Monday, June 22, 2020

How Martin Luther Understood Justification

We noted that Martin Luther began to understand the writings of the Apostle Paul differently that he had in the past. He held a very pessimistic view about his own ability to grow in his faithfulness to keep the law, and while studying Romans 1:17 realizes that only faith could justify the believer in God's sight. But why did he find that distinction so significant?

I see my issue with the Young, Restless and Reformed as quite similar to how Martin Luther felt about how the Catholic Church relied upon good works and upon a mediator to obtain sanctification. (We hear the language of marriage as a sanctifying element in the life of the Christian in the Complementarian View of gender hierarchy where husbands claim that they can make their wives and children holy.) 

I pose the same question that Calvin did: If we are sinful, how can we go about making ourselves holy if it is something that we do not possess? How can sinful flesh cleanse and purify their own sinful flesh? Today, I question how a Christian who still strives to mortify their own sin daily has the ability to do it for someone else, too? Only a Holy God can purify an individual of their sin. Why is this even an issue for Protestants today, especially those who claim the name “Reformed” to describe their faith?

In light of the writings of Paul in the Book of Romans, Luther could no longer maintain the idea that a life of faith amounted to performing works that proved futile in their ability to even reach a good moral standing with God, let alone maintain it. The issue of the internal, gradual infusion of holiness and right moral standing posed a hardship for both Luther and Calvin, and in discussions to come, it will prove quite important to those who follow the New Calvinists, too. 

I sometimes get feedback from people who observe Catholicism, and for their benefit, I did review a great deal of information on Roman Catholic Doctrine pertaining to justification in particular. But the discussion is critical to understanding Luther's doctrine as well as the distinctions between his writings and those of John Calvin's on the subject. Luther endeavoured strongly to break from Rome's traditions to arrive at what he believed was a more faithful understanding of Scripture, so he avoids anything that suggests that he is agreeing with Augustine on justification and sanctification. And I believe that is why Luther speaks little of a Christian's duty to pursue sanctification alone, because in his construct for understanding the role of works (or following the Bible as a list of Laws) already embodies everything needful for fostering holiness. It becomes a function of justification which is reaffirmed, so it emerges as a more organic process.

In contrast to Rome, as Calvin affirms and Luther set forth, the righteousness of God is so foreign and external to us that conferring it on a person falls rather flat. I tend to think of it like someone being “a little bit pregnant.” While a pregnancy progresses, things for the mother change drastically, but she is either pregnant, or she is not. To Luther, justification could not be something that gradually infused into a person as if they were guilty of a sin, but in time and with good works, they might become less guilty? As we stand in God's court, guilty of our sins and with no means of meriting the good favor of that court, we are either guilty or not guilty. In this sense, justification by faith is not conferred on a person as a verdict, but it is rather externally and unconditionally imputed to them when they repent.

Thus we have the doctrine of Imputation. Our sins are forensically transferred to Christ, as He who became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. He is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. And due to no merit or works of our own, through faith in Him as our sufficient sacrifice, His righteous status is imputed to us. (This far exceeds the conferring of status on an individual by a priest, and it is sufficient and fully realized through faith as opposed to an infusing of a gradual status of better favor over time as dependent on works.)

In this proverbial moral court before God, though we are guilty, because of Christ's shed Blood, all the Judge sees is Christ's innocence which is extended to me through grace which I receive through faith. It is God's all-sufficient gift to us which we apprehend through faith in Him. And it is in that faith we stand as justified, not by preparatory works of attrition that precede confession of our sins to God in prayer or by works of penance prescribed by a priest. Scripture is sufficient for our faith. Grace is sufficient to offer it to us, and our faith is sufficient to receive it in and through Christ alone.

Some see Luther and Calvin at odds with one another on the particulars about sanctification, but I don't understand the distinctions in this way. Calvin did not criticize Luther's thesis, though he did endeavor to put sanctification on an equal footing of consideration with justification by the use of a different approach and motif. Calvin's approach is actually more patristic in many ways, and the development of his Protestantism came about under different circumstances and pressures that gave hin a different vantage.

In stark contrast to the Roman Catholic view, Luther defined sanctification as an internal process that was the cause of good works that flow from the inner man under the life-changing power of God which the Holy Spirit brings about. Obedience emerges as the fruit of righteousness and reconciliation with a loving God who changes a person from the inside out. No amount of good works that one does in any way change the heart or mind of the Believer. Works are the effect. Redemption and reconciliation with God are the cause that brings them about.