Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

Luther, Romans, and Justification

In Big Evangelicalism, we often give a quick nod to Martin Luther, especially around October 31. Thanks for recovering the doctrine of justification by faith, man, but that's about all we need you for. This is a shame because Luther is far more than the crass and intemperate drunk of popular history. Luther is a first-rate theological, historical, and philosophical mind, all of which is on bright display in his lectures on Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Though Luther’s work on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans begins chronologically prior to his formal engagements with the Roman Catholic Church which one might identify as the Reformational tipping point, his lectures on Romans make clear that his theses on indulgences were not strikes of doctrinal lightning, appearing out of nowhere. Many of the prominent themes present in Luther’s later work are present at the very least in either seed or sapling form in his lectures on Romans. Indeed, concepts like the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer apart from the believer’s own works, the issue of identity as the key to understanding rightly the relationship between faith and works, and Luther’s thoughts on Christian freedom are all governing themes in Luther’s lectures on Romans.  

Luther’s glosses of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans begin with this statement: “The whole purpose and intention of the apostle in this Epistle is to break down all righteousness and wisdom of our own” (LBEW, 4). For Luther, Paul’s message is clear from the very beginning. Man’s work is of no help regarding salvation. In Romans, Paul is trying to “break down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh” (LBEW, 6). There is no work that a man can do, no matter how sincere or how pure of heart, which can merit anything before God. This message is in stark contrast to the message of the world, which teaches the righteousness of man insofar as he becomes righteous through his own works.

Importantly, Luther makes clear that when one is justified, they do not become righteous intrinsically. Here, Luther makes a hard break with medieval Roman Catholicism, which sees righteousness as gained by the individual through participation in a sacramental system. Rather, one remains at the same time just and a sinner, for “in truth they are unrighteous, but before God they are righteous because He reckons them so because of their confession of sin” (LBEW, 13). Additionally, on Luther’s reading, sin has a much more pervasive influence than it does for his scholastic counterparts. Thinking of Ps. 36:2, Luther says that “if [works] were offered as a sacrifice to the judgment of God, they still would be found to be sins” (LBEW, 21). The believer cannot be righteous of themselves on this side of eternity, for Luther. Yet at the same time, that very believer has been declared righteous by God on the basis of Christ’s work.

For Luther, this justification of the individual is not the only justification which takes place when someone grasps hold of Christ by faith. In this justification of the believer, God Himself is also justified in a sense. Luther says, “God is justified in His words, that is, when we believe Him in the Gospel concerning the fulfillment of the promise, so that He is regarded as truthful and righteous” (LBEW, 9). In a word, when the individual believes God’s Word to them in the Gospel, that they are saved by faith to the exclusion of any works of their own, God is shown to be just in that He keeps this very promise to His people. Luther says even more concisely that, “when He is justified, He justifies, and when He justifies, He is justified” (LBEW, 10).

Worth noting is the fact that Luther, though he primarily argues from Scripture, is also very keen on referencing the patristic writers. This is an important rhetorical move which Luther makes. The academic water in which he swims at this time is populated by theologians who, in order to earn their doctorate and be able to interpret Scripture, were required to write a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. In order to be taken seriously in the academic square, one was forced to demonstrate not only a familiarity with the Fathers, but also that they were in continuity with the Fathers doctrinally. Luther, not only an able exegete but also a great historical theologian, reaches back to Augustine to make his point, for Augustine notes that in Romans 3:21, Paul says, “’The righteousness of God’; he did not say ‘the righteousness of man’ or ‘the righteousness of one’s own will,’ but ‘the righteousness of God,’ not that righteousness by which God is righteous but that righteousness with which He covers man when He justifies the ungodly” (LBEW, 6).[1]

The believer’s justification on the basis of God Himself leads seamlessly into Luther’s idea that one’s identity precedes their works. Luther draws on the biblical example of Cain and Abel in thinking about the importance of the believer’s identity in the Christian life, saying that “he who has been made righteous does works of righteousness, as it is written: ‘And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering’ (Gen. 4:4), not in the first place ‘for his offering’” (LBEW, 5). Luther goes on to assess that humans, in their stupidity, “want to be reckoned as righteous only by [their] works, that is, [they] want first ‘regard for the offering’ and then ‘for Abel,’ which cannot be” (LBEW, 19). Here, Luther is yet again reacting against the schoolmen who, following Aristotle, “base sin and righteousness on works, both their performance or omission” (LBEW, 16). Works are not the root, but rather the fruit, of one’s identity in Christ.

In addition to sharing his thought on justification and identity, Luther writes briefly about adiaphora. In fact, Luther’s thoughts are helpful lenses through which to see many modern debates over issues of preference in the modern church. Luther’s foundational point is that, “in the new law all things are free and nothing is necessary for those who believe in Christ, but love is sufficient for them” (LBEW, 26). Thus, things like keeping feast days and wearing a tonsure are no longer required or necessary for salvation. In fact, Luther goes so far as to even say, “we should abolish the fast days and many of the feast days. For the common people observe them with such conscience that they believe there is no salvation without them” (LBEW, 28). Luther sees a great amount of pastoral flexibility in the adiaphora, as we probably should as well.

[1] He cites the Fathers in many other places as well, this is just a helpful example of his utilization of them.

[2] The Christian suffers so they can “learn to love and worship God purely for Himself” (LBEW, 22).

[3] Nature is inherently selfish, but grace sees God in everything (LBEW, 25).

[4] Luther thinks that men should think about becoming monks at this time because being a monk is now “displeasing to men” (LBEW, 28).

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Yes, Cain, You Are Your Brother's Keeper