One of the key elements of Reformation theology which distinguished it from the theology of the medieval period was its emphasis on the priority of the assurance of salvation in the Christian life. This is not to argue, of course, that the medievals had no interest in being certain of God's favor. The immediate theological background of Martin Luther himself was the so-called via moderna, the "modern way," associated with theologians such as Gabriel Biel (c.1415-95).3 Put simply, this tradition understood salvation as being made possible through a gracious pactum ("pact") which God had made with human beings. In this pactum God had willed that the grace would be given to those who did their best (facienti quod in se est, Deus gratiam non denegat - literally: "To the one who does what is in him, God does not deny grace"). On the surface, this would appear to provide a cast-iron means of establishing whether one is in a state of grace or not: one simply does one's best and draws the inevitable conclusion. Nevertheless, a problem arises in establishing exactly how one knows one has done one's best, and certainly, in the experience of Luther it was the case that the harder he worked at being a faithful Christian, the more he realized how far short of "doing his best" he actually fell. The result for Luther, then, was not assurance of salvation but despair, and it was this despair that provided the personal dynamic for Luther's Reformation theology, a theology driven by the need to answer the simple yet crucial question, "Where can I find a gracious God?"
In a passage whose chronology and details have been hotly disputed by scholars over the years, Luther described how his experiences as a young monk and scholar led to his so-called "Reformation breakthrough." His experience focused on Romans 1:17, particularly the reference to "the justice of God":
I hated this work "the justice of God" which by the use and usage of the doctors I was taught to understand philosophically in terms of the so-called formal or active justice with which God is just and punishes sinners and the unrighteous. For, however irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself before God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience, nor could I be confident that I had pleased him with my satisfaction. . . . At last, God being merciful ... I noticed the context of the words, namely, "The justice of God is revealed in it; as it is written, the just shall live by faith." Then and there, I began to understand the justice of God as that by which the righteous man lives by the gift of God, namely, by faith, and this sentence "The justice of God is revealed in the gospel" to be that passive justice with which the merciful God justifies us by faith as it is written: "The just shall live by faith."4
The passage contains all the ingredients outlined above: the initial belief that it is human efforts that provide the immediate cause of God's graciousness to the individual; the increasingly desperate attempts to please God through works of self-righteousness; the ultimate failure of this approach to answer the question of how God can be gracious to the sinner; and the new understanding of Romans 1:17 which, as Luther says further on, "opened the gates of paradise."
What Luther is claiming here is that the antidote to the agonies of conscience to which he was subjected because of his own failure to meet God's exacting standards of righteousness was his discovery that the justice of God was not something by which
God punished human beings, but something by which he himself made them righteous
- in other words, the realization that salvation did not depend upon what he did for God but upon what God did for him. Such a position is, of course, hardly radical and points merely to an anti-Pelagian understanding of salvation which roots all saving activity in the initiative and continuing work of God. Where Luther develops the Christian tradition in a more radical way is in his understanding of in what precisely this divine justification of sinners consists.
Fundamental to this is that which later scholarship has come to characterize as the law-gospel dialectic. Luther operated with an understanding of humanity that saw its basic sin as being that of self-justification. This was manifested in any number of ways. At the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther referred to those whom he called "theologians of glory."5 A thinly veiled attack on both the medieval schoolmen and contemporary Catholic theologians, this name was used to describe those Luther regarded as attempting to create God in their own image by building up a picture of God and his attributes which reflected their own human expectation of who God should be and what he should expect from human beings. The result was a God who bears a striking resemblance to sinful humanity. As an alternative, Luther proposed a "theology of the cross" - a theology which begins at the point at which God himself has chosen to reveal himself. According to Luther, this point is the cross, where all human expectations of who God is and how he acts are completely overturned - he sows his strength through his weakness, his glory through his humiliation, his love through his wrath poured out on the Son.6
This "theology of the cross" is not just a point of theological epistemology or methodology, but something with profound soteriological implications. For Luther, the way one comes to know this revealed God is not by simply exchanging one set of premises or data for another, the analogy of being for the analogy of the cross, but by exerting faith
- and faith is the gift of God. This ties in with Luther's whole doctrine of justification by faith and with the dialectic between the law and the gospel. The problem is that sinful human beings are always trying to create God in their own image and always trying to please him through their own efforts, rather than approaching God as he has given himself to be approached by them. Within this context, the Law, with its demands that the individual perform perfect acts of righteousness, demonstrates that humans cannot please God by their own efforts (e.g. WA 40:482.22-483.11). As a result, they are driven to despair of themselves and thus to look to Christ where God's salvation is to be found. As Luther declares in his Lectures on Galatians:
When the Law urges you, despairing of your own works, to seek help and solace in Christ, then that is indeed its proper use: thus, through the gospel, it serves justification. This is the best and most perfect use of the Law. (WA 40:490.22-4)
The Law, then, is that which points to the impossibility of human self-justification and which starts the process of overturning natural human expectations of who God is and what he expects. It is only when this process of despair has been experienced that the believer then turns to Christ and, grasping him through faith, is justified through Christ's righteousness:
It must be noted here that these three things, faith, Christ, and acceptance, are linked. Faith grasps Christ and holds him present, as a ring incloses a gem. Whoever is found with such faith, having grasped Christ within their heart, him will God declare righteous. This is the means and basis by which we obtain remission of sins and righteousness. "Because you believe in me" says God "and by faith have grasped Christ whom I have given to you to be your Justifier and Saviour, therefore you are righteous." Thus, God accepts or accounts righteous only on account of Christ in whom you believe. (WA 40:233.16-24)
A number of observations are in order at this point. First, it is important to understand that the basis of the believer's righteousness, indeed, the only righteousness which the believer possesses, is that of Christ. This is not imparted to the believer in some kind of intrinsic way which renders the believer more holy than previously and which would point to an understanding of justification as a process - such an idea would represent precisely the kind of medieval Catholic tradition, stemming from Augustine, which Luther had found so inadequate in terms of his own experience and which he found contradicted by Paul's teaching in Romans. Instead, the righteousness is imputed to the believer - it remains extrinsic but is accounted to the believer, and it is this which constitutes the basis of his justification - God's declaration that believers are righteous on account of Christ not being made righteous through some process of sanctification.7
This fundamental objectivity to justification is, however, balanced by a subjective pole in Luther's thinking - the righteousness of Christ is not imputed to individuals solely on the basis of Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection. Instead, it needs to be appropriated by the individual through faith. Faith effects a union between the believer and Christ that leads to a "joyful exchange" of sins for righteousness - Christ takes the believer's sins and the believer receives Christ's righteousness. In a particularly striking passage in The Freedom of a Christian, Luther uses one of his favorite analogies, that of bride and bridegroom, to press home this point:
Faith joins the soul with Christ as a bride is joined to her bridegroom. . . . Thus the soul which believes can boast of and glory in whatever Christ possesses as though it were its own . . . and whatever the soul possesses, Christ claims as his own. . . . Christ is full of grace, life, salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, damnation. Let faith come between them and Christ will have the sins, death and damnation, while the soul will have grace, life, and salvation. (WA 7:54.31-55.36)
This, then, is justification by faith - believers, despairing of their own righteousness, turn to Christ in faith and find that a joyful exchange of their sins for Christ's righteousness takes place.
Two questions obviously arise at this point. The first is that of good works: where do they fit into the grand scheme of things, if the righteousness of justification always remains extrinsic? The answer Luther gave is straightforward: they are not a cause of justification but an effect of it. It is because believers realize what Christ has done for them that they then respond by loving God with all their hearts and souls and minds, and their neighbors as themselves. There is, of course, much debate about the nature of Luther's ethical teaching and the precise nature of good works, but two things stand out: first, they play no role in justification; and, secondly, they are based upon the believer's assurance of God's favor. In both these respects, Luther's thinking - and, indeed, much of the Reformation after him - represents a fundamental break with medieval teaching, which both stressed the need for good works in justification (though works based upon God's grace, variously understood) and denied the possibility of assurance of salvation to all but the elite few who had had a direct revelation of their elect status from God himself.8
The second question is: is faith itself not a good work? Indeed, so important are the implications of this question that they form an important part of what was perhaps Luther's greatest theological work, The Bondage of the Will, which was itself almost a line-by-line refutation of Erasmus of Rotterdam's work, Diatribe on Free Will. The work is too long and complex to do it justice here, but suffice it to say that Luther developed a rigorous and arguably deterministic doctrine of double predestination based not on human impotence after the Fall but upon the very nature of God and his knowledge of creation, which served to underscore the fact that faith itself was a gift of God given only to those whom he had chosen, and not the result of any human initiative or autonomous response to God's offer of salvation. If this predestinarian note was somewhat muted in much of his other writings, it is yet arguable that the abandonment of such a position would have required a significant modification of his understanding of human nature and of the nature and origin of faith.9
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