This is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of “How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel” by Lowell Green (1517 Publishing, 2021).
Melanchthon apparently led the way to the Reformational insight that grace denotes divine goodness rather than a medicinal substance. It is possible that this insight, in turn, went back to suggestions in Erasmus’ 1516 New Testament—suggestions which the Dutch humanist himself did not develop further. In any case, Melanchthon’s usage can be documented between November 1520 and February 1521, when he defended Luther from the attacks of Thomas Rhadino. (1) In this treatise, Melanchthon sharply rejected the medieval construction that the three cardinal virtues (faith, charity, and hope) are achieved in the believer through the infusion of the grace-substance (2) — a construction which had greatly troubled Luther until the breakthrough revealed in the Acts of Augsburg (October 1518). Instead of regarding grace as a substance, Melanchthon asserted that it was an attitude of God—His kindness revealed in the Gospel. Grace was the forgiveness of sins and justification. “For where gratia [grace] occurs, it is a word which denotes favor in Christ,” Melanchthon said. (3) Since this was destined to become the position of Protestant theology, it is of great interest to retrace its development. To do so, however, will take us to two works of lesser authority than the reply to Rhadino.
In the Annotations on Romans (1519 or 1520), Melanchthon defined the Gospel as the proclamation of grace, and grace as the mercy of God (gratia, hoc est favor dei). (4) He told his students: “In this way we receive these benefits through Christ, the favor of God . . . Wherefore as to those who do not believe, God does not feel graciously disposed (favet) toward them . . .” (5) During the winter semester of 1520–152, Melanchthon again taught from the Epistle to the Romans, but this time he treated it systematically rather than exegetically. Of these studies in Romans only a student’s copy, the so-called Lucubratiuncula (“Night-Work”), remains. In uncharitably poor Latin the student quoted Melanchthon’s doctrine of grace at this period: “Grace is a word that signifies the favor of God, by which God embraces the man whose favor is in God and not in man; and as soon as God regards such a man with favor, he stands very near to him, and holds him in his hands. . . .” (6) There are many parallels in which the same thing is said almost word for word in the Lucubratiuncula that is stated in the Annotations on Romans.
Except for the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon’s Loci communes of 1521 were the most important of his writings. Here he developed the new grace-concept into a full system. After a brief word study on the usage in the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, and the Greek New Testament, Melanchthon asserted: “The word for grace does not signify any kind of condition in us, but rather the same gracious will or benevolence of God toward us.” (7) He thus excluded the concept of grace as a substance or quality working within the believer and firmly defined it as relational. As a Biblical humanist, he found that “. . . in the Sacred Scriptures grace denotes favor, and this is the grace or favor in God, by which he accepts the saints.” (8) Like Luther, Melanchthon distinguished between grace and the gift of grace—an advance over his position in the earlier Theological Institutes. (9)
“In conclusion, grace is nothing else than forgiveness or remission of sin. The gift is the Holy Spirit, regenerating and sanctifying the heart.” (10) This was the clearest presentation of the grace-concept in the early 1520’s. Grace is the attitude of God toward sinners. Good works in the person who has experienced grace are not the result of the outpouring of a grace-substance, but they are the visible fruits of the believer’s response to the mercy of God. Justification is the application of the grace, love, and mercy of God to lost, sinful man. For all practical purposes, grace is forgiveness of sin: Non aliud est gratia nisi condonatio seu remissio peccati. Subsequent to forgiveness, the heart is sanctified and renewed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. (11)
This is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of “How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel” by Lowell Green (1517 Publishing, 2021), 129-130.