Martin Luther is associated with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. What did he mean by this? What were the alternatives he rejected.
Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. Martin Luther was ordained as a priest in 1507. In 1512, he earned a doctorate of theology degree.
According to Gary Thomas, “it was in response to teaching such as this that Luther performed perhaps the most influential religious act of the millennium when he nailed 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door on 31 October, 1517. This date is often celebrated as the birthday of the protestant reformation”. Luther married Catherine Von Bora, a former Cistercian nun, on 13 June, 1525. Martin Luther believed that we were justified by God through faith alone, not by good works. The holy spirit enlightened Martin Luther on the doctrine of justification. “he put scripture above church tradition and stressed personal faith and experience.”
Luther died in 1546 in Eiselben. According to Gary Thomas, “Protestantism was legally recognized nearly seven years later in the treaty of Passau in 1552”.
Martin Luther, Father of Protestantism. Martin Luther was of medium build. He was slender, not thin, and he had a clear voice. Martin Luther seems to have had a happy disposition. Martin Luther was vehement in his beliefs and he said “I am bound not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and death. I want to believe freely and be a slave to the authority of noone, whether council, university or pope. I will confidently confess what appears to me to be true, whether it has been asserted by a catholic or a heretic, whether it has been approved or reproved by a council”.
Martin Luther was willing to give up his life for his beliefs. The truth that Martin Luther so vehemently believed in was revealed to him by the holy spirit, who guided Martin Luther through the reformation which leaned towards all that was true and right and that truth was the infallible word of God.
R. C. Sproul asks “does saving faith require a trust in the righteousness of Christ alone as the grounds of our justification? Or may a person have a different view of the gospel and still be a Christian?”
What is justification? According to Merril C. Tenney , general editor of the Pictorial Bible Dictionary, p. 460, “justification is a reversal of God’s attitude toward the sinner because of his new relation in Christ; justification is a declarative act by which the sinner is declared to be free from guilt and the consequences of sin’.
R. C. Sproul, p. 19, says “the logic followed by the reformers is this.
- Justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel.
- The gospel is essential to Christianity and to salvation.
- The gospel is essential to a church’s being a true church.
- To reject justification by faith alone is to reject the gospel and to fall as a church.’
According to Mike Butterworth, p. 14, “the verb translated ‘justify’ is derived from the noun sedeq – righteousness. It is a causative form and we should expect it to mean ‘cause to be righteous, make righteous’.”
Steve Motyer, p. 45, states “the law itself had a demonstrably temporary nature, Paul believes. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:24)”
I personally believe that man is justified, made righteous, by faith. When a person accepts God ‘our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ enters his heart. This person is made righteous and declared not guilty. If we draw an eschatological diagram we see that justification plays a vital role in the eschatology of the believer.
James Atkinson asks “is justification by faith, then, the key to the bible? Not in the sense of being a critical canon for judging its meaning and truth but it does give interpreters perspective, for it shows us that the God of the Bible is the God whose constant and proper work is justifying sinners by grace”. Therefore justification by grace is the stability for our present and the hope for our future.
Now let us look into the controversial resolutions between the Roman Catholic and evangelical dialogues on justification. One of their quotations was “we see justification by faith alone as an essential of the gospel on which radical disagreement continues, and we deny the adequacy of any version of the gospel that falls short at this point”. The Roman Catholics and the evangelicals agree that justification is by grace. The Roman Catholics, however, disagree that justification is by faith. The Roman Catholics say, according to R. C. Sproul “Again Rome has always insisted that faith is a necessary condition for justification. What they denied historically is that it is a sufficient condition. The information was waged, not over the question of justification by faith, but over the issue of justification by faith alone. It was sola of sola fide that was the central point of dispute”.
What did Martin Luther mean by justification and what was his doctrine? R. C. Sproul says “For Martin Luther, justification by faith alone means that justification is by the righteousness of Christ alone, and his righteousness is appropriated by faith alone”. R. C. Sproul goes on to say “the word alone was a solecism on which the entire reformation doctrine of justification was erected”. Therefore, the pillar or the foundation of the doctrine of justification is that a person is justified by grace and “faith alone” in Jesus Christ.
According to Martin Luther, “if the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time”. According to John Calvin, “the doctrine of justification is the principal ground on which religion must be supported”. J. I. Packer comments on Luther’s formula articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae: “by this he meant when this doctrine is understood, believed and preached, or it is in the new testament times, the church stands in the grace of God and is alive, but where it is neglected, overlaid or denied, as it was in the medieval Catholicism, the church falls from grace and its life drains away leaving it in a state of darkness and death. The reason why the reformation happened and protestant churches came into being was that Luther and his fellow reformers believed that Papal Rome had apostatized from the gospel”.
According to R. C. Sproul, the doctrinal causes for reformation were:
||Scripture is the sole authority in doctrinal matters.
||Justification is by grace alone through faith alone.
Luther stated “A Christian is righteous and holy by an alien or foreign holiness. I call it this for the sake of instruction – that is, he is righteous by the mercy and grace of God”.
John Calvin says “It is entirely by the intervention of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment.”
Therefore the doctrine of justification is that man is justified by Christ only by the grace of God and only by faith in God. Man is therefore now not under law but under grace.
The Second Heluetic of 1556 is very explicit in affirming the same truth: “But because we receive this justification not through works, but through faith in the mercy of God and in Christ, we therefore teach and believe with the apostle that sinful man is justified by faith alone in Christ not by the law or any works”.
Therefore, justification can be attained by man through faith alone and not by works due to the immeasurable grace of God.
What were the alternatives that Martin Luther rejected?
- Aristotle’s ethics at Whittenberg. According to Iurtitia, the work of Aristotle is that it demands a reason. In other words, a good person has good coming his way and the contrary. Alister McGrath states “for Luther however, justification is totally contrary to reason in that God justifies sinners”.
- Via Moderna: This is the second alternative that Martin Luther rejected. Via Moderna is that God blesses us when we do good works. For example, when an individual sins then goes on pilgrimage, he gets a reward from God, that is forgiveness of sins committed. In many eastern religions, especially the concept of punishing oneself or going on a pilgrimage to please the deity, is the core of Hinduism. Through Via Moderna, pactum came into being. Alister E. Mcgrath defines pactum as “a reliable framework within which the mutual rights and obligations of God and man have their context”. Luther says in his lectures on Romans “because of sin, not because of human weakness, but as the penalty of sin; but your spirit, that is your inner man, is alive because of justification”. Martin Luther was greatly influenced by Saint Augustine and realized Saint Augustine believed or came to the knowledge of justification.
- The understanding of Bielian was equity and justice. Bielan says “Equity and justice are usually distinguished in the Scriptures, in that equity is concerned with persons, while justice deals with causes”. According to Alister E. Mcgrath, “Luther however uses the term in the sense of absence of partiality. If God judges in equity, he considers only a man’s deeds, and not who the agent actually is”.
Through the enlightenment that Martin Luther received through the word of God, we are now protestants and we have the infallible word of God in our hands. Martin Luther in his commentary on Galatians says: “Do we work nothing for the obtaining of this righteousness? I answer: Nothing at all. For the nature of this righteousness is to do nothing, to hear nothing, to know nothing whatsoever of the law or of the works but to know and to believe this only, that Christ is gone to the father”.
In conclusion, I would like to say that Martin Luther was a man chosen by God to change history in the Christian world. It is because of Martin Luther and his devotion and study of the Word of God that we are now able to study the Word. The foundation of Protestantism is God working through his word. I would like to quote A Mighty Fortress is Our God written by Martin Luther during a very difficult time in his life. It was written in 1529.
According to Henry Gariepy, “Mired in depression, Luther turned to two of his most effective antidotes – music and scripture. The second verse says
“Did we in our own strength confide
Our striving would be losing
Were not the right man on our side
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He.
Lord Sabaoth His name,
From age to age the same.
And He must win the battle.”
Amen. God won the battle. Martin Luther, the great reformer, who brought about Protestantism was an awesome, powerful instrument used by God. The doctrine of justification brings about the essence of Christianity. It is by grace and not works.
A Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galations based on lectures delivered by Martin Luther, University of Whittenberg in the year 131, and first published in 1535, James Clarke & Co. Ltd London
Gariepy, Henry, Songs in the Night, Eerdman’s Publishing Co., Cambridge UK, 1996.
Glosses & Scholia, Luther’s Works, Lectures on Romans, Concordia Publishing House, Saint Louis, Missouri, 1972
MacArthur, John, Sproul, R. C., Beeke, Joel, Gerstner, John, Armstrong, John, Justification by Faith Alone, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2000.
McGrath, Alister E., Luther’s Theology of The Cross, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford UK, 1985.
Packer, J. I., Butterworth, M., Motyer, S., Atkinson, J., Bray, G. L., Carey, G., Wheaton, D. H., Here We Stand, Hodder and Stoughton.
Sproul, R. C., Faith Alone, Baker Books America, 1995.
Tenney, Merril C., Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Michigan, Zondervan, 1963.