Essential Luther - Lesson 4

Justification by Faith

Justification by faith is the central, foundational doctrine of Christianity and is unique compared to other religions. It is the manner in which we continue to walk with the living God. To Luther, it is more than just a doctrine, it is a death and a resurrection joining us to the living Christ. 

Gordon Isaac
Essential Luther
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Justification by Faith

I. Justification "sola fidei."
    A. The doctrine of justification by faith is the theological foundation of all Luther's work.
    B. Function of conscience
    C. Luther speaks of justification not as being saved from vice to virtue, but moving from virtue to grace.
    D. Luther's view of justification by faith compared to previous medieval teaching.
    E. We are simultaneously saints and sinners.
    F. Paul and Luther switch from using the legal metaphor to using "death-life" language.
    G. Conclusion

  • The joy and promise of reading Luther. Luther has keen theological insights and expresses them using wit and lively word pictures. Luther's innovative thoughts are a result, not only of profound wrestling with theological ideas, but with Scripture itself. Luther uses polemic language, which was common in his time.

  • Some of the historical milestones that took place in the life of Martin Luther.

  • Luther has an unusual presentation of the nature of the theological task and a unique way of going about it. When discussing sin, Luther says that our problem is not just a moral lapse, but it's our spiritual presumption that is our greatest and worst of sins. Theology for Luther is our being grasped by the Word of God, not just a speculative academic pursuit.

  • Justification by faith is the central, foundational doctrine of Christianity and is unique compared to other religions. It is the manner in which we continue to walk with the living God. To Luther, it is more than just a doctrine, it is a death and a resurrection joining us to the living Christ. 

  • Luther presents his view of the atonement in the form and shape of the theology of the cross. In the cross and resurrection, God is bringing about something new. Christ did not come to give us a new law. Christ came into the closed circle of law and death by being born under the law, then dying and being raised from the dead to redeem those who were under the law. We get what Jesus has to offer by going through the cross ourselves, not just accepting theories about the cross.

  • Luther's treatise on Christ's Passion was used by common people to focus their meditation on the significance of this period of Christ's ministry. Luther urges people to be sensitive to what the Spirit might speak to them as they pray through Scripture passages. Luther's writings are sprinkled with short dialogues that help us deal with everyday matters according to the gospel.

Martin Luther used wit and lively word pictures to communicate his keen theological insights. His innovative thoughts are a result of his wrestling with Scripture as well as thoughtfully considering current theological teachings.

Essential Luther 
Dr. Gordon Isaac 
Justification by Faith 
Lesson Transcript


Thank you for logging on to the essential Luther. This fourth session, I want to talk with you a little bit about justification by faith Luther's doctrine of justification by faith, or we could say justification. Solar fidei. Now, I've noticed in my own reading of late that there are different times when I'll be running across a phrase. Someone will be talking about justification, and I say justification by grace through faith. Or they'll say justification by faith through grace, as though it's necessary to stipulate that I'm always just a little bit suspicious of the fact that these phrases are heaped up, It seems to me, to show that clarity of thought on justification by faith is hard to come by. And I think that that was true in the 16th century. I think it's also true in our own time. Luther talked about justification solar today, and his terse, stark statement needs to be taken quite at face value. It is justification by faith. Now, clearly, all Roman Catholics, all Christians throughout the ages with perhaps some doubts about the monk pledges, would maintain that salvation is achieved through grace. There's no one who says that one achieve salvation by their own efforts. That simply is not a Christian stance. So what is the point of talking about justification by faith? That's what we want to get to in this session. Paul Althouse, in his presentation of the righteousness and faith, says this The doctrine of justification is not simply one doctrine among others. But as Luther declares the basic and chief article of faith with which the church stands or falls and on which its entire doctrine depends. The doctrine of justification is the summary of Christian doctrine. The Sun, which illuminates God's holy church. It is the unique possession of Christianity and distinguishes our religion from all others.


The doctrine of justification preserves the church. If we lose this doctrine, we also lose Christ and the church. For then, no Christian understanding remains. What is at stake in this doctrine is the decisive question as to how man can continue to stand before God. This doctrine consoles our conscience before God. And Luther repeatedly expresses this in the strongest terms as though he were under oath. Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised. Even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed. On this article rests all that we teach and practice against the Pope, the devil and the world. Therefore, we must be quite certain and have no doubts about it. Otherwise all is lost. And the Pope, the devil and all our adversaries will gain the victory. That is how Luther expresses it in the small called articles. In the same year, in 1537, Luther also admonished his pupils in the introduction to a disputation. He says we cannot emphatically and often enough, sharpen our thinking on this doctrine. We must devote ourselves to it with the greatest theological diligence and seriousness. For neither reason nor Satan is so opposed to anything else as they are to this. No other article of faith is so threatened by the danger of false teaching. Thus, with the single exception of the Doctrine of the Lord's Supper, Luther throughout his life devoted more theological work, strength and passion to this doctrine than to any other. For Luther, we must say that the doctrine of justification is really the theological foundation for all of his work. According to Luther, justification is decisive for all theological questions for opening, as well as carrying on their discussion. It is with this doctrine that the church stands or falls.


In my study of Luther, I find it fascinating. One can enter through many doors to enter into Luther's theology. One can begin through a study of baptism in the Lord's Supper, or one can do a study of the priesthood of all believers. One could study Luther's approach to Scripture or his commentaries on Galatians. And you could enter into his theology at many of these different points. But I dare to say that no matter which door you enter through, you will always find Luther unerringly, move toward a presentation of the righteousness of Christ. And in the righteousness of Christ, one finds this doctrine of justification by faith. And we need to be careful, I suppose, in speaking of justification by faith as a doctrine. It would be possible for us to subtly, by the slippage of language, move into theology of glory and just stipulate the three or four or five things we can say about justification and thus say, Well, this is a doctrine to be believed. And if you believe this, then you're fully a Christian. But that's never how it functions in Luther. For Luther justification by faith is always the word of God, which has already grasped us. There is a modern presentation in a rather well-known book out there that talks about justification by faith, and the presentation of justification in that book is so skewed. It basically says, Well, all you need to do to be justified is to believe that Jesus has died for your sins and forgives you all your sins. And that's it. It's really a presentation of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call cheap grace. But for Luther, that is never the case. Justification is never simply a doctrine that one adheres to our sense to, and that has nothing more to do with rather justification by faith is the manner in which we continue to walk with the living God.


So for him, it's much more than simply a doctrine one can put up on to the wall by means of an overhead projector or by a PowerPoint presentation. But justification is that living word. Which brings us to the vital relationship with the Lord. Luther said of this article that it's a central article of our teaching The Sun the day the light of the church, The article of justification is Master and Prince, Lord leader, a judge of all kinds of teachings, which preserves and guides all church teaching and establishes our consciences before God. Now, it's interesting to note that here Luther talks about conscience. For Luther conscience functions in a specific way. He would not say that, Well, we have a conscience and therefore we can be fully apprized of our sin. Now, he would be suspicious, even of one's human conscience. For the human conscience can be full of pride and boastful and blind to its own sinfulness. But what he would say is that the conscience is something of the battleground in which the Word of God struggles for us in our daily living, so that in the course of our daily life, there are times when we're moving through life. We're doing different activities. The word of the law comes to us. It accuses us or our own fault. Life moves in a pattern that is contrary to what we know to be according to the Decalogue. And here on the battleground of the conscience, the divine warfare is carried out where God is struggling for us and grabbing for us even as we are being tempted and coaxed away from God. And so for Luther, when he says it establishes our conscience before God, he's talking about this kind of inner struggle where on the one hand accused by the law, we can see that we really have no birthright in God.


We see that we're wayward in our thoughts and our paths and our patterns of living. But he says that the gospel, when it comes to this justification, this word of faith, which is spoken to us, comes to us in such a manner that it puts those doubts and those accusations to an end. It stops the voice of the law and so confirms our conscience so that we don't get involved in this transaction, this attempt to make a deal with God because God will not be related to on that basis. And that's the point and purpose of talking about justification by faith. God saves sinners and only those who have come to the point where they can say with the Apostle Paul that they are the worst of sinners, have they come near to grace? So justification is a word, first of all, which points out our sinfulness. And in the midst of pointing out the dreadful reality of pervasive sin in our lives, that simultaneously the word of new life comes to lift us up. That's justification by faith. Now, it's interesting to note that Luther speaks of justification in a very particular way. Luther begins his Roman commentary by setting forth a kind of hermeneutical key, which sets him off from previous tradition and indicates a major structural difference. This is indicated in an almost offhand manner when he remarks the exodus of the people. Israel has for a long time been interpreted to signify the transition from vice to virtue. I suppose in breaking into this quotation, but here I suppose we could read this in terms of theology of glory or the glory story. We can translate that exodus account into a glory story. The exodus of the people of God has for a long time been interpreted to signify the transition from vice to virtue.


But one should rather interpret it as the way from virtue to the grace of Christ, because virtues are often the greater and worse faults, the less they are regarded as such, and the more powerfully they subject to themselves all human affections beyond all other goods. So also the right side of Jordan was more fearful than the left one. It's a fascinating and provocative way of putting this, isn't it? He's saying here that even when the people of God got to the Holy Land, got to the promised Land, the side of the Jordan, they had their problems as well. So Luther here is proposing that while it's possible to translate the story of the Old Testament, of the story of the exodus into a glory story, this is a movement from vice to virtue. He would say that's not really what happens when we come into that saving relationship with God in the word of justification. Now, really what he's saying is that what happens to us as we go from being virtuous people and being proud of our good works and patting ourselves on the back saying, well, you know, really, I'm not such a bad guy after all, I pay my taxes. I don't beat my wife. I'm responsible citizen. I stop it, stop signs, I obey traffic laws, etc., etc.. And we can go down the list of, you know, he's pretty nice guy. He's okay. He's socially acceptable. Really what Luther is saying, when we come into that grace relationship, it's a movement from our virtue to grace, which is something altogether different. We're no longer judged on the basis of work, our works, but now we are grasped by God on an altogether different basis. And that's why this word of justification is so radical and so profound, because everything about our lives is according to the law.


If you do well in on this test, then you will get a good grade in the course. If you perform well at work, then you will get a promotion. If there is room in your company, if you take care of your car, it will last longer. All of these if then kinds of propositions, it's all dependent on the work that you put in. You will get a reward based on what you put in. And many people, most people think that that is what Christianity is about, just another form of moralism. And indeed, I think Luther's point is to say that's the way we are set up in our sinful alienation from God. That's naturally how we think about our relationship with God. But the profound and the radical news that comes to us from God in Christ is that that is not the way we can or should relate to God. That is a way that is blocked by God. He will not allow us to relate to him in that way. So he shows another way and he brings us to that other way through the nation of Israel and the person and work of his son, the messiah of Israel. So Luther here is setting up a major structural difference with what has gone on before. Now we need to recognize that the medieval doctrine of justification was really an exodus from vice to virtue. St Thomas Aquinas describes justification as a movement from a terminus quo to a terminus odd Quinn Or a point of beginning to a point of ending comprised analytically as consisting of a the infusion of grace b a movement of the free will toward God and faith. C a movement of the free will in recoil from sin and the remission of guilt.


Now, the medieval structure of salvation roughly corresponds to a business transaction since the fall was conceived of as a loss of grace. The solution was to receive the necessary grace to return to the state of righteousness. This was combined with the Aristotelian notion of ethics by which one becomes good by doing good things against this. Luther liked to point out that a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Only a good tree can produce good fruit. In other words, what Aristotle was saying is, if you want to become a righteous man, what you need to do is accumulate righteous deeds. So you get to work on it. You stop drinking too heavily. You stop beating your wife. You stop doing these things which really drag you down and drag others around you down and into their place. You set forward virtues or positive powers of human ability. You begin to act in an upright way. You begin to take care and responsibility for your spouse. You begin to act responsibly at work. You begin to make contributions to the society around you. And as you do those good deeds, those good virtues flow out of you. That is how you build yourself into a virtuous person. But Luther, using that example from Matthew chapter seven, says, Good fruit can only be produced by a good tree. A good tree does not happen by that tree attempting to produce good fruit. No, we must be a good tree first before we produce good fruit as good trees. And he uses that parable out of Matthew Chapter seven to underline the truth of the Gospel. Namely, God is at work in order to cause us to be His righteous ones, established by the river of water, which will nourish and sustain our roots and cause us to be who we are in Christ Jesus.


So he says, the one comes before the other. If and this is a theological problem, if you said justification up as a progression from vice to virtue, then you have to ask the question, When is it that we are on safe ground? When is it that we have moved from being a sinner to being a righteous person? Now, what was said in medieval theology is precisely this. Faith alone cannot save you. You must add good works to faith. And so the medieval system talked about feeds, character for matter, or faith formed by love. To faith you have to add works, but you see. Notice what's going on here. You're still relating to God on the basis of works, your good works. And that's precisely the point of faith, isn't it? To block and bar the way to relating to God through those kinds of works. Now, that's not to say the Christians don't do good works. Obviously we do. And we read in the Essential Luther a little bit earlier on in our first session. I believe that faith is a living, active thing. And even before it's asked, it's doing good works because that's its very nature. And you see in the medieval structure, when justification is described as a movement from vice to virtue. All kinds of theological problems accrue. And that's what Luther had keen enough eyesight to see. And he set about the task of trying to set that to rights. What Luther said is no justification is not a movement or a progress from vice to virtue. It is rather a divine decree. And with the apostle Paul Luther said, it is not the law which offers possibility. It is the justifying word of the gospel. Thus we are declared righteous for Jesus sake.


It is an unconditional promise. It is not an if then, but a because therefore kind of promised. We've already talked about the fact that most all of our human existence is made up of this process of responding to the law. If you work hard at work, if you do well in your workplace, you will receive a promotion. If you study hard, then you will get good grades. If you are a good pastor and your church grows, then you will be called to a big inner city congregation where the pay is higher, etc., etc.. You see, this is this is the structure in the nature of human life. If then if we do these things, then this will happen. But you see, the gospel is an altogether different word. It comes to us like a comet from some alien planet because it is not an if then promise. But it is a because therefore, because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. Therefore you are declared righteous on his account. You see, it is not even because of you. It is not on your account, but it is because of him and on his account that you are declared righteous. You see? This divine decree is where Luther and Paul check out Romans chapter four versus one through eight, talking about how it is that Abraham was reckoned as righteous. Luther and Paul both speak of gospel as this justifying word. It is a righteousness for Jesus sake, and it is an unconditional promise. Now, one of the things that's true of this is okay, if it is an and conditional promise, if the declaration comes to us directly that we are justified, then we need to recognize that this knocks down every attempt to talk about justification as a movement from vice to virtue.


A corollary, a derivative of this declared promise is Luther's understanding that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. We are simultaneously saints and sinners, according to Luther. He says it this way. Simmel used this at Picador simultaneously, and center is to be understood as total states. Justification by unconditional decree means a complete break with thinking in terms of legal schemes and processes. Luther insists throughout his commentary that it is not so much the so-called godless sinner, but precisely the righteous who think in terms of a legal process and intrinsic moral progress which renders grace fictional and gradually unnecessary. Fourth justification is by the law. Christ died to no avail. That's Galatians 221. Justification. Solar fit cannot be understood or captured in the legal metaphor alone. You see, it simply doesn't work to talk about justification by the law. Christ died to no avail. If that is the scheme in the system that one sets up. So Luther is in the process of overturning this altogether, and this is a dramatic, major structural shift. And Luther really is at the vanguard of this. And one of the reasons why Luther is so critically important for understanding Protestant and evangelical theology. Justification solar for cannot be understood or captured in the legal metaphor alone. Paul, as well as Luther resorts to the death life language when pushed with a persistent question regarding works, shall we sin that grace may abound? Paul moves to death Life language. Isn't that the case? You see, if we're shocked by the fact, well, what do I have to do to be saved? And the answer comes back to us. Nothing. Simply be quiet for once in your life and listen to what God the Almighty is doing through Jesus the Christ. We put to a full stop, aren't we? We are put in a place where we can do no work as such.


The legal metaphor falls off the face of the map. Doesn't apply to us. And immediately in this Romans chapter six section passage, the questions arise. Well, shall I continue in sin? That grace may abound. I mean, that's putting the question about as sharply as you can. It's not simply that we might get lax with our works, but shall we go ahead and continue to sin? Because grace obviously is free, It's unconditional. So why not trade on it? What does Paul say? He says no. How can we who have died with Christ, continue in sin? Notice, justification, language and the legal metaphor You are released from The obligation of the law, then moves subtly and directly into death life language. We have died with Christ and we allow our limbs to be put to death so that we might not be slaves to send any longer, but that we might be raised and be active. Dynamic creatures joined with the life of God itself. The Babylonian captivity of the Church. Speaking of baptism, Luther says, this baptism thus signifies two things death and resurrection that is full and complete justification. Interesting baptism is understood here as a perfect sacrament of justification. When the minister immerses the child in the water, it signifies death. And when he draws a fourth again, it signifies life. Thus, Paul expounded in Romans six. We were buried, therefore, with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. We too might walk in newness of life. This death and resurrection we call the new creation, regeneration and spiritual birth. This should not be understood only allegorically as the death of sin and the life of grace, as many understand it, but as actual death and resurrection for baptism is not a false sign.


In the bondage of the will. We find Luther also using the same death life kind of language, associating it with justification. He says this When God quickens, he does so by killing. When he justifies, He does so by pronouncing guilty. When he carries up to heaven, He does so by bringing down to hell, as Scripture says, the Lord kill us and make us alive. He bring us down to the grave and bring us up. When God kills, faith in life is exercised in death. And again in commentating on Galatians 220, Luther says it this way I am crucified with Christ. Paul adds this word because he wants to explain how the law is devoured by the law. Christ, if Christ is crucified to the law, so also am I. How through faith, I am crucified to the law. I have nothing to do with it because I am crucified to it and vice versa because I have died with Christ through grace itself and faith. If you believe in Christ, then you are crucified through faith spiritually, just as He is dead to the law, to death. Faith, however, is a divine work in us, which changes us. It makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men in heart and spirit, in mind and powers. It brings with it the Holy Spirit. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good. Works incessantly, does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked. It has already done them to hear and believe in. The word of justification for Jesus sake is to die and to be raised in Him.


For Luther, justification by faith is not just a doctrine, but a death and a resurrection. Joining us to the living Christ as we come to the end of this session. I would like to bring to your awareness one way of describing this, the way Paul Althouse does in his little presentation. He says it's not enough to say either that faith receives justification or that man receives justification in faith. Luther's thought must be expressed more definitely justification is received with faith that is in the form of faith. Faith is the work and gift of God. God justifies a man or a woman by giving him or her faith. Christ is the righteousness. To this extent, this righteousness is outside of us. But Christ is my righteousness. Only if I appropriate Him and make him my own faith is the only way in which Christ can give Himself to me, only the Christ who is appropriated in faith. That is, the Christ who lives in my heart through faith is my righteousness. Christ is not only the object of faith, but is himself present in faith. Through faith, Christ is present with and in a believing person. Thus, in matters of justification, Christ and faith cannot be treated as two different things and set into opposition to each other. Christ is what He is for me, in God's judgment. Only in that faith in which I grasp Him. And faith is meaningful in God's judgment. Only because Christ is present with an individual. So you see, Luther's presentation of justification solely for day is a radical doctrine. It is a major structural shift from the medieval view. That justification is a process. We need to recognize that Luther, in presenting justification as the exodus from virtue to grace, is saying something very profound for Luther.


As for Paul. Justification is a divine decree in which we are declared righteous. It is also that word which puts the old atom to death in order to bring the new life of faith into existence.