Was Luther wrong about “Justification by Faith”?


Justified by Faith

Martin_LutherLuther made axiomatic the claim that the believer is “Justified by Faith”. He was right, of course, but did he understand what that phrase meant to the author of it, and to the original audience?

Since at least the 16th Century Reformation, Christian thinkers have been considering their faith within a framework which is rooted in the ideas and concerns of 16th Century thinkers (Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Erasmus, Calivin, Arminius, etc.). Up to the time of that Reformation, the church had been pondering theology more or less within a 5th Century paradigm (Augustine, Pelagius, etc.).

But the Biblical authors were not creatures of those times. The (New Testament) Biblical authors lived in the 1st Century, and knew nothing of the ideas that would later substantially shape Christian contemplation. Unfortunately, much of what we now know of as “doctrine” has been formed later, and it gets projected back across the text as though the authors were answering our own questions. They weren’t. They were answering the questions of their day.

The difficulty Luther had was, in part, because he had misunderstood certain words.

With some important contributions from modern archaeology, we now have enough information to substantially rebuild the 1st Century thinking world, so that we can actually consider the New Testament texts much more vividly within the context in which they were written. There is much we are yet to learn, but what we do know is sufficient to demonstrate that Christian thinkers through the ages have often been asking the wrong questions of the text – questions the authors were not trying to answer.

As exciting as this newer knowledge is, it can be very challenging because it casts a critical eye over ideas that have long been held sacred. Those ideas are often, however, the product of subsequent times, and were not actually part of the original faith. By understanding the world in which they were written, we can appreciate the meaning that was originally intended by the authors of our Biblical texts. Whether this process is makes us uncomfortable or not, the seeker of truth must surely pursue it.

Romans 4:13-25

Understanding the thought-world of the author and his audience is what unlocks the meaning of a text.

When I was given the opportunity to speak on Romans 4:13-25, I found it practically impossible to do so without providing extensive background. The traditional hermeneutic, which arises from the 16th Century, not only fails to comprehend the author’s intent, but leaves the student with a text that is all but incomprehensible without special theological training in the apologetics of the 16th Century. Of course, Paul’s readers had no such training, and the original meaning is actually straightforward and accessible to even the novice. At least, to “the novice” who understands the issues of the day in 1st Century Christian life in the Jewish diasporaPaul’s audience was made up of such novices.

So my approach was to tell the story behind the text to aid understanding of it, rather than rehearse the traditional philosophical musings about it, which are so often presented as theology.

16th Century interpretation

Martin Luther, a 16th Century monk, had an epiphany while considering Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The following set of quotations is from his now famous, and in some traditions virtually canonised, “Preface to Romans“, which his students use as an aid to interpreting the text. It is a small selection of the errors Luther was making:

  • You must not understand the word law here in human fashion, i.e., a regulation about what sort of works must be done or must not be done. That’s the way it is with human laws: you satisfy the demands of the law with works, whether your heart is in it or not.

  • The works of the law are every thing that a person does or can do of his own free will and by his own powers to obey the law.

  • But to fulfil the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment.

  • That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfils the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ.

But that is not what “The Law” meant in Paul’s letter to the Romans at all. “The Law” is a reference to “The Law of Moses”, which means the covenant given at Mt Sinai. For example, consider Romans 2:12, which cannot mean what Luther wants it to mean: “All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law“.

The final Lutheran quote above is the most mystifying. Faith (a word Luther famously misunderstood), in Biblical terms, does not “bring the Holy Spirit” in any sense, in any Biblical contemplation.

The difficulty Luther had was, in part, because he had misunderstood certain words. He rightfully points out that his understanding of these words is vital to supporting his interpretation of the text:

  • To begin with, we have to become familiar with the vocabulary of the letter and know what St. Paul means by the words law, sin, grace, faith, justice, flesh, spirit, etc. Otherwise there is no use in reading it.

But unfortunately, in many cases he did not actually understand those words properly (or to be more charitable, he understood them differently to what Paul meant by them…), as we have since found out with the benefit of more information. Luther goes on to point out that if we change what we mean by such words, our interpretation of the text will change:

  • Unless you understand these words in this way, you will never understand either this letter of St. Paul or any book of the Scriptures. Be on guard, therefore against any teacher who uses these words differently, no matter who he be, whether Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, Origen or anyone else as great as or greater than they.

Of course, whether Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose or Origen thinks those words mean is not important. Neither is it important what Luther thinks they mean. What matters is to discern what the words meant to the Apostle Paul and his readers. Because by Luther’s own logic, if Luther understands these words differently from Paul, then we ought to “be on guard against” him, too!

Let me emphasise here that Luther is not “the enemy”. He was just mistaken. He lacked the relevant information, and as a result, came up with some invalid conclusions about what the text meant.

The Story

Understanding the thought-world of the author and his audience is what unlocks the meaning of a text. The expressions used in it then become simple to comprehend, and the overall purpose of the author becomes clear and straight forward.

Pharisees question JesusIn a post called The Fundamentals of Christianity, as encoded in the Writings of Moses, I talk about how the history of the faith was being interpreted in the 1st Century by Christians and by Jews, and why Christians saw it differently to the Jews. This polemic lies behind the vast bulk of the Gospel traditions and the contemplations of the other New Testament writings. Without it, much of the meaning of the New Testament is not apparent. Luther, and his Middle Ages contemporaries, simply did not know this.

wolf-in-disguise1-250x218.jpgIn another post called Christian Assurance, Apart From the Law: A Defence Against the Judaisers, I outline fairly precisely how to reconstruct the New Testament from first principles, given only the Old Testament Bible and the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as a starting point. That’s what the Apostle Paul did. Few theologians today would be capable of it, not because they lack the wit, but because their understanding of the New Testament does not come from the information and logic that Paul used. It comes instead from the philosophical questions of the Middle Ages, and the answers the theologians of that day came up with, based on limited information.

Adam+and+Eve+Naked+man+and+woman+with+leaves+covering+genitals+mid+section+-250x166.jpgAt another time I wrote about the much misunderstood concept of “Original Sin”, in an article entitled, “Original Sin: The Original Meaning“. I trace the development of the contemplation on that topic through the history of the church, and demonstrate that much of the contemplation of it is not really even compatible with the Biblical story.

Other examples of misunderstood words:

saint-elizabeth-of-portugal-184x250.jpgSanctification (Holiness)

The word “sanctification” has so long been used to refer to a process that we now really need to accept that the word does mean that in the modern day… but it didn’t in the 1st Century: Holiness: It’s not a Process


clarity-500x375.jpgThe word, “predestination”, about which there is an ongoing argument, both side of which have their suites of proof-texts (which they are misunderstanding), and both sides of which fail to grasp what the word even meant: Romans 8:28-30: Not “Predestination”, but an argument against Judaisers

face-in-the-mirror3-300x224.jpgFlesh and Spirit

Luther lists “flesh and spirit” among the words which govern his interpretation. These again are words poorly understood, as can be seen in the choices that Bible translators make when confronted by those words: Romans 8:12-14 “Flesh and Spirit”. Do the translators understand?

What does “Justified by Faith” mean?

Alright. So let’s get to the meat of the matter. What does this term, “justified by faith”, actually mean?

The expression appears several times in the letters to the Romans and to the Galatians. Every time, it is a contrast: justification “by faith” as distinct from justification through adherence to, obedience to, submission to, or performance of, the law of Moses.

But what does it even mean? What is “justification” in the first place, and why is it so important?

Justification means Vindication

Forgiven-by-Jesus-250x200.jpgI wrote a fairly detailed exploration of this concept, against the backdrop of a true story of an encounter I had on the street. That encounter taught me the power of this notion, and revealed to me why it was so vitally important to the early Christian church. It was not primarily about avoiding hell! It was about vindication for the faithful in front of the whole world: Street Theology: Justification by Faith.

I hope that by now it is evident that, although Luther was right to emphasise, and even to prioritise, the notion of “Justification by Faith”, he didn’t really understand what it meant. That is why he struggled so much with James’ remarks like “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17), “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26). Eventually, it boiled down to a challenge to reconcile these two statements:

we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law

– Romans 3:28


faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead

– James 2:17

Luther’s answer is vast and convoluted. Here is part of it:


Third Disputation Concerning Justification, 1536

[LW 34:151-153]

Theses about Rom. 3:38 – For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

1. It is clear enough from this passage that the method of justifying man before God must be distinguished from the method of justifying him before men.
2. For Paul expressly contrasts faith and works, for he takes justification in God’s sight away from works and attributes it to faith.
3. If a man is truly justified by works, he has glory before men, but not before God.
4. A man is truly justified by faith in the sight of God, even if he finds only disgrace before man and in his own self.
5. This is a mystery of God, who exalts his saints, because it is not only impossible to comprehend for the godless, but marvelous and hard to believe even for the pious themselves.
6. For human nature, corrupt and blinded by the blemish of original sin, is not able to imagine or conceive of any justification above and beyond works.
7. Hence that battle of the hypocrites against the believers about justification which must be decided by the judgment of no one but God alone.
8. For that reason we concede to the hypocrites or wise ones works and the justification of the law, if only we may hold fast that this is a righteousness of men, not of God.
9. In fact, the righteousness of man, no matter how much God honors it here in time with the best gifts of this life, nevertheless is a mask and impious hypocrisy before God.
10. The riddle is astonishing, because God rewards the very righteousness, which he himself regards as iniquity and wickedness.
11. For in the prophets he openly calls the most excellent works according to the law and our reason the evil of our hands.
12. It seems to be similar to a prince who tolerates a bad servant whom he cannot kill without considerable peril to the kingdom.
13. Therefore, one need not look either to the person of the godless man who works out his own righteousness or to the excellence of such work;
14. But to the incomprehensible forbearance and wisdom of God who bears lesser evil so all is not destroyed by greater evil.
15. It is just as an ulcer, limping, or some other incurable illness in the body is tolerated out of necessity for supporting bodily life.
16. For the righteousness of the law is very ill and so weak that it often not only does not fulfil its own highest law but even loses sight of it entirely at the slightest movement.
17. But since one can have no other kind, it must be tolerated and supported with the highest goods of this world.
18. For God in accordance with the greatness of his goodness calculates too little and so gives as many great gifts to the unworthy and wicked as to the righteous or saints.
19. Just as the wise magistrate winks at the bad and mischievous citizen for a while and allows him to enjoy citizenship for the good of the public peace.
20. For God is looking at something else, namely at the glory of the future kingdom, into which the uncircumcised and the unclean will not come, as the Scripture declare, etc. [Isa. 52:1].
21. Yes, he acts with similar forbearance and goodness also toward the church and his saints on earth.
22. He sustains and supports them on account of the first fruit of his creation in us, and he thereupon decrees that they are righteous and sons of the kingdom.
23. For we perceive that a man who is justified is not yet a righteous man, but is in the very movement or journey toward righteousness.
24. Therefore, whoever is justified is still a sinner; and yet he is considered fully and perfectly righteous by God who pardons and is merciful.
25. Moreover, God forgives and is merciful to us because Christ, our advocate and priest, intercedes and sanctifies our beginning in righteousness.
26. His righteousness, since it is without defect and serves us like an umbrella against the heat of God’s wrath, does not allow our beginning righteousness to be condemned.
27. Now it is certain that Christ or the righteousness of Christ, since it is outside of us and foreign to us, cannot be laid hold of by our works;
28. But faith itself, which is poured into us from hearing about Christ by the Holy Spirit, comprehends Christ.
29. Therefore, faith alone justifies without our works, for I cannot say, “I produce Christ or the righteousness of Christ.”
30. Just as I can say, for all that, “I do works either of heavenly righteousness through the Spirit or earthly righteousness by nature.”
31. But I must speak thus, “I believe in Christ and afterward I do truly good works in Christ.”
32. Therefore, one speaks correctly thus, “We are justified by faith without the works of the law.”
33. To be justified includes that idea, namely that we are considered righteous on account of Christ.
34. Nor is any sin, either past or a remainder that is left in the flesh, imputed to us, but as if it were nothing, removed in the meantime by remission.
35. The start of a new creature accompanies this faith and the battle against the sin of the flesh, which this same faith in Christ both pardons and conquers.

Ok. Now I know you didn’t read all that! But that’s ok. It isn’t the answer we are looking for. In many ways it would be incomprehensible to James and to Paul, the authors of the texts, and to their audiences.

The actual answer, which shows James and Paul in complete agreement and is comprehensible to the original audiences, does not require any such 35-point response. In fact it requires no response, because the original audience was not confused in the first place!

It is very simple: Paul, in talking about “works”, was referring to “the works of the [Mosaic] law”, and James defines the “works” that he is talking about as the works of the “royal law” (James 2:8), which is “love your neighbour as yourself” (as commended by Jesus and remembered as Jesus’ own “law” and “commandment” – Galatians 5:141 John 3:23), and the “law of liberty” (James 2:12), which is a reference to the Christian liberty from the law of Moses.

Both Paul and James agree that the works of the law of Moses do not vindicate anyone before God, but “works” of love, belief, and piety, are not just evidence of proper belief, but are, in fact, part of the faithfulness that God is seeking. And “faithfulness” is the more helpful way to think of what the Biblical authors often mean when they say, “ἡ πίστις” (often translated “faith”). This faith/faithfulness is what justifies a person before God.



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