[Martin Luther’s words will be in blue]
1. Martin Luther’s Novel Assurance Doctrine (Hartmann Grisar)
“In the printed Commentary on Galatians we already have Luther’s new doctrine of the absolute assurance of salvation by faith alone.
“This later discovery he insists upon, with wearisome reiteration, . . . as the only means of bringing relief to the conscience . . .
“He entirely excludes love from this faith, even the slightest commencement of it, in more forcible terms than ever . . . It is mere idle, extravagant talk when those fools, the Sophists [i.e. the scholastic theologians] chatter about the “fides formata,” i.e. a faith which is to take its true form and shape from love (1) . . .
“God’s mercy, Luther says, is made known to man by a whisper from above (the secret voice): Thy sins are forgiven thee; the perception of this is not, however, essential; probably, Luther recognised that this was altogether too problematical. Hence there is no escape from the fact that justification must always remain uncertain. The author of this doctrine demands, however, that man should induce in himself a kind of certainty, in the same way that he demands certainty in the acceptance of all acts of faith. You must assume it as certain that your service is pleasing to God. But this you can never do unless you have the Holy Ghost. How are we to know whether we have the Holy Ghost? Again he answers: We must accept as certain and acknowledge that we are the temple of God . . .We must be assured that not our service only but also our person is pleasing to God. He goes on in this tone without in the least solving the difficulty. He declares that we must risk, try, and exercise assurance. This, however, merely depends upon a self-acquired dexterity, upon human ability, which, moreover, frequently leaves even the strongest in the lurch.” (Vol. 1: 308-309)
“No one can be justified but by faith, in the sense that he must needs believe with a firm faith that he is justified, and not doubt in any way that he is to attain to grace; for if he doubts and is uncertain, he will not be justified, rather he spits out the grace (2) . . .
“Whereas the Church had required faith in our real, objective redemption by Christ, Luther demanded over and above a further faith in one’s subjective redemption, in spite of the difficulty which circumstances might present to the attaining of this assurance . . .
“He writes, for instance, in the larger Commentary on Galatians, which, as we know, he regarded next to his work De servo arbitrio [Bondage of the Will, 1525] as his principal legacy to posterity: . . . We must day by day struggle towards greater and greater certainty . . . This matter, if it is to be achieved, cannot be learnt without experience. Everyone should therefore accustom himself resolutely to the persuasion that he is in a state of grace . . . Should he feel a doubt, then let him exercise faith; he must beat down his doubts and acquire certainty . . .
“And even when we have fought very hard for this, it will still cost us much sweat.
“It is thus that Luther was led to speak from his own inner experience, of which we have plentiful corroboration. In the passage last quoted, he proceeds: The matter of justification is difficult and delicate, not indeed in itself, for in itself it is as certain as can be, but in our regard; of this I have frequent experience . . .
“[The foregoing] demonstrates so well the vicious circle involved in Luther’s conclusion. It amounts to this: In order to possess grace and reconciliation you must believe that you have grace and reconciliation. What guarantee has one of the certainty of this belief? Nothing but the inward consciousness to be evolved in the soul that it has indeed the grace of Christ which covers over all that is evil in it . . .
“In practice, nevertheless, Luther was content with very little in the matter of this strength of certitude: . . .What is still wanting in me is, that I cannot yet grasp it or believe it perfectly. So far as I am able now to grasp it and believe it, so far do I possess it, and if I stick to it this will go on increasing. But still there remains an outward feeling of death, of hell, of the devil, of sin and of the law. Even though you feel this, it is merely a warfare that seeks to hinder you from attaining to life everlasting . . .
“Luther, according to the legend which he evolved later when defending his doctrine of faith alone and Justification, had started from the intense inward need he felt of certainty of salvation, and with the object, as he says, of finding a Gracious God. By his discovery regarding justification, so his admirers say, he at last found and retained . . . the sense of a merciful God. The strange thing is, however, that in his severe and protracted struggles of conscience he should . . . have again arrived at this very question: How can I find a Gracious God? . . .
“He writes in 1527 to Melanchthon: Like a wretched, reprobate worm I am molested by the spirit of sadness . . . I desire nothing and thirst after nothing but a Gracious God (3). . . .
“Whoever feels weak let him console himself with this, that no one succeeds perfectly in this [in the attainment of certainty] . . . That is one of the advantages enjoyed by heretics, to lull themselves in security . . . Nothing is more pestilential than security. Hence, when you feel weak in the faith you must rouse yourself; it is a sign of a good disposition and of the fear of God. – Readers of Luther must be prepared for surprising statements.” (Vol. 4: 437, 440-443)
2. Protestant Agreement With Some Aspects of the Catholic Viewpoint
A. A.W. Tozer
“Conversion for those first Christians was not a destination; it was the beginning of a journey. And right there is where the Biblical emphasis differs from ours.
“Today all is made to depend upon the initial act of believing. At a given moment a `decision’ is made for Christ, and after that everything is automatic . . . We of the evangelical churches are almost all guilty of this lopsided view of the Christian life . . .
“In our eagerness to make converts we allow our hearers to absorb the idea that they can deal with their entire responsibility once and for all by an act of believing. This is in some vague way supposed to honor grace and glorify God, whereas actually it is to make Christ the author of a grotesque, unworkable system that has no counterpart in the Scriptures of truth . . .“To make converts . . . we are forced to play down the difficulties and play up the peace of mind and worldly success enjoyed by those who accept Christ . . . Thus assured, hell-deserving sinners are coming in droves to `accept’ Christ for what they can get out of Him . . . it is hard to escape the conclusion that most of them are stooping to patronize the Lord of glory much as a young couple might fawn on a boresome but rich old uncle in order to be mentioned in his will later on.” (5)
“We tend to put our trust in our experiences and as a consequence misread the entire New Testament . . .
“Instant Christianity tends to make the faith act terminal and so smothers the desire for spiritual advance. It fails to understand the true nature of the Christian life, which is not static but dynamic and expanding . . . It does not consider that the act of faith in Christ sets up a personal relationship between two intelligent moral beings, God and the reconciled man, and no single encounter between God and a creature made in His image could ever be sufficient to establish an intimate friendship between them.
“By trying to pack all of salvation into one experience, or two, the advocates of instant Christianity flaunt the law of development which runs through all nature. They ignore the sanctifying effects of suffering, cross carrying and practical obedience. They pass by the need for spiritual training, the necessity of forming right religious habits and the need to wrestle against the world, the devil and the flesh . . .
“Instant Christianity is twentieth century orthodoxy. I wonder whether the man who wrote Philippians 3:7-16 would recognize it as the faith for which he finally died. I am afraid he would not.” (6)
B. John MacArthur
“No one who denies God should be deceived into thinking that because he once professed faith in Christ he is eternally secure . . .
“I am committed to the biblical truth that salvation is forever . . . The point is not that God guarantees security to everyone who will say he accepts Christ, but rather that those whose faith is genuine will prove their salvation is secure by persevering to the end in the way of righteousness . . .
“Scripture never once exhorts sinners to `accept Christ.’ The familiar twentieth-century evangelistic appeal in all its variations (`make a decision for Christ’; `ask Jesus into your heart’; `try Jesus’; `accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior’), violates both the spirit and the terminology of the Biblical summons to unbelievers.
“The gospel invitation is not an entreaty for sinners to allow the Savior into their lives. It is both an appeal and a command for them to repent and follow Him. It demands not just passive acceptance of Christ but active submission to Him as well. Those unwilling to surrender to Christ cannot recruit Him to be part of a crowded life. He will not respond to the beckoning of a heart that cherishes sin, nor will He enter into partnership with one who loves to fulfill the passions of the flesh . . .
“Thus conversion is not simply a sinner’s decision for Christ; it is first the sovereign work of God in transforming the individual . . .
“Be on guard against conversions that are all smiles and cheers with no sense of repentance or humility. That is the mark of a superficial heart . . .
“Far from championing the truth that human works have no place in salvation, modern easy-believism has made faith itself a wholly human work, a fragile, temporary attribute that may or may not endure.
“But it is not a biblical view of faith to say one may have it at the moment of salvation and never need to have it again.” (7)
C. John Henry Newman (Anglican period)
“A system of doctrine has risen up during the last three centuries, in which faith or spiritual-mindedness is contemplated and rested on as the end of religion instead of Christ . . . And in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ; not simply in looking to Christ, but in ascertaining that we look to Christ, not in His Divinity and Atonement, but in our conversion and our faith in those truths . . . What! is this the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and wherein we stand, the home of our own thoughts, the prison of our own sensations, the province of self? . . . No wonder that where the thought of self obscures the thought of God, prayer and praise languish, and only preaching flourishes . . . To look at Christ is to be justified by faith; to think of being justified by faith is to look from Christ and to fall from grace . . . [Luther] found Christians in bondage to their works and observances; he released them by his doctrine of faith; and he left them in bondage to their feelings . . . Whereas he preached against reliance on self, he introduced it in a more subtle shape; whereas he professed to make the written word all in all, he sacrificed it in its length and breadth to the doctrine which he had wrested from a few texts.” (8)
3. Catholic Critique (Louis Bouyer)
“It is beyond doubt that Luther closely linked the subjective side of justification by faith, personal religion in fact, with denial of the objective value of the sacraments and of all other means of grace. Once faith is present, there is salvation, but there is nothing in the sphere of salvation existing apart from faith itself, and faith in its turn has no transcendental object, no content outside itself. All this can be supported by the most categorical passages from Luther . . . This view in fact reduces the sacraments, the Church, defined dogma, to the status of mere signs, easily dispensable, lacking even any content of their own. They are made into mere psychological stimulants or supports of a wavering faith, which a clear and firm faith can do without. At the same time, faith is not so much belief in an objective salvation, or in Him who grants it, as, in an immediate sense, faith in one’s own individual salvation. Once withdrawn from the need for any support outside itself, since it is immediately felt, it tends naturally to eliminate, as a useless encumbrance, all rites, the whole visible Church, and even all definite doctrine.” (p. 172)
Hartmann Grisar, Luther, translated by E. M. Lamond; edited by Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917.
Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A. V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956.
1. In Mohler, J.A., Symbolik . . ., Ratisbon: 1832, 156.
2. Enders, (see #3 below), vol. 1, 250 ff.; October 14, 1518 (Augsburg Disputation).
3. L. Enders, editor, Luther’s Correspondence, Frankfurt: 1907, vol. 6, 109; October 27, 1527.
4. Martin Luther, Exegetical Works in Latin, Erlangen: 1829, vol. 23, 143.
5. From A Treasury of A.W. Tozer, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980, 85-87.
6. A.W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian, Harrisburg: Christian Publications, 1964, 24-25.
7. John F. MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (Academie Books), 1988, 98, 106-107, 123-124, 171-172.
8. John Henry Newman, Lectures on Justification, 1838 (Newman’s Works, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1881), 323-328, 330, 336-337, 339-341.
Photo credit: Luther burns the Papal bull in the square of Wittenberg year 1520, by Karl Aspelin (1857-1922) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]