Martin Luther, Reformation, and Justification - by Lauren Larkin: #Refo500atDET

#Refo500atDET introduction and schedule available here.

A Little Historical Context

Martin Luther [Public domain / {{PD-US}}],
via Wikimedia Commons
Justification by faith in medieval Catholic piety was the means by which the initial distribution of grace was imparted to the sinner. This distribution of grace was the beginning of the person’s further acquisition of grace and righteousness. The process then, for the believer, was to do works to acquire more grace and righteousness and be sure of eternal life. These works aren’t to be confused with our modern romantic sense of the idea of work: an artist at work, sculpting and molding the self. Rather they were meritorious works, aimed at the perfection of the person in order to gain eternal life. These meritorious works (including works of supererogation) functioned as demands on God: I’ve done what was expected, so I deserve blessedness. God is then the one who is to be grateful; we are the giver, God the recipient.

In light of this emphasis on works, a misconception is that the medieval Catholic Church had a high view of God’s law and that authorities were taking fragile human consciences—terrified by the concept of eternal torment in hell—and beating them with its full weight. The medieval Catholic Church had a low view of law and made the law doable by introducing her own versions of law so to offer an easier way to assurance of eternal life. In this regard, the church wasn’t a hotbed of mental and spiritual torment: “what was lacking,” writes Karl Holl, “was the holy wrath that gives vent to an outraged religious consciousness.”

So, when Luther steps onto the scene with theses in hand, it’s not about bringing the word of comfort, the gospel; it’s about bringing back God’s law that was lost in the weeds of doable human laws. Luther brings the full, naked, potent Law of God to afflict the comfortable, to awaken the sleeping. He essentially wakes them up to crush them because their souls are on the line. It is then that the word of the Gospel, for Luther, becomes the good word.

The human person cannot (of their own power) work to acquire God’s grace (or more of it) because the works that are demanded of the human person far exceed the capacities of the human person. So, for Luther, being saved by God’s grace through faith (being justified) is either completely sufficient in justifying the human person or it isn’t. There’s no partialness to the Grace of God because there’s no recourse to God’s law to acquire more of it. Works were now off the table when it came to the event of justification.

Luther’s Theological Pièce de Résistance

Luther is credited with recovering the doctrine of justification by faith, and it’s this recovery that causes the reformation. That’s not altogether accurate. What catches ecclesiastical attention is how Luther defines the concept of justification by faith, which is in terms of the distinction of Law and Gospel—a hermeneutic he unearths anew from the study of Scripture. Luther’s genius resides in his emphasis on “by faith alone” and “apart from good works.”

What Luther saw in his era was a confusion of the distinction between Law and Gospel. The two had become conflated, and Christ and His work had been lost. And if Christ is lost then, for Luther, humanity is stuck in its helpless and fallen state. Thus, according to Luther, it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between faith and works, gospel and law, promise and command, life and death. Luther writes,

But the doctrine of Justification is this, that we are pronounced righteous and are saved solely by faith in Christ, and without works. If this is the true meaning of justification—as it certainly is, or it will be necessary to get rid of all scripture…[the victory is not] obtained by us; it is obtained through the Christ whom we preach and confess.

Without the distinction, the work of Christ and the work of the person are confused. If we don’t’ place the right emphasis on the correct syllable we get a dire state. “For the Law” writes Luther, “was not given in order to justify; it was given in order to work wrath, to disclose sin, to reveal the wrath and judgment of God and to threaten eternal death.” If we don’t believe in Christ and receive his victory by faith, we are under the curse; if under the curse, then dead in our trespasses.

About Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel, Gerhard Ebeling writes,

The need for a proper distinction seems to face us with a task which is more difficult than that of mere separation or mere association. This task is to maintain an opposition between the two which is of the nature of a mortal enmity…but also, at one and the same time, to reduce this enmity to order, by bringing both into a proper relationship, in which each remains in its own place and within its own limits: the law does not claim to be the gospel, and the gospel does not attempt to take over the role of the law.

The law and the gospel are different and are differentiated against each other. Both the law and the gospel are two distinct entities. The law and the gospel are fully functional and competent in their own right and proper place. The law is static. The gospel isn’t added to the law to make the law do what it just flat out cannot do; it can demand and guide and reward or condemn, but it cannot move the hearer. The gospel is not God’s way of revamping or refurbishing the law. Christ is not a new Moses. The gospel is its own word with its own function. Rather than being static like the law, the gospel is dynamic. The gospel can do what the law cannot: move the hearer to faith and into the love of God and neighbor.

The distinction between Law and Gospel, for Luther, is about how the human person is justified by faith alone apart from works in the event of Christ and the encounter with God in Christ. The offense in this is that works, according to Luther, have no meritorious component, there’s no way to hold God to the bargain: I’ve done my part now you have to do yours. Rather, we are forced to walk in the darkness of faith and trusting fully this God as revealed by Christ, placing all of our hope and assurance in God, by faith in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.

Karl Holl, What Did Luther Understand by Religion. Philadlphia: Fortress, 1977.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 1-4, LW vol. 26, Jaroslav Pelikan ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1963.

Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart trans. New Haven: YUP, 1989.

Steven Paulson, Luther for Armchair Theologians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004.

[Ed. note: Rev. Lauren R. E. Larkin is a priest in The Episcopal Church and a Teaching Chaplain at an Episcopal High School. She regularly contributes to theological blogs: Key Life and She is one half of EzerUncaged. She tweets: @laurenrelarkin.]


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