Luther in 1520: Justification by Faith Alone

Howard Griffith
Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.

This was a lecture presented at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC’s lecture series “Luther’s (Re)formative Years, 1517-1521,” in October 2017.


When you meet someone you admire and begin to get to know them, it can be a thrilling experience. You begin to listen to them. You come to see the beauty of their character, their kindness, their courage, their joy, their passion, and that gives you joy. Living with Martin Luther over the last weeks has been that sort of experience for me. I have been trying to put my finger on what I love about him. I think it is the fullness of his joy as a Christian. Justification by faith alone was not merely a true doctrine to him. It was life itself. Brother Martin was an old friend to me, but he has become a new friend again. I hope, through these lectures, you will make a new friend as well.

By 1520, the year he wrote The Freedom of a Christian, Luther had become quite popular. When he challenged the practice of indulgences and when he debated John Eck, Luther’s concern was pastoral, what Robert Kolb calls the “consolation of sin ridden consciences.”[1] Christ alone is the savior, and he alone is the Lord of the Church. His authority is found in the Scripture alone. Luther’s writings were being circulated widely and read. But between 1517 and 1520, the leadership of the Church was not buying it. What the Church heard was Luther undercutting the Pope’s authority and upsetting church order.

Many people were reading Luther, and he used his popularity. In 1520, he wrote several treatises that expressed his theology and his program. The Treatise on Good Works answered the charge that he discouraged good works. The Open Letter to the Nobility of the German Nation asked the politically powerful to lessen the Pope’s usurpation of Christ’s power in the Church and his intruding into secular affairs. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church challenged the practice of withholding the cup from the laity and rejected the idea of the mass as a sacrifice. Luther said only baptism, penance, and “the bread” were truly sacraments. Marriage, confirmation, ordination, and extreme unction were not sacraments, because they lacked Christ’s command and did not promise forgiveness.

In July 1520, Pope Leo X warned Luther of 41 doctrinal errors and threatened him with excommunication. He had 60 days to recant. In November Luther published his positive explanation of the Christian life, The Freedom of a Christian. He dedicated it to the Pope with an open letter asking for peace. “[N]owadays, we are made so sensitive by the raving crowd of flatterers that we cry out that we are stung as soon as we meet with disapproval. When we cannot ward off the truth with any other pretext, we flee from it by ascribing it to a fierce temper, impatience, or immodesty. What is the good of salt if it does not bite?” (45).[2] He said in effect, “I am not criticizing you, but those who have attacked me in your name. You are like Daniel in the midst of lions.” He then defends his attacks on abuses. “All I wanted was peace, but if people attack my teaching, I will not be silent. Please intervene and give us a truce.” And closes with this: “my father Leo, … be not deceived by those who pretend that you are lord of the world, and allow no one to be a Christian unless he accepts your authority… These men are enemies, who seek to destroy your soul.” The apostles called themselves servants of the present Christ, not vicars of an absent Christ. (51) “Perhaps I am presumptuous in trying to instruct so exalted a person, from whom all should learn… [but] I know you are in a miserable situation, so that you are in need of even the slightest help of the least of your brothers. I am your friend and your most humble subject.” The Freedom of a Christian set out Luther’s view of the joy and glory of being a Christian. This is his statement of justification by faith alone. Let’s look at his little tract.

The Freedom of a Christian

The book has two theses, or propositions. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” This is true in the inner man. “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” This is true in the outer man. Let us look at these two theses.

I.  “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.”

Perfect freedom is the definition of the believer’s relationship to God. That freedom is his in his soul, and nothing can overcome it. Why not? Because nothing external can either produce righteousness and freedom or bring unrighteousness and servitude. Luther defines freedom as being in a right relation to God. No external good works can produce this righteousness nor can they diminish it. The only thing that can make a person free is trusting in the Word of the gracious God. If he has this faith, nothing can hurt him. If he lacks this faith, nothing can help him.

What does Luther have in mind when thinks of external good works? He is thinking of two popular religious lifestyles, the practice of penance (required for all Christians) and the monastic practices of contemplation and fasting (for the especially religious). Penance kept up your relationship with God. It had three parts: contrition, confession, and works of satisfaction. Luther complained that contrition for sin had become a human effort that prepared the heart for approaching God, a human merit. “If you do your very best, God will not deny his grace.”[3] But this only created doubt. How could anyone ever be certain he had done his best? Confession of sins to a priest had become the occasion for priestly tyranny, rather than the pronouncement of free forgiveness for Christ’s sake. And making satisfaction through good deeds assigned by the priest in confession turned people’s faith toward human works, rather than to God’s free promise. There was no freedom there. Any wicked person could do these things.

So, if you can’t get righteousness by human performance, where can it be found? It is found in the message of the Word of God, when we receive it by faith.

Faith has three powers. The first is that it receives the treasures of grace that God freely offers in Christ.

[T]he moment you begin to have faith, you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful and damnable. When you have learned this, you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you, so that if you believe in him, you may, through faith become a new man, in so far as your sins are forgiven, and you are justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone. (55f.)

No human work can accomplish this. At the same time, no outward work, but only unbelief of heart, makes a man guilty and a servant of sin.

Luther answeres an objection: why then does Scripture command so many ceremonies and laws if faith alone “justifies, frees and saves”? His answer is to draw a line between the law and the gospel, or God’s requirements, that no one can fulfill, and his promises. The commandments show us what we ought to do, but give no power to fulfill it. God intends them to teach us our inability to do good and lead us to despair of our ability. But the second part of Scripture is the promises, which say,

If you wish to fulfill the law and not covet, as the law demands, come, believe in Christ in whom grace, righteousness, peace, liberty, and all things are promised. If you believe, you shall have all things. If you do not believe, you shall lack all things.

The promises are “holy, true, free, peaceful words, full of goodness.” Luther is saying that when we rely on the promises of Scripture, when we entrust ourselves to the promises of God, the power and grace of the Word of God are communicated to the soul. No good work can rely upon God. So there is no need for good works to justify, and therefore the Christian is free from the law. Good works are not necessary for righteousness and salvation.

Faith’s second power is that it gives God his proper glory by trusting him as truthful, righteous, and good. This is the highest honor we can pay anyone, to trust him. Conversely, if we do not trust him, we do him the greatest disservice. “Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith? What greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God can there be, than not believing his promise? For what is this but to make God a liar?” (59) If a person does not trust God’s promise, he sets himself up as an idol in his heart. Then his unbelieving doing of good works is actually sinning.

Do you notice that Luther has a new understanding of the character of God? Till now he had thought of God as a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits. He does not deny God’s wrath against sin. But now he says that God’s basic disposition toward his sinful creatures is love and mercy. His personal favor is based on nothing but his own desire to show compassion. “What a kind, fine God he is, nothing but sweetness and goodness, that he feeds us, preserves us, nourishes us.”[4]  He is proclaiming the graciousness of God in the gospel. He also has a new understanding of grace. He no longer defined grace as an internally located gift from God; instead, it became instead his favor, his merciful disposition toward sinners.[5]

Faith’s third power is that it unites us to Christ as our bridegroom. Here Luther becomes lyrical.

By this mystery, as the Apostle Paul teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh, and if between them there is a true marriage… it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has, Christ claims as his own. … Let us compare these, and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them, and sins, death and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul’s… By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and pains of hell, which are his bride’s…. Her sins cannot now destroy her… and she has that righteousness of Christ, her husband, … and [can] say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and mine is his…” (60-61)

Luther calls this the glorious exchange, the royal marriage. By faith, then, the person can ascribe all glory to God and have no other gods. By faith he can keep all the commandments.

Finally, Luther says that by faith our perfect freedom means that we are kings and priests to God. Because Christ is king, so we are kings, (in the inner man) lords over all things. Nothing can hurt us. All things are made subject to the believer to further his salvation. Nothing can subject him to harm, even if God ordains that he suffers and dies.

The Christian is also a priest, because he can come before God, to pray to him acceptably. And it is only faith that makes him able to intercede for others. He needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith abundantly supplies all that he needs.

The obvious objection is: if that is true, how should the Christian be distinguished from the church’s priests, popes, bishops, and other “ecclesiastics”? There is no distinction, except that certain Christians are set apart to be public teachers and servants. (65).

But the church has turned these servants into lords. This is why the church needs reformation. It is not enough to teach people the facts of Christ’s life, along with human laws and the teachings of the church. Nor is it enough to teach about Christ in order to move men’s affections to sympathy.

The church should preach, not just facts about Christ, but what Christ is to be to us.

[T]hat he might not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me… faith is built up when we preach why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, and what benefit it is to us to accept him.

What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and in receiving this comfort, will not grow tender, so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of laws or works?” (66)

Luther has moved to the biblical notion of faith. Faith is trust in God. It is not just another virtue formed in us by grace. Faith is not a virtue. It is the rejection of all possible virtue. Faith is not an inward good work that takes the place of outward good works. Rather, it looks to Christ. It knows Christ and rests in him and his righteousness for us.

Let’s move on to Luther’s second proposition.

II.  “A Christian is a totally responsible servant of all, subject to all.”

This defines the believer’s relationship to other people. Here Luther answers the objection that says, “now I am free from all works. I’ll do nothing.” No, we have to do good works because we are still subject to sin and temptation in our bodies, our outward man.

  1. The value of good works for the individual.

Luther immediately warns against relapsing into the notion that good works serve as justifying righteousness. No, that is impossible. Works cannot make righteous. But when we have received righteousness, we do good works out of faith and motivated by God’s glory. Without this faith, it is impossible to please God.

He proves this by some good biblical reasoning. “A good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor a bad tree bear good fruit.” Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works. A good building does not make a man a good builder, but a good builder builds a good building.

This is how we are to tell whether a work is good or not. If our works are “burdened by this perverse leviathan” that through them one is justified, they are made necessary and freedom and faith are destroyed, and they become damnable works (72). When this happens, these good works “violently force themselves into the office and glory of grace.” Only faith allows a person to see this is true. Therefore all teaching about works, penitence, etc. will be deceitful and diabolical if we stop with that.

Law only kills, humbles, and leads to hell without bringing back again. “Repentance proceeds from the law, but faith from the promise of God.”

  1. The value of good works for others.

We do good works in order to serve our neighbors. Faith is active through love. “That is, it finds expression through works of freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willfully serves another without hope of reward; and for himself, he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.” (74)

Here is his sum of the joyful service of the Christian:

He ought to think: ‘Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore, freely, joyfully, with my whole heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ’…Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss. For a man does not serve that he may put men under obligations. He does not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward. As his Father does, distributing all things to all men richly and freely, making ‘his sun rise on the evil and on the good’(Mt.5.45), so also the son does all things and suffers all things with that freely bestowing joy which is his delight when through Christ he sees it in God, the dispenser of such great benefits. (75-76).

Luther concludes that believers live not in themselves but in Christ by faith, and not in themselves but in their neighbors, by love. “Otherwise he is not a Christian. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor” (80). This is faith working through love. Gal 5:3.


The focus of public preaching and private pastoral ministry must be to set forth Christ for us. God has given him for us. God has raised him for us. God is good and trustworthy, and he freely offers all things, in Christ, to us. Therefore, the trustworthiness of the Word, and the necessity of faith is everything. This must be the goal of all ministry. What we want to do for everyone is to enable them to believe in Christ as he is offered in the Word.

Luther is not antinomian; he does not believe that we are not obligated to keep God’s law once we are Christians. He says we must, because we are still sinners and subject to temptation and to continuing unbelief. The law continues to tell us that our righteousness is available only in Christ himself. However, even as it instructs us as believers, the law has a largely negative function for the believer. Luther does not make a sound theological place for God’s law as the believer’s delight. It is just the gospel that overcomes the problem of law. “If I am outside of Christ, the law is my enemy, because God is my enemy. But once I am in Christ, the law is my friend, because God is my friend.”[6] It is the deepest desire of my heart to obey God’s law and to do this in faith. Faith works through love.

Luther’s doctrine of sola fide in 1520 is closer to “union with Christ by faith alone” than to “justification by faith alone.” His major metaphor is the union of the believer and his Bridegroom. That brings the wonderful exchange between Christ and us. Faith is the wedding ring that brings us into union with Christ, our bridegroom. Luther clearly includes justification in this. An alien righteousness, Christ’s righteousness, belongs to us by faith alone. But the more precise idea of his perfect, finished, and final righteousness, counted ours once for all time, is not here yet, because Luther speaks about our righteousness growing over our lifetime.

Later biblical reflection would clarify this, and Luther would be clearer about it too. God in free grace, reckons the righteousness of Christ to us, when we simply entrust ourselves to him. It is not present, ongoing renewal that is the ground of God’s justifying verdict. Nor is it faith, considered in itself, that grounds God’s pronouncement. Christ’s sacrifice for us is the only basis of our being forgiven, fully, and perfectly and once for all. In 1520 the brownies were still a little chewy. It took some time for this fully biblical idea of justification to bake completely.

However, having said this, I think Luther’s idea of the glorious exchange by union with Christ is sound and biblical. Union with Christ by faith alone truly is the “freedom of a Christian.”

When we receive Christ by faith alone, we receive his righteousness as a completed gift, and consequently we are accounted righteous by God once for all. And it is also true that our hearts are cleansed, what we term “sanctification,” by this union. What Luther calls the good works of a good man, notice, a changed man, are the fruit of this union.

John Calvin would later put it like this:

Therefore, that joining together of head and members, the indwelling of head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him of the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar, in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us, but because we put on Christ, and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him. (Institutes 3.11.10).

I close with these beautiful words of Luther:

Who then, can appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him… as the bride in the Song of Solomon says [2:16], “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (80-81).

[1] Robert Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 72.

[2] All citations from Freedom of a Christian are from Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Doubleday, 1961).

[3] Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), p. 133.

[4] Kolb, Martin Luther, p. 60.

[5] Kolb, Martin Luther, p. 34.

[6] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation  (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2006), p. 103.