On Saturday afternoon, Dr. Carl Trueman took the podium to explain the centrality of justification by faith alone. Here is what he had to say.
Faith, as defined in classic Protestantism, is not what the wider culture today has in mind when it speaks of faith.
I was speaking to someone recently who has a relative who goes to a rehabilitation group for help in recovering from an addiction. This person went to one of these meetings with her relative and, being a Christian, she wanted to talk about her faith in God But this was not allowed. The emphasis in the meeting was on faith, but just faith in general, not faith in a specific concept or person. This is evident throughout our society. Faith is seen as a virtue today, but generally people are not referring to faith in something. Instead, faith is seen a nebulous concept that all will turn out well or it is something that gets you through the day. For the Protestant Reformers, however, faith was something deeper.
The Controversy of the Reformation
To see the importance of faith for Protestantism, we will look at the controversy of the Reformation, particularly Luther’s contribution to the debate. First we need to understand Luther’s background. He was trained as a medieval theologian even though theology in the 16th century, theology was moving in the direction of the Renaissance. He was trained in the via moderna or modern way, which was a late medieval development of earlier themes. Before the Reformation, medieval theologians understood justification as the transformation of people. You are justified if you are made righteous. God declares righteous those who were righteous in themselves or who had at least started the process toward righteousness. Justification iss a process that involves real change.
Thomas Aquinas is an exemplar of this view. Aquinas saw justification as the change brought about by the infusion of grace into a person through their participation in the sacraments. In partaking of bread and wine in the mass, something passes into you and changes you into someone more righteous. When God declares you justified it iss because there has been a change in your being.
Luther was not trained in Aquinas but in the modern way. These theologians had a profound sense of the otherness of God and did not want to impose on him that which the human mind conceived. Theologians of the via moderna believed that Aquinas’ view of justification was an extrapolation from human reason. They said that God could declare an unrighteous person to be righteous These theologians said God will declare you righteous if you do your best even though unrighteousness remains. In some ways this is pastorally brilliant, because not everyone can attain the same level of righteousness. One need not achieve a certain standard to be declared righteous but only one only needs to do one’s best in order to get an initial infusion of grace.
But how do you know when you have done your best? Luther saw that the pastoral advantage of this position was also its Achilles heel. This drove him to wrestle with his sin, Psalms, Romans, and the human condition.
By April 1518, Luther’s thinking on justification starts to develop. He presides over the Heidelberg Disputation in that year. In these theses we see Luther’s thinking on faith and justification start to emerge. Its last thesis (#28) captures Luther’s theology in a nutshell: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.”
Luther meant that human love is a response to something that is intrinsically beautiful and lovely. We see some quality in an object and move to it in love. This is true in marriage and with our children. We love our spouses because we find something lovely in them. We love our children because they are our children. Divine love, on the other hand, is of a whole different order. Divine love creates that which is lovely to it, it does not find it. The great flaw in medieval theology was that human beings assumed that God thinks like us but more perfectly. Luther argued on the contrary that God does not think or love like we do. He does not find a lovely object and then loves it. He finds an unlovely object and makes it lovely.
Thesis 25 of the Heidelberg Disputation says that “he is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.” If God thinks like us, then we think justification operates like our human relationships operate. If we think of God in this way, making amends to him makes perfect sense. We try to make amends toward those whom we have offended, and if God is like us, we will think that we need to do what we can to make up for our sin.
Luther expands upon thesis 25: “For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ (Rom. 1:17) and ‘Man believes with his heart and so is justified’ (Rom. 10:10). Therefore I wish to have the words ‘without work’ understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Rom. 3:20 states, ‘No human being will be justified in His sight by works of the law,’ and, ‘For we hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of law’ (Rom. 3:28) In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. “Therefore man knows that works which he does by such faith are not his but God's. For this reason he does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. His justification by faith in Christ is sufficient to him. Christ is his wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Cor. 1:30 has it, that he himself may be Christ's vessel and instrument.”
What Luther is talking about here in terms of faith is far different than the Oprah Winfrey kind of faith that says everything is going to be okay. For Luther, faith is linked to Christ and the promises of Scripture. Faith is linked to a complete inversion of human expectations about God. Faith is coming to a knowledge that God is nothing like we imagine Him to be. It has a definite content and is not just some kind of nebulous trust. It is connected to the complete overturning of human projections of who God is and what He is like.
How Luther’s Insight Came
Luther did not have this breakthrough immediately. A series of things happened in Luther’s mind to bring him to this position. First, his view of sin changed. The via moderna said that sin was a weakness, a tendency to do things we do not want to do. If sin is a weakness or like dirt, then baptism becomes a healing/cleansing and justification becomes a process of cleansing. Luther in 1515/16 concluded that he had understood sin wrongly. It is not a weakness; it is death. And dead bodies cannot work. Luther came to think of baptism as a resurrection. He saw the seriousness of sin and the absolute need of God to take the initiative.
Heidelberg Disputation Theses 19–21: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the ‘invisible’ things of God as though they were clearly ‘perceptible in those things which have actually happened’ (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21–25), he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
We can illustrate this by looking at 1 Corinthians. First Corinthians is a letter sent to the church in the Las Vegas of the ancient world. The amazing thing is that there was a church there, not that there were sexual problems in the congregation. Yet despite its problems, Paul could still call it the body of Christ. If we were to look at the Corinthian church we would see 60–70 people who were absolute low-lifes and yet Paul calls it the body of Christ and temple of the Spirit. He saw the church through the eyes of faith. Faith is not reducible to trust but is a whole approach to reality. He articulates this in chapter 1. The cross is foolishness and offense, and this is fortunate because the Corinthians were foolish nobodies whom God made into a church.
Luther’s theology of the cross is held by one who looks at reality through the framework of revelation. We cannot talk about faith without talking about its content. The theology of glory says “Christ, if you are the king, come down from your cross.” This is the first thief on the cross. The second thief says “when you enter your kingdom, let me in.” He is not thinking in human terms or theology of glory terms. He knows that death is no bar to entering the kingdom but that Christ’s death is the only way in. He is thinking in terms of the cross.
Heidelberg Disputation Thesis 26: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” This is the counterintuitive work of the cross. God’s love is fundamentally different than that of human beings. This is his foundation of his work with human beings. Luther’s notion of righteousness is that it is something given to us by faith. “But that isn’t fair,” is the common reply. That means it is not fair according to human criteria of fairness. But that understanding is the theology of glory. That is not the logic of faith or of the Bible. If you have no faith, the theology of the cross is nonsense. The logic of the cross works only if you have faith.
The Joyful Exchange
Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man in 1520 explained the joyful exchange of righteousness and sin when we are united to Christ by faith. Faith unites the soul to Christ as a bride is united to her bridegroom. Christ and the soul become one flesh. These two spouses hold things in common. Soul can boast as having what is ever Christ’s and vice versa. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin and damnation. When faith joins us to Christ, there is a transfer. Our sins pass to Christ and His righteousness passes to us. This puts faith in its place. Faith in itself is not meritorious. We are not saved because of faith but because of the righteousness that we receive because of faith. This takes us away from us any nebulous notion of faith as a trust that one is better of having than not having at all.
Take away propositions about Jesus and you take away Christianity. Faith has content. It is faith in somebody and if you take away propositions, you take away that somebody. Faith is not a contentless, existential encounter. So if someone says, “I know in my heart that it is true,” then you know right away that it what they are saying is false.
The obvious criticism is that this paves the way to moral laxity. Luther knew that people would present this argument. Roman Catholics still use this argument today. It has a power to it. But there is an effective answer. Luther saw the law in negative terms regarding salvation. The law drives us to the gospel, which offers Christ to us when we are in broken and in need of a savior. Luther said good works flow as the spontaneous response to grace. Adam did not work to establish a status before God; he had the status and so he worked. We are justified by the pure mercy of God and so we work. Adam and his progeny would have done works on the same basis had they never sinned. The justified person is returned to paradise where works are not done to make righteous but simply because we love and trust a great God.
Luther’s The Bondage of the Will is relevant for our view of justification. For Luther, faith is a gift of god. This flies against popular notions of faith. Dead men cannot muster up faith so it must be a gift, according to Luther. Luther says that “if we believe Christ has redeemed men by his blood, we are bound to confess that the whole man was lost; otherwise, we should make Christ either superfluous or the redeemer of only the lowest part of man, which would be blasphemy and sacrilege.”
Justification, Luther says in this work, is based on five propositions:
1. Sin has rendered humanity morally dead.
2. Righteousness is not found in doing good works but solely in Christ.
3. The Law teaches that all have died in sin and are incapable of saving themselves.
4. The gospel offers the promise of salvation in Christ.
5. We are united by faith to Christ and receive Christ’s righteousness when we believe the gospel.
Faith is not without content in Protestantism. All of the Protestant Reformers agreed upon this. Melanchthon, Luther’s assistant, articulates justification in courtroom metaphors, picking up on Luther’s ideas. But this was not contrary to Luther’s marital views. Luther, in a letter, said he agreed with everything Melanchthon said in his courtroom analogy of justification. Calvin and Luther are at one with each other against Pelagianism and in their common agreement regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
The Reformers Agree
Perspicuity, or the clarity of Scripture, rests on the coherence of the canon, the ability to reliably translate Hebrew and Greek in a way that conveys the concepts of the original languages, and more. One common objection to the perspicuity of Scripture is the disagreements among Protestants. Why the disagreement, Roman Catholics and others say, if the Bible is so clear?
But on key gospel elements there is no difference among mainstream confessional Protestants.
Sixteenth-century Europe was truly diverse, a hodgepodge of different kingdoms and territories. There were different communities and linguistic groups. There was a remarkable flowering of confessional documents at that time. Yet they all share a remarkable agreement. The Belgic confession, Genevan confession, Hungarian confession, and so on all substantially agree on what Scripture says about certain issues. In terms of what salvation is, there is no significant difference. We can include the Lutheran confessions and later Baptist confessions in this agreement as well. All basically concur on the central elements of the gospel, the identity of God, the actions of God, and how Christ is appropriated to the believer.
The central elements of the faith have not disagreements. Calvin, Melanchthon and Luther agree on justification, incarnation, and more. There is not basic diversity but basic unity.
Justification by faith really is the explosive that blows the whole church apart. Justification by faith shatters the need for the priesthood. You do not need the mediation of grace through the sacraments and the priesthood if justification is by faith alone.
In the present day, justification debates are not passé. If justification is the thing Protestants got fundamentally wrong, we have no reason to be Protestants anymore. This is the fundamental reason for Protestantism and all other differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics flow from this. I’m not advising you to be Catholics but am saying it to highlight the importance of justification. Justification is not a debate about church order and other things over which we can agree to disagree. It is an essential component of the gospel.