LUTHER WRITES OBITUARY OF HIS OWN CHURCH
by Fr. William Most
"If this article stands, the church stands; if it collapses,
the church collapses." Luther said that in his . 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
, ed. H. G. Anderson, T. A. Murphy, J. A. Burgess, Augsburg
Publ. House, 1985, ## 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 hoped to solve 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
( 501): "Pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius" -- which
means: "Sin greatly, but believe still more greatly." In another
letter to the same Melanchthon of August 1, 1521 ( 48. 282): "Be a sinner and sin boldly,
but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. . . No sin
will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication
and murder a thousand times a day." 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.
However, it was not as easy as Luther had hoped. Hartmann
Grisar, in his exhaustive classic study, (B. Herder,
1916. vol. V, pp. 322-56) gives us a detailed chronicle, with
extensive and numerous quotes from Luther himself, of Luther's
fear that he was in error, and fears over his own salvation.
These reached a climax in the period 1527-28, then subsided
somewhat. Here are some examples (p. 322 from Dec. 14, 153l):". .
. if its all wrong you have to answer for all the many souls
which it brings down to hell. . . . Now the devil troubles me
with other thoughts, for he accuses me thus: O what a vast
multitude have you led astray by your teaching." Typically, in
this passage, and elsewhere, he blames his fears on the devil.
And again , in his Exposition of Psalm xlv he says the devil
tells him: "Lo, you stand all alone and are seeking to overthrow
the good order [of the church] established with so much wisdom.
For even though the Papacy be not without its sins and errors,
what about you. Are you infallible? Are you without sin? Why
raise the standard of revolt against the house of the Lord, when
you yourself can only teach them what you yourself are full of,
viz, error and sin."
Similarly (p. 323):What astonishes me is that I cannot learn
this doctrine [that faith makes all kinds of sins all right], and
yet all my pupils believe they have it at their finger tips." Or
p. 324:" When a man is tempted, or is with those who are tempted,
let him slay Moses [ignore the Law] and throw every stone at him
on which he can lay hands." His great lieutenant, Melanchthon
reports on an occasion on which(p. 316):Luther was in 'such sore
terror that he almost lost consciousness" and sighed much as he
wrestled with a text of Paul on unbelief and grace [Romans
11:32]. In the dedication to his work, of 1521 (Grisar, p. 531) the very year in which he wrote
that letter cited above saying even 1000 fornications and murders
a day would not separate a man from Christ, we read: "Are you
alone wise and all others mistaken? Is it likely that so many
centuries were all in the wrong? Suppose, on the contrary, you
were in the wrong and were leading so many others with you into
error and to eternal perdition?"
We comment: How right! If the promises of Christ were so empty
that He permitted the Church to teach the wrong way to salvation
for most of 15 centuries, then Christ Himself would be a faker.
In his Exposition on Psalm 130 cited above, 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
There are two key words in the expression "justification by
First, : 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
. 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 salvation, but
we must be members of Christ and like Him, obedient unto death:
How does that compare with just being confident the merits of
Christ apply to you? Quite a difference. . 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,
. 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 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. ! 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.
? 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
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!
: 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. 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 ( 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. . 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 . There is
place for twofold testimony because of Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15
which prescribes that everything to be proved needs two or three
) 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.
In 64:5 Isaiah wrote:"All our good deeds are like filthy rags.
Lutherans use this to prove all our good deeds are sinful,for they say we
are totally corrupt. (Luther thought original justice, i.e., sanctifying
grace, was a part of human nature. So the loss of it would mean a total
corruption of human nature: cf.his major work The Bondage of the Will).
But they forget: 1) verse 6 says: "There is no one who calls upon your
name." But many did. So, Semitic exaggeration. 2) Isa 40:2: "She has
received double for all her sins." But that would be unjust--more
exaggeration. 3) Compare Is 13:9-10 on fall of Babylon, and 34:4 on Edom,
and Ezek 32:7-8 on Egypt. - Same language as Mt 24 on sun darkened etc.