“Luther found peace with God through being justified by faith alone. Yet in finding peace, he discovered he was at war with the world. The irony—that the sweet and pure good news from heaven would bring such enormous warfare and destruction—was not missed by Luther. In his later years, he would reflect on how the world has ever been at war with the gospel, going back even to Paradise and the murder of Abel by Cain. He perceived this rage against the promise of grace continuing on through history, up to his own time. ‘Yet I am compelled to forget my shame and be quite shameless in view of the horrible profanation and abomination which have always raged in the Church of God, and still rage to-day, against this one solid rock which we call the doctrine of justification.’”1 (Page 35)
“Luther [recognized] that the law and gospel are two entirely distinct categories: law is not gospel, gospel is not law. The beauty and power of each vanish when they are blended together. The perfection and majesty of the law is compromised, and the announcement of the good news that Christ kept the law for us and suffered the curse of the law for us is entirely lost. Blending the two leads one into suffocating moralism, anguished guilt, or a lofty legalism that destroys everything and everyone in its wake.” (Page 47)
“Luther grasped the fact that sinners were declared righteous by God apart from any of their works, whereas the [Roman] Church in Luther’s day taught that sinners were made righteous in actual conduct as they cooperated with God’s grace. This actual righteousness, the Church taught, was the means by which a person was justified before God. Luther understood the subtle yet damning error in this teaching, for while it acknowledged God’s grace as helping the sinner to obey, it placed salvation back into the efforts of man and removed the objective peace of God that rested entirely in Christ alone.” (Page 51)
Three Problems with Free Will
“Salvation by works. Luther understood free will as being at the very heart of the gospel. He realized that if man’s will is truly free, then man is capable of keeping God’s law perfectly and thus earning a right standing with God.
Remember that Luther had tried himself to behave perfectly before God, and failed. Every monk he had ever known had failed. Every Jew in the Old Testament— indeed, every person in the Bible, except Jesus, had failed. To Luther, Scripture itself explained why free will was a false notion, and therefore why every person other than Jesus has always failed and will always fail to behave in a way that God finds acceptable.
“In other words, Luther realized that if man’s will is free, he can save himself through works, without any help from the perfect life and sacrificial death of Christ on the cross.
“Salvation by decision. Luther also recognized a second, separate, fundamental problem: if man has free will he can choose to believe. This means that a person with free will can—indeed, he must—contribute to his own salvation. Such a choice thus becomes a necessary element of every Christian’s salvation. A person’s eternal destiny thus comes to rest in his or her own decision, rather than in the sovereign decree of the Triune God.
“Shared glory. Finally, Luther noted that if one held to the doctrine of free will, glory does not go to God alone. It is shared with man who has chosen God.
“For all these reasons, Luther thought the concept of free will established man as judge and arbiter over God. He keenly observed that Erasmus’s thoughts started with man and not with God. Therefore, in writing to Erasmus he stated, ‘Your thoughts of God are too human.’”2 (Page 61)
“Luther’s definition of the words repentance and faith reveal a third integral aspect of his understanding of the gospel. He stood against the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of these words that undercut the free gospel of grace. Incorrect definitions of these terms would ruin the entire gospel message. In our day, as well, the gospel is often lost because we have vague definitions of these terms—definitions that insert works and human effort back into the gospel. Therefore it is crucial to be clear on what repentance and faith actually mean.” (Page 55)
“The promise of the gospel—specifically, being justified by faith alone and not by works—was what Luther considered to be the difference between the true and living God and all other gods, which were merely idols. In his lectures on Psalm 51, Luther noted that all other gods besides the true and living God, no matter their name, are simply one and the same god—a god who masquerades as Jehovah, but is in fact merely a god without mercy, knowing only justice and wrath. He is a god without the promise of grace, a god before whom we could never be justified. To encounter God without his offer of grace is to destroy ourselves.
“Luther’s distinction between god the absolute (the false gods who relate to us by works) and the God of promise was a brilliant observation. All the religions of the world that seek justification through law (no matter what form this law may take) are worshiping a false god. Even those who may belong to a Protestant church but are still seeking to be justified by works are worshiping the ‘absolute god’ (to use Luther’s phrase), who is really no god at all but rather an idol. Only in true Christianity can the living and true God—the God of promise—be found. Only before the God of promise can we stand justified by faith alone. Only by the promise of the gospel can we have goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life and know the sweetness and joy of God’s abiding love. In other words, only in Jesus Christ is the promise of grace found, given, and enjoyed.” (Page 54)
“Am I of the Elect?”
“Luther knew that the teaching of the bondage of the will, along with predestination (that before the creation of the universe God had already selected specific individuals to be saved) should be handled pastorally. For those who wondered if they were of the elect (that is, predestined), he warned against trying to answer this question by looking at predestination; if one did this, he would be driven to endless despair and caught in a firestorm of anguish and doubt. Rather, look at Christ and the gospel promise. Hear the good news and believe!
“It’s actually not complicated: if you want Christ and the gospel, you are one of his elect. This is how you will know if you are God’s child. To start instead with predestination would be to try to climb into heaven and see the hidden counsel of God, which will crush a person. One should not build his or her assurance on the hidden counsel of God—that is, by starting with the question, Am I elect? Rather, Luther counseled to begin with Christ and his being freely offered and known by the promise of the gospel. It would be disastrous and absurd to build one’s faith and assurance on the secret counsel of God’s predestination. Rather, build on the foundation: Christ. Here the Lord is freely offered and freely known. Only by starting with Christ the foundation can one move on to knowing that one is predestined.” (Page 63)
“Each Lord’s Day, Christ, the Bread of Life, is to be freely offered through the preaching of the gospel for the forgiveness of sins. Through the forgiveness of sins the Christian is sanctified: ‘[God] imparts, increases, and strengthens faith through the same Word [the preached Word of the gospel] and the forgiveness of sins.’3 Thus, preaching is not so much a matter of training people for spiritual heroics. Rather, for Luther, preaching offers weak and sinful people what they truly need: Christ. Preaching also includes proclaiming God’s law so that a church may be first humbled and then filled with joy in believing the gospel as a result. Then, as men, women, and children return home with Christ alone in their hearts, they go out rejoicing and advanced in their sanctification.” (Page 90)
1. Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (Middleton version , Logos Bible Software), 16.
2. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (eds.), Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will 1525 (Westwood, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957), 87.
3. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (eds.), The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 439.