by Charles Fry
LUTHER’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE GOSPEL, Part 3
Justification by Faith Alone
In our contemporary culture we have little idea of the need to be declared righteous before a holy God, for we are dim to the majesty and holiness of God and therefore have a high estimate of ourselves. Yet Luther rightly understood these things. The majesty of God required man’s perfect obedience to the law, a perfection man could never render. To Luther, therefore, the issue of justification by faith alone was the issue of the day.
Luther saw that a sinner who simply looked to the Lord Jesus by faith alone—by trusting in Christ’s work and not personal performance or supposed righteousness—was freely pardoned, loved, forgiven, and fully accepted by God. Jesus’ perfect obedience to his own law met the righteous requirements of the law for the believer, and his death on the cross once and for all paid the debt for the believer’s sin. He realized the life and death of Christ were credited to the believer, securing for him or her a perfect righteousness, permanently freed from all wrath. Hence, there was now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The believer was fully justified, declared righteous before God.
Luther grasped the fact that sinners were declared righteous by God apart from any of their works, whereas the 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.
Luther understood justification by faith alone to be central to the gospel and to Christianity: “For if the article of justification be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost.”[i] This justification occurred not by human works, resolve, or cooperation with the Spirit’s work within him, but rather by simple faith—trusting the person and work of Christ alone, apart from any self-righteousness or law-keeping. Toward the end of his life, Luther reflected back on the period when the doctrine of justification broke into his life and brought peace to his troubled conscience:
Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven.[ii]
The righteousness of Christ—his perfect obedience to the law and his death for our sins freely imputed (credited) to us by faith alone—is a righteousness outside of us, not based on any sanctification that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us: “But Christ is its perfect and entire holiness; and where (our internal holiness) is not enough, Christ is enough.”[iii]
Commenting on Galatians 3:6 (NASB), “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” Luther writes concerning imputed righteousness,
If thou believe, thou art righteous, because thou givest glory unto God, that he is almighty, merciful, true, &c… And the sin which remaineth in thee, is not laid to thy charge, but is pardoned for Christ’s sake in whom thou believest, who is perfectly just; whose righteousness is thy righteousness, and thy sin is his sin.[iv]
Luther constantly taught the gospel and justification, for man is ever prone to live by works rather than by grace. He also considered the doctrine of justification as being of great pastoral comfort for the believer troubled by his sin: “We therefore do make this definition of a Christian, that a Christian is not he which hath no sin, or feeleth no sin, but he to whom God imputeth not his sin because of his faith in Christ. This doctrine bringeth strong consolation to afflicted consciences in serious and inward terrors.”[v]
Forgiveness of sins—apart from works, law, purgatory, or indulgences—was freely given in Christ alone, rendering the believing sinner righteous before a holy God, with all the demands of his law fully met by the Savior. This was the assurance and peace a believer gained through the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
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.
To the soul convicted of sin, standing before a god without grace is frightening beyond description. There is no hope before such a god, but only great fear and crushing despair. Yet to this same burdened soul the God of promise is sweet beyond all comparison. The promises of the gospel and of justification freely given on account of the work of another become to him better than life, giving him inexpressible hope and joy. He is at peace because he sees that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, for Christ died once for all sin. Luther treasured the God of promise and the truth of his free justification. He gave his life to this promise.
Part 12 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.[i] A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Based on Lectures Delivered by Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg in the year 1531 and First Published in 1535, Philip S. Watson (ed.), A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575 (Logos Bible Software), 26.
[ii] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand; A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1950, 48.
[iii] Galatians, 117. Parenthesis added.
[iv] Galatians, 227.
[v] Galatians, 138.