Luther and Justification

What was the doctrine that split Christendom?

Arnold V. Wallenkampf is associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Washington, D.C.
Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo, taught salvation through M m. God's irresistible grace, and in the Pelagian controversy of the fifth century the church sided with him, rather than with Pelagius, the moral British monk, who asserted that man could be saved through his own will and good works. Yet during succeeding centuries the teachings of Augustine did not fare well. Finally, through the work of the scholastic theologians, particularly Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, human merit and work-righteousness dominated. Pious men and women la bored for salvation through their own efforts.

Then came Martin Luther, a monk who sought peace of soul and salvation under the merit system. After joining the Augustinian order at Erfurt, he did everything a monk could do to earn salvation. "If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there," 1 he said later. But the forms, rituals and self-torture he went through failed to give him peace of soul, while his heart continuously cried out, "How shall I find a gracious God?" Through his superior at the Augustinian monastery, John von Staupitz, through his study of the Bible and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Luther came to realize that "the just shall live by faith."

It was probably during his tower experience that Luther first realized "man is righteous in the sight of God, not because he has become, or started to become righteous, but because Christ has fulfilled the law for him and because God imputes the good works of Christ to him." 2 It became clear to Luther that justification is a gift of God to the repentant and searching sinner—something that God gratuitously does for man on the basis of Christ's death for him.

Luther's rediscovery of the apostolic teaching of justification by faith salved his aching heart. He rejoiced that he need not torture himself, as he had done for years in his monastic cell, in a constant effort to earn God's love. He had only to accept God's gift of justification by trusting God. Jesus had been offered for his salvation. Salvation was free!

Luther recognized that salvation is God's work, not man's. It was the father who graciously received and re stored the prodigal to sonship, when "he came to himself" and decided to return in response to his father's outreaching love. It was the shepherd who sought and found the lost sheep.

Luther realized "that we are pronounced righteous and are saved solely by faith in Christ, and without works." 3 Justification by faith does not make a sinner righteous, but rather through it a sinner is declared righteous. Works of righteousness do not precede and earn justification. Thus Luther said: "Works do not make us clean and pious. Nor do they save us; but first we are made clean and pious and are saved. Then we freely perform works to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbor." 4 Cleansing from sin and good works follow justification, as the heart clings to the Word. "The cleansing process must be carried out through the Word, which must be present at all times and must cleanse you both before and after." 5

To Luther, this was precious new light. He meditated upon it as he studied and taught theology at Wittenberg. "The just shall live by faith" loomed larger and larger in his thinking until it became the burning passion of his ardent soul. Justification by faith became to Luther the standing or falling of the church.

Naturally the establishment abominated such an "incendiary" doctrine. There really could be no other response, for in advocating justification by faith Luther changed the rules of the game by redefining both faith and justification. To Rome, faith meant belief in the doctrines of the church; and justification and sanctification were merged rather than separated as in Protestant theology. Ac cording to the canons of the Council of Trent, "justification ... is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man." 6

To Luther, as to Calvin, justification in the setting of the Pauline presentation in Romans and Galatians was basically forensic—an objective declaration at the throne of God that the repentant sinner was accounted righteous. It was not a subjective, ethical change in the sinner's life. Luther believed that a sinner is not righteously active in order to be born again; rather, he is born again in order to become active for God in doing good. 7

With reference to faith, Luther differentiated between two ways of believing. He expressed it thusly, "One way is to believe about God, as I do when I believe that what is said about God is true; just as I do when I believe what is said about the Turk, the devil or hell. This faith is knowledge or observation rather than faith. The other way is to believe in God, as I do when I not only believe that what is said about Him is true, but put my trust in Him, surrender myself to Him, and make bold to deal with Him, believing without doubt that He will be to me and do to me what is said of Him." 8

Saving faith to Luther was a living, active principle that irresistibly drove its possessor to willing obedience and service to God. He realized that faith does not save, but is the medium by which the sinner lays hold of God's gift of justification through Jesus' shed blood. It is solely a result of divine mercy, and not of human merit. Justification is a pardon, as the Lutherans later expressed it in the Formula of Concord. 9 Justification by faith delivers a child of God from condemnation. The apostle Paul triumphantly exclaims, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." 10

Joining the Reformer were men and women who had gone through the same troubled spiritual experience as he. Burdened with guilt before an angry God, they had vainly mortified themselves with privations and castigations. But there was no assurance of salvation in their own merits or works. Nor could they determine even what constituted the amount of good works needed to be freed from guilt and to escape purgatory. By bringing the doctrine of justification to light, Luther freed believers from this oppressive uncertainty. Salvation was not dependent on themselves and their work-righteousness, but on Jesus and His merit imputed to them through faith.

However, some flocked into the Reformation fold for license rather than for Christian freedom in Christ. To them, a forensic concept of justification was a mere theoretical imputation of Christ's substitutionary satisfaction for sin. They continued in their ungodly ways, not understanding that sola fide, or justification by faith alone, makes sense only in the setting of true faith that works by love. "Justification does not require the works of the Law; but it does require a living faith, which performs its works," 11 Luther said. And again: "He who is justified performs good works; for this is the meaning of Scripture: Justification precedes good works, and works are performed by those who are justified." 12

Thus Luther verily believed and taught that works will follow justification as inevitable fruits of salvation. "If works do not follow, then Christ's suffering and death have done you no good: you are still in death, you belong to the devil; for you do no works, bear no fruits of faith. . . . Once salvation is yours, you are to do everything and be full of good works." 13 "For as naturally as a tree bears fruit good works follow upon faith." 14

Luther continued: "Our faith in Christ does not free us from works, but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works. Faith re deems, corrects, and preserves our con sciences so that we know that righteousness does not consist in works, although works neither can nor ought to be wanting." 15 And "our works should be done, not that we may be justified by them, since, being justified beforehand by faith, we ought to do all things freely and joyfully for the sake of others." 16 The cautions were of no avail; pseudo Christians gathered under his banner but refused to accept the Reformer's definition of faith. Thus, his teaching regarding justification became deleterious to moral Christian living among large groups of his alleged followers.*

Greed and selfishness were other potent motives, inducing people to espouse the Reformation. In some countries, artisans and the rising merchant class were the main recipients of the confiscated landed wealth of the Roman Church. These became staunch supporters of the Reformation, but from wrong motives. Luther admitted that "unfortunately, many of our people—yes, most of them—are still worse" 17 than the Catholics.

Luther's stress on the doctrine of justification by faith must be understood against the background of the common teaching of the church in his day. It was the common belief—and cultivated by the monastic system—that by fulfilling all the religious rituals a person would not merely save his own soul, but accumulate merit that could be transferred to another person through indulgences. Luther said: "What was I looking for so long in the cloister? Why did I read or pray so many masses, canonical hours, and rosaries? Why did I expect comfort from the dead saints? Why did I go here and there on pilgrimages and for indulgences? All this was done—and no one can deny it—to expiate our sins, to reconcile God, and to be saved. And what is even more unchristian, we monks made bold to help others get to heaven in this way; for we assumed that we needed our works not only for ourselves but sold or represented them to the dying as supererogatory merit. We comforted the dying with what we had done, and bade them depart this life in reliance on it." 18

On his religious conviction of justification by faith, Luther staked his fate. It became dearer than life to him. When in 1521 he was summoned by Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, to appear before the Diet at Worms, many of his friends tried to deflect him from so dangerous an exposure. They reminded him of John Huss, who had gone to Constance about 100 years earlier under Emperor Sigismund's promise of safe conduct. For him it had ended in the emperor's breach of promise and his death at the stake in Constance.

In spite of this, Luther could not be dissuaded. For the truth of God he stood firm as a rock, ready to risk life, if need be. He wrote to his friend George Spalatin on April 14, 1521, "I would enter Worms even if as many devils were in that city as tiles on the roof." 19

Thus Worms became a watershed in the history of Christendom, and "justification by faith alone" a solace to sinners yearning for salvation. The doctrine that split Christendom in the sixteenth century has healed the hurt of prodigal hearts, for it gives assurance of acceptance and salvation through the merits of Christ.


1 Quoted by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910), 7:116.

2 Quoted by Otto W. Heick, A History of Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 1:324.

3 "Lectures on Galatians, 1535," Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, and St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), 26:223.

4 Ewald M. Plass, ed., What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 3:1262, 1263.

5 Luther's Works, 24:211.

6 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House), 11:94.

7 Luther says: "Our salvation is given us at once and is not obtained by works. For birth does not produce one member only . . . but the entire life, a complete human being, who is not active in order to be born but is born in order to be active. Just so works do not make us clean or pious. Nor do they save us; but first we are made clean and pious and saved. Then we freely perform works to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbor."— Plass, loc. cit.

8 "A Brief Explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer," Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publishing House, 1915-1932), 2:368.

9 See Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:116, 117.

10 Romans 8:1.

11 Plass, op. cit., 2:721.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., p. 724.

14 Ibid., 1: 475

15 Luther's Works, 31:372.

16 Ibid., 31:368.

17 Ibid., 23:317

18 Ibid., 24: 325

19 Ibid., 48: 198, n. 4.



* Luther vainly protested against those who would pervert righteousness by faith into license in the following language (quoted in Christianity Today, October 6, 1978, page 55): "They [some evangelical preachers] are truly beautiful proclaimers of Easter, but shameful preachers of Pentecost. For they preach nothing about the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, only about salvation in Christ. . . . However, Christ has earned for us not
only God's mercy, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we should have not only forgiveness, but also an end of sins. Whoever remains in his earlier evil ways must have another kind of Christ. Consequence demands that a Christian should have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has not received Christ at all." —The Editors.

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Arnold V. Wallenkampf is associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Washington, D.C.

April 1979

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