Luther on Justification by Faith Alone

Historians often equivocate the beginning of the Reformation with Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses to the door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. While that is considered a historic moment, Luther had no comprehension of the impact that his words would have on the world. In fact, when he nailed the theses to the door, Luther was still developing his position on indulgences, purgatory, and the pope’s position as “head of the church.”

But gospel light began to flood Luther’s mind with remarkable speed and conviction so that within three years he jettisoned all three errors and declared that the pope was antichrist rather than head of the church. While Luther came to see clearly the error of the church of Rome in these areas, one main area where he never fully understood the truth of Scripture was concerning the ordinances of the church, baptism, and the Lord’s supper. As his spiritual growth progressed, Luther began to see that some men of the past like John Huss, whom he had thought were in error, were actually holding forth the truth of the gospel. Luther stated: “I believed and I taught all the doctrines of John Huss without being aware of it: and so did Staupitz. In short, although unconscious of it, we are all Hussites. Paul and Augustine were so themselves.”

Luther was still learning at the time he nailed his theses; however, he had truly begun to grasp the doctrine of justification by faith. During the autumn of 1515, Luther lectured through Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. While studying for these lectures, the seed of the truth of justification by faith began to grow. Later, while preparing his 95 theses, he wrote, “Every Christian who truly repents of his sins, enjoys an entire remission both of the penalty and of the guilt, without any need of indulgences” (36). “Every true Christian, whether dead or alive, participates in all the blessings of Christ or of the Church, by God’s gift, and without a letter of indulgence” (37). A few months later in April of 1518, Luther traveled to Heidelberg to discuss his Paradoxes. He asserted in thesis number 25, “That man is not justified who performs many works; but he who, without works, has much faith in Christ.” These declarations demonstrate that Luther had begun to understand that justification by faith is freely bestowed. As this truth grew in Luther’s soul, it had a profound effect on both the Reformer and those around him. Through an increased understanding of this doctrine, multitudes were liberated from the bondage of Romanism. The younger reformer Philip Melanchthon was freed by this gospel, and he wrote about Luther’s teachings: “There is no one among all the Greek and Latin writers who has come nearer than Luther to the spirit of St. Paul.” Therefore, it is worth taking time to understand better the importance of this doctrine as preached by both Luther and Paul.

First, it is important to realize that we are justified by grace and not personal merit. During this time, Rome taught that man was saved by grace, but what they meant was sacramental grace. The sacraments were religious works that are still being used in their system today to obtain God’s favor. In other words, sacramental grace is achieved through a religious work, specifically participating in the sacraments. The Apostle Paul refutes this error when he confesses that we are “justified freely by His grace” (Romans 3:24). We do not earn God’s grace, but He freely gives it. Paul also clearly contrasted this saving grace with religious works: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11:6). Luther followed Paul’s example and stated that salvation was solely of grace. Luther wrote, “It is a great error to pretend of oneself to make satisfaction for our sins to God’s righteousness; God pardons them gratuitously by His inestimable grace.” And again he declared, “Wherefore we must needs say, that we be pronounced righteous by grace alone, or by faith alone in Christ, without the law and works.”

Second, we are justified by faith in Christ alone, not faith in Christ plus faith in the church or her sacraments. Luther taught, “This is the true meaning of becoming a Christian, even to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by the works of the law.” In contrast, Roman Catholic theologians asserted that each person’s trust should be in the church and her sacraments. For instance, when an infant is baptized, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that not only are all its sins forgiven and its soul regenerated, but the infant is also justified. In reality, they confuse justification and sanctification by clearly teaching that an infant is justified without faith by simply placing water upon its head. While Luther was not clear in all his conclusions on baptism, he did fully and faithfully teach that it was only by faith in Christ that a man is justified. “Faith in Christ takes away from you all trust in your own wisdom, righteousness, and strength; it teaches you that if Christ had not died for you, and had not thus saved you, neither you nor any other creature would have been able to do it. Then you learn to despise all those things that are unavailing to you. Nothing now remains to you but Jesus Christ—Christ alone, Christ all-sufficient for your soul. Hoping for nothing from any creature, you have only Christ, from whom you hope for everything, and whom you love above everything.”

Also, we are justified through the atonement of Christ, not through any cleansing we earn or purchase. Romanism teaches that in the sacrament of penance, a soul can receive forgiveness and merit in the form of an indulgence. Even in purgatory, where the soul is supposedly being purified from sin, those on earth can obtain forgiveness and merit for the one in this fictitious place of torment. In contrast, Luther pointed to the atonement of Christ alone. “If thou feel thy sins and the burden thereof, look not upon them in thyself, but remember that they are translated and laid upon Christ, whose stripes have made thee whole (Isaiah 53:5).” And again, he asserted, “O man! figure Jesus Christ to yourself, and contemplate how God in Him has shown thee His mercy, without any merit on thy part going before. Draw from this image of His grace the faith and assurance that all thy sins are forgiven thee. Works cannot produce it. It flows from the blood, and wounds, and death of Christ; thence it wells forth into our hearts.”

Finally, we are justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ, not by our own personal obedience to the law. Luther understood Paul’s teaching when he stated, “It is called the righteousness of God in contradistinction to man’s righteousness which comes from works.” The Roman Catholic church teaches that God’s righteousness is poured into the infant’s heart at baptism and that the child lives out that righteousness throughout his life. According to Romanism, a person’s own righteousness is all he has before a holy God. There is no righteous position or standing in Christ. In contrast, Paul taught that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to a believer (Romans 4:1-25; 5:1, 16-19). Luther agreed with the apostle and believed that there was a complete substitution of Christ’s righteousness for the believer’s imperfections. He said, “I have no righteousness but Christ; Christ has no sin but mine.” This understanding is the language of both the Old and New Testaments. Christ is called “our righteousness” in Jeremiah 23:6, and “[He] is made unto us . . . righteousness” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Believers are “made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21), and “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Romans 10:4). The Apostle desired therefore to “win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9). In Romans 4, Paul used the Old Testament word “impute” (Genesis 15:6) to refer to the transaction of declaring a sinner to be righteous (Romans 4:1-8; 22-23). The word “impute” has to do with God’s thoughts toward or view of a believer. God considers a person to be a certain way, in this case perfectly righteous, and then treats him in that fashion. In a courtroom setting, to “impute” means “to lay to one’s account.” Luther understood that God laid the righteousness of Christ to his account, and then God treated Luther as if he were perfectly righteous.

To emphasize that the believer did not earn this righteousness, Luther taught that it was an alien righteousness that God reckoned to the believer. “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, as it is written in 1 Corinthians 1:30.” In his commentary on Romans, Luther asserted, “So, then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us.” This means that our righteousness is outside of the believer’s experience and has to do with his standing or position before God. Literally, our righteousness is that of Christ Himself that He earned in His earthly ministry. On the one hand, this righteousness is alien to the believer’s experience, but on the other hand, it is personally his in his position before God. John Bunyan captured this truth in his statement, “Indeed this is one of the greatest mysteries in the world—namely, that a righteousness that resides with a person in heaven should justify me, a sinner, on earth.”

Ultimately, Luther realized that in justification an infinite righteousness is accounted to a believer. “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.” When the Church Fathers defended that Christ was one Person, they clearly taught that the atonement of Christ was infinite. Due to Christ’s one divine Person, He was able to give to His finite sufferings an infinite value. Luther clearly saw that a similar argument must be made for Christ’s righteousness. The actions of Christ when He was on the earth were perfectly righteous. Due to the deity of His Person, Christ is able to give His righteousness an unlimited or infinite value that will stand for all of the believer’s need for righteousness. Would that all would heed the admonition of Luther when he exclaimed, “O man! Figure Jesus Christ to yourself, and contemplate how God in Him has shown thee His mercy, without any merit on thy part going before.”

Dr. Mark Allison is president of Geneva Reformed Seminary, located in Greenville, SC, and serves as Chairman of the Foreign Missions Board.

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