Luther and Justification by Faith Alone

30 October 2013 by Wes Bredenhof


I’m currently in Brazil lecturing on church history at the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.  The course is on the Reformation.  In view of Reformation Day tomorrow, let me share part of this morning’s lecture notes on Martin Luther and his doctrine of justification by faith alone.  We can be thankful and praise God for Luther’s recovery of this key gospel teaching!


We have already touched on justification a little bit.  I remind you that most medieval Catholic theology saw justification as a process.  It was a process in which it was necessary for man to cooperate with God’s grace.  The typical medieval view of justification was therefore synergistic; it was at best semi-Pelagian.  We saw that Staupitz started departing from this view.  He viewed justification as an event and he did put a more biblical emphasis on the grace of God.  However, it was Luther who really brought things all the way back to the Bible.

Luther’s doctrine of justification is quite similar to the Reformed doctrine of justification as we have it in the Three Forms of Unity.  This was a point largely held in common by both the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation.  Therefore, I don’t think there should be any surprises for us here.  It should be a good review of the biblical doctrine of justification.

Luther read Scripture and concluded that justification is a forensic term, it refers to a legal declaration that God makes about a sinner.  It is “God’s sure and certain declaration that we are righteous in his eyes…only because of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”  In his law, God demands that mankind be perfectly obedient.  Jesus Christ has done that for us in his perfect life and his righteousness is imputed to us.  In his justice, God demands that the sinner be punished for having transgressed the law.  Jesus Christ has done that for us on the cross and our sins have been placed upon him.  In its basis, Luther’s doctrine of justification includes what we call both the active and passive obedience of Christ.  Active refers to his life of obedience to God’s law in our place.  Passive refers to his suffering obedience to pay for our sins.  Both are included in Luther’s doctrine of justification as part of the basis.  The basis of justification is in God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone.

The means by which this justification is received is only through faith.  Faith is the instrument of justification.  Good works contribute nothing to justification in Luther’s theology.  In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote, “This [justification] cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit.  Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us.”  It is also important to note that Luther’s definition of faith excludes good works.  Faith is simply resting and trusting in Christ.  It does not include anything else.  Luther wrote “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”  Faith is simply “unconditional trust of God in his Word.”  It’s important to note this because many of Luther’s opponents had a different view.  Many Catholic theologians had taught that in its essence faith must include good works.  Therefore, we can say that we are justified by faith, but then works get smuggled in along with faith.  The result is what could be described as justification by faithfulness, rather than by faith.  Luther rejected that view.

So then, what about good works?  In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote, “Such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins are followed by good works.”  Good works are the inevitable fruit of justification.  Luther again:  “We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, the faith is false and not true.”  A justified Christian will always bear fruit in good works.

Let me briefly mention two other points in connection with this doctrine.  First of all, what did Luther do with James and his teaching on justification?  You may remember that James appears to contradict Paul.  Paul says that justification is by faith apart from works.  James says that justification is “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).  How did Luther deal with this apparent difference?  He struggled with it.  He could not explain it.  Because of his difficulty with it, you may hear of Luther’s describing the book of James as an epistle of straw.  However, this needs to be understood in context.  For one thing, Luther included James as a canonical book in his German Bible translation.  If he thought it was not really part of the Bible, he would have left it out.  Nevertheless, this does leave Luther with something like a canon within the canon.  For another thing, when Luther said it he was making a comparison with Romans and other books of Paul.  For one more thing, Luther preached on James as the Word of God.  So he never threw James out of the canon or rejected this book as the Word of God.  Later on, as I’m sure you know, Protestant Bible interpreters did arrive at a solution to the apparent difficulty between Paul and James, but for Luther it remained a paradox.

Luther is credited with being among the first to clearly recognize the biblical teaching that justified Christians are both sinners and saints.  He used the Latin expression, “simul iustus et peccator.”  This is an essential part of the doctrine of justification because it relates to imputation.  In imputation, Christ’s righteousness is credited to our accounts with God.  In God’s sight, we become what we are not.  We are sinners, but through Christ, we are accounted righteous.  But even after justification, we still sin and we are still sinners.  Not as far as our status with God goes, but as we live out our daily experience on this earth.  This is important to note because later on in church history, the doctrine of justification comes under attack in Protestantism and it is revised heavily in an unbiblical direction.  As a result, simul iustus et peccator also comes under attack.  However, Luther saw that this was a crucial part of the biblical doctrine of justification.  By God’s grace he recovered it for us.

Sometimes you will read that it was Luther who said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  Luther certainly spoke along those lines.  However, that actual wording did not come from Luther.  Instead, it came from a Reformed theologian living some time later, J. H. Alsted.  Alsted was a German Reformed theologian from the post-Reformation period.  Regardless of its original source, it is important to note that both Lutheran and Reformed theologians have recognized the central significance of this doctrine.  If the church gets this doctrine wrong, it has consequences in so many ways.  However, when the church closely follows what the Bible teaches, as Luther did, there are many blessings to be enjoyed.

KEY POINTS:  Luther’s doctrine of justification is basically what we find in the Three Forms of Unity.  It is a legal declaration on the basis of what Christ has done for the sinner.  It is received by faith alone, and faith excludes any works.  Justification inevitably does produce good works in the life of the believer.  Luther could not explain the apparent difference between Paul and James on works in justification.  Finally, he emphasized that the Christian believer is simul iustus et peccator.