This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of “How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel” by Lowell Green (1517 Publishing, 2021).
The Council of Trent (1545–1563) decreed in Canon 9: “If anyone say that the impious is justified by faith alone . . . , let him be anathema.” (1) We are not here concerned with the word “impious” but with the phrase, “by faith alone.” The tragedy of the sixteenth century was the split in the Western Church. One of the causes for the split was the failure of the Council of Trent to grasp what Luther meant when he said that man was justified by faith alone. We have previously analyzed Luther’s early concept of faith. Had this pre-Reformational concept of faith (credulitas) been in the mind of the Mature Luther when he proclaimed justification by faith alone, the Council of Trent would have been right in rejecting his teaching. But as we have seen, the word “faith” had changed meaning for Luther. It was no wonder that his opponents, operating with the medieval view of faith, took exception. Had they understood what Luther was trying to say, their rejection—if one had come—might not have been so bitter. Since the contrast between Luther’s early and later concepts of faith has been overlooked even by modern specialists, it is important that we now turn to “faith” in the Mature Luther.
Melanchthon and the later dogmaticians thought of faith as fiducia or trust preceded by knowledge and assent (assensus ac notitia) in inferior order. This was not wrong, of course, but for Luther faith was more dynamic. It was a continuous struggle or wrestling. Strangely enough, this view did not appear during the time of his great struggles in the monastery. Then his faith-concept was expressed as credulitas—that is, the acknowledgment of the validity of certain propositions as true. After 1518, assisted by Melanchthon, Luther was led to the insight that faith was a term of relationship to God comprehending some of what medieval writers called fides, spes et caritas, and therefore trust or fiducia. Only then was he ready to articulate his position fully. (2)
Faith as Submission
In his exposition of Psalm 125:1 (1533), Luther develops the verse: “They which trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion which cannot be moved, but abideth forever.” The way to salvation does not consist in works invented by men, but that which leads to God is believing and trusting in Him. (3) “This is the nature of God, as I said before, that he creates all things ex nihilo.” God meets with him who is harmonious with His nature. This is man with faith—that is, “He who believes that God is aid in time of danger, life in death, strength in weakness, righteousness in sins . . .” Such a man looks upon God aright, and God can neither hate nor abandon such a one. He is a true servant and worshiper of God since he confides in the mercy of God. “God is pleased solely by this worship, because he delights in making something out of nothing. Thus he created the world out of nothing. Thus he raises up the poor and the oppressed. Thus he justifies sinners. Thus he gives life to the dead. Thus he saves the damned.” (4)
In this development of the attitude of faith by Luther, we see an organic relation to his theology from various periods of his life. The early exegetical lectures on the Psalms and on Romans developed the concept of humilitas as a prominent part of his view of justification. There, humilitas capitulated before the judgeship of God. Especially in the Lectures on Romans (1515–1516) Luther held that such capitulation constituted passive justification. In acknowledging the righteousness of God’s condemnation of him, the humble believer acknowledged the proper place of God and was therefore justified (active justification). Luther’s view of justification was greatly modified and developed when he came to his Reformational understanding of faith in 1518 and then of passive righteousness. In his sermons on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, spanning most of his preaching career, Luther sees the Pharisee damned because of his pride (superbia), but the publican is saved because he acknowledges the righteousness of God’s condemnation of himself and in faith flees to the mercy of God (humilitas). Time and again in these sermons, Luther points to the explanatory words of Christ: “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted; but he that exalteth himself shall be abased” (Luke 18:14). In the words of his exposition of Psalm 125:1, we could say that the publican was justified because he thrust himself before God as nothing and asked God to create a new being out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). God does not build on human accomplishments and pride (thus the Pharisee) but on human failure, emptiness, and humility (thus the publican). In the end this is what the Mature Luther had to say about justification. Thus, he eliminated from his earlier position the idea of an intrinsic righteousness as the basis for an “analytic” justification. He had come to see that this was inconsistent with his view of humility. Justification had become “synthetic”—i.e., it was created out of nothing. (5) Luther did not bow to the criticisms of those who say that such a justification involves a self-deception and unrealism on the part of God. God creates out of nothing! (6) Nor can this be twisted to imply that God supplies what is lacking in the form of a new, God-worked, intrinsic righteousness in the sense of the Lectures on Romans. The righteousness that justifies is a paradoxical righteousness. It is supplied in the mercy of God precisely because it did not exist in empirical reality. Some overly-critical writers have categorically rejected the textual reliability of the Lectures on Galatians of 1531. In some cases, however, the texts present holographs of Luther. Thus, he wrote in words unmistakably authentic: “They show themselves to be evil dialecticians who do not distinguish the passages of Scripture which speak about faith which produces works from those about faith which justifies.” (7) With these words Luther unshrinkingly rejected his earlier teachings and affirmed that works before, during, or after justification are no part of it. (8)
Sufficient attention has not been directed to the aspect of justification by faith in Luther in which faith justifies the sinner by paying God the honor due His offended majesty. God has delivered His immutable will in the Ten Commandments. The sinner offends against them and thereby against God. He does this not only in transgressing the individual commandments, but he also does it in the hostility of his heart with which he hates the Law and therefore also hates God. In the confusion of his heart he wants to overthrow this God whose Law demands what he cannot fulfill and then so cruelly condemns him. He wants to set himself up as judge in place of God in order that he may praise the supposedly good works he offers in rivalry to what God demands in the Law. The result is idolatry of the worst kind—worship of self.
Such self-idolatry is overcome only by humility and faith. Faith is the attitude in which the sinner acknowledges that God’s Law is just and that God has a right to be angry with him because he has broken God’s Law. Faith makes no attempt at self-justification but bows in humility before God. But faith is not intimidated by the Hidden God or by the Law. Faith looks beyond the Deus absconditus to the Deus revelatus—the God who revealed in Christ that He is love and that He does not desire the death of the sinner. The sinner who turns to God in faith and trusts Him to be merciful and to forgive finds that he has not been deceived. For it is the highest glory of God not to condemn but to forgive and to justify the sinner freely by grace alone.
Luther brings this out with great beauty and forcefulness in his preaching. Some researchers have now shown that Luther’s devotional material, such as his sermons, must be used with caution in developing theological propositions. There is some truth in this. First, some of Luther’s sermons have been delivered from secondary sources. And second, Luther’s purpose in preaching was not to construct a technical theological proposition but to edify the congregation. There is a reply, however, to the supposition that Luther’s sermons might not be reliable historical sources. Although it was not Luther’s purpose to construct a system of justification in his sermons, he was nevertheless a man of integrity, and therefore a system may be reconstructed by exercising due care with the material. It is indeed necessary that much attention be paid to the delivery of each sermon. Historians consider those which have come down from Georg Rörer as highly dependable. They are in the form of a German and Latin shorthand which Rörer himself used. Luther preached in German, and Rörer, who was facile with Latin shorthand, used Latin words and abbreviations to keep up with Luther’s delivery from the pulpit. These are therefore direct transcripts that have come down to us in this macaronic form. The printed sermons, prepared by such redactors as Roth, Poach, Dietrich, and others, are more numerous. These are not so direct, at times show much editing, and therefore are to be used with more caution. However, by taking a large number of sermons preached by Luther over a period of years on the same text, a reliable picture can be gained of his doctrine of justification. We shall do this in analyzing about twenty sermons preached by Luther on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9ff.) (9)
This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of “How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel” by Lowell Green (1517 Publishing, 2021), 156-159.