Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Luther's Error Concerning Justification (N.T. Wright)

From: "Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism," excerpt from the book, The Great Acquittal: Justification by Faith and Current Christian Thought, Ed. Gavin Reid, London: Collins, 1980, p.13ff.


The Reformed school have tended to stress the objectivity of justification, the fact that it concerns the total achievement of Jesus Christ. Faith is not the reason why I am declared to be in the right so much as the means whereby I am joined to Christ so that his merits and death become mine. This is in some ways a neat scheme, but it is not what Paul says about faith, and it tends to merge justification with the events which it presupposes, thus virtually making faith appear to be a luxury which follows from the justification which occurs in the cross and resurrection. This is symptomatic of a standard weakness in the Reformed approach, however valuable it may be in other ways as a corrective to faulty views elsewhere within Protestantism.

If the Reformed merge justification and atonement, the Lutheran school (including, I suspect, most English evangelicals) have tended to confuse justification and regeneration, to think of 'justification' as the means whereby one becomes a Christian. This looks back, of course, to Luther's insistence, arising out of his own experience, that one cannot earn salvation by good works, but only receive it through faith. But this has raised all sorts of problems.

First, it easily leads to a neo-Marcionite rejection of the law, suggesting in effect that God had one way of salvation for the Jews and another for Christians.

[Note #76: It is difficult to tie Luther down on points of doctrine, because of the often hasty and over-polemical character of his writings. Yet it will hardly be denied that his thought, and that of his followers, tends in the direction of an outright rejection of the law.]

Popular though that strange theology may be, it makes nonsense of Paul and of the Old Testament itself.

[Note #77: See Cranfield pp. 861f. The 'Lutheran' position has had serious results in the field of Jewish studies (see Sanders, op. cit., pp. 33ff) and of O.T. hermeneutics: in this century the distortion has been increased by the continental alliance of Lutheranism with Idealism and Existentialism, which have strengthened the Protestant tendency to set Christianity apart from history and the historical covenant community.]

The renewal of the covenant in no way implies a change in the way of salvation or the abolition of God's holy law. Second, by asking 'How can I find a gracious God?' and answering 'By faith', Luther not only confused justification and regeneration but consequently put faith in the position of a work, the one thing which God requires as a condition of grace. Third, because Luther realized at the same time that justification belonged to the language of the law court, his statement of the doctrine could easily be misunderstood as a legal fiction, in which God declared people to be something they were not.

Our analysis of justification avoids all these pitfalls. Faith is not a ladder to salvation, an alternative to the law: salvation remains a gift of grace, free and undeserved. Justification is no legal fiction, but God's righteous declaration that the believer is within the covenant. I have no desire, as some appear to have, to play down the value of our Reformation heritage: but I believe we are most faithful to the Reformers when we go back to the New Testament and see whether we can understand it even better than they did.

When we come to the debate between Catholic and Protestant we find that the confusions we have just noted have bedevilled it all through. Because justification has not been separated from regeneration, Roman Catholics have accused Protestants of constructing an antinomian doctrine, an immoral legal fiction, or a hopelessly subjective Christianity in which 'my religious experience' takes the place of the objective facts about Jesus Christ. And a good deal of Protestantism over the last four hundred years, including twentieth-century evangelicalism, must plead guilty to these charges.

But these matters have nothing to do with the real point. The charge of antinomianism or of a 'legal fiction' cannot be levelled at the true Pauline doctrine, as we have seen; and, as the Reformed position has always emphasized, 'my religious experience', important though that ultimately may be, is not the centre of Christianity.


C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1975 and 1979.

E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, SCM, London, 1977.

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