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Claims about Martin Luther

Sola FideIt is held by some that “The doctrine of Sola Scriptura originated with Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant ‘Reformation.’[1]  Part of this is true.  Dr. Luther was a 16th-century German monk (of the Augustinian order).  However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther for his teachings.

Claims about Martin Luther

According to Luther, salvation was a free gift—not merited, earned, achieved, or won by man for believing or acting.  In other words, man does nothing (and can do nothing) for his salvation.  This doesn’t, however, mean that man does nothing in life but believe.  The Christian believes in Christ alone for salvation, to be sure, but as Luther has said, “faith in Christ alone saves, but faith is never alone.”  In other words, the Christian believes in Christ, and this faith in Christ truly saves (unto eternal life), yet such a Christian will also do good works.[2]  Thus, the Christian believes, and such a Christian who believes will also be active in good works (see John 15:3-5).

The essence of Luther’s teaching is called the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.  This is the teaching that sinful man, by God’s grace in Christ, through faith, is declared righteous (objective justification), without him (that is, sinful man), having done anything or doing anything towards his salvation.  This central teaching of the Christian faith excludes all human works, potential works, thoughts, and inclinations on man’s part and rests solely on Christ and Christ alone for salvation.  Man cannot save himself, nor can he contribute or add to his own salvation.

Such a teaching conflicts with the Roman Catholic teaching of infused grace and its sacramental system, for Luther’s teaching denied even the presumed result of infused grace (i.e. actions/works of man) as being meritorious.  Infused grace is the teaching that God freely gives His grace through means (i.e. the Sacraments), and this grace moves men to do and act, and only then will man be saved.

According to the Roman Catholic teaching, then, man is saved by God’s grace, but such a grace also works through love.  Such grace is not sufficient alone to save without the works that follow.  Thus, man is saved by God’s (infused) grace, but if works do not follow, then there is no salvation.  Salvation, then, is dependent both on infused grace and man’s response.  This teaching makes salvation dependent on God and man together.  Luther, however, was teaching that salvation rests on God and His grace alone, without man’s response included.

For Luther, God’s grace alone was (and is) sufficient for man’s salvation.  Resting on Christ alone through faith for salvation means that the sinner, forgiven by God, has certainty of salvation, not in Himself, but in Christ, who has fulfilled the Law and has paid the penalty of man’s sin completely.

In distinction, the Roman Catholic teaching cannot say unequivocally that man can be sure of his salvation, unless he also does (shows) the works.  The Roman Catholic, then, can only doubt his/her salvation, and seek to be more sure by doing more through the receiving of “grace” in the sacraments (and going to mass), whereas the one who believes in Christ alone for salvation has nothing but certainty of having God’s grace and favor, and peace with God (Romans 5:1ff), not on account of his faith or because of any change within him, but on account of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).

This is the Gospel that Luther preached and taught.  Most certainly, it can be denied, and is by all who seek to contribute to their salvation with their own doing.  Such a teaching can also result in “smug” Christians and hypocrites, who omit God’s law and repentance, and seek only to do what they will, contrary to God’s Word.  Yet, such actions are not of faith, nor are they representative of the true biblical doctrine.  They are a misuse and abuse of God’s truth and doctrine for their own means.

Luther preached and taught according to Holy Scripture.  His certainty was not in the Roman Catholic Church of the papacy, in tradition, or in any other authority (including his own), but rested in the Bible alone.  For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated him.  And though Luther wanted the Roman Catholic Church to prove him wrong according to the Bible, this they did not do.

For both Luther and the Roman Catholic Church, the issue could be said to be one of authority.  But for Luther, it was the authority over sin, death, and the devil that concerned him, not his own authority, of course, but that of Christ’s.  According to the teaching of the church of his day (which is found today, also), Luther only knew the God of law, demand, and condemnation.  Rightly, Luther recognized that he could not appease God or placate his wrath.  Even with “God’s help” in the sacraments, Luther saw himself before God as a sinner who was undeserving of God’s mercy.  This is how the Bible, too, reveals our condition before God.

Luther found no solace and no comfort in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church because, ultimately, he still had to do something for his salvation, which he knew was not worthy of God’s recognition or approval.  The comfort and the consolation Luther desired, he found in the Gospel, the good news of sins forgiven through faith in Christ, apart from his own works and apart from what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching (and continues to teach).  But far from creating a complacent Luther, this revelation of God moved Luther to action, preaching and teaching the doctrine of God as revealed in Holy Scripture and not by the church.

Luther, actually, didn’t want to break with the church.  Yet the church did not want any part of him or his teaching, which was according to Scripture alone.  Luther wanted the Gospel preached rightly and with clarity, but this the church would not bear.  Thus, they excommunicated him, and the break was clear.


[1] Peters, 2.

[2] Works that are done, having faith in Jesus Christ and according to God’s Word and will.  This excludes man-made works.

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