and evangelism the Lutheran is advised to:

Discuss the nature of human beings in four different states: 1) Before the fall in a state of integrity, 2) After the fall in a state of sin, 3) After conversion, in a state of grace and 4) After the resurrection in a state of glory. The counsel to preach the word of God, properly distinguishing the law and gospel, revolves around the second and third states in which we all find ourselves. C.E. Braaten, 1990, P153

That being the case, Luther’s doctrine of justification is as relevant today as it was when he came to his understanding of the theology of the Epistle to The Romans. It is tempting to ask what has changed in that time, and, of course, one significant thing is the ongoing rise of secularism, a development which, if anything, must make Luther’s doctrine relevant.

Justification and evangelism

To Luther there is either belief or unbelief: there is no fence to sit on. Lack of faith is an active stance. It is because of this state of unbelief that Luther continually denounces “historical faith” which he sees as an intellectual exercise which accepts the facts concerning the life, work and death of Jesus without a personal commitment to that same Jesus as Messiah and Lord and the object of faith.

In fact, this is no faith at all for it neither renews nor changes the heart. It does not produce a new man but leaves him in his former opinion and way of life. This is a very pernicious faith and it would be better not to have it. L.W, XXV1, P269

There are a number of obvious targets for an evangelism that stresses Luther’s doctrine of justification. Modern secular culture has a confidence in itself which sees no need of God. In its sense of security it is a little like the church of Luther’s day. What person holding a certificate of justification made out in his or her name following the purchase of an indulgence

would find [attractive] the prospect of churchgoing, hearing sermons, attending the sacraments or living according to Christian standards? R.A. Leaver, 1985, P16

What modern person, confident and secure in his or her secular consumerism would find that list tempting either? A strong part of the confidence which comes with secularism is a dismissing of the role of religion in the life of the individual. It is the Christian’s difficult task in evangelism and witness to break through the modern tendency not to have a sense of need and it is the law which needs to be preached to break down that false sense of security which is, perhaps, the downside of Bonhoeffer’s idea: man comes of age and discovers how to marginalise God and live without him. However, while creeping secularism is a fact, it would be wrong to blame it totally for a decline in spiritual awareness.

The crucial point to grasp is that some sort of religiosity persists despite the obvious drop in practice. The sacred does not disappear – indeed in many ways it is becoming more rather than less prevalent in contemporary society. Davie G: P43, 1992.

Davie makes it quite clear that a decline in church attendance is not matched by a decline in an interest in spiritual matters. While this is not the place to discuss where churches might have been going wrong in marketing themselves and their message, the issues of mission and evangelism seem relevant here.

Yet, nowhere does the reformer make evangelism the starting point or the final goal of mission, as more recent models of mission have tended to. It is always God's own mission that dominates Luther's thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God represents its final culmination. Luther bases his idea of mission on the Golden Rule:

Both as a Christian person and as a secular person, man has to act on one and the same basis: love. The difference in the way love works in the two cases is due to a difference in the situation, in what has to be done for the sake of one’s neighbour. Eberling: P208. 1970

To some extent herein lies the problem for Lutherans: I can see no circumstances whereby the doctrine of justification by faith through grace would be downplayed by the church. It is the defining doctrine and yet in terms of evangelism there is now much soul-searching about exactly how we go about sharing our faith. The missio Dei is one aspect of the work of God and, of course, Lutherans recognise the importance of seeing where God is at work and taking that initiative. For Luther, mission is always pre-eminently the work of God and its goal and outcome is the coming of the kingdom of God.

Mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate. Bosch: P393, 1991

But mission and evangelism are not the same things, although mission may involve evangelism. The doctrine of justification by faith is as apt as it ever was and is taught from the pulpit as part of the emphasis on law and gospel, but is it an apt method of evangelism? Christians seem more paralyzed by the idea of evangelism today than for many years and much of the rationale for not evangelising seems to relate to a fear of being seen as fundamentalist in a time when religious fundamentalism has received a very bad press and against which there is a now a growing backlash.

Briefly put, the process of God’s love involves our first experiencing his love and then going on to love the neighbour. The Christian’s action flows out of the experience of God’s own love. The love, too, is spontaneous, free, voluntary, happy and eager. It possesses a spontaneity that changes the “thou shalt” to an inner “I must”. The imperative is set aside through the indicative worked through God’s Holy Spirit. Althaus: 1972, P19

However, it is almost as if we no longer wish to acknowledge that our own Christian faith rests on generations of people who have passed on the Gospel and certainly the Lutheran understanding of that gospel rests on the doctrine of justification. I can not think that evangelism for the Lutheran would not include a clear emphasis on Luther’s doctrine of Justification. If we accept Althaus’s assertion that the Holy Spirit is the spontaneity of mission and evangelism then we should be less obsessed about the processes of either:

Even if Luther argues that, because of the self-giving of God we will have a spontaneous impulse to gladly do God’s will, Christians still do not find it an easy task to love neighbours purely and unselfishly. God’s love mediated through us is always imperfect. Peura: 1998, P94

However, the bottom line is that evangelism needs ideas and words and the doctrine of justification is the ideal foundation for both.

No matter what the social, economic or political circumstances may be, the church still has the indispensable task of witnessing to the ultimate meaning and goal of life in Jesus Christ. C.E. Braaten, 1990, P134

The church, of course, consists of individuals. Braaten’s assertion reads differently when it is seen as an individual commission. However, this is complicated for the Lutheran traditionalist who will claim that Baptism is the principle means of grace:

Baptism does not give a particular grace, not only a part of salvation, but simply the entire grace of God, the entire Christ and the Holy Spirit with his gifts. The total gift of baptism is meaningful throughout the Christian’s life and remains constantly valid until he enters into eternity. Althaus, 1972, P354

Given the tradition of many to have their children baptised and then to have nothing more to do with the church, one might want to argue this point with Luther were it possible. This view does raise interesting questions about the Christian conversion of an adult who has already been baptised.

Justification and the churched:

At the same time the doctrine of justification is relevant to those who are already churched:

If this doctrine is lost it will be impossible for us to be able to resist any errors or sects. We can see this today in the Anabaptists. Now that they have fallen away from this doctrine, they will never stop falling, erring and seducing others ad infinitum. L.W. XXVI, P176.

In the modern period we have a plethora of Christian groups who emphasise faith as a personal experience. That is not of itself a bad thing: faith should be personal but assurance of salvation here is often seen as the establishment of a personal relationship with God. The charismatic and house-church movements which seem to emphasise and elevate the emotion associated with religious experience as a sign of assurance itself, are examples. An inner personal experience is not the same as justification by faith.

This reduction of Christianity is an attractive and dangerous mistake. It is attractive because it fits in so well with the spirit of the age which leads to the cult of sincerity over against objective truth, the current emphasis on doing one’s own thing . T. Wright, 1980, P19

Such Christians have often missed the assurance of salvation that Luther’s doctrine brings. If one’s sense of assurance is inextricably linked to an inner experience how is a sudden sense of the remoteness of God dealt with? Some Christians will respond by seeking in some external way to make themselves more acceptable to God. “I must be at fault. God has abandoned me because of my sin/unworthiness: I must do something to earn his favour again” would seem to be a common mindset and it is a mindset which leads us right back to justification: justification by works.

The doctrine of justification by faith through grace remains apt, then, in our dealings with other Christians where we may have a role in the reassurance of those who, despite having a living faith, have not grasped a fundamental of how God deals with us. The doctrine is, as I have tried to set out in Luther’s terms, a biblical doctrine and Biblicism is seen by most Christians as a key foundation to faith.

In conclusion I would argue that the doctrine of Justification by faith alone through grace is as apt today as it ever was. Its theology is scriptural and remains sound and compelling: it has a relevance to the churched in the assurance it offers to the believer and in terms of evangelism is a powerful tool in its wider application of law and gospel to the unchurched. It is also an eschatological doctrine: Instead of judgment day being the doomsday of the medieval church, it is for Luther "the happy, last Day." There is in Luther a real anticipation at the prospect of judgment day and this is what we seek, as Christians, to share with those around us. “… being justified by faith, we … rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom 5.1-2)



L.W: Luther’s Works: (55 volumes) Fortress Press, 1955

St.L: Martin Luther’s saemmtliche Schriften, Ed. J.G Walch, Concordia, 1880-1910.

B.C: The Book Of Concord (Smalcald Articles), Translated and Edited by T.G. Tappert, Fortress Press, 1959.

Braaten C.E: Justification. The Article by Which the Church Stands or Falls, Fortress Press, 1990.

Leaver R.A: Luther on Justification, Concordia, 1985.

Wright T: Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Collins, 1980

Davie G: Religion in Britain since 1945, Blackwell, 1992.

Eberling G: Luther, An Introduction to His Thoughts, Collins, 1970.

Bosch, D J: Transforming Mission. Orbis, 1991.

Althaus P: The Ethics of Martin Luther. Fortress, 1972.

Peura S: Union With Christ – The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Edited by Braaten, Carl and Jensen, Robert W, Erdmans, 1998.