Martin Luther and Justification By Faith

Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

The great doctrine of justification by faith is part of our glorious heritage, come down to us from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. It was the unique contribution of the work of the first of all the reformers: Martin Luther. It became the central truth of Luther's theology. Schaff writes:

Luther assigned to his solifidian (by faith alone) doctrine of justification the central position in the Christian system, declared it to be the article of the standing or falling (Lutheran) church, and was unwilling to yield an inch from it, though heaven and earth should collapse.

That this truth occupied such an important position in Luther's thought was due to his own personal struggle to come to the assurance of salvation and peace with God. Everyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the great Reformation of the sixteenth century knows of Luther's great struggle, a struggle which dominated a significant part of his life, a struggle which ended only when he discovered the great truth of justification by faith alone, a struggle through which God, in His all-wise providence, led Luther so that this great Biblical truth was a truth which Luther taught from the depths of his own personal experience. 

The struggle to find assurance not only lasted a long time, but the gradual dawning of the truth of justification by faith also was not the insight of a moment, but a long and arduous struggle. It is perhaps best to let Luther tell the story in his own words:

Meanwhile I had already during that year (1514, the year of his great "tower experience," H.H.) returned to interpret the Psalter (the Book of Psalms on which he was lecturing in the university, H.H.) anew. I had confidence in the fact that I was more skilful, after I had lectured in the university on St. Paul's epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the one to the Hebrews. I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in Chapter 1 (17), "In it the righteousness of God is revealed," that had stood in my way. For I hated that word righteousness of God, which, according Co the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. 

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, "As it indeed, it .is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with His righteousness and wrath!" Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately on Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live." There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, "'He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which He makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which He makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had hated the word "righteousness of God." Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. Later I read Augustine's The Spirit and the Letter, where contrary to hope I found that he, too, interpreted God's righteousness in a similar way, as the righteousness with which God clothes us when He justifies us. Although this was heretofore said imperfectly and he did not explain all things concerning imputation clearly, it nevertheless was pleasing that God's righteousness with which we are justified was taught. Armed more fully with these thoughts, I began a second time to interpret the Psalter.

Sometimes we become so accustomed to the rich truths of our heritage that we take them for granted and do not appreciate what they really mean. E.g., our Heidelberg Catechism begins with the well-known words: "What is your only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . . ." We can, I think, hardly appreciate how words of this sort thundered throughout the whole of Europe. Rome never could preach a gospel of comfort. I recall not so long ago reading The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anslem, a pious man of the eleventh century who served as Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the highest positions in the church. In all his prayers and meditations, one can find no word of comfort, no assurance of salvation, no joy in Christ. It is a book filled with heart-rending cries for mercy, with anxious pleas for pardon, with bitter denunciations of sin, with longings which are never satisfied. Never, not once, is there to be found so much as a breath of comfort. Imagine then what it meant that the Reformers came to people with the astonishing words: "We bring to you a gospel of comfort, a Word from God which will take away the ache of your soul, which will bring peace of heart, which will satisfy your deepest longings, which will change your cries of shame to songs of joyful praise."

Roman Catholic theology had no word of comfort for the saints. It had none because of its doctrine of justification. It taught a justification by works or a salvation which came to man by grace and human merit. As Schaff says, "In the Catholic system justification is a gradual process conditioned by faith and good works." Roman Catholicism confused justification with sanctification and spoke of justification as a process of becoming more and more righteous through one's faith and one's good works. This could not possibly bring peace of heart to the anxious child of God, for he knew, deep down within himself, that his own works could never accomplish anything. No wonder that Luther kept asking himself, when a monk, whether he was sufficiently hard on himself, whether God would notice his hunger and his cold, whether any good could come from beating himself. Always a hollow and empty void filled him. 

All this was made the worse by his firm conviction, in keeping with Roman Catholic thought, that the Biblical term, "the righteousness of God," meant God's fierce anger against sin because God was righteous and punished sin in His justice. 

But God led him to see, while struggling with the meaning of such passages of Scripture as Romans 1:17, that the term, "righteousness of God," referred not to that attribute of God Himself according to which He hates and punishes sin, but referred rather to a righteousness which comes from God and is freely and graciously given to the sinner for Christ's sake. It is a righteousness judicially imputed. It is a single act of God whereby God declares the sinner to be without guilt, and clothes the sinner in the righteousness of Christ. 

Not what Luther did, the Reformer suddenly saw, but what God did—that was the heart of the whole matter. 

This amazing discovery led also to an understanding of what faith is. Roman Catholic theology had interpreted faith as mere agreement on the part of the member of the church that whatever the church said is truth. The church member had nothing else to do but accept and assent to the teachings of the church. 

Luther soon saw that faith is much more. Faith is that which puts the believer in abiding union with Christ. It is exactly the opposite of works—of which Luther had had his fill. It is that God-given power whereby the believer lives in Christ, and Christ in the believer. It is a power which enables the believer to cling to Christ, lay hold on Christ's perfect sacrifice as his own, find shelter and safety in all the stormy seas of sin beneath the cross of Calvary. And because precisely this faith is the opposite of works, it too is. God's work. God makes us one with Christ; and making us one with Christ, God declares us to be righteous for Christ's sake. 

No wonder that this became, for Luther, the all controlling principle of his life, his theology, and all his reformatory work. It was that one truth which, as a crashing cannonball, smashed to pieces the imposing citadel of Rome's entire theological system. It was the one powerful attack upon all Rome's heresy which swept it away as with a whirlwind, which swept salvation once and for all out of the hands of mere man, and which restored salvation to God and His gracious work through Christ. 

And it formed the firm foundation for the great truth of comfort for God's people. If comfort is to be found in what we do, in what our hands accomplish, in our works, "we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed" (Belgic Confession, Article XXIV). If comfort is to be found in what God does through Christ and in that perfect righteousness of God revealed in the cross and worked in us through faith, then truly we have a firm comfort which carries us safely through life and death into the arms of Christ in glory.

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