Martin Luther placed, “the justification of the sinner,” at the heart of his preaching and teaching. He believed the restoration of the righteousness—the justified nature—of those who had revolted against God in sin constituted the heart of the Biblical recital of God’s interaction with human creatures after the Fall into sin. We usually associate a description of the Atonement as the vicarious satisfaction of the Law’s demand for the death of the sinner (Romans 6:23a) with Luther’s Doctrine of Justification. Indeed, forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death formed an essential element at the heart of Luther’s understanding of justification. But his use of Romans 4:25, “Christ was handed over into death because of our sin and rose to restore our righteousness,” often with the application of His death and resurrection to the baptized in Romans 6:3-11 and Colossians 2:11-15, opened up a number of other expressions of how the work of Christ results in the restoration of our existence as God’s children. At its core, Luther’s understanding of “justification” meant a restoration of the perfect trust and love Adam and Eve enjoyed as the most essential part of their nature as human beings in Eden. For Luther, justification is “humanization,” the restoration of our true humanity, because he defined being human as, at its heart, “fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things.” All proclamation of the atoning work of Christ aims at fostering and nourishing the trust which places life totally in God’s hands and hearkens fully to Christ as Lord and Savior.
Luther expanded on this definition he previously composed in his Small Catechism when writing his Large Catechism soon thereafter:
“A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” This trust and confidence of the heart, Luther continued, “fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone. What this means is: ‘See to it that you let me alone be your God, and never search for another.’ In other words: ‘Whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl to me and cling to me. I, I myself, will give you what you need and help you out of every danger. Only do not let your heart cling to or rest in anyone else’” (The Book of Concord, 2000, 386-387).
Luther perceptively recognized faith and/or trust as much more than acknowledgement of the facticity of a report; it is clinging to someone, relying on another person or an object onto which we place our weight. Trust may risk, but trust produces a sense of assurance letting us rest easy and enjoy peace while it drives us to ventures which may seem dangerous but are possible to do because trust defies the dangers. At the essence of our humanity, trust in God and His Word governs and maintains human life.
The Wittenberg reformer defined the Original Sin—of Adam and Eve but also of each human being, each day of every life—as doubt and defiance of God’s Word. Trust and reliance on God’s Word constitute our righteousness, our being the way the Creator originally fashioned us. Trust responds specifically to God’s promise. Luther found in the word “promise” the proper description of the nature of the Gospel of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ. Unlike other promises which hold out for something that will become real in the future, this promise is real when it is made. But like other promises, it demands trust since it does not offer concrete proof. The Jews could determine whether signs were true based on their results, just as we know things by our experiments and empirical research. The Greeks could determine whether an argument was true because of logic, just as we continue to use Aristotle’s structures for logic today. Both methods of learning and knowing give us usable knowledge. But in both cases, we remain the masters and ultimate judges of what we learn. Promises, such as the Word from the Cross, offer no proof but demand trust in the Promiser. We do not remain the master but place ourselves totally at the mercy of the One who has promised (1 Corinthians 1 and 2).
Promises, such as the Word from the Cross, offer no proof but demand trust in the Promiser.
To trust is a verb that takes a human subject. To love or to fear are in this regard somewhat similar; although we may speak of animals loving or fearing—but seldom if ever of their trusting. However, it is not a verb which we will to perform. It is not an action I can force myself to do. The object of our trust creates the trust. Because faith is the unshakable confidence of that for which we hope and the substance of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), it does not arise from anything we can master and prove. Quite the contrary, trust surrenders our persons to dependence on another. The thrill of a baby being cast into the air, the grace of acrobats swinging from one rope or one set of hands to another, the sigh of relief from the hospitalized when the physician enters the room all point to the sense that things will be alright which trust produces. The parent tossing the child in the air creates this sense, as do the fellow acrobats and the perception of one’s own ability to do the right thing, or the patient’s hope in the doctor to know what to do. Sometimes more, sometimes less evidence sets trust in motion. Some or little experience and familiarity may also build our trust. But no magic formulates how we govern our own trusting or how we draw others into trusting us. Trust is the mysterious heart of our humanity.
The U.S.-American psychoanalyst and philosopher Erik Erikson (1902-1994) defined trust as the core of human personhood and personality. He proposed trust and mistrust arise from the satisfactory or less than satisfactory interaction with other people, above all, the mother, in the first two years of life. Those in whom trust is cultivated by these human encounters in infancy go through life better-adjusted than those who have had mistrust fostered in them by such encounters, according to Erikson. His theory continues to command the analysis of many in his trade.
As C. F. W. Walther noted in his Law and Gospel, trust is not built by sermons on the nature of faith. Faith and trust spring from hearing what God has done in Christ for sinners. To be sure, all trust is developed in ways psychologists admit they cannot fully explain. In a mysterious manner God’s Word makes its impact on our lives because the Holy Spirit, “has come upon us.” Just as the Spirit brought tongues of fire and amazing gifts of language to the disciples on Pentecost, the Spirit makes His promise of new life and wholeness, and the promise elicits and creates our trust. But just as the wind blows where it wills and we note its presence without knowing whither it has come and whence it is going, so the Holy Spirit creates trust in Christ and His Word of forgiveness and new life. The Spirit preserves this trust in ways that do not submit to our mastery. Our analysis of our faith does not strengthen it. The ongoing experience of the Word of promise does.
Faith and trust spring from hearing what God has done in Christ for sinners.
Trust enables believers to look at the world around them and take a glimpse into the future with confidence and assurance that the God who has livened us in Christ accompanies us. This gives us the ultimate sense of security, for God is safeguarding our present and guaranteeing our person for the future. Trust thus banishes our inhibitions, reservations, and fears, for we rest assured His protecting and preserving hand is there to ward off the worst attacks of Satan. We have hope because He has secured our future. Trust in God’s pronouncement that sin no longer identifies who we are, therefore, produces the confidence which enables God’s children to risk what they have to demonstrate love to others. No reservations about freely reaching out to those whom God has placed around us inhibit our acting as the children He says we are. For the Holy Spirit’s gift of trust in the promise of new life and salvation impels us into living life framed by the peace and joy He gives. In His peace and joy we perceive how enjoyable it is to take care of those whom God has entrusted to our love. This is the adventure and blessing of living the justified life.