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§ 23. The Victory of Justifying Faith.


(Comp. § 7.)


The secret of Luther’s power and influence lies in his heroic faith. It delivered him from the chaos and torment of ascetic self-mortification and self-condemnation, gave him rest and peace, and made him a lordly freeman in Christ, and yet an obedient servant of Christ. This faith breathes through all his writings, dominated his acts, sustained him in his conflicts and remained his shield and anchor till the hour of death. This faith was born in the convent at Erfurt, called into public action at Wittenberg, and made him a Reformer of the Church.

By the aid of Staupitz and the old monk, but especially by the continued study of Paul’s Epistles, be was gradually brought to the conviction that the sinner is justified by faith alone, without works of law. He experienced this truth in his heart long before he understood it in all its bearings. He found in it that peace of conscience which he had sought in vain by his monkish exercises. He pondered day and night over the meaning of "the righteousness of God "(Rom. 1:17), and thought that it is the righteous punishment of sinners; but toward the close of his convent life he came to the conclusion that it is the righteousness which God freely gives in Christ to those who believe in him. Righteousness is not to be acquired by man through his own exertions and merits; it is complete and perfect in Christ, and all the sinner has to do is to accept it from Him as a free gift. Justification is that judicial act of God whereby he acquits the sinner of guilt and clothes him with the righteousness of Christ on the sole condition of personal faith which apprehends and appropriates Christ and shows its life and power by good works, as a good tree bringing forth good fruits. For faith in Luther’s system is far more than a mere assent of the mind to the authority of the church: it is a hearty trust and full surrender of the whole man to Christ; it lives and moves in Christ as its element, and is constantly obeying his will and following his example. It is only in connection with this deeper conception of faith that his doctrine of justification can be appreciated. Disconnected from it, it is a pernicious error.

The Pauline doctrine of justification as set forth in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, had never before been clearly and fully understood, not even by Augustin and Bernard, who confound justification with sanctification.138138    Luther himself felt how widely he differed in this doctrine from his favorite Augustin. He said afterward in his Table Talk: "Principio Augustinum vorabam, non legebam; aber da mir in Paulo die Thür aufging, dass ich wusste was justificatio fidei wär, ward es aus mit ihm." Köstlin, I., 780. Yet if we reduce the doctrine of justification by faith to the more general term of salvation by free grace, it was held as clearly and strongly by Augustin and, we may say, is held by all true Christians. Janssen (II., 71) says: "Of all the books recognized and used by the (Catholic) Church, whether learned or popular, there is not one which does not contain the doctrine of justification by Christ alone (die Lehre von der Rechtfertigung durch Christus allein)." But the question between the Roman church and Luther turned on the subjective appropriation of the righteousness of Christ which is the objective ground of justification and salvation; while faith is the subjective condition. Herein lies the difference between the Catholic and the Protestant conception. In the Catholic system justification (dikaivwsi") is a gradual process conditioned by faith and good works; in the Protestant system it is a single act of God, followed by sanctification. It is based upon the merits of Christ, conditioned by faith, and manifested by good works.139139    Modern exegesis has justified this view of δικαιόω and δικαίωσις, according to Hellenistic usage, although etymologically the verb may mean to make just, i.e., to sanctify, in accordance with verbs in όω (e.g. δηλόω φανεφόω, τυφλόω, (i.to make manifest, etc.). See the Commentaries on Romans and Galatians.

This experience acted like a new revelation on Luther. It shed light upon the whole Bible and made it to him a book of life and comfort. He felt relieved of the terrible load of guilt by an act of free grace. He was led out of the dark prison house of self-inflicted penance into the daylight and fresh air of God’s redeeming love. Justification broke the fetters of legalistic slavery, and filled him with the joy and peace of the state of adoption; it opened to him the very gates of heaven.

Henceforth the doctrine of justification by faith alone was for him to the end of life the sum and substance of the gospel, the heart of theology, the central truth of Christianity, the article of the standing or falling church. By this standard he measured every other doctrine and the value of every book of the Bible. Hence his enthusiasm for Paul, and his dislike of James, whom he could not reconcile with his favorite apostle. He gave disproportion to solifidianism and presented it sometimes in most unguarded language, which seemed to justify antinomian conclusions; but he corrected himself, he expressly condemned antinomianism, and insisted on good works and a holy life as a necessary manifestation of faith.140140    The boldest and wildest utterance of Luther on justification occurs in a letter to Melanchthon (De Wette’s ed. II. 37), dated Aug. 1, 1521, where he gives his opinion on the vow of celibacy and says: "Esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide (crede) et gaude in Christo, qui victor est peccati, mortis et mundi." But it loses all its force as an argument against him and his doctrine, first by being addressed to Melanchthon, who was not likely to abuse it, and secondly by implying an impossibility; for the fortius crede and the concluding ora fortiter neutralize the fortiter pecca. Paul, of course, could never have written such a passage. He puts the antinomian inference: "Let us continue in sin that grace may abound" into the form of a question, and answers it by an indignant μὴ γένοιτο. Rom. 6:1. This is the difference between the wisdom of an apostle and the zeal of a reformer. And it must not be forgotten that the same charge of favoring antinomianism was made against Paul, who rejects it with pious horror: "Let it never be!"

Thus the monastic and ascetic life of Luther was a preparatory school for his evangelical faith. It served the office of the Mosaic law which, by bringing the knowledge of sin and guilt, leads as a tutor to Christ (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:24). The law convicted, condemned, and killed him; the gospel comforted, justified, and made him alive. The law enslaved him, the gospel set him free. He had trembled like a slave; now he rejoiced as a son in his father’s house. Through the discipline of the law he died to the law, that he might live unto God (Gal. 2:19).

In one word, Luther passed through the experience of Paul. He understood him better than any mediaeval schoolman or ancient father. His commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians is still one of the best, for its sympathetic grasp of the contrast between law and gospel, between spiritual slavery and spiritual freedom.


Luther held this conviction without dreaming that it conflicted with the traditional creed and piety of the church. He was brought to it step by step. The old views and practices ran along side with it, and for several years he continued to be a sincere and devout Catholic. It was only the war with Tetzel and its consequences that forced him into the position of a Reformer and emancipated him from his old connections.



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