Martin Luther – Rediscovering Justification by Faith


Martin Luther had a deep sense of the holiness of God, his own sinfulness, a prayerful spirit, and a steadfast uncompromising allegiance to the Word of God. May the Lord grant His people today such grace as to share in these things. Churches would be transformed!

Luther’s search for a means of reconciliation to his holy God came to an end when, from the scriptures, he learned that he could be justified before God by faith. His insight into this doctrine and his reliance upon the scriptures led him to reject Papal decrees, church councils, monastic life, the Mass and other aspects of Roman Catholic tradition, including the Apocrypha. His discovery of justification by faith and how this affected his life and ministry will be discussed under three headings: 1) his search for reconciliation with God. 2) what he believed by justification by faith and what it meant to him and 3) how this affected his life and ministry will be reviewed.

Luther’s Search for Reconciliation with God

Luther, even before conversion had a deep sense of his need for reconciliation to God. As a man of his time, he became a monk to achieve this. Luther’s choice was that of one of the stricter orders, the reformed congregation of the Augustinians, and he entered a monastery in Erfurt. Roland Bainton writes:

“The man who was later to revolt against monasticism became a monk for exactly the same reason as thousands of others, namely in order to save his soul” [1]

This was salvation by works, as the vows which Luther would have taken make very clear:

“’Bless thou thy servant,’ intoned the prior. ‘Hear, O Lord, our heartfelt pleas and deign to confer thy blessings on this thy servant, whom in thy holy name we have clad in the habit of a monk, that he may continue with thy help faithful in thy Church and merit eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen’” [2]

Luther’s awareness of the holiness of God is seen by his attitude to his first Mass. To Luther, at that time, the bread and wine became the flesh and blood of God. While saying the words of the Mass, Luther felt thus:

“At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such Majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.” [3]

But how could unholy man dwell with a God who was completely holy? Initially Luther set about making himself holy, using the life of a monk to achieve this. Having been freed from the normal everyday distractions of the world, he set about practicing charity, sobriety, love, poverty, obedience, fastings, vigils and mortifications of the flesh. Yet he knew no peace, feeling that all his strivings could not outway his sins [4].

Next he tried indulgences and praying on the steps that reputably had been in front of Pilate’s palace. When a dispute arose in the Augustinian order which required settlement by the Pope in Rome, Luther was one of the two brothers sent to represent the Erfurt chapter. Rome had such a collection of relics which could grant indulgences that no other city could match. During the decade of Luther’s birth a pope had declared the efficacy of the indulgences extended to purgatory for the benefit of the living and dead alike [5]. No other city offered such an opportunity of acquiring spiritual benefits for himself and his family. Upon seeing Rome from a distance Luther cried out, “Hail, holy Rome” [6].

Yet Rome filled Luther with doubt and disappointment. Immorality was rife amongst the clergy, and many of the Italian priests were irreverent towards the Mass. Climbing up the stairs that reputably had been in front of Pilate’s palace, and saying a Pater Noster on each step was supposed to release a soul from purgatory. But doubt struck him deeply after climbing the stairs and saying the Pater Nosters. At the top he declared, “Who knows whether it is so?” [7]. The effectiveness of the Roman means of grace did not depend on the spirituality of priest or Pope, but what if the system of Pater Nosters said on these steps was false? – then another of Luther’s grounds of hope would vanished [7].

Next, he tried the confessional. The sacrament of penance offered solace, but the requirement was that the sin had to be confessed with the penitent seeking absolution. Luther could spend up to six hours in the confessional. He correctly observed that for those trusting in this system, the question was not whether sins were great or small, it was had these sins been confessed. The problem was the human mind could easily forget its sins, and not recognise others. Luther came to see that man needed a greater remedy than forgiving a list of offences, the whole nature of man was corrupt [8]. The whole nature of man needed changing.

The vicar of the Augustinian chapter in Wittenberg, where Luther was now present, was Johann von Staupitz. He was a mystic [9]. The mystic way of salvation was essentially different to that of the penitential system, and involved a ceasing to strive, and a losing of oneself in the Godhead. But to Luther it was impossible to see how impure man could be lost in a holy, majestic, consuming God [10]. Staupitz told Luther to love God, but how could anyone love the God who is a consuming fire, who is angry, judging and damning? Fear is a more appropriate response to such a God.

And Luther then began to hate God. Having tried the council of the church in his day, good works, indulgences, the confessional and mysticism, Luther saw the complete failure of all these methods. Some theologians taught that God was capricious, bound by no rules and that He did not have to rewards man’s meritorious works. The doctrine of election filled him with despair [11]. He felt completely and utterly alienated from God, and wished he had never been created. He was also being prepared for the Gospel.

Staupitz had the insight to realise that Luther would be helped by the Bible, and told him to take on the chair of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. It was through his preaching on the Bible that Luther came to know the Lord. On August 16th 1513 Luther began preaching through the Psalms. When he came to Psalm 22, he saw that Christ had felt utterly forsaken by God. Luther knew why he felt abandoned, because of his sin, but why should Christ be abandoned? Christ was pure and had no sin, and so Luther reasoned that it must be because Christ took upon himself the iniquity of us all [12]. Now a very different picture of God was emerging in Luther’s mind, which was not completed until he started preaching through Paul’s epistle to the Romans (April 1515). In Luther’s own words:

“Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and shear mercy God justifies us through faith.” [13]

To evangelicals used to the idea of being declared righteous before God simply by faith, we can become all too flippant about this truth. To Luther, who knew the holiness of God, his own sinfulness in act and nature, and the complete uselessness of his own efforts to save himself before almighty God, this was sweet news indeed:

“I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of the Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven” [13]

Luther’s Definition of Justification by Faith and it’s Importance

Luther’s definition of justification by faith are clearly shown in his Preface to the book of Romans [14], and by his writings in the Smalcald Articles [15].

As far as the author can discern, the term justification seems to have had two components to Luther 1) the removal of sin from the individual, and 2) the desire to obediently serve God. This is seen from this passage from Luther’s preface of Romans:

“Now ‘justice’ is just such a faith. It is called God’s justice or that justice which is valid in God’s sight, because it is God who gives it and reckons it as justice for the sake of Christ our Mediator. It influences a person to give to everyone what he owes him. Through faith a person becomes sinless and eager for God’s commands. Thus he gives God the honour due him and pays him what he owes him. He serves people willingly with the means available to him. In this way he pays everyone his due.” [16]

The bold sentence captures both the points 1) & 2) mentioned above. This view of justification is contrary to that expounded by Hodge in his commentary on the Book of Romans:

“To justify, then, is not merely to pardon and restore to favor; nor is it to make inwardly just or holy, but it is to declare or pronounce just; that is, judicially to declare that the demands of justice are satisfied, or that there is no just ground for condemnation.” [17]

Hodge recognizes only the first part of Luther’s definition, and rejects Luther’s second component, that justification involves making inwardly holy. After coming to faith in Christ a believer does have a desire to please God, but this is the work of sanctification, not justification.

Luther was, however, completely right on how man is justified. It is by faith in Christ, He alone removes sins, through grace, with no component of works involved at all. A clear statement of this is given in the Smalcald Articles:

That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Romans 4:25

And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Isaiah 53:6.

Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit (freely, and without their own works or merits) by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Romans 3:23 f.

Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Romans 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise vs. 26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.” [18]

The importance of the doctrine of justification by faith to Martin Luther can be shown from two references. The first is the Smalcald Articles, and the second is taken from Luther’s Table Talk. This doctrine was essential to salvation. To yield on this doctrine was to consign souls to hell and to give way to the devil. Heaven and earth may pass away but Luther would not yield on this doctrine. Here are Luther’s own words:

“Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered (nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same), even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Isaiah 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the (whole) world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.” [18]

What is seen from the above article is that Luther regarded this doctrine as central to his attack on the Roman church. This point is again reinforced from this quote from Luther’s Table Talk:

“All heretics have continually failed in this one point, that they do not rightly understand or know the article of justification. If we had not this article certain and clear, it were impossible we could criticize the pope’s false doctrine of indulgences and other abominable errors, much less be able to overcome greater spiritual errors and vexations. If we only permit Christ to be our Savior, then we have won, for he is the only girdle which clasps the whole body together, as St. Paul excellently teaches.” [19]

Popes, priests and other clergy consigned people to hell through their false teaching on indulgences, the confessional and monkish behaviour. Luther attacked not only their false teachings on this point, but the very authority they claimed had given them the right to say these things.

The Effect on Luther’s Life and Ministry

Luther’s understanding of Biblical doctrine grew over time. He had to slowly remove the erroneous teaching of Papal decrees, church councils and legends, and have his mind transformed by scripture. As his understanding of the scriptures grew, he came repeatably into confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church. After finding the truth concerning his own salvation in the word, and not through Popes or priests, he had the determination, drive and courage to boldly proclaim this truth in the face of death. This can be seen through the posting of his 95 Theses (October 31st 1517), and the following theological debates in Heilelberg (April 1518), Augsberg (October 1518), Lipzeig (July 1519) and in Worms (1521).

After being alarmed by Tetzel’s sale of Papal indulgences Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg. Roland Bainton comments that Luther in these, and in some of the following discussions focuses on three main areas. Firstly the intention to spend the money raised on St Peters in Rome, secondly the power of the Pope over purgatory, and thirdly the welfare of the individual believer. On the second point, Luther, at this stage acknowledged the existence of purgatory, but completely denied the Pope had the power to remit penalties that he had not imposed. i.e. sins against God could not be forgiven by Papal indulgences [20]. Those who were placing their trust for salvation in indulgences were damned [21].

At the triennial meeting of his chapter in Heidelberg in April 1518, Luther was warned of a possible assassination attempt, but still went and defended his views. The Augustinian order failed to condemn Luther, and so the Dominican order then attacked him. What shines out in Luther’s debates with his adversaries, is that he regarded scripture as the final authority. Luther could say to the head of the Dominican order:

“You cite no scripture. You give no reasons. Like an insidious devil you pervert the scripture” [22]

At Lipzeig Luther denied Papal decrees, questioned the acts of church councils and rejected the authority of the Apocrypha. Justification was by faith. If you were wrong on that you had no salvation. Anything that declared salvation was by any means other than faith, was wrong, and Luther opposed it. At the Diet of Worms Luther, before the Emperor, and facing possible death, would not deny this doctrine. That is how important this doctrine was to Luther. That is how important this doctrine should be to all Christians.


Being burdened by his sin, and after trying the empty ways of salvation offered by the Roman Catholic church, Luther found the truth in God’s Word, it is by faith we are justified. The author would argue with Luther’s definition of justification, as it seems to mean not only removal of sins, but also to include sanctification. Sanctification results from true faith, but is not included in justification. The knowledge of this doctrine transformed Luther’s life and ministry. After experiencing the true way of salvation as revealed by God in His word, Luther then attacked the false ways proclaimed by the Roman Catholic church. These errors originated from Papal decrees, church councils and the Apocrypha. Luther denied all these sources and made scripture his final authority. He was willing to die in obedience to God, to uphold the truth of God’s word.

Are there those with Luther’s conviction today?

[1] Hear I Stand, Roland Bainton, Lion publishing, p 34.

[2] Ibid, p 35.

[3] Ibid, p 41.

[4] Ibid, p46.

[5] Ibid, p 47.

[6] Ibid, p 49.

[7] Ibid, p 51.

[8] Ibid, p 55.

[9] Ibid, p 56.

[10] Ibid, p 57.

[11] Ibid, p 58,59

[12] Ibid, p 62.

[13] Ibid, p 65.

[14] Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Martin Luther, Ages Digital Library Version 5, Timperley Evangelical Trust.

[15]THE SMALCALD ARTICLES, Articles of Christian Doctrine, Martin Luther 1537, Ages Digital Library Version 5, Timperley Evangelical Trust.

[16] Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Martin Luther, Ages Digital Library Version 5, Timperley Evangelical Trust. p 8

[17] Commentary on Romans, Charles Hodge, , Ages Digital Library Version 5, Timperley Evangelical Trust. p 129

[18]THE SMALCALD ARTICLES, Articles of Christian Doctrine, Martin Luther 1537, Ages Digital Library Version 5, Timperley Evangelical Trust. The Second Part, p 9

[19] Luther’s Table Talk, Ages Digital Library Version 5, Timperley Evangelical Trust. No 304 p 158

[20] Hear I Stand, Roland Bainton, Lion publishing, p 81

[21] Ibid, p 82

[22] Ibid, p89.

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