Monday, August 19, 2013

Luther on Justification

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When one thinks of the Reformation, the fat monk with beer in hand who goes by the name of Martin Luther is usually the first person that comes to mind. According to the Augustinian monk, justification was by far the most essential doctrine of the Church. What makes this claim so monumental is that this was the first time in the history of the church that such an emphasis was placed on justification. Luther went as far as claiming that if one did not believe the correct teaching, one was not even a Christian![1] Luther viewed justification as the very foundation of the Church. It was “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler and the judge over all kinds of doctrines;”[2] “upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world.[3]
Having grown up in the Protestant Church, I had heard the phrase “justified by faith alone” so many times I thought that it was an actual verse in the Bible. It was used to combat the heretical Catholic doctrine of “justification by works.” Since these were the only two options available, the former was obviously correct. As I dug deeper into theology, I also started hearing “justification by faith alone” to combat Arminianism, with emphasized free will and man’s part in salvation, thereby also a sort of “salvation by works.” Recently, I have learned about justification’s prominence in Free Grace Theology, or the Eternal Security doctrine. Obviously, much confusion swirls around this phrase. Are Christians using it today in the same way Luther used it in the sixteenth century? Is he truly responsible for the teaching of those who came after him, including the recent theology of “Free Grace”? 

Unfortunately, I will only have time for a painstakingly brief overview of Luther’s teachings on justification and will not have space to answer the last question (thought I hope to continue reflecting on the issue). The resources I consulted were Lohse’s Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, Bromiley’s Historical Theology: An Introduction, a number of different journal articles on Luther and justification, and finally, Luther’s 1535 Commentary on Galatians. My understanding is still quite murky, but I will attempt to outline a few prominent doctrines associated with the article of justification. 

It is important to note that Luther was not a systematician. Luther did not give us any kind of formula or outline for justification. Lohse points out that Luther will even speak of the term justification in different ways. Luther will state that justification is defined as God’s declaration that a man is righteous. Other times, however, Luther will speak of justification as more of a process, teaching that justification is the “event by which one is ‘acquitted,’ changed, and renewed by virtue of the divine promise and grace.”[4] This better explains why there is so much disagreement in understanding Luther’s teachings.         
It is best to begin with an overview of what Luther called “the true meaning of Christianity.” For Luther, a man must first recognize that he is a sinner and that it’s not even possible to do any good work. This is where Luther’s concept of “Law” comes in. The purpose of the law is to terrify and condemn man.[5] Man sees that he is a sinner and accepts that he deserves eternal punishment, thereby agreeing with God’s word and justifying God. Therefore, Luther teaches we must first preach repentance and explain the corruption of each man.[6]

In response to his utter depravity in God’s eyes, one must take the second step and understand the gospel and what is termed “passive righteousness.”[7] Here is the end of a man. It is when man no longer works or tries to earn God’s good graces. Instead he gives up completely and accepts the righteousness of Christ, a completely free gift of God. This gift is not something man can work for and grasp by his own strength; instead it is only obtained through imputation. Thus, “the highest art and wisdom of Christians is to not know the law, to ignore works and all active righteousness.”[8] Those who continue to try and work at their salvation rob God of the glory of His Deity and thus cannot be saved.[9]

Luther has the Roman Church of his day in full view when articulating his position. Unfortunately I do not have a good grasp on their teachings but Luther will, at times, explain their positions quite fully. Before delivering this true meaning of Christianity, Luther debunked their system of grace, which had developed into the two categories of meriting grace by congruity and meriting grace by condignity.[10] After his rebuttal, Luther went on to explicitly denounce their idea of inherent righteousness and argue against the Catholic idea that faith in Christ is dead if love does not follow.[11]

                This last view of the 16th century Catholics is one that must be focused on since Luther’s response is quite fascinating. He determines that if love was required for justification then it is no longer grace but Law.[12] This is quickly equated with adding works to justification, with the result that one would be removing Christ’s honor as Justifier and setting “Him up as the agent of sin.”[13] In contrast, although Luther concedes that Law and good works ought to be done, he demands that works be rejected when discussing justification.[14]

Elsewhere, Luther contrasts those who teach “faith formed by love” with faith that takes “hold of nothing but Christ alone.”[15] Luther argues that one only needs this latter faith without the addition of love to be righteous; otherwise one would “reject Christ, this jewel; and in His place they put their love, which they say is a jewel.”[16]

                This all makes sense when considering Luther’s view of faith. Faith is not merely trusting God in general. It is how one “takes hold of Christ.” Luther teaches, “It [faith] takes hold of Christ in such a way that Christ is the object of faith, or rather not the object but, so to speak, the One who is present in the faith itself.”[17] It is in this way that Christ actually lives in man’s heart and is true Christian righteousness, for man is grasping and clinging to Christ through faith.[18] Luther sums this concept well with this statement:

Faith takes hold of Christ and has Him present, enclosing Him as the ring encloses the gem. And whoever is found having this faith in the Christ who is grasped in the heart, him God accounts as righteous.[…] Thus God accepts you or accounts you righteous only on account of Christ, in whom you believe.[19]

With such an understanding of faith it is easy to see why Luther felt the Catholics of his day were in such error. In fact, I could see Luther making such a conclusion about many within modern Protestantism. It will be quite interesting to compare this view with even other reformers. Unfortunately, my survey will have to abruptly halt here. 

My initial reaction to Luther’s teaching is that of awe and yet hesitancy. I cannot help but feel that though Luther presents such a beautiful picture of God’s grace, did he perhaps make too sharp of a distinction between grace and action? Was Paul arguing against the idea of any active participation on the part of the sinner when he so fiercely taught that one is justified by faith? What of all of the warning passages and the urging to live godly lives found in Scripture? Though Paul does emphasize that it is Christ who lives in Him, is it to the extent that the believer is not even to be active in his pursing of God? I think Luther’s emphasis on passiveness is always an important reminder, I simply ask if he emphasized it too much. My looming question that still needs to be researched is what exactly is the role of works in the life of a believer?

Triglot Concordia: The Symbolic Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, German-Latin-English. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. PDF.
Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Historical Theology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978. Print.
Forell, George W. "Justification and Eschatology in Luther's Thought." Church History. 38.2 (1969). PDF.
Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther's Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999. Print.
Luther, Martin, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Walter A. Hansen. Luther's Works: Vol. 26. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963. Print.

[1] Luther states, “And unless you are part of the company of those who say “our sins,” that is, who have this doctrine of faith and who teach, hear, learn, love, and believe it, there is no salvation.” Luther’s Works: Vol. 26, page 35. See also Lohse, Martin Luther's Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, page 259 where Lohse writes, “Such concentration on one particular article as we find in Luther is without precedent.”
[2] Weimar Ausgabe, 39, I, 205, Promotionsdisputation von Paladins und Tüemann, June  1,
1537. qtd in “Justification and Eschatology in Luther's Thought” by George Wolfgang Forell.
[3] Triglot Concordia: The Symbolic Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, German-Latin-English, The Smalcald Articles 2.1.5
[4] Lohse 260
[5] This entire paragraph is taken from LW 26 pages 7 and 126-7
[6] Free Grace Theologians would have a fit about this.
[7] See LW 87ff
[8] Ibid 7
[9] Ibid 7 and 127
[10] Ibid 125
[11] Ibid 144
[12] Ibid 144
[13] Ibid 145
[14] Ibid 137
[15] Ibid 89
[16]LW 89
[17] Ibid 129
[18] Ibid 130
[19] Ibid 132

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