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Martin Luther: Justification by Faith Alone Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 22nd, 2021


The doctrine of justification was the starting point for the expression of the radical theological position of Martin Luther and his formation as a reformer. The doctrine of justification is a central theological doctrine for all Protestant denominations.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that a sinful man can receive eternal life, which becomes available to them through the death and resurrection of Christ. This idea is expressed by a number of concepts such as “atonement” and “salvation” was originally in the New Testament, and then in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and theologians until the late Middle Ages. By that time one of the images was seen as particularly important – the way of justification.

So, the aim of this work is a comprehensive review of the doctrine of Martin Luther – the justification by faith alone.

The fundamental idea, which was the basis for the theology of the period of Reformation, was the idea of Christianity Revival. Building a Christian life should be according to the New Testament and the first its interpretations.

Martin Luther as the founder of the new ideas claimed that the sinner’s justification is based on God’s grace and received through faith.

The basis of the doctrine

The basis of the doctrine of justification by faith is the doctrine of grace as undeserved favor of God to fallen humanity. This idea has been strongly influenced by the writings of St. Augustine, and the theology of Luther is based on them.

In the Middle Ages, grace is not understood as the ratio of God to mankind, but as a kind of supernatural substance injected into the human soul and promoting redemption. In support of this idea there was used an argument of different nature of God and man and about the insurmountable gap between them. In order to save man and to fill the existing gap, people need the grace of God.

This view on the concept of grace was subjected to severe criticism even before the Reformation and disappeared even before this period.

In addition, it is impossible to consider the doctrine of justification by faith without an understanding of another main theme of Christian thought – “redemption through Christ.” This redemption can not be achieved otherwise. To indicate the doctrine of salvation in theology the term “soteriology” is used (from gr. Soteria-salvation), which determines the number of images associated with this doctrine.

  1. The Images of victory. By the Resurrection, Christ triumphed over death and those people who accept Christ can hope that this victory will be their victory.
  2. The image of a change in legal status. Christ died on the cross, his resignation has earned forgiveness for sinners and reconciling for God and humanity.
  3. The image of a change in personal relationships. People in their sinfulness departed so far from God, that alone can not be reconciled with God. This becomes possible only through the death of Christ.
  4. The images of liberation. While being surrounded by the forces of evil, death and sin, a person is entitled to relief only through the death of Christ on the cross. Just as he was freed from the captivity of death believers can do it also.
  5. The image of integrity. Through His death and resurrection, Christ can restore our integrity, soul damaged by sin, physical and mental health.

The soteriology acquired particular significance during the period of Reformation, partly thanks to a new interest in the writings of St. Paul, where it occupies a prominent place (especially in Romans and Galatians). The question of how sinners can be justified is at the center of Luther’s reform program.

The initial period of doctrine establishment

The doctrine of justification by faith is called “theological discovery” of Luther, although, in some detail, it is designed in the works by Augustine. It is possible to classify it as discovery only in the new sense, applicable to the specific historical conditions of the period of Reformation.

Luther’s theological achievement or “experiences in of the tower” dealt with the question of how a sinner could communicate with the righteous God.

Luther was educated at the University of Erfurt. Although initially after graduation, he planned to study law, that intention was abandoned after the accident that had happened to him during a thunderstorm, which has interesting parallels with the experience of Moses (the burning bush). Luther vowed to become a monk. He entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt and began to study theology.

In 1508 he was invited to teach moral philosophy at the new Wittenberg University. Luther was appointed to the chair of biblical studies at Wittenberg. In accordance with his responsibilities, he has lectured on various books of the Bible: Psalms (1513-1515), the Epistle to the Romans (1515-1516). Galatians (1516-1517), Jews (1517-1518), then he returned to lectures on the Psalms (1519 – 1521).

The first course of lectures on the Psalms, known as “Dictata super Psalterion” is especially interesting. In the course of these lectures, Luther often discussed the doctrine of justification that allows us to determine what had been his early views on this issue. God made a covenant (pactum) with humanity, under which he undertakes to justify anyone who would meet certain minimum prerequisites ( “quod in se est”). Luther taught that God has mercy to humble, so that everyone who humbles themselves before God, can eventually expect to be justified. To explain this principle, there are two excerpts from “Dictata super Psalterium”:

“That’s why we are saved: God made a covenant with us that everyone who believes and is baptized shall be saved. In this covenant, God is truthful and faithful and is linked to his promise. “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you will find, knock, and it shall be opened to you. Everyone who asks receives…” (Matt. 7. 7-8). Therefore, God always has mercy to all who does what is inside him ( “Quod in se est”)”.

The fact that the sinner recognizes his need for grace and prays to God to send it imposes God, under the terms of the covenant, the obligation to do so, justifying a sinner. In other words, the sinner of his plea takes the initiative: he is able to do something for God’s answer in the form of justification. The covenant between God and humanity has established a structure in which relatively little human effort leads to a disproportionate amount of divine reward. Nevertheless, the imposition of God’s commitment to award the sinner by grace requires some human effort.

These were the early Luther’s views on the doctrine of justification, formed under the influence of university education and theological views.

The idea of the righteousness of God

Studying the Book of Psalms, a significant place in which is taken by the idea of God’s righteousness, Luther expounded this idea in his lectures. At this stage, he realized that righteousness is an impartial divine attribute. God judges people by considering their case, and there can be no forgiveness, no predisposition. Everyone gets what he deserves – no more, no less.

The longer, the more difficult this theory seemed to Luther. What happens to the sinner, who is unable to escape from their sin and to fulfill the requirements of the divine? At this point, Luther begins to understand and accept the teachings of Augustine, who claimed that people can not afford, without divine intervention and mercy to earn salvation.

The subjective religious experiences of Luther played an important role in understanding this idea. As a monk, and fulfilling all the vows, he could not feel God’s grace to him. The constant feeling of sinfulness, impenitence even after the confession and an awareness of the impossibility to satisfy the conditions of salvation led to the idea of the state when the righteousness of God has become bad news for Luther, and a constant threat. The promise of salvation was real, but the conditions of salvation – unenforceable, there was a punishment and death in front of him.

That is, it is possible to say that the problem of man’s salvation was for Luther not only a theological and purely academic problem, it took the existential, personal character.

Then something happened that was the birth of a new idea of salvation, and that the researchers call “the experiences in the tower”. This we know from the latter memories of Luther, confused and inaccurate, however, it withdrew Luther in the first ranks of reformers.

Previously, Luther was convinced that for the salvation the sinner must do the impossible conditions, it is now a “new” understanding of the idea of “righteousness of God” enables him to assert that God Himself will fulfill His promise for the salvation of sinners. More precisely, He gives what is necessary for the sinner for their justification – righteousness. God ceases to be for Luther punishing judge, but has become a merciful and compassionate, giving the sinner what he themselves would never have made.

Among the scholars of Luther’s works there was a consensus that his theology of justification has undergone radical rethinking in 1515. Luther, who in October of 1517 published his Ninety-Five Theses, already had the opinions, on which he later based his program of reforms.

The essence of justification by faith

The foundation of all theological ideas of the Reformation was Luther’s deep consideration of the nature of justifying faith in general and in particular the notion of simple faith. He singled out three aspects of the concept “faith”, each of which was subsequently adopted and developed by later reformers.

  1. Faith is personal, and not merely a historical category. The recognition of the historicity of the Gospel and the person of Christ, even the recognition of the fact that he was indeed the Savior, but for other people is not saving faith. Only the acceptance of Christ as personal Savior is the way to salvation.
  2. Faith in regard to trust in Divine promises. The concept of “trust” and “confidence” occupies a significant place in the theological views of the Reformation. It is an important element of the faith as full and unreserved confidence in the promises of God to justify those who confess their sins. That is, in the first place there is not a value of confession, but the value of God’s promise to fulfill all of those who confessed.
  3. Faith joins believers in Christ. According to the concept of Luther, faith becomes a bridge connecting the sinner and Christ, with grace, holiness and righteousness of Christ become the property of the sinner, but sin and death of a person now belong to Christ.

Thus, if in the early years, Luther regarded belief as a condition for justifying, expressed in certain human actions, now he devotes a passive role to man – “just believe and God in his mercy have done everything for your salvation.” That is, the sinner’s justification is based on God’s grace and received through faith.

Many critics considered the views of Luther denying all morality and the necessity of good actions. However, we can say that Luther just a little twisted the perception and the value of mercy – from the condition of justification and salvation, it has become a consequence and gratitude to God for salvation.


The doctrine of justification of Luther appeared as a university teaching position. Wittenberg University, where Luther taught, was not among the major universities in Europe nor in the number of students on any other indicators. Initial views of Luther were no more than changes in the theological program of the university second-class, without any significance for the Church and society. How could a small academic discussion become a great popular movement of the period of Reformation? The social context of theological positions is very important there.

In the late medieval notion of sin becomes social, as something visible and social, requires visible and social forgiveness. In addressing the issue of repentance not only man and God are involved, but the Church and society. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council declared that “all the faithful people of both sexes must personally confess their sins to a priest and try to execute a superimposed penance.”

Salvation is widely regarded as something that could be earned by good actions. Confused and foggy theology of forgiveness at the period of the late medieval period considered that it was possible to get forgiveness of sins and the release of “purifying punishments” especially with the help of indulgences. In other words, eternal punishment, which is the result of sinful actions, could be reduced or canceled, after paying a certain amount of money to a church person.

The doctrine of justification by faith of Luther acquired the importance that goes far beyond academic theology. Forgiveness was a matter between the believer and God. The concept of purgatory, which was based on people’s superstitions and the church exploitation, was rejected as a fiction, not contained in Scripture. Along with denying the existence of purgatory the attitude toward death and ceremonies was changed. The new emphasis on the relationship between the individual and God partly owes its appearance to the individualism of the Renaissance, and partially – to the New Testament, leaving behind the institutions of the Church. Luther was against the incomes earned from the sale of indulgences; this practice was contrary to his view on the role of the Church.


Bayer, Oswald. 2008. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Brague Remi. 2009. The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. University Of Chicago Press.

Lohse, Bernhard. 1999. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Augsburg Fortress Publishers; Fortress Press Ed edition.

Nestingen, James A. 2009. Martin Luther: A Life. Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

Reid, Patrick V. 1995. Readings in Western Religious Thought: The Middle Ages Through the Reformation. Paulist Press.

Trigg, Jonathan D. 1997. Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (Studies in the History of Christian Thought). Brill Academic Publishers.

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