The Father William Most Collection
Luther Writes Obituary of His Own Church
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
"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, ## 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 (Epistle 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 (American Edition, Luther's Works 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, Luther (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, De abroganda missa privata 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 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 outweighs 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.
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.