Martin Luther, the Lutheran Movement, and the Doctrine of Justification

For Martin Luther, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith afforded the possibility of seeing “the Word of God as law.”[1] Perhaps, Luther’s view of the doctrine developed from his being “guided by the work of the divine Spirit upon his own understanding and heart, through the word.”[2] At any rate, by the seeing the Word of God as law, Luther came to define salvation and all its blessings as being “purchased for men by Christ [to the extent that they are] freely imparted to them individually by God’s grace through the instrumentality of faith”[3] as a fundamental principle of Christian truth, which, in turn, is extrapolated by the dimensions of human merit[4] in accordance with the law. To this end, Luther viewed the doctrine of the justification of grace through faith as “the gospel of justification alone, an inexhaustible gospel.”[5] As far as Luther was concerned, “to preach Christ is to feed the soul, to justify it, to set it free, and to save it, if it believes the preaching. For faith alone, and the efficacious use of the word of God, bring salvation.”[6] What arose from this, for Luther, was that “the message of God’s forgiveness”[7] –as it is exemplified in the justification of grace through faith –suggests that forgiveness is the gospel.[8] Even in this case, there is still the contention that “this gospel does not contradict or obliterate the law.”[9] Instead, in terms of Lutheran logic, there is a dialectic connection between the law and the gospel, where what it means to be a Christian is to be “at one and the same time both sinful and justified.”[10] From this, not only is it important to concede that “the sinner does not cease to be such upon being justified” but that justification is not the absence of sin but the fact that God [by way of God’s grace] declares us to be just, even while we are still sinners.”[11] What God declares to be just for a sinner who does not cease to be as such, then, is always in accordance with the law and the notion of good works. To this end, then, being in accordance with the law and expressing oneself with one’s good works is what it takes to be considered not just a righteous person, but having lived an ideal Christian life. This is not just Lutheran theology here, because such a premise is directly linked to Pauline theology about what it means to live in a manner that is appropriate and obedient in order to live a righteous life that becomes a life in Christ.[12] From this, Luther and the Lutheran movement shaped their view of the justification by grace through faith by way of adopting the Pauline doctrine of justification of faith, which they believed to be “the cardinal doctrine of Christianity.”[13]

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[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 51.

[2] William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 103.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This is in respect to the notion that Luther never totally avoided the risk of making faith a substitute for works, and, therefore, itself a meritorious performance on humankind’s part. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 360.

[5] Luther further perceived the gospel of justification alone as being “full of reformatory vigor, capable not only of destroying the old, but in [the reforming movement] breaking by its inner fullness the traditionary chains…[which] is the complete, perfect, divine gospel, which tolerates neither addition nor decreases [so that those whom abide by it and supplement it into their Christian lives] receive its precious contents, and find spiritual quickening thereby”  Rudolph Sohm, A History of Christianity, Translated by Charles W. Rishell (New York, NY: Hunt and Eaton 1891), 220-221.

[6] Martin Luther, Christian Liberty (Philadelphia, PA: Lutheran Publication Society, 1903), 9.

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 51.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 52.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Romans 6

[13] William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 275.

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