Quodlibet Journal: Volume 2 Number 3, Summer 2000

Justification as Healing: The Little-Known Luther
© Ted M Dorman, PhD

The name of Martin Luther is inextricably linked with the doctrine of justification by faith. Reformed Protestantism's historic distinction between the passive or imputed righteousness of Christ given in justification, and the active or infused righteousness given in sanctification, has its genesis in Luther's thought. Prior to Luther justification had been tied to regeneration, so that the forgiveness of sins was viewed not merely as a forensic declaration of the believer's status as righteous before God, but as a process whereby the believer is actually made righteous. In this way, as Alister McGrath has pointed out, Luther introduced a theological novum into the Western church tradition 'which marks a complete break with the tradition up to this point.' [1]

The Reformers did not deny the reality of infused righteousness. Indeed, they insisted that justifying (passive) righteousness never exists apart from sanctifying (active) righteousness. [2] At the same time, however, they made a 'notional distinction' between justification and sanctification where none had previously existed. [3]

In 1547 the Council of Trent rejected this "notional distinction" as a radical innovation and defined justification as a process which included the infusion of sanctifying (ethical) righteousness. In so doing the Church of Rome rejected the Lutheran and Reformed view that justification was an instantaneous event bestowed upon sinners by God at the outset of the Christian life. Instead, Trent sought to link Christ's righteousness (the "merits of Christ") received by faith with the Christian's active righteousness in its definition of justification, thus establishing a positive connection between faith and works. The Reformed tradition, on the other hand, generally sought to make a strong distinction between faith and works, assigning the former to instantaneous justification, the latter to progressive sanctification. [4]

At the present time the Reformed-Trent debate on justification has taken on renewed significance in the recent dialogue between Evangelical Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics. For example, the sharpest critiques of the 1994 document 'Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Declaration' centered on that document's failure to address the topic of justification in any substantial manner. [5] For this reason a more recent Evangelical-Catholic statement, 'The Gift of Salvation,' [6] was issued in October 1997 and published in January 1998 in order to deal specifically with the doctrine of justification. Soon after its appearance, 'The Gift of Salvation' was criticized by a group of Reformed theologians operating under the label of The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (hereafter ACE). Their principal complaint was that 'The Gift of Salvation' failed to define justification solely in terms of the imputed righteousness of Christ, thus capitulating to the tridentine definition of justification as infused righteousness. [7]

It is worth noting that the ACE critique of 'The Gift of Salvation' went back into history no further than the 1541 Council of Ratisbone, at which representatives of the Reformation and of Rome failed to bridge their differences on the doctrine of justification. Had ACE looked back another quarter century, however, they would have encountered a Protestant theologian who defined justification not merely as forgiveness of sins, but also as a process wherein Christ brings healing to those who place their trust in Him.

This theologian whom ACE neglected was no obscure figure. He was none other than Martin Luther.

Statement of Purpose

The PURPOSE of this essay is threefold:

1. To set forth in some detail how Luther, during the time period from 1515 to 1521, linked justifying faith not only to forgiveness, but also to spiritual healing and perseverance in faith (concepts he later placed under the rubric of sanctification).

2. To contrast this 'early Luther' with the later Luther who, in his 1535 commentary on Galatians, set forth the strong contrast between justification and sanctification which characterizes Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxies.

3. To argue that the earlier views of Luther, as opposed to his later views, are more in line with the pre-Reformation classical Christian consensus on justification and thus offer a positive contribution to the present-day Evangelical-Catholic dialogue as it pertains to this doctrine. [8]

I. Justifying Faith as the Agent of Spiritual Healing

A survey of Martin Luther's writings between 1515 and 1521 reveals a doctrine of justification which in some ways bears more resemblance to Augustine's teachings than those of the later Luther himself. This is not to say that Luther consciously followed Augustine; indeed, in 1545 he wrote that he formulated his early perspectives on justification before he had read Augustine on the subject. [9] What distinguishes Luther's earlier writings from his later ones is what McGrath calls 'the sanative concept of justification, frequently employed by Luther in the 1515-16 Romans lectures . . . . This sanative aspect of his early teaching on justification corresponds closely to the teaching of Augustine on the matter. Justification is regarded as a healing process which permits God to overlook the remaining sin on account of its pending eradication.' [10]

Luther's comments on Romans 4:7 testify to his conviction that justifying faith not only receives the imputed righteousness of Christ, but also brings forth spiritual growth and healing in the life of the believer:

[Justification] is similar to the case of a sick man who believes the doctor who promises him a sure recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor's order in the hope of the promised recovery [from his sinful tendencies] and abstains from those things which have been forbidden him [by the doctor], so that he may in no way hinder the promised return to health or increase his sickness until the doctor can fulfill his promise to him. Now is this sick man well' The fact is that he is both sick and well. He is sick in fact but he is well [regarded as righteous] because of the sure promise of the doctor, whom he trusts and who has reckoned him as already cured, because he is sure that he will cure him . . . . In the same way Christ, our Samaritan, has brought His half-dead man into the inn to be cared for, and He has begun to heal him, having promised him the most complete cure unto eternal life, and He does not impute his sins, that is, his wicked desires, unto death, but in the meantime in the hope of the promised recovery He prohibits him from doing or omitting things by which his cure might be impeded . . . . Now is he perfectly righteous' No, for he is at the same time both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And he is entirely healthy in hope [in spe], but in fact [in rei] still a sinner . . . . But now if this sick man should like his sickness and refuse every cure for his disease, will he not die' Certainly, for thus it is with those who follow their lusts in this world. [11]

This last statement demonstrates that for Luther in 1515, saving faith included ongoing obedience to Christ's commands. Furthermore, such faith not only issues in forgiveness of past sins, but also forgiveness of future sins on the basis of God's promise that he will completely heal those who place their confidence in the health regimen of the Great Physician ('He prohibits him from doing or omitting things by which his cure might be impeded'). For the early Luther, then, saving faith includes not only a backward look at what Christ has already accomplished on the cross for our justification (forgiveness of sins), but also the forward look of banking one's hope on God's promises of ultimate deliverance from the presence of sin (full health!) as well as the penalty of sin. Justification and healing thus go hand-in-hand; both are received on the basis of trusting in Jesus, the Great Physician, to effect a complete cure of our sin-sick souls. [12]

Luther's doctor-patient analogy thus sets forth conditions whereby the patient receives forgiveness and healing: the patient must demonstrate trust in the doctor by complying with the health regimen which the doctor has prescribed. In point of fact, however, these conditions really amount to one fundamental requirement: trusting the doctor's expertise to effect a 'most complete cure.' Indeed, it is faith in the doctor's promise of a full cure (as well as the implicit threat that persistent disobedience will result in the patient's death!) which motivates the patient to obey the health regimen. Another way of expressing this link between saving faith and obedience to the doctor's commands is Paul's phrase 'the obedience of faith,' found in Romans 1:5 and 16:26.

Luther himself forged such a link between saving faith and obedience to God's commandments in his 1520 essay The Freedom of the Christian. Specifically, Luther insisted that faith is not merely one among many Christian virtues, but is in fact the cardinal virtue from which all others are derived.

In the first major section of this essay Luther appears to divorce faith and obedience by assigning the former to the 'inner man' and the latter to outward behavior. He also distinguishes between the 'commandments' and the 'promises' of Scripture, insisting that only faith in the promises of God can make us righteous before God. [13] It is important to note, however, that Luther's point here is that works cannot be added to faith as a cause of justification: 'This faith cannot exist in connection with works--that is to say, if you at the same time claim to be justified by works, whatever their character . . . .' [14] This becomes clearer when he moves to the second major section of The Freedom of the Christian.

Luther begins his discussion of the second 'power of faith' with the following words:

[Faith] honors him whom it trusts with the most reverent and highest regard, since it considers him truthful and trustworthy. There is no other honor equal to the estimate of truthfulness and righteousness with which we honor him whom we trust. . . . On the other hand, there is no way in which we can show greater contempt for a man . . . as we do when we do not trust him. So when the soul firmly trusts God's promises, it regards him as truthful and righteous . . . . Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith' What commandment is there which such obedience has not been completely fulfilled' . . . On the other hand, . . . what greater rebellion against God is there than not believing his promise' . . . Therefore God has rightly included all [sins], not under anger or lust, but under unbelief.[15]

Here Luther makes it clear that while human works cannot justify, the faith which justifies necessarily expresses itself in obedience to God's commandments. It obeys these commands not on the basis of any human merit derived from such obedience, but solely on the basis of God's promise that He will declare righteous, and continue to bring healing to, anyone who banks his hope for a future of happy tomorrows on the promises of God. The one who trusts in his own works as a remedy for his sin-sick soul, on the other hand, is the epitome of unbelief and 'is not served by anything. Nothing works for his good . . . and all things turn out badly for him.' [16]

The early Luther's emphasis on justification as healing, particularly in his 1515 Lectures on Romans, has led some to insist that Luther himself did not teach forensic justification per se, though his emphasis on the alien righteousness of Christ laid the groundwork for later forensic language used by Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin. [17] Others have gone one step further and interpret the early Luther as teaching that God justifies sinners by virtue of what Christ will accomplish in their lives, i.e. the removal of all remnants of sin.

The outstanding example of such a perspective is the German Lutheran Karl Holl (1866-1926), who spoke of a 'proleptic element' in Luther's Lectures on Romans whereby God justifies sinners not only on the basis of what Christ has done for them, but also on the basis of what Christ will do in them. God, in other words, sees the Christian not only in re ('in fact' - a sinner as he presently stands before God), but also sees the Christian in spe ('in hope' - as he one day shall stand healed of his sin and entirely sanctified). This proleptic perspective counters Rome's argument that Protestants view justification merely as a legal fiction. Indeed, Holl goes so far as to say that when Luther spoke of God's declaration of sinners as righteous in spe, 'His declaration of righteousness is analytical [as opposed to synthetic; i.e. it is based upon actual righteousness as well as upon imputed righteousness].' [18]

Paul Althaus (1888-1966) likewise sees Luther making a positive connection between imputed and actual righteousness, with both being given to the Christian as gifts of God through trust in Christ. At the same time, Althaus insists that the actual righteousness which belongs to the Christian in spe is not a sufficient basis for justification, since it cannot make up for past sins. Thus justification always finds its basis in the imputed or 'alien' righteousness of Christ. In other words, not only the "unrighteous" (those outside of Christ), but also the "righteous" (those in Christ) must avail themselves of the imputed alien righteousness of Christ. [19] Here Althaus echoes Luther's discussion in his 1519 essay 'Two Kinds of Righteousness,' wherein the Reformer made it clear that even our so-called 'proper' or actual righteousness is based upon the alien or 'passive' righteousness received in the initial divine gift of justification. [20]

In this way the early Luther placed both justification and healing (what Reformed theology would later term 'sanctification') under the rubric of saving faith: a trust in what God has already done for us at the cross of Christ, and what God has promised to accomplish in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Thus Luther wrote in 1519 that 'it is faith alone that justifies and does good works.' [21] Two years later he again linked justifying faith to ongoing obedience to God's commandments: '[I]t is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire . . . . through faith [the Christian] becomes free from sin [justification] and comes to take pleasure in God's commandments [good works], thereby he gives God the honor due him . . . .' [22] And what motivates the Christian is God's promise of future grace: namely, that 'Christ has made it possible for us, provided we believe in him, to be his . . . brethren, fellow-heirs, and fellow kings. . . .' [23]

II. The Later Luther: Contrasting Faith and God's Commandments

Some time after 1521 Luther's ideas concerning the relationship between faith, justification, and obedience to God's commands underwent significant revision. By the time he wrote his 1535 commentary on Galatians, Luther no longer emphasized obedience to God's commandments as an expression of justifying faith. Instead, he divided justifying faith and obedience to God's commandments into separate categories. The former he ascribed to the 'passive righteousness of Christ'; the latter to the 'active righteousness of the Law.' [24]

In the opening paragraphs of his 1535 Galatians commentary Luther explicitly divorces the commandments of God from the righteousness of faith. After identifying various kinds of 'righteousness' (political, ceremonial, parental, and moral) Luther goes on to say:

There is, in addition to these [various kinds of righteousness], yet another righteousness, the righteousness of the Law or of the Decalog, which Moses teaches. We, too, teach this, but after the doctrine of faith. . . . . Over and above all these there is the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, which is to be distinguished most carefully from all the others. For they are all contrary to this righteousness, both because they proceed from the laws of emperors, the traditions of the pope, and the commandments of God, and because they consist in our works and can be achieved by us . . . . But this most excellent righteousness, the righteousness of faith, which God imputes to us through Christ without works . . . . is quite the opposite; it is a merely passive righteousness, while all the others, listed above, are active. For here we work nothing, render nothing to God; we only receive and permit someone else to work in us, namely, God. [25]

We look in vain here for the positive relationship between faith in God's promises and obedience to God's commands which was integral to Luther's earlier perspective. To be sure, Luther's later works as well as his earlier writings insisted that all Christian obedience was accomplished on the basis of Christ's passive righteousness. [26] But whereas passive righteousness was earlier linked not only to justifying faith but also to obeying God's commandments and trusting promises of future healing, by 1535 the commandments of God are placed in a separate 'kingdom' with the Law of Moses, over against the Gospel of justification. The Kingdom of Law, says Luther, can only perform a negative function: it accuses us of failure to conform to God's commandments. As such, Law only afflicts, rather than comforts, the conscience.

Give no more to the Law than it has coming, and say to it: 'Law, you want to ascend into the realm of conscience and rule there. You want to denounce its sin and take away the joy of my heart, which I have through faith in Christ. You want to plunge me into despair, in order that I may perish. You are exceeding your jurisdiction. . . . So do not disturb me in these matters. In my conscience not the Law will reign, that hard tyrant and cruel disciplinarian, but Christ . . . the sweet Savior and Mediator. He will preserve my conscience happy and peaceful . . . in the knowledge of this passive righteousness.' When I have this [passive righteousness of Christ] within me . . . I come forth into another kingdom. [27]

Here the Law is not like the doctor's prescription given to justified sinners in order to bring about 'the most complete cure unto eternal life,' as Luther expressed it in his 1515 lectures on Romans. [28] Nor does the Law present an outward expression of what it means to have faith in Christ, as Luther wrote in 'The Freedom of the Christian' (1520). [29] Rather, the Law has nothing whatsoever to do with trusting Christ for salvation. Luther's earlier definition of sin as a failure to believe God is replaced by an emphasis on sin as failure to obey God's Law. But since the Law is now in a separate 'kingdom' from faith, the Law can no longer function as the Great Physician's prescription which spells out the health regimen justified people need to observe faithfully (though not perfectly [30]) in order to attain to that full healing which Christ has promised.

There are other places in the 1535 Galatians commentary, however, where Luther makes statements which sound much like his earlier statements which define faith as unbelief. For example, Luther chastises those who rely on the works of the Law and thus try to merit salvation:

This [relying on works for justification] is not keeping the Law according to Paul [when Paul says 'the doers of the Law' will be justified in Romans 2:13], because relying on works and being a man of faith are contraries . . . . when those who are self-righteous keep the Law, they deny the righteousness of faith and sin against the First, Second, and Third Commandments, and against the entire Law, because God commands that He be worshiped by believing and fearing Him. [31]

Such faith that obeys God 'by believing and fearing Him' is not necessarily justifying faith, however. It may be that here Luther refers to the 'faith working through love' which Paul speaks of in Galatians 5:6. Of that faith which works Luther says:

. . . in this passage Paul is not dealing with the question of what faith is or of what avails in the sight of God; he is not discussing justification. He has already done that thoroughly. But in a brief summary he draws a conclusion about the Christian life [i.e., ongoing obedience], saying: 'In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love,' . . . . This [faith which works through love] is what arouses and motivates good works through love. [32]

Precisely how such a (non-justifying!) faith 'arouses and motivates' good works is not spelled out, however. Gone are the earlier references to the promises of 1515 ('a sure and complete cure') [33] and 1520 ('Christ has made it possible for us . . . to be . . . fellow kings'). [34]

On the other hand, near the close of the 1535 Galatians commentary Luther notes that a true believer in Christ 'will also abstain from the desires of the flesh by means of the faith through which he is justified and through which his sins, past and present, are forgiven.' Luther then goes on to say:

[B]ut he is not completely cleansed of [his sins]. For the desires of the flesh are still against the Spirit. This uncleanness remains in him to keep him humble, so that in his humility the grace and blessing of Christ taste sweet to him. Thus such uncleanness and such remnants of sin are not a hindrance but a great advantage to the godly. For the more aware they are of their weakness and sin, the more they take refuge in Christ . . . . that He may adorn them with His righteousness and make their faith increase by providing the Spirit, by whose guidance they will overcome the desires of the flesh . . . . [35]

Here Luther does link justifying faith to Christian discipleship ('abstaining from the desires of the flesh'). Note, however, that there is no mention here either of the fulfilling the commands of God's Law by such faith, or of the promises of God as being the primary motive which drives believers to bank their hope on God. To be sure, Luther mentions the Spirit as the One who provides 'guidance' and 'increase' of faith. But Luther's focus is not on a future of happy tomorrows, but on a present struggle to 'overcome the desires of the flesh.' [36] He speaks of that we are called to do now (overcome the flesh), but makes no mention here of God's promises that Christians shall become fellow-kings with Jesus. But how can we maintain our struggle to overcome the flesh without the Great Physician's promise that our faithfully following his health regimen will guarantee our future recovery from sickness to full health' [37]

Whatever may have occasioned Luther's shift in thinking between 1521 and 1535, it is a matter of historical record that after about 1530 the Protestant Reformers defined justification almost solely in forensic terms as the forgiveness of sins. [38] This in turn contributed to Rome's subsequent refusal at the Council of Trent to affirm that justification is merely a forensic declaration which occurs instantaneously at conversion. Instead, the Tridentine formulas defined justification as a process wherein the believer can have assurance of forgiveness only at the end of that process. [39] In this way any hope of common ground between Rome and the Reformers was scuttled for the next four centuries.

III. Common Ground for Evangelicals and Catholics

The Evangelical and Catholic signatories to 'The Gift of Salvation,' in their quest to overcome four hundred years of separation between the Church of Rome and the Reformation, have candidly acknowledged that despite 'the unity we have discovered . . . we recognize that there are necessarily interrelated questions that require further and urgent exploration.' Among these questions are 'the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness' and 'the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone.' [40] The nature of justification and the nature of the faith which justifies are thus two central issues in the ongoing Evangelical-Catholic dialogue.

III.1 The nature of justification.

This issue is usually framed in terms of whether justification is an instantaneous event at the outset of the Christian life (Protestants), or a process which includes spiritual healing in addition to the forgiveness of sins (Catholics). A major goal of this essay has been to establish that Luther, particularly in his earlier writings, joined together these two elements which the Reformers later put asunder.

In addition to Luther, three classical Christian sources demonstrate that prior to the Reformation the Church viewed justification as both an event and a process. These three are Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas.

Augustine's influence on Luther and Calvin is difficult to overstate, especially with relation to the doctrine of total depravity. The Council of Trent, on the other hand, held to an anthropology closer to the medieval via moderna which departed from Augustinianism. [41] Yet Trent's emphasis on justification as a process does find precedent in Augustine, perhaps Luther's favorite classical theologian, who spoke of justification not merely as a singular event but also as a process 'by which [God] justifies those who from unrighteousness He makes righteous.' [42] At the same time, however, Augustine placed such strong emphasis on confession of faith in Christ as the sole ground of justification that he wrote: '. . . whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of baptism.' [43] For Augustine, the later Roman Catholic ordo salutis was no hindrance to justification by faith alone.

The second classical source worthy of note is Anselm. While he spoke of justification as a process and did not explicitly teach imputed righteousness, he taught that Christians could be assured of forgiveness of sins not on the basis of their meritorious works, but solely on the basis of faith in the saving death of Christ. In a tract he wrote to console the dying, Anselm said:

Question. Dost thou believe that the Lord Jesus died for thee' Answer. I believe it. Qu. Dost thou thank him for his passion and death' Ans. I do thank him. Qu. Dost thou believe that thou canst not be saved except by his death' Ans. I believe it. Come then, while life remaineth in thee: in his death alone place thy whole trust; in naught else place any trust; to his death commit thyself wholly; with this alone cover thyself wholly; and if the Lord thy God will to judge thee, say 'Lord, between thy judgment and me I present the death of our Lord Jesus Christ; no otherwise can I contend with thee.' And if he shall say that thou art a sinner, say thou: 'Lord, I interpose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my sins and thee.' If he say that thou hast deserved condemnation, say: 'Lord, I set the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my evil deserts and thee, and his merits I offer for those which I ought to have and have not.' If he say that he is wroth with thee, say: 'Lord, I oppose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between thy wrath and me.' And when thou hast completed this, say again: 'Lord, I set the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between thee and me.' [44]

For Anselm, justification was God's decree that by virtue of Christ's blood shed on the cross we have full remission of sins. As the 19th-century Reformed theologian A.H. Strong noted, 'this quotation gives us reason to believe that the New Testament doctrine of justification was implicitly, if not explicitly, held by many pious souls through all the ages of papal darkness.' [45]

Our third source who demonstrates continuity (as well as contrast) with Luther's perspective on justification is Thomas Aquinas. We cite Thomas in particular because, in spite of his high standing as the 'Angelic Doctor' of the Church, Trent did not follow him -- at least, in one important respect. Specifically, Aquinas affirmed what Trent denied: that justification occurs instantaneously, at the outset of the Christian life. But the strong emphasis on the role of human merit in justification, so characteristic of the medieval via moderna, found expression in the nominalist influences at Trent. [46] In this way opportunity for a Protestant-Catholic consensus on the subject of justification, based upon the classical Augustinian-Anselmic-Thomistic tradition, was rendered virtually impossible. [47]

Today, more than 450 years after Trent, Catholics and Evangelical Protestants are attempting to escape the bondage of mutual mistrust by building bridges of understanding. Luther's early emphasis on both the judicial and sanative aspects of justification may provide one of the building blocks needed for this long-term construction project, by way of linking the Protestant emphasis on imputed righteousness of justification and the Catholic insistence that justification does not exist without at the same time issuing in an ongoing process of actual righteousness in the believer.

In addition to the early Luther's perspective on the nature of justification, a second building-block has to do with his view of the nature of saving faith. To this we now turn.

III.2 The nature of the faith which justifies.

Luther's early emphasis on faith as trusting Jesus for spiritual healing, along with his statements that all of the commandments of scripture are fulfilled by faith, set forth a positive relationship between the Law and the Gospel which Luther later jettisoned when he placed the Law and the Gospel into separate kingdoms. Thus by 1535 Luther interpreted Galatians 5:6 as speaking of a faith which is not justifying faith. [48]

But the context of Galatians 5:6 requires that 'faith working through love' (literally, 'faith working itself out through love'; the Greek verb is in the middle voice [49]) refer to justifying faith. Galatians 5:3 makes this clear: 'You are severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by the Law.' In addition, the language of verse 6 requires that justification be included under the rubric of 'faith working itself out through love.' A literal rendering of verse six from the Greek reads: 'For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is worth anything, but rather faith working itself out through love.' An ellipsis occurs at the end of the second clause, however, wherein the reader must supply the predicate which serves as a counterpoint to the predicate 'is worth anything' in the first clause. The second clause of verse six would thus read 'faith working itself out through love is worth everything.'

But if such a faith, which necessarily expresses itself through love (not adding love to itself!), is worth everything, then it must be a faith which includes justification. Otherwise, something would be excluded, and that faith would not be worth 'everything.' Luther's exegesis here was, to put it simply, wrongheaded. He used his 'two kingdoms' view of Gospel and Law as a filter through which the text had to pass. In this way he turned his back on comments he himself had made in 1519 regarding Galatians 5:14, where he placed the Law of God, the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), and the Gospel ALL under the rubric of faith. [50]

Luther's refusal in 1535 to link Galatians 5:6 to justification was motivated by his desire to avoid Rome's definition of justifying faith as fides caritate formata ('faith formed by love'). In his 1535 comment of Galatians 5:6, for example, Luther rightly noted that Rome mistakenly used this phrase to attribute justification to love rather than to faith. [51] But his desire to separate justifying faith from any sort of obedience at all, including the works of love, caused him to miss the force of the middle voice employed by Paul in this crucial verse.

In addition to misconstruing Galatians 5:6, Luther's 'two kingdoms' dichotomy between the Law and the Gospel also failed to note how in Romans 9:31f. Paul defined Israel's sin, not as seeking to obey the Law of Moses, but rather as misconstruing the meaning of the Law and turning it into something it was never intended to be, i.e. a means of self-justification based on meritorious works. In this key text Paul states:

But Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness [i.e., the Law of Moses], has not attained it [the Law]. Why not' Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were based on works (hos ex ergon).

As C.E.B. Cranfield and others have noted, the phrase 'as if it were based on works' in Romans 9:32 indicates that the original intent of the Law of Moses was 'to show them that the way of righteousness is -- faith.' [52] Israel's mistake, then, was not in seeking to follow the Law, but rather in following it in a manner contrary to the Law's original intent. They followed the Law 'as if it were based on works,' whereas the Law was intended to define what it means to place one's trust in God rather than in one's own abilities to merit God's favor or place God in one's debt. To revert to Luther's early imagery wherein he likened Christ to a physician, Israel's sin was that she took the Law which God had intended to be a doctor's prescription and changed it into a job description. Luther himself stated in 1519 that the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ 'differ not so much in their function as in the interpretation of those who falsely understand them.' [53] Unfortunately, Luther never pursued this insight with the same sort of energy that he pursued his contrast between faith and works. As a result, by 1535 Luther appears to have arrived at a misunderstanding of the true nature of the Law not unlike that which, according to Romans 9:32, ancient Israel held! That is, he defined the Law as a job description wherein the employee places the employer in his debt (the employee gets paid!). But if Luther had seen the Law as a doctor's prescription (as implied in his 1515 analysis of Romans 4:7), whereby the patient is in debt to the doctor, Luther would not have had to place the Law and the Gospel into separate kingdoms.

Ironically, in so doing Luther appears to have capitulated to Rome's tendency to speak of faith and good works as related but nonetheless different entities, and to speak of works in terms of merit. If this be the case, then Luther's error was to accept Rome's ground rules on this particular point rather than changing the rules of the game. On the other hand, if Luther had followed his earlier instincts and defined the Law as a law of faith, thereby viewing the commandments as elements of Jesus's prescription for an 'obedience of faith' (Rom. 1:5, 16:23), he would have defined 'faith working itself out in love' as that persevering faith which not only Jesus and Paul, but also the writers of Hebrews and First Peter describe as essential to salvation. [54]

Here, then, is where I believe that common ground may be found between Evangelicals and Catholics on the doctrine of justification by faith: The nature of justification may be recognized as including both forensic and sanative elements. Justification not only brings forgiveness, but also healing. The basis of both is the passive (alien) righteousness of Christ, as opposed to meritorious works. We are always patients in Jesus's hospital for sinners, never employees who obligate God to grant us a discharge from His care. We must continue to have faith in His resources alone in order to be saved.

The nature of justifying faith must be seen as a wholehearted confidence in God which manifests itself in ongoing obedient trust in God's promises of a future 'most complete cure' of all the remnants of sin which so afflict us in this life. This in turn delivers us from preoccupation with ourselves and our own salvation and frees us to extend to others the benevolence we have received in Christ. [55] This is 'faith working itself out in love' -- a faith which counts on God for everything, from initial justification through spiritual healing to final glorification.

In this way Evangelicals and Catholics, while being fully aware of the differences which remain between us, can affirm that we are justified 'by grace through faith', and that this is 'a gift from God, not of works, lest anyone should boast' (Eph. 2:8-9). At the same time, this saving faith is one which does not exclude good works, for which we were created, 'that we might walk in them' (Eph. 2:10). This is in line with the classical Christian consensus which existed in the Western Church prior to the Reformation: [56] Justification is by grace alone, through a faith which is never alone.


[1] Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Two volumes. Cambridge University Press, 1986. See Volume I pages 182ff. and Volume II pages 2f. The quotation is from II:3.

[2] See e.g. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III.2.8.

[3] McGrath, Iustitia Dei II.2.

[4] See e.g. John Calvin, Institutes III.11.3. At the same time, even Calvin could speak of "The Beginning of Justification and Its Continual Progress" (Institutes III.14).

[5] See 'Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Declaration' in First Things No. 43/May 1994, 15-22.

[6] 'The Gift of Salvation' in First Things No. 79/January 1998 20-23. The document was signed by 19 Protestants and 16 Roman Catholics.

[7] The Alliance document, 'An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals,' is available from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 1716 Spruce Street, Philadelphia PA 19103; tel. 215-546-3696; e-mail aceorg.@aol.com. The Alliance website is: www.alliancenet.org.

[8] This notion of a shift between Luther's earlier and later positions on justification is generally rejected by Lutherans, though it has found expression as recently as the 1982 Lutheran-Conservative Evangelical Dialogue. See e.g. Carl E. Braaten's comments in his Justification (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 112f. The documents were published in The Covenant Quarterly 41 (1983).

[9] 'Later [after discovering that 'the righteousness of God' in Romans 1:17 is a passive righteousness] I read Augustine's The Spirit and the Letter, where contrary to hope I found that he, too, interpreted God's righteousness in a similar way, as the righteousness with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although this was heretofore said imperfectly and he did not explain all things concerning imputation clearly, it nevertheless was pleasing that God's righteousness with which we are justified was taught.' Luther's Works Volume 34 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963), 337. Here Luther apparently refers to chapter 15 of Augustine's On the Spirit and the Letter, where Augustine defines 'the righteousness of God' as follows: '. . . not that whereby He is Himself righteous [and thus justly punishes sinners], but that with which He endows man when He justifies the ungodly.' Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. Whitney Oates (New York: Random House, 1948) Volume One, 471.

[10] McGrath, Iustitia Dei II:12f.

[11] Luther's Works Volume 25, 260.

[12] Luther's Reformation contemporary Martin Bucer likewise noted that Paul connected forgiveness and healing under the heading of justification: '[Paul] never uses the word 'justify in this way without appearing to speak no less of this imparting of true righteousness than of the fount and head of our entire salvation, the forgiveness of sins.' Common Places of Martin Bucer trans. and ed. D.F. Wright (Sutton Courtney Press, 1972), 162. Bucer's doctrine of justification, however, differed significantly from Luther's according to McGrath, Iustitia Dei II.34. More recently, Paul Althaus has likewise noted that 'Luther uses the terms 'to justify' and 'justification' in more than one sense.' See Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 226.

[13] Luther's Works Volume 31, 344-349.

[14] Ibid. 346, emphasis added.

[15] Ibid. 350, emphasis added.

[16] Ibid. 355.

[17] See e.g. McGrath, Iustitia Dei I:182.

[18] Karl Holl, Gesammelte Aufs�tze zu Kirchengeschichte Band 1, 124. Holl describes Luther's position, which is also Holl's, in the following words: 'Gott nimmt den Menschen, den er in das Verh�ltnis zu sich hereinzieht, nicht an, um ihn zu lassen, wie er ist, sondern um ihn umzuschaffen zu einem wirklich Gerechten. Durch Christus und den heiligen Geist vollzieht er dieses Werk. Und als der Allm�chtige kommt Gott sicher zum Ziel. Insofern kann man sagen: wenn Gott den S�nder in dem Moment, in dem er nur S�nder ist, f�r gerecht erkl�rt, so antizipiert er das Resultat, zu dem er selbst den Menschen f�hren wird. Sein Rechtfertigungsurteil ist analytisch.'

[19] 'The truth of Holl's position lies in his strong emphasis on Luther's 'on account of the beginning of the new creation,' that is, the thesis that God forgives man and declares him to be righteous because he both wills to renew him and has already begun to do so. . . . Holl, however, takes this indispensable condition and makes it the sufficient basis for God's verdict of justification: God declares the sinner to be righteous now, because God, being eternal, already sees man as what God's renewing power will make him be at the last judgment. . . . Thereby Holl abandons the 'on account of Christ' in the sense of the imputation of Christ's 'alien' righteousness. . . . [Holl] overlooks that God judges man not only in terms of his moral being, but also and primarily in terms of his guilt. And that guilt cannot be changed by his future [actual ]righteousness [but must be forgiven by the imputed righteousness of Christ].' Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 241f. Carl Braaten summarizes the debate between Holl and his Lutheran adversaries in Braaten, Justification, 13f.

[20] Luther's Works Volume 31, 298f.

[21] Luther's Works Volume 27, 248 (commenting on Galatians 3:3, 1519)

[22] 'Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans' in Luther's Works Volume 35, 371.

[23] Luther's Works Volume 31, 355. The fact that Luther here refers primarily to future grace, and not merely the Christian's present status before God or experience of God's grace, is underscored in the previous paragraph by his emphasis that the Christian's present experience is often one of suffering; indeed, 'the more Christian a man is, the more evils, sufferings and deaths he must endure . . . .'

[24] Luther's Works Volume 26, 9: 'For between these two kinds of righteousness, the active righteousness of the Law and the passive righteousness of Christ, there is no middle [i.e., common] ground.'

[25] Luther's Works Volume 26, 4f. Emphasis added.

[26] See above, note 18 ('Two Kinds of Righteousness').

[27] Luther's Works Volume 26, 11. Werner Elert's Law and Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) exemplifies one of the stronger Lutheran expressions of the Law/Gospel contrast, describing them as 'mutually exclusive' (page one) and 'as opposed to one another as death and life' (page 48). One wonders what Elert (and the later Luther') would do with texts such as Psalm 19:7ff. ('The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul . . . .') and Psalm 119:97 ('Oh, how I love [God's] law!').

[28] See above, note 11. On the other hand, Luther's 'two kingdoms' view of Law and Gospel does find tacit expression as early as his 1515 comments on Romans 3:20. What was a distinction in 1515 is by 1535 a dichotomy.

[29] See above, note 15.

[30] Throughout both his earlier and later his writings Luther emphasized that saving faith is not a perfect faith which issues in perfect obedience. But when Christians pray for forgiveness, God 'stretches the immense heaven of grace over us and for the sake of Christ does not impute to us the remnants of sin that cling to our flesh.' Luther's Works Volume 27, 86.

[31] Luther's Works Volume 26, 253; emphasis added.

[32] Luther's Works Volume 27, 28f.; emphasis added. Luther's distinction here between two kinds of faith likewise found a home in Calvin's Institutes III.2.30 and the Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2.

[33] See above, note 11.

[34] See above, note 23.

[35] Luther's Works Volume 27, 86f.

[36] Calvin, like (following') the later Luther, separates justifying faith from the Law, but unlike Luther gives to the Law a pedagogical function: 'The law is to the flesh [of the Christian] like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.' Institutes II.7.12. Luther, on the other hand, saw the Law's only function as one of convicting people of sin (lex semper accusat); e.g Luther's Works 26, 7, where Luther likewise uses the analogy of a donkey, but views the law as a 'burden' rather than a 'whip.' For Luther, only the Spirit can have any role in sanctification as well as in justification. In this way Calvin went a step beyond Luther and added a legalistic element to Christian obedience.

[37] See also Luther's 1535 comment on Galatians 3:6, where he tells the 'sick man' (= sinner) to 'run to Christ, the Physician . . . . Believe in Him. If you believe, you are righteous . . . . and the sin that still remains in you is not imputed but is forgiven for the sake of Christ.' Luther's Works Volume 26, 333. But Luther's 1535 'physician' deals not with the eradication of future sin (as did 'Christ our Samaritan' in the 1515 Lectures on Romans), but only the forgiveness of present sins. The proleptic element of the early Luther is at best only implicit here.

[38] McGrath, Iustitia Dei II 2. See also McGrath's comment on page 23 that Philip Melanchthon's increasing emphasis on iustitia aliena from about 1530 onward provided the chief impetus to this shift. To what degree Melanchthon influenced Luther, or vice-versa, is beyond the scope of this study.

[39] See e.g. the seventh canon (chapter) of session six of the Council of Trent, which states that justification is 'not only the remission of sins but also sanctification and the renewal of the inward man . . . . Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice, they are commanded, immediately on being born again, to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first robe given them through Christ Jesus . . . , so that they may bear it before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ and may have life eternal.' In other words, initial justification comes to the ungodly, but final salvation comes only to the godly.

[40] 'The Gift of Salvation' in First Things No. 79/January 1998, 22.

[41] See McGrath's discussion of the via moderna in Iustitia Dei I:49-52, 166-172; II:4-7, 15-19.

[42] Sermon 131; cited in Thomas Oden, Life in the Spirit (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), 125. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press 1994), 481ff. (Part Three, Chapter 3, Article 2). Also worthy of note here is that Augustine, like Luther a millennium later, spoke of Christ as a physician who heals our diseases (On the Spirit and the Letter chapters 9 and 10). A useful summary of Augustine's doctrine of justification may be found in Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 83-87.

[43] Augustine, The City of God Book XIII Chapter VII; translation by M. Dods in Oates (ed.), Basic Writings of Saint Augustine Volume Two, 215. Here Augustine's view of justification appears to be consistent with (though not identical to) that of Ambrose of Milan, who baptized Augustine into the catholic faith. Specifically, Ambrose interpreted justification as a declaration of right standing before God, as opposed to a process of increasing actual righteousness; see e.g. Martin Bucer's comment on Ambrose in Common Places, 164.

[44] Anselm, Opera Omnia ed. J.P. Migne (Paris, 1853), 1:686, 687; translation in A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1907) 849.

[45] Strong, Systematic Theology, 849.

[46] Thomas Aquinas's affirmation of the instantaneous nature of the iustificatio impii may be found in his de Veritate O12 QDV qu. 28 ar. 9 of Quaestiones disputates et opuscula: "Nono: utrum iustificatio sit in instanti. . . . Respondeo: . . . iustificatio impii est in instanti." Aquinas did not set forth the Reformers' strict distinction between justification and sanctification, and tended to speak of infused righteousness, but nevertheless viewed God's justification of sinners (impii) as given instantaneously through faith. Trent, on the other hand, set forth a doctrine of sin and justification which Adolf von Harnack called a 'compromise between Thomism (Augustinianism) and Nominalism,' adding that 'the Thomists . . . were not strongly averse to the Protestant doctrine of justification (looked at as a doctrine by itself).' See Harnack, History of Dogma (New York: Dover, 1961 [reprint]) Volume VII, 57. It should be noted, however, that Harnack's magnum opus was less interested in examining the relative merits of dogmatic formulas per se than it was in demonstrating that the history of dogma was more about politics than religious conviction; indeed, Harnack makes this very point on page 58, just after his discussion of Trent's treatment of justification.

[47] It must be noted that both Anselm and Aquinas followed Augustine in that neither entertained the Reformers' notional distinction between justification and sanctification, and both tended to emphasize infused righteousness. Nonetheless, they viewed justification as given instantaneously to sinners solely through faith in Christ.

[48] See above, note 32.

[49] As noted by the lexicons (e.g. BAG) and commentators (e.g. H. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, NIC series [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], 190 n. 18.)

[50] Luther's Works Volume 27, 355.

[51] Ibid. 28ff.

[52] C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans Volume 2, ICC (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979), 508. See also Daniel P. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 465-467 and Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993) 104-112. Schreiner also notes that Romans 10:2-3 confirms that Paul is not merely criticizing Israel for failure to keep the Law, but also for trying to establish their own righteousness by pursuing the Law in the wrong way, i.e. by works (which is contrary to the intent of the Law) as opposed to faith (which is consistent with God's intent in the Law).

[53] Luther's Works Volume 27, 355. 54 Luther's tendency to interpret the rest of the New Testament in light of his understanding of Paul, thus setting forth a 'canon within the canon' consisting principally of Romans and Galatians, kept him from being equally docile to all of Scripture, especially with regard to chapter two of the epistle of James. See e.g. Daniel P. Fuller's critique of Luther at this point in 'Biblical Theology and the Analogy of Faith,' Unity and Diversity in the New Testament ed. Robert A. Guelich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 196-201.

[55] Heiko Oberman describes Luther's view on the relationship faith in Christ, the believer's conscience, and good works as follows: 'Disregarding one's own, ever uncertain inner state and putting one's trust in God's unshakeable promise [in Christ] liberates the believer from brooding, all-consuming self-analysis. Good works are not repudiated, but their aim and direction have been radically 'horizontalized': they have moved from Heaven to earth; they are no longer done to please God but to serve the world.' Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 192.

[56] Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie call attention to this in the final two sentences of the fourth edition of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences: 'Whether or not this assessment [by Reformed theologians, that Catholics preach a false gospel because they view good works as a necessary condition of salvation] is correct depends on whether the classical or Reformational standard is employed as the minimal test for orthodoxy. The authors favor the former, since it is not anachronistic, exclusivistic, and is more in accord with the broad sweep of church history.'

Ted M. Dorman, Ph.D.
Professor of Bible and Theology
Taylor University, Upland, Indiana 46989
e-mail: tddorman@tayloru.edu

The paper was presented at the 1998 National Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society Orlando, Florida

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