Rightiousness of Faith- acc. To Luther- IWAND, 2008 , via Uwe Rosenkranz

The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther

Hans J. Iwand

Edited by

Virgil F. Thompson

Translated by

Randi H. Lundell

With an Introduction by

Gregory A. Walter

WIPF & STOCK • Eugene, Oregon

the righteousness of faith according to luther

Copyright © 2008 Lutheran Quarterly, Inc. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical publications or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. Write: Permissions, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Eugene, OR 97401.

ISBN 13: 978-1-55635-911-8


Table of Contents

Editor’s Preface

Translator’s Preface

Historical Introduction

Gregory A. Walter

The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther

By Hans J. Iwand


1.    Giving God Justice

2.    Law and Gospel

3.    Faith and Works

4.    Righteousness

Editor’s Preface

In popular theological imagination Hans J. Iwand is scarcely a household name. But in the Luther Renaissance, a period, beginning in 1910, of renewed scholarly interest in Luther studies, this German theologian was instrumental in making Luther’s theology accessible to the contemporary world of theology. Until now Iwand’s original work has been available only to German-language readers. Those of us who do not read German, if we have been at all familiar with his contribution to theology, have had to be content with summaries of his work, most often encountered in footnotes. This volume at long last makes available to English-language readers one of Iwand’s most important works on Luther’s theology, Glaubensgerechtigkeit nach Luthers Lehre, translated here by Randi H. Lundell and first serialized in volume twenty-one (2007) of Lutheran Quarterly.

At the request of his friends to “explain the fundamentals of Luther’s theology in the most condensed form possible,” Iwand sets forth in accessible and compelling language the doctrine of justification by faith, which lies at the heart of Luther’s theological revolution and which propels the evangelical explosion of the sixteenth century into the heart and imagination of Christian preachers today. As Gregory Walter notes in his introduction, Iwand’s essay is organized around two concepts—promise and simultaneity—both of which are crucial to understanding the doctrine of justification as Luther set it forth. The language of promise presents justification to the believer as a reality that has yet to arrive or is hidden under present reality. The language of simultaneity provides the linguistic means to admit the “both/and” which is so crucial to acknowledging the realities that confront theological reflection, such as, for example, 1) the Word of God as both law and gospel, 2) the believer as both sinner and saint.

If these concepts seem commonplace among students of Luther’s theology today it is only a measure of Iwand’s influence in shaping contemporary appreciation of Luther’s contribution to Christian theology. Of course the danger of common place is that it can quickly become passé. We may be tempted to imagine that we have passed beyond the fundamentals to other more important matters. And there is no denying that for many, the existential and ecumenical realities of today constitute a situation for which the doctrine of justification is no longer relevant. But if that should be the case, then our situation, ironically, appears much the same as the situation which Iwand was addressing in 1941. In his words, “It could be … [that the traditional hold of justification] … on our inherited confession is weakening and we must ask again about what constitutes the basis for our confessional understanding. It could also be that we find ourselves in a time in which it is not very easy to support a division of the church on the basis of a confession … and that we ought to ponder once again the possibility of unity, since the confessional differences of the past do not appear to be as strong as they once were.” Iwand faces head on the questions and objections of his day: “Do we think that Luther has exaggerated this article … attributed too little to Christian piety and lifestyle … sacrificed the unity of the church by insistence on the centrality of the article. Or do we imagine that the article may be taken for granted so that we may move on to the more pressing social and political agenda of the real world?” Such questions and objections have a contemporary ring to them. But if there is a resonance between the present time and the time when Iwand’s study was first published, it can only mean now what it meant then. The questions and objections must be faced head on.

The question of the place of justification can only be decided on the basis of encountering it anew in the rough and tumble context of the church’s ministry and the believer’s actual existence. There is much at stake in the encounter, not just a recovery of Luther’s theology, but the gospel of Christ, itself. Luther, as Iwand explains in the pages that follow, is only important to the extent that he is consequential for a recovery of the gospel’s proclamation, because that proclamation alone gives life. Apart from the justifying Word of God in Christ we soon forget why we are Christian at all and fall back under bondage of one sort or another.

Unapologetically, joyously, Iwand stands within the tradition of the Christian faith which Gerhard Forde referred to in the inaugural issue of Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 1987), as radical Lutheranism: “My thesis,” Forde wrote, “is that Lutherans to be true to their identity … should become even more radical proponents of the tradition that gave them birth and has brought them thus far.… Let us be radicals … radical preachers and practitioners of the gospel by justification by faith without the deeds of the law. We should pursue it to the radical depths already plumbed by St. Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, when he saw that justification by faith without the deeds of the law really involves and announces the death of the old being and the calling forth of the new in hope. We stand at a crossroads. Either we must become more radical about the gospel, or we would be better off to forget it altogether” (8).

Iwand’s work promises to take readers to the “radical depths” of the cheering good news of God’s justification of the ungodly, made visible and audible in the preaching of Christ. Lutheran Quarterly is delighted to join with Wipf & Stock Publications to make available to English-language readers this beautiful translation by Randi Lundell of The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther.

April 2008


Virgil F. Thompson

Spokane, Washington


Gonzaga University

Translator’s Preface

While a graduate student in German in Evanston, Illinois, in 1986, my father, Dr. Roy A. Harrisville, handed me a copy of H.J. Iwand’s Glaubensgerechtigkeit nach Luthers Lehre suggesting that I translate it. His enthusiasm for “this lovely little book” was contagious. The translation itself reflects the straightforward language that H.J. Iwand used “to explain the fundamentals of Luther’s theology in the most condensed form possible.” It is divided into four chapters representing Luther’s most important theological battles, all of which are illuminated for the reader in a way that reflects Iwand’s extensive hermeneutical background and conceptuality.

I have many people to thank in the preparation of this translation. First and foremost, I would like to thank my brother Dr. Roy A. Harrisville III for his attention to the preparation of the manuscript for publication and for his patient editing skills. He was also invaluable to me as a theological consultant. I must also thank my father, Dr. Roy A. Harrisville, for his translation of all of the Latin footnotes into German (many are original translations from the Weimar edition) and for his considerable help in finding the numerous extant correlations between the American version and the Weimar edition of Luther’s works. Thanks also to Lace Tinajero (neé Williams) who was very helpful with her comments in the initial stages. This book would not be appearing in print if not for the intervention of Dr. Steven Paulson of Luther Seminary and for the invitation to publish it in the Lutheran Quarterly extended by its editor, Dr. Paul Rorem, of Princeton Theological Seminary.

As a Lutheran lay person, the process of translating Iwand has helped me to embrace the Pauline polemic so masterfully worked out by Luther. As Dr. Gerhard Forde put it in Justification by Faith: A Matter of Life and Death, “The search for the proper distinction between law and gospel is, in essence, nothing other than a search for an understanding and use of theological language that gives life beyond the death always administered by legal talk or law. It is a search for a use of language in church discourse, in proclamation, which does not merely talk about life or describe life but actually gives it” (13). Iwand began this search for me and it is my hope that his “lovely little book” will do the same for the reader.

April 2008


Randi H. Lundell

Roseville, Minnesota


Historical Introduction

by Gregory A. Walter

Hans Joachim Iwand’s 1941 monograph, The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther, is an important theological contribution of the Luther Renaissance. Although Iwand wrote it three decades after the beginning of the theological movement itself, it still developed some of the Luther Renaissance’s central insights. Two concepts shaped Iwand’s argument and interpretation of Luther: promise and simultaneity. Iwand made use of these concepts to construct the doctrine of justification. His use of promise and simultaneity requires a brief introduction to the history of these ideas in the Luther Renaissance of the 1920s and his entry into the law-gospel debate of the 1930s. In general, the members of the Luther Renaissance summarized God’s speaking of the creative, justifying word to the world as a promise. They used the language of promise since this word creates a future reality that has yet to arrive or is hidden under present reality.

Iwand’s Life and Work

Hans Joachim Iwand (1899–1960) spent much of his early life in and around Königsburg, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland). Born to Lydia and Otto Iwand, he followed his father’s path to become a pastor of the Old Prussian Union by studying at Halle and Breslau. Service in the infantry in 1918–1919 interrupted these studies. Returning to Breslau, he studied under Rudolf Hermann (1887–1962), a theologian belonging to the Luther Renaissance. As Iwand noted in the introduction to The Righteousness of Faith, he owed a special debt to Hermann, which will become clearer when examining their use of promise. At Breslau, Iwand finished his studies and prepared for his theological exams. He wrote his first dissertation at Königsberg under Martin Schulze, arguing that Karl Heim’s philosophy of religion did not take into account the bondage of the will. Hermann urged that Iwand should complete his second dissertation under Erich Seeberg at Berlin but Iwand stayed in Königsberg and wrote his second dissertation under Martin Schulze. This dissertation, titled Rechtfertigungslehre und Christusglaube, was published in 1930. Iwand obtained a position at Lutherheim, a seminary-like institution related to the University of Königsberg. He managed Lutherheim’s affairs and lectured. His work continued there until the beginnings of the Kirchenkampf in 1933. He was then dismissed from his position and left his family to teach briefly in Riga, Latvia, in 1934. Soon after in 1935, Iwand was offered the opportunity to direct a Confessing Church seminar. His seminar was held first in Bloestau, and later in Jordan, Neumark. After these seminars were disbanded in 1937, he was called to be pastor of St. Marienkirche in Dortmund, Germany, in 1938. He served this congregation until the end of the war, when he became a professor of systematic theology first at Göttingen and later at Bonn. Iwand lectured on a variety of topics, particularly Christology, while he engaged in Christian-Jewish dialogue, worked for ecumenical reconciliation between Reformed and Lutheran churches, and pursued common work with theologians in Eastern European countries. He died on 2 May 1960 at the beginning of a decade that would see a new groundswell of work on eschatology reacting to the various lines of theology that gestated in the 1920s, including the Luther Renaissance.

Although in many ways the apex of Iwand’s early theological work on Luther, The Righteousness of Faith was written de profundis. In 1940, Else Niemoller wrote to Iwand, among others, asking for support in responding to reports that her husband Martin Niemoller was converting to Roman Catholicism while in Nazi captivity. These reports were actually propaganda intended to undermine the delicate relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics. In response to Niemoller’s request, Iwand wrote The Righteousness of Faith to articulate the “center” of Luther’s thought, justification by faith alone. “The wind of the time was against us,” he wrote in a postscript to the third edition of this book.

This book epitomizes much of Iwand’s theological labors since 1925. He organized The Righteousness of Faith into four sections. Each section presents his main concerns with the exception of his work on the bound will: justification as God’s own justification, law and gospel, work and person, and the nature of divine righteousness. In this last section on righteousness and in the introduction, Iwand contended that the doctrine of justification is the center of all doctrine. The concept of promise anchors the whole work while the language of simultaneity enables discussion not just of the well-known “simultaneously saint and sinner” but also of law and gospel and the eschatological reality of God’s righteousness. Without examining this work in light of Iwand’s earlier writings on justification, one could easily underestimate the value of promise for his proposal since it appears infrequently throughout the treatise, while simultaneity takes a more prominent place.

Karl Holl and the Luther Renaissance

Iwand’s use of promise and simultaneity belongs to the Luther Renaissance that began with Karl Holl. Holl used the notion of promise to make sense of the simultaneity the doctrine of justification appears to require. He founded the Luther Renaissance in 1910 with an article examining the Martin Luther’s 1515–1516 Romans Lecture recovered by Johannes Ficker. In this article, “Rechtfertigungslehre,” Holl developed solutions to problems he inherited from Albrecht Ritschl’s construction of the doctrine of justification. Ritschl and others borrowed language from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to distinguish Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines of justification. Ritschl described justification as either an analytic or a synthetic judgment. He considered the difference between the two to lie in whether or not a moral change occurs in the individual as the result of justification.7 Analytic versus synthetic refers to the relationship of God’s act of recognition or pronouncement to the way in which the human being comes to be righteous. If justification recognizes an already existing moral change or effects that change, then justification is analytic. In all other cases, it is synthetic, which is the position Ritschl contended Protestants should uphold.

Holl argued that justification as an analytic judgment can only be intelligible if human beings can also perceive themselves from God’s perspective. Thus, from a human perspective alone justification is synthetic, but from God’s perspective it is analytic because God already has the consummation of God’s justification in view. Since the righteous human being is already present to God in God’s future, justification is an analytic judgment. Holl combined these two perspectives without having any clear way to see them as conjoined or communicated by God to humanity. Martin Luther’s Romans Lecture provided the concept of promise that enabled Holl to solve his problem. For Holl, God already has the results of God’s work in view. There is no gap, Holl argued, between God’s will to justify and God’s action. Divine will and act are identical in eternity though not in created time. Thus, when God communicates God’s will to human beings, they can only perceive God’s act of justifying that is the result of this will as a future event and therefore as a promise. Likewise, promise gives room for simultaneity because the human beings who perceive God’s future also perceive the present reality of sin, so they are conscious of both the promised future and the present at the same time. The structure of promise and fulfillment constitutes the bedrock of Iwand’s The Righteousness of Faith.

Holl’s theology and interpretation of Luther provoked many responses, both sympathetic and critical; most of all, this interpretation was the catalyst that formed the Luther Renaissance. This movement consisted of theologians and historians who aimed to renew German church and political life by drawing from the theology of the early Luther. It brought together students of Karl Holl such as Emanuel Hirsch and “positive theologians” such as Carl Stange, Rudolf Hermann, and Paul Althaus. Only later did rifts form between the various theologians and scholars over political issues in the 1930s; the movement’s journal, Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie, survived only by incorporating non-German theologians to mitigate the intense disagreement among the German scholars.

Iwand came into contact with the Luther Renaissance through Rudolf Hermann. Hermann, closer to Carl Stange and Martin Kähler than to Holl, identified the primary theological value of Holl’s 1910 article to be its focus on the future and its interpretation of reality through the simultaneity of future righteousness and old creation. Hermann and Iwand shared the criticism that Holl lacked an adequate Christology. Although Hermann noted that this promise is grounded in Christ in opposition to Holl, he did not rework Holl’s doctrine of justification in light of that grounding. Iwand accomplished this in his 1930 book, Rechtfertigungslehre und Christusglaube. For Iwand, Christ is the essential ground of the exchange of realities: sin for righteousness, life for death, and new creation for old. It is in Christ’s taking on sin and giving righteousness to the world, the “happy exchange,” makes justification possible.

The Righteousness of Faith

Iwand’s argument in The Righteousness of Faith can also be understood in terms of the classical contrast between forensic and effective forms of the doctrine of justification. He claimed to resolve the difference between these two forms in his last section on divine righteousness by adopting elements of both. From the forensic, Iwand noted that justification is a communication—it must be declared. He also cast the “court scene” that underlies such a declaration as an eschatological judgment rendered in the future but promised now. The forensic also aims to affirm the full reality of sin and the old creation so that this judgment is contested in the present. With the effective, he agreed that justification creates a new reality. When Iwand combined these two forms of the doctrine he concluded that God’s justifying promise creates future being that is simultaneous with present being. Sin and righteousness, the new and old creation, and life and death all exist together until the eschatological future.

All of these claims require further exploration from the standpoint of what sort of existence or reality each possesses. A promise seems empty without a pledge or down payment; that which is promised does not appear to have any substance until it is delivered, so Iwand argued that theologians must attend to the ontology of justification. Without attending to this question, a doctrine of justification that utilizes promise or simultaneity could lie open to the charge that God’s declaration of righteousness is a fictional reality and that God deceives Godself in declaring the sinner just by ignoring the reality of human sin, death, and captivity. Thus, it is valuable for Iwand to examine the sort of reality the promised righteousness or new creation has over and against the being of sin and old creation. Iwand claimed that the usual expectation that actual beings have more reality than possible beings must be overturned in order for justification to make sense. A payment delivered is more real, in the usual line of thought, than one that is merely promised. For Iwand, being promised by God should have the same or more reality than actual being.

While Iwand’s work on the ontology of justification remained only an outline, his theological proposals for justification must be noted since they combine the justification both of humanity and also of God. Iwand described the new creation given in justification as hidden or future being, both of which are necessary to conjoin the work done by promise and simultaneity in his construal of justification. If the righteousness given is hidden, it must be brought to light; especially if it is hidden under realities that are contrary to it. A key to bringing this articulation of promised being to fruition is Iwand’s conception of God’s righteousness, which has significance not only for the world but also for God. In Iwand’s interpretation of Luther, God is God when accounted as righteousness by humanity. Thus, when human beings do not “let God be God,” they “annihilate God,” and threaten to take God’s divinity from God. So, to claim God’s own divinity, God justifies, liberates, and creates the world anew. In a serious way, God is God only in promise as well. Even here Iwand continued to use the structure of justification elaborated by Holl: the communication of promise in the present and the consummation of that promise in the eschatological future.

Iwand also elaborated a doctrine of law and gospel in The Righteousness of Faith. The law-gospel debate of the 1930s involved most Protestant theologians and figured directly into the theology and politics of the Kirchenkampf. Iwand entered this debate with his 1934 article, “Die Predigt des Gesetzes.” Iwand argued against Paul Althaus and Friedrich Gogarten that the whole weight of the controversy “rests on the word ‘preaching’.”18 The law must be first and foremost proclaimed if it is to have any significance; by such an argument, Iwand directed criticism against views that primarily considered the law as a general ordering of reality rather than an activity of preaching. For Iwand, the law’s significance comes from its relationship to the gospel in proclamation. Iwand further defined law and gospel in terms of how the gospel creates a reality but the law only tends one that already exists, drawing on his outline of the ontology of justification. Iwand reprised his doctrine of law and gospel in this book primarily through interpretation of Luther’s Antinomian Disputations.

Justification as the Center of Christian Doctrine

The law-gospel debate in the 1930s has a parallel in the disputes about the role of the doctrine of justification in or over all other doctrine. Since this question has come to be a divisive problem of twentieth-century Lutheran and ecumenical theology, it is of value to consider how Iwand addresses it in The Righteousness of Faith. Iwand classified the doctrine of justification as the “basic article” and “center” in his introduction and conclusion. Risto Saarinen has recently argued that Iwand shaped this widespread characterization of the doctrine of justification. Although Iwand gave it prominence in the twentieth century, Saarinen traced Iwand’s usage to Martin Kähler’s systematic theology. Much more important, however, than this genealogy, Saarinen has also argued that this description of the doctrine of justification is primarily used in its sense as an epistemological principle by theologians and in ecumenical statements. Instead, he argued that the claim that justification is a “principle” or “basic article” should be interpreted instead as a rule or canon that belongs to a different semantic field than modern epistemology since more than knowledge is at stake in this doctrine.21 By this argument, Saarinen raises the important question whether debates over justification’s role in doctrine require greater analytical clarity about the appropriate semantic fields to which these descriptions belong. A “rule” is not the same as a criterion of knowledge.

But Iwand did not only use “principle” and “basic article” to describe the doctrine of justification. He also called it the “center” of Christian doctrine in The Righteousness of Faith. While this language can also belong to the semantic field of epistemology, it more likely belongs to geometry or architecture than to epistemological warrants or justification because he contrasted “center” with “periphery” in the introduction to this book. This more aesthetic description of justification as “center” can do a much different work than it would as an epistemological criterion. As the “center,” it would neither undervalue other building blocks, nor exclude other epistemic warrants for doctrine and belief, nor conclude that all doctrine can be deduced from justification, nor refer primarily to justification’s role in a strictly juridical (judging) or foundational (criteriological or axiomatic) role. An architectural or geometric meaning of “center” would mean that, for Iwand, justification is a “keystone” in the bridge of doctrine or the “spoke” of a wheel that gives shape to the larger body of Christian doctrine. More analytical specificity is needed to clarify the various roles given to justification that belong to logical, rhetorical, and juridical semantic fields. Iwand does not clarify how the epistemic (justification as “basic article” or “principle”) and the aesthetic (justification as “center”) relate to each other, yet this distinction is one of his important contributions.

In terms of justification’s the status and material content, Iwand constructed a powerful doctrine of justification in The Righteousness of Faith in terms of both its formal status and material content. He integrated the doctrine of law and gospel with divine righteousness, enabled by his use of “promise” and “simultaneity.” These notions were given decisive roles and content in the Luther Renaissance, and Iwand’s The Righteousness of Faith is one of the movement’s finest accomplishments.

The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther

by Hans J. Iwand


I was asked by friends to explain the fundamentals of Luther’s theology in the most condensed form possible. Behind this request lies the concern that among the ranks of evangelical theologians there is no agreement about the basis for evangelical faith. Also of concern is that any discussion with the Roman Catholic Church requires a clarity of knowledge concerning many of the decisions that were made as a result of Luther’s theological battles.

For centuries now, both Christian denominations in Germany have operated from premises that were produced through the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. It could be, however, that we are now entering a time in which the traditional hold on our inherited confession is weakening and we must ask again about what constitutes the basis for our confessional understanding. It could also be that we find ourselves in a time in which it is not very easy to support a division of the church on the basis of a confession, as was the case in the nineteenth century, and that we ought to ponder once again the possibility of unity, since the confessional differences of the past do not appear to be as strong as they once were. These were perhaps some of the thoughts that lay behind my friends’ request. So I have tried to do justice to their request as briefly and as concisely as possible in the following pages.

I am fully aware of the dangers of this enterprise and the scholar will appreciate that these dangers are not easy to avoid. Above all, it is easy in such cases to repeat familiar ideas and to simplify the difficult ones that lie in the often contradictory sayings of Luther. It is also easy to generalize the particular and to fail to sufficiently consider the results of research or to fail to give credit where credit is due. All of these dangers, however, will be weighed alongside the necessity of articulating—clearly and simply—the main theological points of the Reformation.

That I am very much indebted to previous Luther scholarship will also be evident to the scholar. However, I would like to thank one man in particular for his work: Rudolf Hermann, Professor in Greifswald. I would like to thank him, as well as the many others who studied with him after World War II. Together we found entry into Luther’s theology and thereby became theologians ourselves. We were instructed in the doctrine of justification, the question of faith and works, law and gospel, sin and grace—the very core of Luther’s theology and of theology in general. Therefore, it is to be expected that the following work is not only a work on Luther, but it is also an understanding of the truth of the gospel which was opened up to us anew through his theology. From Luther, we found our way to St. Paul and the Christian faith. We believed that we understood Luther correctly as an exegete of the gospel and that he would be able to help us to learn about faith in Christ.

Since Luther is for us such an important teacher of the faith, we cannot leave him within the confines of denominationalism. Both friends and foes who see him thus do not do justice either to his intentions or to his teachings. Luther once wrote to his friends:

In the first place … I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine.… How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am—come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names … I neither am nor want to be anyone’s master. I hold, together with the universal Church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master [Matt. 23:8].

Luther is not the founder of a Christian movement or party, but the reformer of the church. His doctrines are not a denominational specialty, but are the common property of the church. Things have even gone so far that, in his essential teachings, Luther now stands just as opposed to today’s modern Protestantism as he stood against the scholastic-Catholic system centuries earlier. Whoever thinks that he can easily challenge Luther’s confession from the standpoint of heredity tends to overlook the fact that even we, in a church that descends from him, are called through this inheritance to change and to repentance. The Jews said, “We are Abraham’s descendants” and that made them deaf to the words of Christ. Let us therefore be attentive that we do not make the same mistake regarding Luther! Luther will only be useful to us to the extent that we are able to learn from him and to understand the gospel through him.

The challenge for us in the task of explaining the basics of Luther’s theology in so few pages and in its main points is this: Luther’s rich and varied, and for many, multi-layered and cumbersome doctrinal system has just one, may I say, practically immovable center. From this center everything else is simple, convincing and clear. He himself called this center the article of justification, or the righteousness of faith, the “only solid rock” upon which the entire church stands. The article on the justification of people before God is much more than and very different from a tenet, or rule, of his system—it is the core that not Luther, but Another, has ordained. It is ordained by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, himself. One could say, at the very least, that Luther rediscovered this core since the history of the Christian church shows that this core is often lost and that the article of justification is often moved to the periphery, while other teachings take over the central position.

This is precisely the danger in which we find ourselves again today. Today, once again, we do not take the one and only either/or article of faith seriously and instead replace it with another either/ or proposition that appears to us to be more weighty for the existence or non-existence of the church. I am not suggesting that we do not already have a good grasp of Luther’s theology and understand with accuracy its most significant points. Clearly, one dissects a body only when it is dead. The exactness of interpretation, however, is no guarantee that the church has accepted the binding nature of his theology for faith and life.

Let me say it once without equivocating: Luther’s point is that the response to the article of justification is critical and is that upon which the existence of the church depends while all others are secondary. Moreover, on the basis of the article of justification it is easy to tell whether or not the church is truly evangelical or merely claims an empty name. For Luther, the article of justification is the critical axis from which we can decide whether or not the church preaches the gospel or spouts a dead and decaying formula.

For Luther, the point to which it all of this argumentation leads is this: are we going to subordinate the First Article in the service of our own proclamation? Do we think that Luther has exaggerated this article, and thereby demands too much with his teaching and theology—we will never get around this teaching—and has attributed too little to Christian piety and lifestyle? Or, do we think that it was unfortunate that through the Reformation the unity of the church was lost and that if both sides had each just given in a little bit more, unity could have been preserved? If that is the case, are we then clear about which points should not have been conceded if the church was not to cease to exist as the church of Christ? Perhaps, for example, the question concerning the sanctifying justification of God is no longer the critical question for today as it was then and that other questions, such as the question concerning the relationship between church and state, or concerning a Christian government, or the question concerning the state church and the free church, or perhaps the question of Una Sancta (One Holy [Church]), are perhaps more burning issues? Perhaps we are more concerned that the teaching regarding communion—a critical point of disagreement between Lutherans and the Reformed church—should be pushed to the center?

These are only a few of the various unfortunate opinions that are offered as life and death solutions for a church in dire need, but which do more to increase her need because they simply increase confusion. An evangelical church that views the teaching of the righteousness of faith as self-evident—but about which no one should trouble himself further because other issues are more important—has in principle robbed itself of the central solution by which all other questions are illuminated. Such a church will become increasingly more splintered and worn down. If we take the article of justification out of the center very soon we will not know why we are evangelical Christians or should remain so. As a result, we will strive for the unity of the church and will sacrifice the purity of the gospel; we will have more confidence in church organization and church government and will promise more on the basis of the reform of Christian authority and church training than either can deliver. If we lose our center, we will court pietism and listen to other teachings and we will be in danger of being tolerant where we should be radical and radical where we should be tolerant. In short, the standards will be lowered and along with them everything that is necessary and correct in the reforms that we sing about now will be incomprehensible.

If any of those options are chosen, we will not be true to Luther himself and to what was most important to him. We will place his person above the argument, not only in terms of his national, cultural, social, and philosophical characteristics (that is the most convenient and dangerous way to dispose of him), but also with respect to his creative abilities and his religious views. Who would deny that Luther has contributed much that is lasting and worthy of admiration in all of these areas? However, all these accomplishments he placed in service to one end so that we, in our interpretations, dare not isolate them. This one end was the gospel and its message: here alone he sought his fame and here alone he earned his impregnability. “My teaching is the main thing,” he wrote in his thorny answer to the King of England,

upon which I rely, not only against princes and kings, but also against all devils. Apart from that I have nothing that holds, preserves, and strengthens my heart and the more it does so, the more obstinate it becomes. The other part, my life and personal being, I know too well is sinful and is not to be relied upon. I am a poor sinner and even if my friends were holy men and angels, it is well for them, if they can stand me. Not that I would be so before the world and before those who are not Christian, but rather before God and His dear Christ. Before the world I would also be pious and am, so that they are not worthy to untie my shoelaces … On account of my teaching I am devil, Kaiser, king, prince and before all the world much too proud, stiff and arrogant, but on account of my life I am servant to every child and humble.

He adds further,

I ask you for God’s sake one more time: if it is possible, please do not hinder Luther. It is truly not Luther that you hunt. You should, must and will allow Luther’s teaching to stand and to remain, even if ten worlds were to come and go. My body is almost exhausted, but my teaching you will not destroy and devour. But, to be sure, one surely sensed for whom the teaching was intended, because up until now it has been reinforced, so that no one has been able to tear it down and it has lasted through many a storm unharmed and had remained unconquerable.

This is what we mean when we talk about Luther’s teaching. It is not his creation. It is wrong and too simplistic to explain away his teaching as a result of the particularities of his time, the development of his person, or other similar theories, as so often happens in this psychological age of ours, because the result is to diminish the binding force of his teaching. Rather, it is a simple matter of truth or falsehood whether or not a person is saved or lost by this teaching. “For as surely as Cain and Judas must be in hell, so it is also, as if it were already the case, that either Luther or his enemies must be in hell because one of them is wrong.” Luther’s teaching is an either/ or by which his theology, as any theology, merits its substance. With this in mind, it is the intention of this book to explain his teaching, or better, the most important point of his theology—justification on the basis of faith alone.

There is a prepared part of one of Luther’s lectures before a synodical assembly—some researchers think it is from the Lateran Council to Rome in 1516—in which the young Luther expressed his opinion about something very important to the church and to its synods with unflinching sharpness. Since this speech is not very well known, I will quote a few sentences. These sentences are the easiest way to make clear how Luther wanted his theology to be understood.

The greatest and foremost of all troubles is this—if only I could write it in flames on your heart—that the clergy, above all, bring the Good News in its fullness. The earth is full to overflowing with all manner of filth and teaching; the people are loaded down with so many laws, so many opinions of people, of so many superstitions, that one cannot regard them as teaching at all so that the Word of Truth is hardly audible, and in many places is not the Word of Truth at all. And that which can be born is being brought forth by human wisdom and not by God’s Word. As the Word, so the birth and as the birth, so the people. We concern ourselves with wondering how it is that so much discord exists among the people of Christ: disagreement, envy, pride, disobedience, excess, gluttony, and their love grows cold, their faith weakens and their hope is exhausted. You can give up wondering now! It is not a mystery, but it is our fault—the fault of the prelates and clerics. Moreover, one can wonder how it is that they are so blind, so forgetful of their duty, that these people, who are supposed to help with the birth of the Word of Truth, are occupied with other things—with the cares of the present age—and entirely neglect the other. For the majority of clergy teach fables and popular stories. And we wonder why we get such a people from this kind of preaching!

Where is there today a clergyman who would not be of the opinion that it would be a greater sin if he failed to flagellate himself, or didn’t pray enough, or made a mistake in the Mass, rather than that he preached too much of the Word of Truth or didn’t explain it correctly! These men are mistaken, no matter how good and otherwise pious they may be. They think that it is impossible to be mistaken in the preaching of the Word of Truth and in that they cannot sin, while it is indeed in that alone that priests sin as priests. In the other things he errs as a human; but in the suppressing or falsifying of the Word he sins against his calling and as a clergyman, and that is more terrible than to sin as a mere mortal. How painful that is! The hard and insensitive priests these days go around in their haughtiness. Not only are they silent, but also the stuff that they blow out of their cheeks onto the people they call teaching and preaching. They don’t feel themselves accountable and are not moved by fear as to whether or not what they preach is the Word of Truth, ordained by God, or not. They are in the service of themselves only: priests and clerics. Indeed, for everything else one doesn’t need the clergy.

One can be so chaste, so kind, so learned, have such success and reputation in retiring from the Church; he may have built houses, expanded his influence, done wonders, raised the dead and driven out demons, but in this alone he is pastor and priest: that he has been a messenger of God among the heavenly hosts, that is, a messenger of God’s who preached it to the people and with that served his holy calling.

Therefore as you go about your business in this illustrious Synod, and as you arrange everything to your liking, leave this one thing alone: that the clergy are to be given the mission of teaching the people and that they stop what is not substantive and occupy themselves with the pure Gospel and with the holy interpretation of the Good News, and that they be mindful of it and that they proclaim the Word of Truth to the people with fear and trembling. Finally, let them stop giving worldly opinions or at least speak of them sparingly and so become the true servants of God through the work of the Spirit. And, so say I, if this is not done with the greatest industriousness on your part and with earnest prayerfulness, then I can tell you at the outset that nothing else is worthwhile and that we have come to nothing and have made absolutely no progress whatsoever. For everything rests on the preaching of the Word and with it stands or falls the decision of the legitimate reformation of the Church as well as the foundation of a pious life.

So let your thesis stand firm: that the Church will not be born and cannot stand according to the ways of men, because it has its being in and through the Word of God. As it is written: “He has called us through the Word of Truth” (James 1:18).

This program remained consistent for Luther the Reformer until the very end. In all that we have inherited from him, he still calls us to this hope and trust. His teachings will therefore always be “reformatory,” because they will always have to do with the fact that the church is called to preserve the Word of truth and to be won over to it, again and again.

From this vantage point, I hope that the following pages will be understandable. It would be better if it were more complete and if the attending citations could be given in their entirety. However, that is not possible in this short form. We must be satisfied with an outline of Luther’s thought that considers only the main points of what he said when he spoke of the article of justification by which the church stands or falls. If, however, this brief outlines tells readers nothing new, they can be happy that it reinforces their position. I only hope that nothing in Luther’s teaching is misrepresented. If, on the other hand, it misses a point or two, please remember that I intend only to clarify what is absolutely necessary in order to understand what Luther means by the words “the righteousness of faith.”

Chapter One: Giving God Justice

I. Giving God Justice: Faith and the First Commandment

Deum justificare means to give God justice. Actually, this expression means the justification of God. It has to do with what we call the reformative teaching of justification, since it not only means the justification of men before God, but the justification of God in man. God will have his justice, therefore he reveals himself. Just as he is truth, justice, and life, so also he will be truth, justice and life outside of himself, namely in us. This happens when we allow his Word to be active and when we, above all, allow his Word to stand in the word made flesh, Christ Jesus.

This truth-becoming-God in us is what Luther calls Deum Justificare. Ever since Luther was immersed in the theology of Paul, specifically in the Epistle to the Romans, he never let go of this concept. It would be his compass and guiding light throughout the misconceptions of theology and in the challenges of conscience. Luther believed that here was the narrow portal through which a person could enter into the reality of faith. For the righteousness of God is the categorical precondition for faith. Faith means to take God’s judgment on oneself: to trust in his promise and to accept his forgiveness. When we give God justice, we act on the first condition of faith even when we don’t know where this step will lead.9 Both are inseparable from one another and interpreted in terms of the other. So it is clear that concept of giving God justice conveys the condition that in faith a person takes a decisively judging position for God against himself.

Faith that justifies one before God has nothing to do with a dead, silent state of affairs, be it in an historical sense or in the sense of something that is “ordained” as with regard to church dogma. Quite the contrary, a faith that claims to operate on the basis of “objective facts” shatters upon such an understanding of faith. Rather, faith means taking a position before God himself who acts upon us in his word, in his revelation, in his commandments, and in his gospel. Faith means to take a position for God: to grasp and to comprehend his mercy, his forgiveness, his will and his thoughts. In fact, to give God justice is not to describe a mere teaching. It does not mean to embrace a dogma, a miracle, or to even agree with a metaphysical position. The faith that gives God justice does not have to do only with God in and of himself, but it is connected at the same time with the “I” of mankind in which his presence in the world is embodied. Peace with God means in the same breath war with the self and strife in the world. There is no “yes” to God without an accompanying “no” to the self, and, likewise no “no” to the self without a “yes” to God.

True faith has to do with being confronted with Another who makes us relinquish our own calculations and thoughts, wishes and hopes, and who breaks into our lives as a foreign reality, insisting that we recognize him as such. God judges over the world and over all people and faith means to make this judgment one’s own. But the judgment of God over people and their being, their will, and their inner life is diametrically opposed to what people want to believe about themselves. Thus, wherever God’s Word meets us, it meets us as the enemy. For, wherever God’s Word is portrayed so as to be in accord with people’s hopes and desires and wherever it is accepted as a truth that corresponds with their preconceptions, then we know right away that it is not God’s Word we are dealing with.

The adjusting of the Word to man and to his preferences Luther sees as an immediate and general sign of heresy. To the degree that men align God’s will with their own and his revelation with their own wishes and desires, they cancel out the concrete reality of God and make him into their own likeness or what they’d like him to be. Luther calls this the annihilatio Dei, or the annihilation of God.

In annihilation Dei, God is merely a name used by those who want to be God. In this sense, all religion—inasmuch as it transmits human will and striving into an idea of God—is an especially sophisticated and spiritual form of annihilating God. In such a transfer, however, God is not justified in men, but men are justified in God. Thus, faith will always affect two things simultaneously: the comprehension of the reality of God and the destruction of any misrepresentation of that reality that resides in us. God’s revelation does not meet us as empty vessels; we are not a tabula rasa, but are filled with all kinds of religious notions and ideas that must first be dismantled in order to make room for a true understanding of God. All individual preconceptions and constructions about God must fall away, for the “creative” delusions of man reach even so far as into the Christian teaching and conception of God. Therefore, giving God justice always means both things: to deny justice to oneself so that in the process “the righteous man is one who accuses himself first.”16

If, on the other hand, we believe that God is the ultimate authority and that his judgment, his promise, his plan and decree are final and in so doing we concede to him full authority over us, then it is further clear that the First Commandment is thereby fulfilled. To accept this is to give God final authority over me as my Lord and with this statement of faith a first step is taken toward what is confessed in the First Commandment: You are to fear, love, and trust God above everything else. In other words, these three things belong together and make up a whole: God’s justice, faith, and the fulfilling of the First Commandment.

Unbelief, on the other hand, is to seek one’s own justice; to defend it over against God’s justice; to insist on one’s own achievements; to measure everything—both what is earthly and one’s life before God—by one’s own concept of good and evil. It means to measure God himself by what we consider to be just and unjust, possible and impossible, useful and harmful, good and bad. Unbelief is the only sin against the First Commandment, which is the source and principle of all other transgressions. For just as all the other commandments are fulfilled by the first, unbelief invalidates all the others. Everything that the unbeliever does (namely, the person who seeks his or her own justice—whether with or without God’s help is immaterial), only serves to increase his/her resistance before God and undermines any good intention of fulfilling the First Commandment. The unbeliever will thereby abuse any of his good works. He will poison them by needing to have recognition from others for doing them (and will thus have his own self-interest at heart in doing them) so that only he has authority and that God in his infinite mercy, at the very most, assists this person in his good deeds. As a result, the complete fulfilling of the law can lead to complete transgression of the law and alleged good works can be more harmful than bad ones.

The fulfilling of the commandments of God through deeds can too easily lead one astray to the complete opposite of that which God intends by the First Commandment and by which, in truth, all is either won or lost. Here, in the First Commandment, where it above all has to do with God and a purity of love for him, people are distracted and slip into works and deeds. At this point the question is not one of works at all. When we speak of the First Commandment, we are talking about the very existence of God; that is, that God is my God and that he is there for me. By professing this we are also asked if we love God above all other things, even when it appears that he has abandoned us. That is why it is important to remember that the First Commandment cannot be fulfilled with works of the hands, but with the heart alone and with a purity of faith.

The First Commandment means everything or it means nothing. With it all other moral notions of good and bad are negated. This does not mean that God says to us, “You must decide for me.” Rather, it means God says, “I have decided for you.” We are simply asked whether we believe it or not and whether it makes our hearts happy and secure. Whoever believes this has ‘decided’ for God. The most powerful and overwhelming characteristic of Luther’s doctrine of justification is that he abolishes all casuistry by demanding a comprehensive “Yes” or “No.” Luther says, “Nothing justifies like faith, and sin is nothing other than unbelief.”20 Whoever believes has everything, and whoever does not believe will have the little that they do have taken away.

II. Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Sin

a) Similar Form in Word and in Belief (similis forma in verbo et in credente)

We must unfold the contents of Luther’s formula “Deum justificare” (giving God justice) in two ways. First of all, we must define it fundamentally in terms of what sin is, and secondly, we must define it in terms of salvation and blessedness. ‘Giving God justice’ cannot be expressed in typically vague terms having to do with mere dependence upon God, or in terms of the general human condition as being submissive to a higher being. For Luther, the God who reveals himself does so firmly in his Word and the recognition of God’s revelation in his Word must be firmly fixed in people’s minds in order to elicit a clear confession.

When Luther says that faith gives God justice he does not mean (as Schleiermacher does) that we exhibit a kind of dependency over against God in which we stand as finite beings in the presence of the infinite. For Luther, this absolute God in whom we “live, breathe, and have our being,” is so far removed from us that there is no taking a position in his presence either for or against him. It would be, at the most, senseless rebellion or reluctant submission. A personal encounter with God in his absolute might and omniscient majesty is not what Luther has in mind. Rather, Luther’s theology has to do with the absolute majesty of God in a different way.

At the center of faith, for Luther, stands the revealed God who meets us in his Word; in certain people who bring us his Word and proclaim it; and in his Son, Jesus Christ, who, in his life and death, is himself the Word of God. People can accept his Word, refuse it, or falsify it. They can hear his Son or they can dispute his coming. Since God speaks to people through other people, anyone has the ability to disagree with it. It is God himself, after all, who first condescended and humiliated himself before us, giving us the opportunity to decide and, in the process, to reveal what side we are on. It appears as though God gave himself into our hands, but in reality he made it possible for us to recognize and to reveal ourselves in our relationship to God. Giving God justice therefore means receiving this God who seeks us through his Word, so that his Word may become in us what it already is in him; that we may conform ourselves to it and remain steadfast in it.

The accepting of the Word in the hearts of people is what Luther calls the transformation of man through the Word. He says, “Et its (Deus) nos in verbum suum, non autem verbum suum in nos muta (Thus, God transforms us through his Word, but his Word is not transformed in us).” Luther places an either/or here, too. We can explain what he means by this in the following way: in every transformation something constant must be in place so that the transformation is possible. If a person is to change, then God must remain constant. In this way, faith in the faithfulness of God is in his Word, or, as Luther liked to say, the basis for the transformation of man is in the truthfulness and steadfastness of God, namely, in his Word. If, however, a person will not be changed and will rather remain what he or she already is, that person will try to change God’s Word and will try to redefine it in human terms—both in its interpretation and in its teaching. Both propositions are bound inextricably together: either God is constant in his Word and we are the ones who are changed, or man is true to himself and for him God’s Word becomes a relative, human enterprise of religious opinions and ideas.

Thus, people cling to unrepentance and don’t take God at his Word, but they reduce it and destroy it before it ever encounters them. However, the person who allows himself to be changed by the Word is of one will with God. The Word always remains over him and he remains under it and the Word itself remains constant, but he enters into an existence of eternal proportions. It is a truth that both God and man fulfill: the truth remains in God himself and man grasps God’s truth in the process of becoming a child of God.25 So we can say with Luther, “similis forma est in verbo et credente,” which means: the Word and the person of faith have become essentially the same and this conformity is the basis of all understanding and knowledge between God and man. For, like is recognized only by like.27

b) Recognition of Sin Is Recognition of God

This tenet is very problematic because the logical consequence of its intent produces an incomprehensible paradox in the minds of men—even in the minds of religious men—since to recognize God in Jesus Christ means to recognize oneself as a sinner and as one who needs Jesus Christ. Thus, two things come together that would otherwise be mutually exclusive, namely, the recognition of God and the recognition of sin. Our knowledge of God will only be true insofar as the essence of sin is taken into account and is understood. Likewise, our knowledge of sin will only be genuine if it is at the same time understood and recognized in connection with God’s Being, for the one includes the other.

From this it follows that all knowledge of sin that is not gained from the revelation of God—but that is gained by one’s own knowledge or experience—will contain in itself its own error and, accordingly, will disguise the true nature of sin. We will call this natural knowledge of sin the “moral consciousness of guilt.” A moral consciousness of guilt resides naturally in people and prevents them even more from believing in God because it gives the impression that it goes hand in hand with faith. Luther said over and over on this point that not God, but rather his adversary the devil, had a hand in the game. Using their own consciences, the devil accuses people and drives them to despair. With such a moral consciousness, one sees oneself in the mirror of a sought after ideal that is never achieved.

The drive for perfection and for the ideal comes from the inner reflection of a person concerning himself. Man, as he is, compares himself to the person he would like to be. What we are talking about here is a consciousness of guilt as it is known and taught by morality and by philosophy and has unfortunately been adopted here and there by theology in its teachings. Whoever thinks this way about sin, however, does not know what sin is. Instead of comprehending sin theologically in terms of the revelation of God and offering its findings to philosophy and to morality, theology has been taken over by philosophy and morality and its revelations have been spoiled from the start. This is also true of the Scholastic system, which Luther reproved for not knowing what sin is. Luther’s criticism of moral perfection is also valid for a nineteenth-century Protestantism that derives its teaching of the consciousness of guilt from a system of ethical idealism. Quite simply, in this way a person does not have to deal directly with God, but only with himself! Here he does not have to confess, “Before you O Lord, have I sinned,” for with such a consciousness of guilt the person is alone with himself.

The road to faith that Luther took is therefore called theological because he does not start from the standpoint of the human psyche in terms of the conflict between spirit and nature (the “ought” vs. the “is”), but brings the person face to face with himself in the mirror of God’s Word. Luther means that in the incarnation of his Son—in his Cross and suffering—God holds up a mirror in front of us; one in which we recognize how God sees our condition, even though we might see it quite differently. At this juncture, man does not judge himself, but is made aware of God’s judgment over him. Here he sees himself as God sees him. And God sees him as so lost that no law, no “ought,” no ideal, no good intentions, and no good work can help him. Therefore, God puts aside the law and sends his Son, as Paul says: What was impossible for the law, is possible for God, who sent his Son as a merciful and saving God.31

In revealing himself, however, God also reveals the condition of the world and of mankind. The secret of mankind is thus no less deep than the secret of God which is why the revelation of God is also the revelation of mankind; it is God’s truth and the truth about mankind. Luther said,

And thus God through his own coming forth causes us to enter into ourselves, and through this understanding of him he gives to us also an understanding of ourselves. For unless God had first come forth and sought to be truthful in us, we could not have entered into ourselves and be made liars and unrighteous men. For man of himself could not know that he is such a person before God, unless God himself had revealed it to him.

In another place Luther says: “It is not to be expected that a person can recognize himself in this particular light (i.e., in sinfulness) until he has seen himself in the source of what he is, namely in God.”

Just as false notions of God grow out of the self-deception of man, so also, true self-understanding springs from faith in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Once again Luther: “For just as each person conceives of himself in his own imagination, so likewise he conceives of God as a similar idea.” But if we give God justice, then we do the exact opposite and we think of ourselves as God thinks of us. We thus become of one will with God, which is the true and real meaning of the confession of sin, in that we make God’s judgment our own so that the seriousness and necessity of sending Jesus Christ is thrust upon us.

Just as the sick person knows he is sick and puts himself in the hands of a doctor, so the person with knowledge of his own sin puts himself in God’s hands. Therein lies the certainty of salvation. That is why the knowledge of one’s sin is so liberating, because it gives God the justice and authority and with his justice not sin, but rather grace and mercy have the authority: not a bad conscience, but Jesus Christ; not death, but life; not sickness, but the doctor. “And thus the acknowledgment of my sin convinced me that God is justified in me (that is, that I should believe in him and thus he would justify me).

c) Knowledge of Sin and the Consciousness of Guilt

If we take Luther’s words seriously that “one can never know how one stands before God” then there is a definite boundary that is established as far as human knowledge of sin and of guilt. Of course, there are people who do not believe in Christ and who are nevertheless familiar with the circumstances of sin and transgression of the law, but in that case it depends upon how they see themselves in relation to it (i.e., in relation to sin and law). The sick person knows the symptoms of his sickness, but it is the doctor who first gives the correct diagnosis. In the same way, a person is by nature a sinner, but only comes to recognize this fact through the Holy Spirit when he first sees himself as he really is and when he recognizes the root of his sickness while at the same time embracing the only possible cure.

Luther calls this recognition: becoming a sinner. He does not mean the sins that a person commits, but rather the recognition that breaks in on a person as to who he really is. Accordingly, Luther means that sin has to be believed as much as righteousness has to be believed. Luther says that the confession of sin does not depend on a recognition of sin, but the other way around: the recognition of sin is conveyed and defined through the confession of sin.

In becoming a sinner, we believe that God does not come near our sickbed to scoff at us or to abandon us. We learn under his healing hand to grasp, at first gradually, that sin is really a sickness unto death and we are already free of sin when we begin to recognize how deeply we were lost in it. For, just as our delusion indicated the victory of sin over us, so also the recognition of our sinful nature is a sign of our victory over sin. Thus (if we are to follow Luther) it is significant for us that we put aside all other ways of thinking that pervade theology, preaching, and personal piety so that we are clear that knowledge of sin is preconditioned by faith and not the other way around. This is because, in the latter case, the attempt is always made to make the confession of sin something that emanates from out of a person in order to make the necessity of grace seem sensible and reasonable.

Sins that are interpreted as emanating from a person are really sins of action and constitute a knowledge of sin in terms of “thoughts, words, and deeds.” Ultimately, when people conceive of sin in this way, they are considering the “fruits” of sin which are mere symptoms of the true sin that is concealed behind them. With such a concept of sin, one is misled to consider all manner of sins without recognizing the true nature of the sickness. Furthermore, if one succeeds in repressing the symptoms, the sickness will attack from the inside. Any righteousness shown in this manner is really hypocrisy. In his natural despair—which, in the last analysis, is a false one because the person is despairing only of the “appearance” of what he is—the person will not look at himself, but will always try to break free of the mistakes and weaknesses that tarnish the picture of the perfect human being to which that person aspires. He will try to cast off his sins and faults, but will remain the same even in the attempt.39

However, casting off one’s sin is quite impossible. A person must first be destroyed because he is the person who holds out his own ideal of what is good, true, just, and godly. Such a person believes he needs to be directed to God only because of his incomplete, weak nature (as if the goal of perfection is not to need God!) he thinks that grace is only a stage; some kind of beneficent, helping gesture on God’s part to help people to reach their own goal of perfection by means of his holy power, because they are simply not strong enough or perfect enough to do it on their own. If that is the case, then God would be merely a means to one’s achieving one’s own self-perfection. It is exactly this kind of person who uses God, but does not believe in him. This type of person would be happiest if he could do it alone—without God—since even his own mistakes irritate him because they show him that he is not God and that he is actually God’s enemy and opponent.

God’s judgment stands firmly over against this person. He must be destroyed. His mistakes and weaknesses, however, must not be lightened too soon just so that they are easier for him to carry. In other words, our sins prompt us to seek mercy anew and in so doing they make clear to us that everything works for good for those who love God. For the reminder of God’s mercy and the admonition that we always live in his mercy and are never in a position of not needing it—that is the best thing that the new person in us can encounter.

The person who revolves helplessly around himself in an endless moral consciousness of guilt—actively engaged in the whirlpool of his own accusing and excusing thoughts—is a victim of something diabolical as a result of this confusion and is driven to the edge of despair. The confession of sin, on the other hand, frees a person from himself. The person recognizes the opposite of God in his own good works and good intentions and in his striving for perfection, and realizes that what he seeks is not God, but himself. The confession of sin thus brings a person outside of himself to seek the good that is not in himself, but is outside of himself. For there is only One that is good: God. His grace, love, forgiveness, and with one Word his nearness to us in Jesus Christ—that is the good.41 Everything that flows from Christ is good. Here in God’s Son one discovers what he sought for in himself in vain: justice, health, life, goodness—his true, new self. Here he no longer finds what he hoped in vain to rid himself of: evil, desire, death, and a self that is distorted and destroyed by sin and an accusing conscience.

Thus, faith teaches us to despair of ourselves and to choose something outside of ourselves as the foundation that will make a new life possible. Luther calls it: extra nos, that is, in Christo (outside us, i.e., in Christ). Whereas morality seeks willingly to put new patches on the old clothes, grace means eternally much more. It means that God intends that we be clothed anew, wholly and completely, with the clothing of a better righteousness woven from God’s hands which we have in Jesus Christ.

d) Both Sinner and Justified

Since the confession of sin is born of faith in God’s revelation, one is always both things at the same time: sinner and justified. One is also always both entirely a sinner and entirely justified. Luther found this “both/and” to be a joyous and liberating discovery. He told about himself that he had not always thought this way and that he had been much more of the opinion that after receiving the sacraments one was quite pure. He had previously considered it inconceivable that a person should consider himself a sinner after receiving the sacraments.44 He had thought that the relationship between sin and grace followed a pattern of cause and effect, in which each followed from the other, arising from a psychological understanding of sin and guilt. In this way, one could always claim that grace and communion with God is only possible where there is no sin and, conversely, where sin shows itself, grace is lost. In such a view, the person hovers precariously back and forth in a state of false security thinking that his sin lies behind him and no longer exists, all the while harboring a nagging suspicion that grace has been for nothing. In this interpretation, each position determines the other.

What a terrific discovery it was then for Luther to have understood that sin and grace do not follow upon each other, but exist together because the person of faith in God learns two things at the very same time—that he is lost and that God is near. To know both means to truly live a life of faith. The person recognizes in himself his lost nature and recognizes in Christ his only hope of salvation; he recognizes in himself the power of sin and in Christ the powerlessness of sin. It is a both/and: both sin and righteousness.

Sin can no longer induce people to turn from God and when it can no longer do that—when its purpose to drive people away from God is thwarted—it is destroyed. Quite the opposite occurs through the “both/and” of faith in God’s righteousness. With it, faith serves to show us God’s righteousness and we are brought to call upon God, to seek him, and to believe in the power of God’s righteousness to conquer sin. In this way, evil works for good as, in like manner (but in an opposite way) good also leads to evil. This all has to do with looking at sin not from the point of view of ourselves, but from its locus in Christ where we see sin surrounded and destroyed by the grace of God.

Therefore, when Luther says that a Christian is at the same time sinner and justified, he does not mean in terms of an open-ended circle, but he adds that the “both/and” of these two powers (i.e. God and sin) is ever an “over/under” in our lives. We live, to be sure, in the twilight and the shadows of the night are ringed with the glow of light. However, it is not the glow of sunset, but rather the dawn of the morning. The power of sin is already weakened and it has already lost the battle. But the new righteousness of God has been raised and we already live in its hope: “The night is advancing, the dawn is almost nigh.”

III. Desire (Concupiscence) and the Cross

a) A Change in the Concept of Desire

No less significant is the effect of the understanding of faith as ‘giving God justice’ when it comes to the issue of happiness and salvation. Luther had often posed the question as to whether or not people sought in eternal bliss whatever had been denied them in life—harmony, peace, fortune—and whether or not God was just a means of attaining that end. He named this kind of self-seeking that creeps into the pious and godly life “concupiscentia spiritualis.” Concupiscence means desire, obsession, craving, and passion. It especially characterizes the tendency or the will in a person that opposes God and is awakened by the law. Luther had gone through a great change in his understanding of this concept which had become very significant for his breaking away from the Catholic tradition of piety and the ideal of Christian life.

At first, Luther went entirely the way of traditional monastic piety. Concupiscence meant for him the imprisonment of the soul in the sinful, evil world and its entrapment in the distraction and dependency of the outer world. Spirit and nature were for him the two poles between which the battle for the higher being of a person was fought. He had thought that the more fervently the soul turned to the invisible world and the more it turned away from the outer, sinful world, the more free it would be from concupiscence. This is the actual crucial point for the Catholic interpretation of the higher order of monastic life.

We need to give credit to Luther’s discriminating understanding that he dislodged the doctrine of concupiscence from its traditional scheme of the palpable and intelligible world and from the classical dichotomy of nature and spirit, and placed it in a new opposition, namely, in the opposition between the pure love of God and the love of one’s self. Luther thus acquired a new view of concupiscence in the spiritual realm and recognized that even the pious life can be totally and entirely poisoned by the “amor sui,” or love of self. For whenever a person seeks himself concupiscence occurs, even in one’s religious life. A person is only free from this desire through the pure and totally selfless love of God, which is satisfied that God’s will alone is done. In fact it is easy, Luther goes on to make the point,

… if we use any diligence at all, to see the depravity of our will in our love of sensual evils and our flight from things that are good, if, for instance, we are drawn toward lust, greed, gluttony, arrogance, love of honor, and we abhor chastity, generosity, sobriety, humility, shame; but it is easy, I say, to understand how in these things we seek our fulfillment and love ourselves, how we are turned in upon ourselves and become ingrown at least in our heart, even when we cannot sense it in our actions.

In spiritual matters, however, (that is, in our understanding, our righteousness, and our piety) it is most difficult to see whether we are seeking ourselves in them. For the love of these things, since it is honorable and good, often becomes an end in itself for us and does not permit us to regulate them in accord with God and refer them to him, so that as a result, we do them not because they are pleasing to God, but because they delight us and quiet the fears of our heart, because we are praised by men, and thus we do them not for the sake of God but for ourselves. And this proves to be a temptation.… For if we are condemned because of this or if God takes away our enjoyment of these things and the pleasure which they give to our heart, then we neglect to do them or return the condemnations in kind and defend ourselves.

Above all, we can learn one lesson from all of this: that one does the will of God either through fear of eternal punishment or through the hope of future reward. With these two motivations the selfishness of mankind is clearly evident. In this way people are taught not to fear and love God himself, but rather to fear his punishments and to seek his rewards. Any works that arise in this manner are the works of the law—enforced by men and not done out of love for God. Luther rightly asks how such a person would live if there were no heaven or hell.

b) Predestination

People who love God with the self-serving love of concupiscentia spiritualis are horrified at the thought of predestination. They think it is cruel and inhuman that God has mercy on those upon whom he chooses to have mercy and rejects those he chooses to reject. “Then the ‘prudence of the flesh’ says: ‘It is harsh and wretched that God should seek his glory in my misery.’ Note how the voice of the flesh is always saying: ‘my’, ‘my.’ Get rid of this ‘my’ and rather say, ‘Glory to Thee, O Lord!’ and then you will be saved.”

In another place Luther says: “To love God for the purpose of eternal salvation and eternal peace or for reasons of avoiding hell is not to love God for his own sake, but for the sake of one’s self. True blessedness is to seek God’s Will and God’s Honor in all things and to wish for nothing for one’s self—either here or in the hereafter.” The power of faith that gives God justice and bows to his will stands here at its most difficult, but most complete test. For the kind of love of God that accepts everything from his hand—even if it be damnation—is the love of a friend or a son (amor filialis et amicitiae). It is not a natural kind of love, nor is it a love that represents the highest order of natural love, but rather this is a love that comes only from the Holy Spirit.

For such men freely offer themselves to the entire will of God, even to hell and eternal death, if that is what God wills, so that his will may be fully done. Therefore they seek absolutely nothing for themselves. But just as they are so totally and completely conformed to the will of God, so also it is impossible that they should remain in hell. For it is impossible that the man should remain outside of God’s grace who has so completely thrown himself upon the will of God. For he wills what God wills; therefore he pleases God. And when he pleases God, he is loved by him; and when loved, he is saved.

Thus, heaven and hell cease to be a picture of human desire or of fear. Union with God—conformity to his will—is the substance of blessedness. But rebellion against God and being separated from him means hellfire.

c) The Cross

Finally, the faith that God gives is accomplished in the worship of the Cross. The Cross is not only an historical event, but it is a sign for us that uncovers all that we are in terms of power and worth, feelings and perceptions, and that renders us naked before God. The Cross tests our faith as it tests whether or not we actually intend to know only God and have only him in mind. In all of the sufferings that come our way, the Cross puts us to the test. “Crux probat omnia,” the Cross is the test of everything.

For it is a hard thing, and the way is narrow, to let everything visible go, to be stripped of all sensations, to be deprived of custom. In fact, this means to die and descend into hell. For it seems that one’s very self is totally destroyed, while everything is removed in which it stood, lived, to which it clung, that it touches neither earth nor heaven, senses neither self nor God, and says: Tell my beloved that I faint for love, as if to say: I have been reduced to nothing and know not how. Because I have entered darkness and gloom I see nothing. I live and am weak (that is, I suffer) by faith, hope, and love alone, for when I am weak, then I am strong. This condition is what the mystical theologians call going into the dark, ascending above being and non-being. Truly, I do not know if they understand themselves, when they assign this to impulses they have aroused rather than to believe that it signifies the sufferings of cross, death, and hell. The cross alone is our theology.

What for the mystics is the highest state of ecstasy is, for Luther, the deepest test of faith. To be sure, Luther had much in common with mystic theology: the refusal to accept the formulas of death, the relationship of theology to life, the experience and emphasis of temptation and their unending, soul-searching analyses. But on one crucial point they part ways and that is with regard to the Cross. The view that a person is changed through faith is the view of the Cross. Luther drew many of his concepts regarding the flesh and suffering from the theological mystics. However, his view differs radically from the mystics in that the recovery of true humanity is attained not through the deification of man, but through the humanity of God. As Luther puts it:

Through the rule of his humanity, or (as the apostle calls it) of his flesh, which occurs by faith, he makes us conform to himself and crucifies us, thus making real, that is, wretched and sinful men, out of unhappy and proud gods. For since in Adam we ascended to God’s likeness, for this reason he descended to our likeness, that he might return us again to knowledge of ourselves. This takes place through the sacrament of the incarnation. This is the kingdom of faith in which the cross of Christ rules, throwing down the divinity we perversely desired and recovering the humanity and despised weakness of the flesh we perversely abandoned.

Thus, the journey of man is summed up in the Cross: he regains his own truth and becomes a person who stands before God; a person who recognizes his total and complete humanity and can be blessed with redemption. For,

this is God’s sweetest mercy, that he endures us in our sin and takes upon himself our ways and our life which are worthy only of rejection until he prepares us and completes us. In the meantime, we live in the cover and the shadow of his wings and escape his judgment through his mercy, not through our own righteousness.

Chapter Two: Law and Gospel

I. The Word of God Is Law and Gospel

If we ask Luther what he understands by the Word of God he answers, “The word of God is both law and gospel.” Whoever does not make this distinction is denied the ability to attempt a correct interpretation of Scripture.62 Luther not only distinguishes between man’s word and God’s Word, but God’s Word must also be distinguished as to whether it is a command or a challenge, promise or pardon. Whoever does not distinguish these things is in danger of making Christ either a new lawgiver or a new Moses (precisely the criticism that Luther levels against Catholicism), or is in danger of allowing the law to fall away altogether, thereby destroying the wonder of grace and forgiveness.

Luther fights this false understanding when he attacks the Antinomians who have developed their theology out of a false rendering of law and gospel. Both law and gospel must remain says Luther, but each must be employed appropriately—or as Luther put it more often, each must be employed within its “boundaries.” The earthly person in his human existence must live under the law until his death and must always learn anew that he is a sinner. At the same time, the faith and conscience of the person must be free from the law because here Christ alone rules. In short, if the law does not find its limits in Christ, then all is lost.

II. Christus legislator [Christ the Lawgiver]

Let us first discuss both of the wrong paths that Luther has in mind. What does he mean by the reproach that Christ has been made a lawgiver or legislator? He means, that where grace ceases to be grace then morals and faith, works and grace, politics and religion are all mixed together and Christianity becomes a moral philosophy in which everything depends, in the final analysis, upon moral training. Certainly there is talk of grace, forgiveness, and compassion, but only where they are a means to an end, namely, that of the morally “good” life.

Luther has in mind every kind of classical system of education that is common to Catholicism which characterizes grace as a quality that gives people the power to comply with God’s demands—something that they could not otherwise do on their own. We must also readily admit that modern Protestantism has developed its own, similar doctrine of justification. The Protestant version is that the person, who, by virtue of the laws of God and of moral law recognizes his own inability to do good, receives in Jesus Christ the power to strive after the good and to become perfect. The difference is, however, in Catholicism this power is sacramental and in Protestantism it is understood as personal. In either case, it is clear that the basis for thinking is the same.67 The cardinal mistake of both of these positions lies in the fact that in both, “good will” or the will to do the good, is assumed to lie within human ability and power. They both assume that the inability of a person to will or to do good lies merely in his weakness; a weakness that the will endures in the face of external pressure from the sensory world and through conflict between the will and basic human instinct.

Grace is therefore understood as a power from above that enables the human will to fashion the world after its own individual, natural, albeit ‘good’ inclinations. Thus, the central message is that the natural inclination of man is not sinful, but simply made weak through sin. In that case, Christ would be the gift of God that repairs mankind and helps him realize his original, moral, and good goal—not of his own accord of course, but with an assist from God’s power.

Luther means precisely the opposite. To be sure, man can do much good and can perhaps come very far in doing good, but one thing he cannot do and that is change his will. Everything he does he does to advance himself on his own terms before God. This is because the will of man seeks its own justification and, however well intentioned, at the moment a person seeks to realize his own justification in terms of doing good, the good that he does is spoiled by his own pride and sense of power.

The nature of grace that is espoused in this false teaching of Christendom is raised to the level of a demand or a decree. The decree goes something like this: you must have grace to reach your goal and you must also have Christ to reach your goal. The two demands—those of good works and those of grace—are put next to each other, indeed, they are superimposed on one another. In this case, no one can even hear Christ or believe in him unless he stands daily and ever more stringently under the law. As a result, each person will measure his faith on the basis of good works so that the certainty of grace will never be imparted to him freely and purely, because he will remain doubtful that grace is his because of his repeated defects and mistakes. Furthermore, this nagging uncertainty, which is directly from the Catholic teaching and is very similar to that of Jewish Pharisaism, is taken as a sign of humility and of waiting for the final judgment.

Through its conversion to a demand or regulation, Luther sees grace being destroyed at its very essence. He says: in this way we have made grace a nova exactio, a new law. In making it into a demand, we make grace into something that we should “have,” but we do not quite know how to acquire it. As a result, we think that God has not obligated us to receive his grace, but only to fulfill the law. Not so, says Luther. grace is actually nothing if it is not mercy, gift, offering, and the free love of God. It contains no hidden demands. It is the goal—not the means to a far-off destination.

That is why the gospel is called the “Good News,” because it brings us news of Christ who died for us and was raised and in whom we are everything that the law demands of us, for in it we are justified, free from sin, free, good, removed from sin and from death. Grace also means this: Christ takes our place. He is our sin and we are his righteousness. Christ has done enough (satis fecit). Your salvation is not dependent upon anything more that you can do, but is dependent upon whether you believe that he has already done enough for you. Thus, Christ is not the teacher of the pious life—that would be to make him a legislator; rather, he is life itself, given to us and offered for us by God.

Similarly, all other kinds of requirements point to the future. All “shoulds” judge us according to what we should become. But the gospel and grace are the Good News of the present. In the gospel it says: today, here, and now! Today is the day of your salvation. The gospel is the present of God’s grace with us. Where it is taught that you must have grace and you must believe in Christ, then you are hearing, in truth, the word of the law. For that is precisely the intention of the law: to make plain to you that you need Christ. The gospel says: he, whom you need, is present and is standing in your midst. “It is God who justifies …” (Rom. 8:33).

Should we not then make clear to people who do not believe that they are in need of grace, since for that reason the law is given to us? The gospel should never be announced as a demand, for that would be to destroy it at its center. “The Law requires that we must have love and have Jesus Christ, but the gospel offers both and brings both.” This clear sentence of Luther’s, written in response to Romans 7:7, was preached and defended by him his entire life. Both the law and the gospel have the same content, but the former is commanded and the latter is given. The law says you must have both Christ and his Spirit. Wherever the Word of God is given, the law is present and everything is set in terms of its demands—whether it occurs in the Old Testament or in the New Testament; in the words of the prophets or in Jesus’ words. But the gospel says: see, here, now, is Christ and his Spirit.

Likewise, wherever grace and forgiveness are proclaimed in the present tense, even in the Old Testament, the gospel is present. For the gospel does not bring a new conception of God, a new morality, or a new religion. Rather, the newness that it brings to us is the proclamation that what was before a command and a promise is now a present reality. “Therefore, those who interpret the term ‘Gospel’ as something else than the “good news” do not understand the Gospel, just as those people do who have turned the Gospel into a law rather than grace and have made Christ a Moses for us.”

III. Antinomianism

a) The “And”

When one understands Luther’s position, then it is easy to understand why Luther is no Antinomianist and why his teachings, even those on St. Paul, do not neglect the law, but rather bring a new and a positive understanding of it. As we know, Luther had fought the Antinomianist battle with great intensity. The people with whom he had to fight this battle were not those of the Catholic-Scholastic tradition, but were Luther’s own students. Their intention was to build upon Luther’s position and to complete it—to radicalize it. With the question of Antinomianism, we are dealing with a problem at the inner core of Protestantism and one that has perhaps shaped contemporary Protestantism more than any other. The entire modern battle against the Old Testament has its roots here: “Commandments belong in the courthouse and not in the pulpit,” say the Antinomians. “Everyone that has anything to do with Moses must go to the devil and to the gallows with Moses.” They start from the position that repentance and justification flow only from the gospel and that the law in any form does harm to people. The law, they believe, makes people into hypocrites, and therefore has no business being included in a theology of the gospel.76 This is why they are called Antinomians (against the law), because they will allow nothing other than the forgiveness of sins to be preached.

The Antinomians say that forgiveness and not the law should be the content of the preaching of the true church. Their position is occasionally reminiscent of the Libertines, who are chastised in Romans for their advice: “And why not do evil that good may come?” (Rom. 3:8). Luther sees here a great danger that people within his own ranks can lose sight of the foremost command of his theology—namely, the juxtaposition of law and gospel—and through so-called “radicalization” (which is really delusion and a gross misunderstanding) allow the gospel alone, grace alone, or the Cross alone to be valid. This discussion is so instructive because elsewhere the Antinomians say almost exactly what Luther says. Yet, the closer they appear to be to one another, the further they are from each other in reality. Indeed, this dispute had been run into the ground to the point where Luther’s primary opponent and one-time friend, John Agricola, was pressured to keep silent. However, condemning Agricola to silence did not solve the problem and ‘amoralism’ remains a lingering danger and permanent problem in Luther’s doctrine of justification.

We can construct the question that describes it into a very short formula: Does the gospel mean lawlessness? If not, wherein lies the positive sense of the law? Luther struggles here with the “and” of law and gospel. He fought so that one would not confuse the two or would throw out the law altogether. For it is certainly true that the law is first made understandable from the side of the gospel, but it is also the case that without the law the gospel remains incomprehensible. Therefore, Luther maintained with passionate conviction that the law precedes the gospel so that it must be: law and gospel.78 This is not the result of mere wordplay, but of far-reaching consequences, because it addresses the problem of Antinomianism at its core.

b) Practical Reasons for Preaching the Law

We have previously seen that Luther rejects grace as a demand because all of the criteria for salvation are included in the law. The fact that we need Christ and his grace at all is revealed to us by God only through the law. Luther has cited an entire series of arguments for the law, the most significant of which we will discuss here. First, he admits that all men have, by nature, a knowledge of good and evil, but he says that this knowledge is obscured and it is therefore necessary to help man to a clearer understanding of God’s will through his law and his Word. The law does not tell a person anything new. It actually tells him what he is already aware of: it addresses what is good and what God demands of him. Second, it is necessary to preach the law on account of the unrepentant and the proud, for there is no point in preaching forgiveness to those who don’t want it, thereby making a mockery the message of God’s grace and not helping those people in the least.80 So it should not be a matter of reproach in a Lutheran church if the law is preached. It is well for those who can and who dare! For, whoever cannot preach the law will not be able to preach grace.

Finally, Luther also makes clear that the law must remain for the sake of those who believe, precisely because of the relinquiae peccati (remains of sin)—that they are able to endure the sin that remains in them. They are not pious, holy and good at the outset, but become so. As long as we live, we are in the process of becoming. For this reason also we need the law. The outer and the inner nature of our lives are, and ever will be, his work. Luther would always laugh at those who believed that their so-called outer virtue was the result of the shining reflection of their new, inner lives! No, he says, in a very Kantian-like fashion (actually, the reverse, since Kant is his pupil): it is the work of the law that restrains our desires and inclinations. Only angels don’t need the law anymore.83 But men of flesh and blood—and Christians are no exception—need the law as long as they live. Luther’s position on public life and the place of the Christian in society also have their roots in his teaching on the abiding importance of the law.

c) Law is Revelation

Although these important arguments for the retention of the law are contained in Protestant doctrine and teaching, they are not decisive in themselves. They are practical arguments; but are they fundamental, theological arguments? And where are they to be found? Why the law at all when, admittedly, the “law is not vital to justification”? Haven’t the Antinomians understood Luther correctly when they say: “Thus, it is not necessary to teach the Law of Moses, either for the beginning, middle, or the end-goal of justification”?85 And isn’t this question in keeping with the much quoted Luther passage that “man is justified without works of the law and by faith alone?” We see, then, that we must question further and go deeper if we want to understand the holy meaning of the law not only in its practical indispensability, but also in its sacred context and necessity.

Why is God’s giving of the law necessary? Is God really revealed in the law as much as he is revealed in the gospel? Or, is what we call God’s law something different from what we call political, social or natural order in the sense that every people and every state has its own order? Is there, apart from an earthly law, a God-given law, one that is ordained by God and given from heaven? Luther says “yes,” and that is how he answers the Antinomians who want to reduce God’s law to the rank of political order. It is indeed “a law sent from heaven, which means that it is not a human or earthly law, like the Kaiser’s command, that can only kill the body but cannot throw both body and soul into hell, like the law of the Heavenly Master.” Luther takes up Paul’s argument that the law is holy, godly, and good and Luther also uses the word “spiritual” to describe its nature.87 The law originates from God’s Spirit, so we must also have God’s Spirit to do justice to it. If the law meets us like a “dead letter,” then it is essentially not the law’s fault, but the fault of humanity and its sinful nature. Therefore the law is not cancelled or abolished by faith, but on the contrary, in faith it receives its correct value for the first time. Only faith fulfills the law because it gives us a new heart and a new spirit in order to understand the law, providing the will to love God and to worship him.

Luther sharply confronts those who would remove the law from the revelation of God. He maintains that these “fanatics” take it to the extreme where, with the intention of founding everything on the sacraments and on the example of Jesus, they do away with Jesus altogether.

This is how those fanatics behave, that by means of the sacrament and Christ’s example they do away with Christ himself. For if the law is done away with, there is no knowledge of what Christ is or what he has done, how he has fulfilled the law for us. For if I wish to understand the fulfilling of the law which is Christ, it is necessary to know what the law and its fulfillment are. This cannot be learned without teaching that the law is not fulfilled in us and that we are thus guilty of sin and death. In the church, then, the teaching of the law is necessary and must be altogether retained, without which Christ cannot be retained. In sum, to do away with the law but to retain sin and death is to conceal the sickness of sin and death to men’s ruination. If sin and death have been removed (as Christ has done) then [the law] would happily be done away with, or I should rather say, would be upheld, as it says in Romans 3:31.

This is Luther’s final statement from his fifth thesis in the Disputation against the Antinomians in 1538. These words are not easy to understand. One thing, however, is clear from the beginning and that is that Luther’s statement opposing the Antinomians has to do with the retention of the law not for the law’s sake, but for the sake of Christ. Furthermore, it is clear that the teaching of the Antinomians go hand in hand with the elimination of the sentence that “Christ has done enough for us,” that is, with the teaching of Christ’s suffering and death for us. For how else are we to understand the meaning of “for us”? Christ would then sink to the level of an example and a religious/moral ideal. In the place of the now liberated law, these free moral spirits would replace Christ himself and consequently they would end up exactly at the place from whence they would rather flee: Antinomians would become Nomians, and super-evangelicals would become moralists. Les extreme se touchent (the extremes converge)!

Finally, due to the silencing of the law, a person will be left helpless before sin and the power of death, for the sick are not healed by pretending that they are well! The bitterness of the law is sweet in contrast to this illusion of good, which is in reality the most bitter cruelty because it leaves a person to his own fate and hides the law from him. Therefore, we hold fast to this one thing as primary: that for the sake of confessing Christ and for the salvation of humankind we must insist on proclaiming both law and gospel. Herein lies the revelation of God. “Ultra-que doctrina legis et evangelii in ecclesia retinenda est (both doctrines, law and gospel, must be retained by the church).”

d) The Goal of the Law

The question that still remains open, however, is this: What is the purpose and the meaning of the law when the end goal—faith and justification—is withdrawn? Is the law perhaps only necessary insofar as it tests the earnestness and sincerity of faith? Are not good works a sign of faith’s authenticity? Even though Luther fought against it, isn’t there some validity to the claim that maintains that love and the works of love serve to make man acceptable before God? In other words, isn’t it possible to have justification by faith, just not by faith alone? Shouldn’t we also hear the argument put to us from the other side, since the Catholic church to the present day still holds fast to the notion that faith justifies a man which is active in love and is identified as true and alive through works of love?92 Wouldn’t a more positive understanding of the law and of good works be inherently possible without having to fear that we are going to sink back into a false concept of merit? Surely, even the good works that we do in faith are a gift from God and possible only by the grace of God.

IV. The Concept of the Law as Holy

a) The Law Provokes Rage

Before we delve into this discussion, one that touches on the theme of faith and works, we will have to try to show conclusively the meaning and purpose of the law as that which is given by God. For whoever does not understand this will not be able to answer the question of good works. Front and center, the problem that Luther’s friends and enemies have tussled over the most was this: the purpose of the law is not works! Of course, the law requires works, but nobody can silence the demands of the law with his works. The only work that can quench the all-consuming fire of the law is God’s one work in Jesus Christ—the opus proprium Dei (the proper work of God). Over and over again, Luther’s detractors had objected to this by saying that it is senseless to give the law to people—which requires good works from them—when there is no hope of producing such works. Wouldn’t it be a thousand times more meaningful to say that the fact that good works are expected of us means that we are capable of doing them (i.e., ‘You can and therefore you should!’)? In this regard, Luther certainly had not only theory, but practice, on his side. He knew and recognized (and from this viewpoint his theology, as well as the theology of Paul, his teacher, echoes a confession that resounded throughout the entire world) that the law encounters a person as a force from which he would rather be free.

Luther knows too well that a person wishes that the law did not exist at exactly the same moment in which he tries so desperately to fulfill it. Luther is not talking here only about law and works, but he speaks here for the person who is forced by the law into such a tight corner that he rebels against that which makes demands upon him. Not only with regard to transgressions, but to a greater degree with regard to good works that fulfill the law, one recognizes in oneself inclinations that compel one to do the opposite.96 Thus, life under the law becomes a burden and we try to find freedom by devaluing the law. A person cannot love a God who constantly stands over him saying, “Thou shalt.” No, he must hate that God all the more.

“The Law produces wrath.” Luther thinks that everyone will discover this fact for himself, only most people don’t know how to free themselves from it. So they stay in the drudgery of good works. But within them there is torment, toil, bondage, and, quite frankly, inside lives a far different person than the one who shows forth in good works. Good works simply provide a veil behind which the false person hides from God. This person who is simultaneously hiding from God and being charged by the law (“the law is like a jail and we are locked up in it”) cannot possibly want God to be God. He would much rather have it that God does not exist—and that he himself is God. Moreover, the person who pushes the law to the point of rebellion, causing it to flare up again like water that is poured over lime, is a born atheist even though he portrays himself as pious and holy.98 And every time this person does, in fact, transgress the law and commits a sin he shows his true face, only to hide it quickly from himself and from others.

Luther is not talking here to those who do not consider themselves Christian and he is not attempting to psychologize in the secular arena, but he is talking to the pious and righteous who want to take God seriously. In the same way that Romans 7 is not about Paul’s reminiscences on his previous life as Saul; so here also Luther is not looking back. He is not saying, “so it was with me,” but he is saying “so it is with me.” The only part where Luther expresses regret is where he says that he can’t help those who appeal on the basis of free will by way of the facere quod in se est—the appeal to the basic good in all people—because they make the evil even more severe. It is only with regret that he says that the demand of grace and the example of Jesus cannot help such people since the demand itself makes the aversion to God and his grace even greater. Therefore, Luther comes to the conclusion that no one is justified by the law, because all men come by way of the law to hate God and must therefore desire to be free of him. Furthermore, he concludes that all people who live thus are hypocrites—not subjectively, but objectively—because they can’t help but suppress in themselves the desire to make evil appear good and good appear evil. “It is a mistake to assume that this kind of evil can be healed through deeds, for experience shows that however we try to do good there always remains in us a desire to do evil, and no one is pure of it—not even a newborn child.”

For this reason I say ‘Hah! Get busy now, I beg you. Be men! Work with all your might, so that these lusts may no longer be in you. Prove that it is possible by nature to love God, as you say, ‘with all your strength’ (Luke 10:27), and without any grace. If you are without concupiscence, we will believe you. But if you live with and in these lusts, then you are no longer fulfilling the Law.

Luther chastises the theologians of his day with the claim that they would like to make sin into a list of bad deeds and that all of their teachings reflect how one should try to avoid doing these bad deeds and have nothing to say about begging for the healing of God’s grace with humble sighs and recognizing oneself as a sinner.

b) The Law Claims All of You, Not Only Your Works

The “conditions of the law” are not fulfilled by mere deeds for God sees into the heart. God asks whether what we do is done out of love—pure, great, full love. Luther hates the confidence and security a person feels through his apparently perfect life through which the person becomes insensitive, indifferent, and thoughtless about that which goes on inside him. According to Luther, “Security is the mother of all hypocrites and the basis for all hypocrisy.”103 The self-assurance of a person must break in order to make room for the certainty of faith which rests not on its own justification, but upon a foreign one. For Luther it is the same argument that Jesus used against the Pharisees and has to do with the very essence of a person—not with the externals. It has to do with the heart and with that which is hidden and revealed only to itself. “They do not strive to expel every inner sin, but seek out only the sin in thought, word, and deed. And, once they have identified those, they go on their own way feeling very secure.” Thus, Luther understands the law as not merely a challenge that invites a person to do good works, but as that which God’s law really is, namely, a calling that claims the entire person—his body, soul, and all his powers. For Luther, a person is to belong to God entirely.

Luther does not compromise on the First Commandment and because he does not compromise here, even successful adherence to the remaining commandments does not satisfy him. This is because the First Commandment is contained in all of the remaining commandments. It is not a matter of “you can, therefore you should,” but rather of the action itself: “I should, but I will not.” I will not bow to the “should” that commands me. It is as Paul writes: “… the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me” (Rom. 7:10). For if all that stands between man and God is this “should” then he will surely stand condemned by God.

The law should be able to teach a person to call upon the Holy Spirit who gives us a new heart. It should be able to take them out of themselves because this Pointing-Away-from-Myself is the task of the law, which is why it is called pedagogue and teacher! It should be able to show a person that next to and apart from the law there is something else, someone else, namely, Jesus Christ, to whom it points as an example set by God. But the person who is so smitten by his own deeds will not allow himself to be shown. He will answer the question of the law with his own accomplishments. He could be shown—but will not allow himself to be so instructed! And when it comes to the point of tragedy in the life of this person through the law, then it is understood correctly not as tragedy but as guilt. For the law is innocent. It is sin that is guilty of corrupting people in their deeds so that not even the law is able to convict them; their sinful deeds prevail.

The person who looks to his own good works is like an ignorant child who believes that one can put out a fire by blowing on it. And so it continues to be true: the more the law, the more the sin. Wherever the law exists, it gives rise to the transgression of it. Thus, a person’s help and salvation is found totally apart from the sin that binds him and he must find God somewhere else than in his revealed law. Not in the law, but in the Cross; not in deeds, but in the hearing of the gospel; not in morality, but in faith alone is the help that we need.

c) How Can Knowledge Do Such Great Things?

What then is the goal if the law cannot bring us any further than to the limit of our own capabilities which for us is its ultimate meaning and goal? The answer is this: only under the law and through the law are our limitations made clear to us! It may be that a person must live and, perhaps already does live, within these limits. However, he recognizes them first through the very specific and special language with which God speaks to man in his commandments. Recognition is, in short, the positive work of the law. The law gives recognition where there was previously illusion, drunkenness, immoderation, and self-deception. I do not mean recognition in the sense of the mediation of the knowledge of facts, or of the external appearance of my life, because all of that is attainable without the law through experience, information, observation, and psychology. The recognition that the law brings does not lie on this side of the grave, but rather on the other side; for the law kills faith in oneself and satisfaction with oneself. It establishes enmity in people—the enmity of the flesh against the spirit—because it causes hatred of the self and the love of that which one is not, or is not-yet. To be sure, Luther says something here that has a double meaning: the law brings recognition of sin and at the same time brings recognition of myself. It can do no more than that, says Luther, but even within these limitations the law can work a positive effect.

On the other hand, the law cannot produce that which it demands because it cannot give a person a new spirit to bring about a new creation and existence or to make the heart new, true, pure and straight. It can only reveal that which is right now with a clarity that portends of the final judgment. Perhaps we can only grasp Luther’s much repeated assertions about the achievements of the law when we understand that under the light of the law both powers—those of sin and of the “I”—encounter each other and merge together like two parallel lines that go on into infinity. The intersection of sin as a supra-personal, universally human power, and the recognition of the self is what it means to step into the light of the law. For sin is not foreign to me; it is not random, clinging to my external appearance, like all sinful acts are and do. It is also not something that is beyond me, as in the tragic sense, underscoring my existence. Rather, sin is as intimate as the unity of life and self and as intimate as the unity of myself with sin. It is the condition of my existence. It lives in the “I” of a person who wants to be free of God, establishing himself as the measure of all things that cannot conceive of any other way of life, activity, productivity, formation, or becoming. The law therefore is the boundary—the frontier—in which God meets man. It is the line of death for the self’s will to live and of the self’s thirst for life. Here, in the law, the living God and the living self collide. The law reveals, but only in the secrecy of a person’s self-insight, when he realizes that God and man are not one and that, indeed, they are mortal enemies.

Luther calls the sins which are thus identified and discovered in a condition of not wanting God to be God, the peccatum originale, or original sin. But this translation does not do justice to what Luther meant, because the term “original sin” is misleading. Again and again, original sin has been understood to mean something having to do with a bad inheritance that is handed down through the chain of generations. Thus, the implication is that it is not I myself who sins, but my forefathers who sinned before me. But it is precisely this interpretation of original sin that Luther vehemently rejects. “Original sin” has nothing whatsoever to do with inheritance, at least not if we are to take it in its evangelical context. Yet, this interpretation persists as one of the worst misconceptions of theology where, every now and then, people try to “dress up” this despised teaching with the aid of current theories on heredity. But their attempts are nothing more than mere word-play.

If we want to avoid this confusion, we are better off translating the term peccatum originale word for word from the Latin. Thus it reads: source of sin or sin from its original source. The sin that is discovered is the sin that lies hidden at its source, behind all appearances. It means to understand that sin comes from out of an incomprehensible depth, as when one traces the path of a river to its source. Luther therefore means the point at which a person comprehends this source is the self—the “I”—from out of which a chasm opens that not even reason can fathom.

In his teaching Luther is also very different from the teaching of the Catholic church. Unfortunately, most of us are more familiar with the Catholic teaching than we are with the Protestant teaching of Luther. Nothing is more foolish than to think that the doctrine of original sin is merely a medieval Catholic idea from which Lutherans have liberated themselves. The reformers had intended exactly the opposite in mind and even the simplest Christian knows this from singing the hymns of the Reformation. The reformers won over some of the best people in all areas and classes, not because they took sin less seriously, but because they risked maintaining that sin was a powerful force to be reckoned with.

In Catholic theology, original sin is understood as a congenital defect, a weakness of nature that does not really count as sin in the life of a Christian. Only when this weakness manifests itself in some external, outer deed or action, is it considered sin. What we, however, know from Luther’s intentions on original sin is that for him sin is no mere “defect”—no shortage of power to do good—but rather is a positive, passionate, will to life in which the person seeks to assert himself and to prevail. Luther coined the term “passio” meaning a “passion” that describes a definite, driving inclination in a person that makes the good difficult and the bad easy. This tendency that attracts us over and over again in the wrong direction—like a magnet—is the genuine life of sin in us. Thus, for Luther, sin is an affective tendency—a wishing, a willing, and a drive that is fully present in every person. Just as faith is not a peaceful “quality” in us, so also sin is not a slumbering condition, but manifests itself as a state of unrest, impulse, striving, and of being carried away.114

Luther does not concede that in a Christian there is no sin or, more precisely, that there is any directly traceable trail to evil and lawlessness, as if the inclination to sin is any different for Christians than it is for pagans. It is the same impulse for both pagans and Christians; recognizable in a creature who is by nature lost-in-himself and is revealed as such. In the recognition of his sin the Christian remains still a naturally human figure—or becomes even more so through the recognition of it.

Forgiveness, therefore, does not mean that the sins that the Christian perceives are any less “bad,” and it also does not mean that in contrast to others he is more certain of forgiveness from the start. Rather, it means that the Christian can count on God’s judgment and that God declares us justified, solely on the basis of his Word—even while we are sinners—and that we can live in the assurance of his unfathomable, inestimable and ever new, living Word. For if we have the courage to recognize that sin always remains sin, then we will be rewarded with the assurance that grace always remains grace: new, wonderful, worthy of faith, life-saving and powerful. This is what Luther means by living through God who does not count our sins against us. By helping us to recognize our sin the law fulfills its highest calling, making plain that no good work or pious life can lure us away from the saving fortress of faith in forgiveness and in the life of grace.

Having now said that sin is identical with a life that is in the iron grip of the self and is, we might say, a life that has been ravaged and cunningly imprisoned by the self (for Luther it is a life bound by sin, set in motion by sin, and one with the never ending passion for sin), then we can begin to understand the person as someone who, with all his/her gifts and abilities, body and soul, is enmeshed in sin as if life, being, and existence comprise one singular, uniform motion in sin. Only then can one really begin to grasp the depth and degree of the term “recognition” of sin as Luther understands it. “The law works the recognition of sin,” says Luther. This unique recognition of sin accounts for the condition of man as such and deals with much more than the knowledge of mistakes or transgressions and is something entirely different from psychological self-insight. Luther’s view of sin deals with the recognition of that which a person is before God and before God alone. That is why it is written: tibi soli peccavi, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned …” Yet, seen from the vantage point of the outward appearance of a person’s life such a recognition can appear to be totally unfounded. That is because tibi soli peccavi does not have to do with sin as an action about which we have to think.

However, where such recognition coincides with an outward action or occurrence (Luther here is thinking of David’s confession of sin when the prophet Nathan came to see him), then it represents a particular instance in which the view of a person from his individual standpoint is widened to the general situation of humanity. A person thus recognizes himself in every abyss and in every “I” where he identifies with human nature in general as if to say, ‘as for myself, I know that man is not by nature good and that where he wants to do the good he does what is in his own self interest. I also know that man is not as free as he thinks he is, but is captive in the highest sense, and that he has to give himself up to become something that he by nature, is not, which of course he can never do.’ Thus, the illusion collapses and the serious, mature, and awful truth takes root. It is like a journey from dream world to consciousness, like a conversion from drunkenness to sobriety.

For this whole issue of recognition of sin is not about penetrating the de facto ignorance of a person, but is about penetrating the denial of sin. It has to do with the acceptance of faith and with the gift of recognition, for the person is like someone who is deluded and has to be led to see reality. The wonder of beginning-to-see is what Luther means when he says, “the law brings recognition.” Thus, the scriptures do not reveal a person to himself as if he already knew how things stood concerning his condition, but they show him,

… as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to retain a single one of them in his kingdom, because God could not but at once pity and succor them in their acknowledged and crying wretchedness, seeing he is so highly extolled throughout Scripture as being near to the contrite in heart [Ps. 34:18], as Christ too declares himself according to Isaiah 61, to have been sent to preach the gospel to the poor and to bind up the brokenhearted [Luke 4:18]. Accordingly, it is Satan’s work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told. But the work of Moses or a lawgiver is the opposite of this, namely, to make man’s plight plain to him by means of the law and thus to break and confound him by self-knowledge, so as to prepare him for grace and send him to Christ that he may be saved. They are therefore not absurd but emphatically serious and necessary things that are done by the law.

Chapter Three: Faith and Works

I. Works and Truth

Luther’s opponents have always maintained that his teaching on law and sin destroys the foundation for a moral life, causing confusion because it doesn’t allow for any remnant of a pure nature remaining in man. Luther knew full well that a kind of confusion does exist that makes men unfit and incapable of good works, but he taught that there are two types of confusion since both “Satan and Christ need the Law in order to frighten people, but their aims are fundamentally different and opposite one another.” Satan wants us to doubt and to despair of God’s mercy and forgiveness. He seeks to delude us so that we no longer dare to believe in forgiveness and to think that the law only exists for us and that grace is not intended for us at all. The diabolical despair that Satan intends is fundamentally always one that makes us despair of Christ, since for us, law and gospel cannot hold out against each other. But the “Gospel’s despair” is something entirely different. The gospel needs the law the way every doctor needs an antidote against every “noxious security which so deeply inheres in all men, that it can be terrified only through the law of God.”122 In the case of the gospel, the goal is the goal of life—the goal of being open to the Word of forgiveness that encounters the person accused by the law as a saving, helping Word. Moreover, because the law kills, it portrays Christ first as the “death of all death”: as victor over death and hell. Therefore, Luther says: “The Gospel’s despair, which is where the law drives us, is not evil and does not remain, but it makes way for the reception of faith in Christ as it is written: “The Gospel of Good News is proclaimed to the poor.”

The despair of one’s own actions before God is therefore exactly the opposite of the despair that drives men to destruction and to despair of the forgiveness of sins. For this “hellish journey of self-recognition” in which I really know how things stand with myself, brings home the truth to me. The bitter truth about myself is the price I pay for being rewarded with the blessed truth about God. That is the question that Luther puts to us, namely, whether we are willing and able to go about our business without both of these truths. Can any conceivable number of accomplishments ever lift this need for truth? Would not the worm of destruction be hidden in any such work of delusion? Would not the work that has this truth behind it be a totally different one even though to all outward appearances it resembles the work of the law, as one egg resembles another one?126 Doesn’t the person who lives by the law want most of all to please other people—be they pious, holy and wise people—with his accomplishments? Isn’t it the case that this superscript lies beneath everything they do: Hoc ego fecit—”this I have done”? And shouldn’t a person disappear behind his works if they are really to be effective, the way God has to remain hidden behind his works?

Luther understands works of faith as essentially no different from works of law, except that they are missing the glory that one seeks for oneself in one’s own works. Faith cannot live without actions, yet faith does not live from the actions that it effects, but lives because God is active and because Christ “is not idle.”128 Faith lives because one believes and so the believer does a good work, but he does not require the good work to be what he is already. That is why the death and the transformation—the coming-out-of-oneself—of a person is important, so that “the person learns to do good works not for his own sake, but out of the overflowing of mercy—the free and spontaneous action in response to God’s graciousness—without trusting in the works themselves.” Whoever acts in this way acts as an instrument of God because he has everything he wants from God and can give himself to his works without seeking his own self-interest in the works themselves. On the other hand, the person who does not do works in this way (as actions that are done simply and unselfconsciously in response to need) but who seeks in each action to make himself or herself good and pious—because they see that other pious people do them—these people Luther calls “holy apes.”130

We are therefore able to say in response to the accusation that is made regarding Luther’s emphasis on good works (viz., that it produces the opposite of what it intends) that without despairing of oneself and one’s ability to truly do pure, good works, a person will never gain the truth about himself or about God, which will prevent any action that he does from having any integrity and stability. Simply put, unless a person can stop himself from being the purpose and goal of his own actions and begin to seek God’s honor and not his own honor, there is no such thing as a good work.

II. The Law of Faith

Indeed, the law is to be regarded in the same light as works. “For through the law a hatred of the law is awakened, but through faith a love for the law is infused.” For with the love of God who loves us, the love of his law is born in us.132 One could say that only when we have found God who does not speak in the language of the law by saying, “You should,” but rather says, “I am the Lord your God”—only then can we love the law. In the former we hear the command of a tyrant; in the latter we hear the will of the Father. Of course here, as with works, a change is effected in terms of the law. For the law that we love is now not the same law that was “against us,” namely, the law that we love is not the letter of the law; the law of works; the old law; the law of the flesh; the laws of Moses; the laws of sin and of death; the law that condemns everyone and declares everyone guilty. The law that we love is not the law that fosters resentment and in which death is hidden and all the more so as it has the appearance of spirituality (Luther has innumerable names to describe the breadth and depth of this kind of law), but is the law that we begin to love as the “law of faith.” It is the new law, the law of Christ, the law of grace and of the Spirit. It is, as Luther says, “the living will itself and the life of experience … that is written in the heart only by the finger of God.”

Very likely Luther had the pre-Christian congregations of the church with their ethical viewpoints in mind when he wrote: “Indeed, we would make new decalogues (commandments), as Paul does in all the epistles, and Peter, but above all Christ in the Gospel. And these decalogues are clearer than the Decalogue of Moses, just as the countenance of Christ is brighter than the countenance of Moses.” Here we can now see how Luther himself understood his so-called practical writings. They were “new commandments,” with which he tries to show the love and value of God’s will to the Christian nobility, merchants, magistrates, husbands, wives, and parents. For it is at the same time a new commandment and an old one.135 Today we have lost the consciousness that not only the gospel, but also the law needs to be experienced anew and constantly interpreted anew and that our greatest task as Christians lies in doing just that. To understand the gospel in spiritual terms means for God’s Word to come alive for us in a contemporary and practical sense—in the midst of our everyday lives and our jobs—so that we do not view the law as a burden under which we labor, but that fulfilling it is a joy and a comfort because we heed its commandments as free people. For the law has already been fulfilled in Christ so that it now can help us and cannot accuse us anymore.

III. People and Works

The heart of the Protestant understanding of good works lies in the relationship between people and works. Luther does not mean here what one calls a practical, material ethic, that is to say, a systematic ordering of works according to their “moral” value, nor does he mean a hierarchy of works. He is not concerned with a scale of works and accomplishments in which a person, at the same time as he practices his faith, succeeds to a higher order of virtue. Rather, Luther means that instead of a person being known and measured by his works the works themselves should proceed from the person and be judged accordingly. His ethic is, if you will, personal and not material. For good and evil are predicated on the person and not on the work; the work in itself is indifferent.

Since the good or evil of a work is of a quality that emanates from the relative good or evil of the person that performs it, the burning question of the Reformation is not “How are good works possible,” but is “How does a person become good?” How is the sinner justified? With this last question the others are already answered, not the other way around. Indeed, if it were the case that the question of good works is answered only for the individual himself we would be educating the whole world to be hypocrites. In the same way that the chances are small that a bad tree can bring forth good fruit, so also the odds are very small that a person with whom God is not pleased can do God-pleasing works. Therefore Luther says, just as the apostle Paul says, that the works of the law are never good even if they resemble true, good works, both in intention and in effect. For, he says, who knows what such a person would do if there were no God, no punishment, no reward, and no human praise in the world! These so-called good works are forced deeds—they are not “natural” and they are not honest.

Since Luther really does believe in the possibility of true good works, we must remove the “imitations.” With the imitations we see again the person standing in the foreground; overshadowing the ‘objective,’ ‘impersonal’ things, such as life or the unity of an ethical system. Both—faith and good works—must be present at the same time because either both are won or both are lost together. There is no halfway mark—no justification without sanctification and no sanctification without justification. The religious and the ethical questions are, at root, the same.

On the other hand, when a person’s actions are excluded how can a person become good when he is not, or when, as the philosophers say, he is merely good in a hypothetical sense? For a work to be good the question of the existence of a person must be decided upon in advance; not in the form of an assumption, but in the form of a certainty. Here the decisive factor is faith. That is because when it has to do with a new being and not merely a becoming-better in a moral sense, the person cannot accomplish it by himself. “Opera non faciunt personam, sed persona facit opera“—the works don’t make the person, but the person determines the value of the work. If, of course, a person were in a position to shape his own humanity by himself then he would also be the creator of his own spiritual personality. However, that is an anti-Christian point of view and one that goes against God for those who are under the law, because, Luther says,

whoever holds that our works shape and create us, or that we are the creature of our own work, blasphemes. For it is as blasphemous as saying: I am my own god and I created myself [we know that Fichte said this at the high point of his idealistic atheism.] Likewise, it is blasphemous to seek one’s own justification in works.

Thus, our works are born out of our condition and we are not born of our works.

Essentially, the fact that Luther bothers to describe the transformation of a person in words shows that the transformation involves a creative act. Whoever seeks to help himself with his own works is playing creator of himself—he wants to create himself—he wants to be his own god. But the works he does will immediately explode in his hand, for his aim is contra naturam (contrary to nature). Such a work can never bring a person to the expression of who he is, but seeks to present to a person who he would like to be! Furthermore, it must necessarily show that the good person exists at all. It reveals and deceives at the same time. It is not the expression of the person at all, but constitutes his disguise. And that is the deepest loss, that even for all of his “works” the person is thereby lost and in a state of decline. Therefore, there is only one way to receive a new life and that is through faith which is nothing less than pure receptivity; the acceptance of that which God promises in his Word to man.

No work and no merit brings him the inheritance, but only his birth. Thus he obtains the inheritance in a purely passive, not in an active way; that is, just his being born, not his producing or working or worrying, makes him an heir. He does not do anything toward his being born but merely lets it happen. Therefore we come to these eternal goods—the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, the glory of the resurrection, and eternal life—not actively but passively. Nothing whatever interferes here; faith alone takes hold of the offered promise. Therefore just as in society a son becomes an heir merely by being born, so here faith alone makes men sons of God, born of the Word, which is the divine womb in which we are conceived, carried, born, reared, etc.

The nobility of the Godly-birth is the seal of the child of God and boasting of performance is the sign of slaves. The manner in which a person stands in relationship to his works shows to whose spirit he belongs. Therefore, Luther also says in one of his theses: “when faith exists without every, even the smallest work, it is not justified and is not faith at all”—and in the next thesis he says, “faith cannot stand without constant, great and living works.” Faith that comes from God is faith that is devoid of any work to which a person brings nothing to it; no accomplishment, no glory, no sacrifice, no knowledge, no law. Faith that comes from God is found in the hand that receives, the ear that hears, the heart that believes and loves and hopes. This kind of faith is satisfied with what God gives, namely, his Son Jesus Christ. This unity of faith and Christ should therefore not be sullied through any work and should not be lost sight of for an instant.145

When faith turns to the world it receives what comes to it and doesn’t try to influence God like the heathen do, because it knows that Another is there that intercedes for us with God: One who is the Other and mightier even than the greatest work, namely, Christ. Faith lives by virtue of Christ’s intercession before God. Heaven is no longer the goal of works, but heaven freely gives the works. Just as Christ came down from heaven to help us, faith steps down out of the world of the Word and of freedom to serve the neighbor. What God has given to faith, faith gives to the neighbor. So faith is steadfast in works, in service to the neighbor, and at the same time always celebrating, living from what Christ has done for him. Only that faith—devoid of any work—that suffers the work of God to be done in him can do the work of God on earth, which also pleases God. Thus it is true that all that does not proceed from faith is sin.

IV. The Priority of Existence: Christian Faith and the Greek Ethos

Luther has formulated the recognition of the priority of existence over action in a famous, consistent antithesis which was for him to remain a guiding star: “no iusta operando iusti efficimur, sed iusti essendo iusta operamur,” which means “not through doing what is right are we righteous, but through the fact that we are justified we are able to do what is right.” This Being-Justified already is the precondition of doing right and this precondition does not lie inside of us, but lies outside all human possibilities. It lies “extra nos, that is, in Christo.” As he formulated this thesis for the first time, Luther was very conscious of its implications and that with it he was unleashing the Gorgon’s knot of Greek, especially Aristotelian, philosophy that had entwined itself around Christian doctrine. He encountered the scholastic system at its heart because that is where the basic teachings of Greek ethics had been taken over by Christianity, namely, with the concept that virtue takes practice and discipline. For the Greeks, virtue meant ability that was won through steadfast and conscious practice in doing right. Strength and steadfastness of the soul acquired in this way builds character through a person’s habit—his “habitus.” Only through carefully planned undertakings that are supported by a wise education are we able to begin to develop the kind of habits that are characteristic of virtue: “Then the swallows cannot make their summer nests [in us]” (Aristotle).

Unfortunately, we can only here briefly elaborate on the vast and consistent theme regarding the teaching of virtue that permeated Greek thought, merely in order to make clear the consequences of incorporating this system into Christian teaching (since the basic ideas of the Greek system of virtue, viewed pedagogically, are so convincing. the opinion had to emerge that it is also the case with righteousness by faith) since man exercises himself in the practice of chief Christian virtues he attains to an inner being or condition of his nature that may be considered righteous. Thus, the person wins back what he had lost, namely, his original righteousness before God, because he is now able to practice virtue with the help and support of grace in order to carry out God’s will. In order to understand, as Luther did, why he strongly said “no” to this kind of thinking one must have experienced the powerful and gripping elation, the wonderful communion of nature and grace; the stepwise, gradual, elevating journey through the practice of heavenly virtue until—but never quite attainable—perfection is visible. He understood that in this kind of experience, something he called “opera legis” or works of the law, the entire order of the human road to righteousness was turned around. We are not made righteous through what we do, but exactly the opposite: only from a life first captured by faith are virtuous deeds at all possible.

V. Dual Righteousness

Perhaps it was hidden somehow that the Greek ethic was intended to educate people in the rational order of the state and of the universe and that they therefore operated on a “toto coele” (totally) or entirely different concept of righteousness than the one of the gospel. In the gospel, righteousness is not valid before men, but is valid before God. It has no place in the earthly realm, but belongs in the heavenly “politeia” (heavenly community) whose subjects belong to God and must be understood, seen, and recognized as such. Luther thus divides the Catholic understanding of righteousness into two: 1) the earthly-human realm and 2) the realm revealed by God. It is not accurate to say, as some have said, that Luther separates the judicial and the religious concepts of righteousness since the righteousness of faith is incompatable with everything that we think and do, whether legal or religious. It is the phenomenon of the “sui generis” (unique). But let us allow Luther to say it in his own words:

This is our theology, by which we teach to distinguish both forms of righteousness—the active and the passive—so that morality and faith; works and grace; politics and religion, may not be blended together. Both are necessary, but both have to be kept within their appropriate boundaries. Christian righteousness concerns the new person—the righteousness of the Law of the old person who is born out of flesh and blood. One has to put the feed-bag on him like on an ass so that he is forced to eat and cannot take in the freedom of the Spirit and of Grace … I say this so that no one thinks that we would want to do away with good works or hinder them. We set up, so to speak, two worlds—a heavenly one and an earthly one—and in both of these we situate both forms of righteousness, but keep them strictly apart and distant from each other. The legal righteousness—the righteousness of the “you should”—belongs to the earth and has to do with earthly things, and through it we do accomplish good works. But, just as the earth brings forth nothing unless it is fed sunlight and water from heaven, so we also are not able to do anything—even if we do a lot according to the legal righteousness and fulfill the letter of the law in our actions—if we are not already righteous beforehand—without works and actions—which is the power of Christian righteousness that has nothing to do with the law of an active, earthly righteousness. For it is the heavenly, the passive (righteousness), that we don’t have and that we must receive from heaven. It is not what we do, but what we grasp in faith, whereby we rise above all law and works. For, as Paul says, just as we carried the likeness of the old Adam, so also will we have the likeness of a heavenly creation—a new creation in the new world of God where there is no law, no sin, no conscience, no death, but full joy, justice, grace, freedom, life, healing and glory.

The righteousness of the Christian, or the righteousness of faith, “has nothing to do with that of the law,” but is something entirely new without analogy to anything that we are or know. It bursts forth from out of our ethical-religious system as a whole. It is not the crowning achievement or highest point of righteousness, but it is its opposite from another world. A person has to be clothed with this kind of righteousness before he can do good works, but his reward is the precondition that he remain passive and not active; believing and not doing. Above all, this righteousness has nothing to do with anything a person can “have,” like a quality or a virtue that we carry, but it is ours only through faith. If we want to “have” righteousness without faith, then we will right away be transformed into every kind of Pharisaic self-righteousness that gains entry where the true godly, life-giving, righteousness was driven out.

Just as Christ was accompanied by and threatened by the anti-Christ, so also the righteousness of faith is accompanied by and threatened by its diabolical rival the righteousness of the law—whether in theology, the church, or in the ideal, pious life! Luther has consciously divided these two easily confused and similar forms so sharply as they have been divided no where else, except in the case of the Apostle Paul from whom he took this teaching, and to some extent, in Augustine. And Luther intended that every church must know what kind of righteousness it teaches and announces. By separating these two forms of righteousness that had grown together, Luther did not split the church, but preserved it!

VI. Free from the Law of Works

From the point of view of the righteousness of faith, the imposters and anti-Christian rivals who preach the righteousness of the law are easily recognized. The righteousness of the law has nothing to do with the fact that a person intends to be able to come near to God with good works, even if this primitive idea is fundamentally the notion of heathen sacrifice that is rooted by nature in everyone’s blood. Rather, it is a deeper and more profound shackle by which the person is imprisoned in a ring of law and of sin, even though the ideal of perfection shines in on him in his prison and holds him upright. It is what Luther calls the “necessitas operum” (the necessity of works) that binds him in works of necessity. The person himself seeks constantly to find the identity of his being in his works, for ‘if you are good’ then ‘you must show it’! And the person knows deep in his heart that he lives and strives, is happy and crestfallen, depending upon whether his works succeed or not.

If these chains that are forged from works and that imprison me could be broken from the inside (that is by my nature), and if my conscience could be freed from the “judgment of my works,” (in which not my works, but God’s would be counted for me) and if I were able to decide the verdict on my life—then I would indeed be free! Then this law, this cycle of “I” and works and conscience would indeed be broken and I could confront the works that wait for me, knowing that God’s judgment supports me, with the confidence of a master who commands his slaves. Then I would act with the greatest freedom and confidence, knowing that no work that I do can decide my fate, my salvation, or my righteousness before God. That is precisely the heavenly gift that Luther finds in the New Righteousness; the freedom of the children of God who do work simply that it may be done, but who do not need to do any work at all in order to know that they live by God’s grace.

We will not continue this (chapter) any further. There is a lot more that could be discussed here, above all, the continuing deep attack on the errant conscience in that I would always like to make ‘my work,’ ‘my accomplishments,’ and ‘my sin’ a measure of my life as well as the extent to which both forms of righteousness continually threaten to come together again and are never absolutely separated as long as we live. Therefore, it is with the conviction that the challenge to this separation has not been removed, but quite the opposite: each time it is challenged we are convinced that it cannot be successfully overturned or broken! If only we didn’t believe the challenge to righteousness by faith, but were able to firmly maintain that the righteousness of faith is a gift from God that is foreign to me—one that is given and preserved by God in Christ, and to defend it so that the powers of knowledge and conscience prevail against it as little as the waves of the sea are able to tear up the heavens! This righteousness, which is grounded in God’s foreign, passive, eternally saving, ever active righteousness, filled with life and Spirit, which proceeds from faith—this righteousness is the goal and cornerstone to which we dedicate our reflections in the last chapter.

Chapter Four: Righteousness

I. The Concept of the Righteousness of Faith

a) The Righteousness of God Is the Content of the Gospel

It is this Word at which the final decision concerning an understanding of the righteousness before God is made. The fact that Luther is able to re-conquer this concept for theology and to make it the fundamental basis of faith was something that he regarded as his life-long mission, by God’s grace and design. The theologian Martin Luther stands in the history of the church as a great sign, erected by God, who stands far beyond the boundaries of what we call today confession and confessionalism as the man who continued to point, drive, push, and to circle around this one point and toward this single word: righteousness. It is the treasure in the field, the costly pearl that makes everything else worthwhile in order to gain it. But Luther had not always thought this way. There was a time in which this Word was repulsive to him because it appeared to destroy everything for him—everything that he believed that he had come to understand.155 He had fought and struggled with this understanding to the very limits of his spiritual and theological ability until the very hour in which God sent him this Word and with it he found the key that unlocked his mind and which, as he said, opened the gates of paradise for him. Then the scriptures lay before him like a stretch of open land which would be like home to him from then on; where the most cherished and most bitter of words would come together in a new, unprecedented harmony of ear and mind filled with holiness: God’s righteousness! As an old man, Luther remembered the day that this happened and said that with it he had found the cornerstone and key to righteousness through faith alone.

We are today in a similar situation: grace, compassion, love, and mercy are words that we like to hear. They are “evangelical words.” But doesn’t “righteousness” belong to the law and in the Old Testament? Doesn’t righteousness mean that God gives to each person what he earns? Don’t we really hope for God’s righteousness and continue to hope for it when it means every “iustitia distributiva” (distributive justice) in which God rewards the good and the pious, but punishes the godless and the wicked? Would it not be just as incomprehensible for us as it was for the theologian Luther where, in Romans 1:17, it says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel … For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” Couldn’t we understand Luther better if he expected an entirely different Word in which God’s mercy, love, forgiveness, and compassion were revealed to him? But here it is: righteousness. If righteousness is the essence of the new revelation in Christ Jesus, then are not all other things contained in it: love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion? Haven’t we already understood what the gospel is or what righteousness is? After all, they are the two pillars upon which the righteousness of men before God rests. However, not until both the gospel and God’s righteousness come together—not until we seek them both in the gospel—and not until God’s righteousness is for us the content of the Good News that calls us to faith will we have understood the whole gospel. So it was with Luther when this long hated, often elusive, detestable Word broke in upon him and he knew that it was not a stone, but rather the bread of life.

b) God’s Own Righteousness Includes Us and Does Not Shut Us Out

Luther tried to describe what had happened to him. It became clear to him that this foreign righteousness was also and at the same time our righteousness, and that it did not stand outside of us, but rather in us, since God is who he is not only for himself, but also for us. Whoever believes that God is justified in Christ must also learn to believe that he himself is justified. The righteousness of God that is revealed in Christ includes us, because it is not a righteousness that condemns, but a righteousness that creates. Because of Christ, no one can say: “God is righteous and I am not,” or “God is holy and I am not.” The righteousness of God that is revealed to the world in Jesus Christ does not shut out the sinner, but includes him. For either it is not God that reconciles the world to himself in Christ or there is no righteousness at all. In that case the unbeliever finds in Jesus at best “the death of a righteous one.” Similarly, if one’s sins are erased and one is sent righteousness as a gift, then Christ died for nothing. But it is a new righteousness that God gives us in Christ, one that is quite different from the righteousness that God reveals in the law. It is not only new and unprecedented in human terms which is the wonderful, paradoxical, and faith giving aspect of it, but it is also new and unprecedented in terms of the righteousness of God that is revealed in the law.

Every instance of God’s righteousness that is revealed in the law is one according to which God, as judge, gives “each person his due.” But in Christ God does not give each person his due, quite the contrary: He lays our sins on his Son and gives us his Son’s righteousness. He reckons to us what is not ours (imputatio), namely, a foreign righteousness and he does not reckon to us that which is ours, namely, our own sins (non imputatio). No theologian since Paul has dared to say these things so boldly, so freely, or so paradoxically. Neither has anyone since Paul found the language with which to make it so clearly and easily understood to the hearts of believers until Luther. With the righteousness of faith, not only are the ritualistic and ceremonial law of the Jews overturned, but also the laws of morality, of the commandments, and of every kind of “partisan ethics.”162 The righteousness of faith lies on the other side of all of these legalisms.

Therefore we always repeat, urge, and inculcate this doctrine of faith or Christian righteousness, so that it may be observed by continuous use and may be precisely distinguished from the active righteousness of the Law. (For by this doctrine alone and through it alone is the church built, and in this it consists). Otherwise we shall not be able to observe true theology but shall immediately become lawyers, ceremonialists, legalists, and papists. Christ will be so darkened that no one in the church will be correctly taught or comforted. Therefore if we want to be preachers and teachers of others, we must take great care in these issues and hold to this distinction between the righteousness of the Law and that of Christ. ‘This distinction is easy to speak of; but in experience and practice it is the most difficult of all, even if you exercise and practice it diligently. For in the hour of death or in other conflicts of conscience these two kinds of righteousness come together more closely than you would wish or ask.

c) God Creates Out of Nothing

In order to understand correctly God’s righteousness, the righteousness that embues faith, it is necessary to force everything else out of one’s thinking—law, works, conscience, reason, justice, morality, and all other similar things. One must begin to live all over again; to think and to comprehend only Christ and to learn only from him what God’s righteousness is. Everything that we otherwise know about righteousness won’t help us, but will hinder us from understanding what is here freely and openly revealed.

Luther, following Augustine, called the righteousness of God something with which “God clothes us,” something that he gives to us and that is how it is usually understood. However, this presentation lacks, in my view, a sense of the real problem that is at stake here: namely, why this grace, this gift, and this righteousness is God’s righteousness? Who knows, despite the rich writings of Luther and his teachings, if we have really understood this problem correctly, and who can say that we have understood this last and decisive point; the one that goes to the heart of the gospel and of the revelation of God? Who knows whether or not our limited understanding is too simple and too ingrained by conventional thought and whether we must not seek further and ask more questions? Luther once wrote an unusual sentence about God’s righteousness that we can perhaps use as a slogan: “God and we are in the same righteousness because, just as God creates with the Word, and we are what he creates, therefore we are in him and his Being is our very life.” The comparison to creation is very important here. The God who meets us in Christ also meets us as Creator and the Being that he creates is his very own. The only thing to remember here is that not only does God create out of nothing, he must also destroy in order to create anew!

Whoever would be righteous must first become a sinner; whoever wants to be well, good, and like God as a Christ-like member of the church must first become sick, bad, perverted, devilish, even heretical—as unbelieving as a Turk—as Paul says: ‘Whoever among you would be wise must first become foolish in order to be wise.’ Let this statement stand, for it is God’s will in heaven that He has intended through foolishness to create wisdom; through wickedness to create the good; through sin to create righteousness; through folly, even through sickness to create health; through heresy to create churchliness; through unbelief the believer; and through the form of the devil to create godly people. You ask “How?” It shall be answered briefly and quickly. You cannot become before God someone that you would like to be if you first have not become before yourself and before others the kind of person He wants you to be. God does intend, however, that you should become before yourself and others what you really are—namely, a sinner; bad, sickly, perverse, and devilish. Those are your names. Those are the things that you are in truth and they are your humiliation. As soon as that happens you are already before God what you wanted to be: holy, good, true, straight, and pious. On this basis you become a new person before yourself, others, and before God. Why are you surprised? Why are you bothered when you displease yourself and others? Because if you don’t displease them, then you can’t please God.

To speak of the righteousness of the sinner is not the exception and to speak of the righteousness of the righteous is not the rule. On the contrary, the God who is revealed in Christ makes the sinner righteous—that is the rule, without exception. In order to create, God has to destroy what we have created. God’s righteousness is not a quality that he has for himself like a person has qualities, but in Christ God’s qualities—wisdom, power, and understanding—become ours. Just as God gives life to everything that he creates, so also he meets us as the God who makes us like himself.

We do not have this existence—this new life from God—the way we have and feel the life that we have here on earth, because we have it only in faith and in the hope that we have it, or that it has us, as our future life. Luther likes to say that we have it as a promise. Just as the pious were promised Christ in the Old Testament, so also we are promised in Christ the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God. Luther coins a famous formula that is essential for the newly given righteousness of man: peccator in re, iustus in spe! (sinner in reality, righteous in hope) This formula means that we are sinners in the reality of our existence, but righteous in the hope that we have in God. The life of a person exists between these two poles and is, inasmuch as faith is lived, always the victory of hope that one doesn’t see over the reality that one does see.

Luther gained these insights only after many long battles. He thought at first that forgiveness of sins (remissio peccati) and the removal of sin (ablatio peccati) were the same thing. He thought that sin was a condition that lay beyond the person of faith, but he also recognized that out of that perspective grew self-assuredness, indolence, and pride. Then Luther found that both are present and both encompass the entire person: sin and righteousness, condemnation and grace. As a sign of this ground-breaking discovery he coined this formula: “sinner in reality, righteous in hope!” Faith therefore means to shift my sins and God’s grace into the same time-frame, because faith means that both sin and righteousness are present together.169 Both are real, but in the former we live in a physical sense and in the latter we live by the power of hope. One is seen and the other is not seen. Because the person of faith knows both things—that being righteous means God’s Word is for us and that in the reality of sin Gods’ Word is against us—then he also knows that which is and remains the true reality and which one must eventually give up. Thus, the yielding of sin depends upon faith in forgiveness—but this faith is not dependent upon the yielding of sin!

d) Christ Is Our Life Before God and In God

On the other hand, our New-Being, Righteous-Existence, New-Life, our True-Being and Godly-Existence (deiformitas!) is never going to be present in us here on earth. It will not be ours in outward “appearance,” but only in faith, since it is real and present “outside of us,” namely, in Christ. The life, the righteousness, the freedom, and the joy that has come with him into the world is in truth our righteousness, freedom, life and joy. This life is still “hidden” in Christ and only with the resurrection will this new life be ours in the same way that the old, doomed life is “ours” now! Because Christ is our life he is not the “other” that stands over against us, for that is only his historicity (historice) says Luther, but Christ is much more. If we follow Luther he is the substance of my own existence before God. What happened to Christ will also happen to me; he is the human being par excellence. Christ is the One who becomes, in the eyes of God, as that which we in truth really are, but don’t want to be. He has taken our place and that of the existence of men upon himself before God, which constitutes both his obedience and his sin. Though our sin never was his, he suffered and died for us as if they were his own sins. Luther was able to develop these thoughts in a depth and clarity that for us, unfortunately, is virtually lost. These thoughts of Christ, who took upon himself the life of men before God—”the form, that Christ has in the eyes of men”—deals with an interpretation of Jesus’ Passion in Psalm 22:

For whatever the form of Christ’s sufferings in men’s eyes, such is yours in God’s eyes. Further, what men do to Christ, your sins and demons are doing to you, except that when you suffer, you do not feel it. On the contrary, you delight in sufferings like the madman who laughs at his misfortunes, whereas Christ suffers in them with a clear mind. But you too will feel them, when under the revelation of the law you will have recognized this loathsome form of your sin which you had ignorantly designed for yourself, erring by that same law when it was veiled.

Christ is therefore not only the revelation of God, but he also reveals the form of men before God. He is, for us, “made a sinner by God.” Because we all too often stop with the history of the Passion, and become much less involved with the “full affect of faith,” it is incomprehensible to us what the Apostle means when he says: Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30).

Most of the time this statement is understood causally, in the sense that the sacrifice of Christ for the righteousness of man is somehow a matter of cause and effect. Luther didn’t like the causal view very much, or for that matter, any view of Christ as “sufficient basis” for our righteousness. Similarly, he regarded any invasion of his theological thought by scientific language with the highest mistrust. For Luther, grace is not a quality (qualitas) and sin is not a disposition (dispositio) and Christ is not the primary cause (prima causa) of the righteousness of men. Righteousness is not a physical formula:

You know that what belongs to natural philosophy always gives or conveys something harmful and awkward to theology, because each and every art has its terms and names with which it is familiar, and those names suit its materials. Jurists have their terms, physicians theirs, naturalists theirs. If you wish to carry these over from their space and location to another, the confusion will by no means be bearable. For in the end it obscures everything. But if you wish to use these terms, please give them a good washing first. Take them to the tub.

Luther indicated a very far-reaching and noteworthy judgement when he said further: “Scholastic theology was born at a time when the vocabulary of physics was being transferred to theology. Therefore I advise you to keep yourselves free of this confusion with the greatest diligence.” It may be that there is still today something gravely lacking in theology with regard to the discussion of righteousness, satisfaction, imputation, and so forth, and that we haven’t yet freed ourselves enough from speaking in terms of physical concepts such as substance, causality, quality, form and so on. It is therefore good to be reminded that righteousness is a historical—more precisely stated, humanly historical and end-historical event.

II. The Appropriation of the New Righteousness

a) The Forensic Character of Justification

Luther presents the appropriation of the righteousness of faith in a twofold manner and the background for this appropriation is always the last judgment of God. The challenge that the very first words of forgiveness pose to men is not something of a psychological phenomenon, but rather it is the soul’s nudging on the final historical reality of judgment. The anxious conscience is the knowledge of the dies irae, dies ille (day of wrath, that very day)! Thus, the righteousness of men before God always has a “forensic” character, that is, it plays itself out in the arena of a God who judges justly! The righteousness of God is not something that a person can save up and account for like money. God alone gives righteousness, which is both ours and his at the very same time. But in this kind of judgment it is, paradoxically, not a matter of defining God as merciful. Quite the contrary, it is a matter of believing that God is merciful and of understanding him from the perspective of the person of Christ.

For if the heart of a believer in Christ accuses him and reprimands him and witnesses against him that he has done evil, he will immediately turn away from evil and will take his refuge in Christ and say, ‘Christ has done enough for me. He is just. He is my defense. He has died for me. He has made His righteousness my righteousness, and my sin His sin. If He has made my sin to be His sin, then I do not have it, and I am free. If He has made His righteousness my righteousness, then I am righteous now with the same righteousness as He. My sin cannot devour Him, but it is engulfed in the unfathomable depths of His righteousness, for He himself is God, who is blessed forever.’ Thus we can say, ‘God is greater than our heart’ (1 John 3:20). The Defender is greater than the accuser, immeasurably greater. It is God who is my defender. It is my heart that accuses me. Is this the relation? Yes, yes, even so! ‘Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?’ It is as if he were saying: ‘No one.’ Why? Because ‘It is God who justifies.’ ‘Who is to condemn?’ No one. Why? Because ‘It is Christ Jesus (who is also God) who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, etc.’ Therefore, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ (Rom. 8:33, 34).

Against this background all expressions concerning God’s righteousness gain form and substance. They are not an object of speculation, but unfold first in their joyful power as the place where the accused person first finds salvation and life. They are not true “in themselves,” but they are always first true “for me” before they are anything “for themselves.” The scene that Luther sketches is so clear: the person stands accused, but the roles are reversed. The judge takes on the defense and the accused becomes the accuser. This is what God’s righteousness means! The verdict that God pronounces is valid—even valid against one’s own heart and conscience. God stands on the side of man, right next to him and in front of him, and lays his righteousness between sin and the person like a chasm. We are raised up, buried, protected, and guarded in Jesus Christ in whom we die in order to live and in whom we find ourselves created new: true, righteous, pure, free, good and holy.

The exchange that Luther talks about is the “happy exchange” in which Christ takes on my sins and I take on his righteousness. But this exchange is only meaningful when it is seen in its entirety against the background of God’s judgment—when it concerns God’s judgment and his verdict. What happens in this event, in the death and intervention of Jesus for our sins, is not something that occurs contemporaneously, but it is an end-time event. The righteousness that Christ brings is dedicated to us finally and conclusively at the time of the last judgment. Therefore, when faith grasps this righteousness it makes the person eternally righteous; he lives entirely from what God has promised him and grasps his future-self as his only true being. God does not lie; the promise that he has made to us he will most certainly keep.

b) Oneness with Christ in Faith

Faith in Christ is not a foreign life, but is one that is intended for me and given to me. It is a righteousness that is laid hold of especially for me. Because Christ is present, better yet, because in him my righteousness is already present, Christ is therefore not an “object” of faith, but through faith he lives in me. “For when, in matters of righteousness, you discern between the person of Christ and your own person, then you are still in and remain in the Law and it lives in you, which means that you are dead before God and damned by the Law.” Luther did not like to define faith as something that distinguishes between the “I” of the believer and Christ in the matter of righteousness before God: “Even when we admit that a person with that kind of faith could be found, he would be dead in such a faith because he would have only the historical faith in Christ which even the devil and all godless people have.”

We could ask, and at this point we should ask, anyone who thinks that the historical understanding of Christ is the true Protestant understanding, whether or not in thinking thus he has any idea what the righteousness of faith means. How far Luther extends the definition of historical we shall see in the end, because Luther intends that the righteousness of God can only mean exactly that when “Christ lives in me,” because of necessity it also means “mercy, righteousness, life and eternal blessedness are near whereas law, sin, and death are far off.” Faith therefore has nothing to do with any kind of conception of God or Christ. It has nothing to do with opinions that we have or don’t have about God or Christ; opinions that we could perhaps even change. Faith has to do with the substance of our being, our very life and death. In faith, “it is not I who live”! In faith, the life of a new person lives in the “me” whom I shall become.

Therefore faith must be taught correctly so that it is clear that through it a new person is shaped and in it a new person comes into being that cannot be separated from Christ, but clings to Him steadfastly as if to say ‘I am like Christ’ and likewise, Christ will say, “I am like the sinner who clings to me’ … so that this faith is forged inwardly in Christ the way a man and wife are forged together. Thus, faith is not a passive quality, but rather an unspeakable power.

Let us remember this: the law pushes sin and the “I” together so closely that they become one form, one flesh and one will. God’s righteousness transforms the “I” in faith to become one with Christ so that they become one form, one flesh and one will. To the “I” falls the decision with whom it will become one, since a neutral state in the middle is not possible, because death lurks behind sin and life reposes in righteousness.

That is the ‘decision’ of faith to which Luther calls us. He found that the sign of the decision of faith does not lie alone in teaching and in dogma (these are both able to deceive), but rather that the decision falls to the “I” of the person and to the attitude of the person to his own works. But, the decision falls in such a way that two things preclude each other like mortal enemies: faith in Christ and the desire to be something before God by virtue of one’s own works. That is why Luther hated what he called “historical” faith; an empty, neutral knowledge of Christ that does not place a person and his life in a position of deciding between righteousness by the law and righteousness of faith—a knowledge that is not won or grasped in the hour of the death of the “I”. For faith should so affect me that I know that Christ is he who stands in for me at God’s judgment—Christ is for me!—or I don’t’ know him at all, I just know about him.

Such believers use faith no better than the demons and the damned. The one who assumes faith says: I believe that the Son of God suffered and was raised—and there it ends. But true faith says: I believe that the Son of God suffered and was raised and all of it for me, for my sins, and of that I am certain!

Luther sees here a difference between one kind of faith and a faith that cannot be contained by a formula, since, seen from the point of view of dogma, both say the same thing. The difference lies in this critical point: the one that is a truth for itself is not a truth, but the other receives its truth in God’s “for you” and so your life becomes one with the Truth.

Accordingly, that ‘for me’ or ‘for us,’ if it is believed, creates that true faith and distinguishes it from all other faith, which merely hears the things done. As I often warn, therefore, the doctrine of justification must be learned diligently. For in it are included all the other doctrines of our faith; and if it is sound, all the others are sound as well.181

Published: July 10, 2014, 13:38 | 2 Comments on Rightiousness of Faith- acc. To Luther- IWAND, 2008 , via Uwe Rosenkranz
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2 responses to “Rightiousness of Faith- acc. To Luther- IWAND, 2008 , via Uwe Rosenkranz”

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