Luther Writes Obituary of His Own Church

Author: Fr. William Most


"If this article stands, the church stands; if it collapses, the church collapses." Luther said that in his "Exposition of Psalm 130.4." He was talking about justification by faith.

He thought he made a great discovery, justification by faith, in St. Paul's Epistles to Galatians and Romans. To Luther it meant everything personally as well as being the article on which his church would stand or fall. This happened because of his fears. An important statement, made in 1985, by a joint commission of Lutheran and Catholic theologians admitted (in "Justification by Faith, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII," ed. H. G. Anderson, T. A. Murphy, J. A. Burgess, Augsburg Publ. House, 1985, PP 24, 29): "In their situation [that of Luther and associates] the major function of justification by faith was rather to console anxious consciences, terrified by the inability to do enough to earn or merit salvation.... The starting point for Luther was his inability to find peace with God....terrified in his own conscience."

Any experienced confessor will recognize from what the poor man suffered: he was scrupulous. A scrupulous man has a generalized anxiety, which expresses itself by latching onto first one thing, then onto another. The person fears he is constantly in mortal sin.

Luther solved this problem for himself by his "discovery" of justification by faith, which for him meant that it made no difference if he did sin mortally all the time. If he would just take Christ as his personal Savior, then the merits of Christ would be thrown over him like a white cloak, and he could not be lost, he was infallibly saved, saved no matter how much he might sin. So he wrote to his great associate, Melanchthon ("Epistle" 501): "Pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius"--which means: "Sin greatly, but believe still more greatly - or, "Even if you sin greatly, believe still more greatly." As a certain bumper sticker puts it: "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven." In other words, Christians can sin as much as they want-- they will get away with it. Others, for the same sins, go to hell.

Within his own framework, Luther was surely right in saying that his church would stand or fall with his idea of justification by faith. So we ask: Is it standing or falling? It has fallen, for a double reason, according to his own calculations.

There are two key words in the expression "justification by faith."

First, "justification": Luther thought that a sinner who is forgiven is still totally corrupt, unable to get away from sinning constantly. Did St. Paul mean that? Not really. He spoke of Christians as a "new creation" (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). They are made over from scratch - not at all the same as the same old total corruption! And he says more than once that we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us as in a temple (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16). Can we imagine the Holy Spirit living in a temple that is total corruption?

Even more telling, if possible, is the idea St. Paul has of "faith." Luther did not even make a good try at finding out what St. Paul meant by that word. He just assumed what appealed to his scrupulous fears and said faith meant confidence the merits of Christ apply to me. But there is an obvious way to find out what St. Paul really meant by faith--read every place where Paul uses the word faith, and related words--we can use a Concordance to locate them - keep notes, and add them up. If we do that here is what we get:"If God speaks a truth, faith requires that we believe it in our minds (cf. 1 Ths 2:13; 2 Cor 5:7). If God makes a promise, faith requires that we be confident He will keep it (cf. Gal 5:5; Rom 5:1). If God tells us to do something, we must obey (cf. Rom 1:5; 6:16). All this is to be done in love (Gal 5:6).(Obeying does not earn salvation, but we must be members of Christ and like Him, obedient unto death: Rom 5:19).

How does that compare with just being confident the merits of Christ apply to you? Quite a difference. So, by his own standard, Luther's church has fallen. What he thought was a great discovery was just a great mistake. And yet his whole system stands or falls on his error, as he himself said.

There is a large standard Protestant reference work, "Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible." It first appeared in four very large volumes, with alphabetical articles on everything pertaining to the Bible. In 1976 there appeared a Supplement volume, which contained some new articles,and some older articles revised. This latest volume does have a new article on faith, on p. 333. We look for the subsection on St. Paul--for St.James uses the word faith very differently. What do we find? Precisely the same as what we explained above. Faith is a complex of belief, confidence, obedience, love. The article even explains Paul's words in Romans 1:5: "the obedience of faith" to mean,"the obedience which faith is." Luther thought we do not have to obey any commandment at all if we have faith - but he did not see that faith itself includes obedience to God's commands!

How sadly wrong could he be? By his own standard, the article on which his church would rise or fall has fallen.

We could add: another pillar of his church was "Scripture alone." But that left him with a problem he could not solve: Which books are inspired and so are part of Scripture? For in the first centuries there were in circulation many books that were called Gospels, with the names of Apostles on them. How could he know which ones were inspired? He thought that if a book preaches justification by faith strongly, it is inspired - otherwise not. But Luther never proved that that was the test. And it could not be: he or I could write a book to preach justification by faith, and it would not be inspired.

At a national Baptist convention in 1910, Professor Gerald Birney Smith gave a paper on this very problem (It was published in the next year in "The Biblical World" 37, pp. 19-29). The Professor reviewed every way he could think of to determine which books are part of the Bible. He found all attempts insufficient. He said there was only one way that could work - if we had a divinely protected teaching authority to assure us. Smith believed we had no such thing. Therefore, he was, sadly, left with no way to know which books are part of the Bible! Really, to be logical, he should stop quoting the Bible, because he did not know what works were part of the Bible. Professor Smith examined and rejected Luther's attempt, among others.

What a tragic fall - both columns have fallen on which Luther depended - justification by faith (with his mistaken notion of the two key words in that phrase), and Scripture alone. So Luther had no right to quote Scripture at all. And even if he had had such a right, Scripture shows he was seriously wrong as to what St. Paul means by faith.

Infallible salvation? Imagine a ledger for me, credit and debit pages. According to Luther, if one once takes Christ as His Savior, he enters infinity on the credit page - then no matter how much he has sinned, is sinning, will sin, the infinity of Christ outbalances it. So he is infallibly saved. Some add: He cannot lose that security. [Compare Protestant charges that indulgences are a permission to sin!. Here it is, in the big time!]

St. Paul himself did not think he had infallible salvation. In 1 Cor 9:24- 27, Paul compares Christian life to the great games at Corinth. Anyone who hoped for the prize had to go into athletic training, and so deny himself a lot. Only one could get the prize. But christians can all get it, and their prize is eternal life, not just a crown of leaves. Some Protestants say Paul is just urging them to gain something extra. But no, in context, Paul has been urging them for some time to avoid scandalizing another by eating meat offered to idols which the other thinks is forbidden. In 1 Cor 8:11-13 Paul pleads that "the weak one will perish [eternally] because of your knowledge, a brother because of whom Christ died."

Paul himself, even with his heroic work for Christ, does not think he has infallible salvation. Rather, in 1 Cor 9:26-27 he says [literal version]: "I hit my body under the eyes and lead it around like a slave, so that after preaching to others, I may not be disqualified [in the race]." He alludes to Greek boxing - no padded gloves - a blow under the eyes would usually knock a man out. The victor put a rope around the neck of the loser, and led him around the stadium like a slave. Not sportsmanlike!. But we get the point.

Again, right after this, in chapter 10, Paul gives many instances of the first People of God. They did not have it infallibly made. Rather, many were struck dead by God. So in 10:12: "He who thinks he is standing, let him watch out so he does not fall." No infallible salvation in sight here!

Born again: This means taking Christ as your Savior, and making a profession of faith, with an emotional experience. Only those who do this are Christians, so all others are damned even if they never had a chance to hear of Christ. But this is to make God a monster. Such a God could not exist at all. Further, this process is merely a small embellishment on taking Christ as your Savior in faith. It adds emotion and a profession of faith. Scripture has not one word on such emotion, though it does want a profession of faith (Rom 10:9 - where "saved" means enter the Church by such a profession), nor did Luther know what faith was in the basic sense anyway.

About that emotional experience, some object by appealing to Romans 8:16 (NRSV): "When we cry 'Abba,Father' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God." Reply:Whatever we may take as the meaning of the text, it should be clear at the outset that we must not suppose that Baptism by itself is insufficient to make us sons of God: Rom 6:3ff; Mt 28:19; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 6:11; To really get the sense,we look at the context:In the verse before it said "we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear." Instead, as Rom 5:2 says, we have, "this grace in which we stand,and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God." We do this because Christ has given us divine adoption, so,we need no longer be in mortal fear of God. He does that through Baptism. In other words,by Baptism itself we are moved from a state in which we had reason to fear God, into one in which we have confidence,being His children, taught by Jesus Himself to call God 'Father." We get this confidence based on this Sacrament itself, and on the teaching of Christ Himself that God is our Father, not on an emotional feeling. If we say the Sacrament is not enough, and that the feeling must be added, otherwise someone is not even a Christian, we deny Baptism its real power, and are weak in faith. "Whenever anyone baptizes, it is Christ Himself who baptizes" wrote St.Augustine (On John 6.1.7). The reason is that the power comes from Him, not from the human agent. Now a baptism could not be insufficient if it is Christ Himself who baptizes. Further this whole notion builds on top of justification by faith - we have seen that Luther did not know what St. Paul meant by faith. And it would wind up in complete subjectivism,searching for feelings. Also, the text does not say that the Spirit testifies to our spirit, but that it testifies along with our spirit. There is place for twofold testimony because of Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15 which prescribes that everything to be proved needs two or three witnesses.


Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) 5.4-5: "When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it." Luther broke all his vows.