Behind almost all evangelical evangelism, and I have spelled this out in The King Jesus Gospel, is Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith. While American evangelicalism has lots of influences that shape and reshape what this movement is, behind it all stands the Reformation, and at the core of the Reformation is Luther’s belief about justification.
I have looked forward to the chp on Luther’s view of justification by Alan J. Spence (Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed). I was once talking with an evangelical PhD student who was doing Jewish history and justification, and I mentioned Luther’s view and he had no idea what Luther believed. I made a few simple points when he said, “Oh, yes, I grew up on that. I don’t read Luther, and I’m sure he got it wrong, and so my focus is on Jewish history and justification.”
Would you say contemporary evangelicalism’s gospel is a version or expression of Luther’s sense of justification?
But I need to clarify my comments about evangelicalism. Evangelical evangelism owes its roots to Luther but it has come a long way, it has modified Luther a lot, and there remains today in most of evangelism only an echo of Luther. Most evangelists don’t have the theological patience to wait for the Protestant theology of justification to take root. As a result, too much of evangelism is a thin shadow of the robust Protestant theology of salvation and justification. (Good solid Lutherans can be easily offended by the suggestion that evangelicalism’s evangelism is Luther’s view of justification.)
So what did Luther teach?
1. Let’s not forget that it was the sale of indulgences by Albert of Brandenberg (administrated by Tetzel), in part to fund church building and in part designed to get money and in part to promise absolution, that set Luther off to the door at the Wittenberg church to nail up his 95 Theses.
2. At the core of Luther’s doctrine of justification is divine judgment. “… a key aspect of our spiritual blindness… is our failure to recognize that we are rightly deserving of divine wrath” (64). When evangelism today focuses on God’s wrath, it is being Lutheran. Here Spence expresses this evangelistic gospel well: “the grace of salvation and freedom from the fear of God’s condemnation are only discovered where the rightness of divine judgment is properly affirmed” (65).
3. There are two kinds of righteousness in Luther: Active and Passive. Active righteousness is ours; it flourishes from God’s gracious work; but it is of no use for salvation. Passive righteousness is Christ’s righteousness, an alien righteousness, applied to our account. It alone saves. If Augustine said faith was faith working through love, for Luther it was faith alone.
4. The human plight for Luther is the human condition of sin — and the bondage of the will to sin so that the human can do absolutely nothing.
5. For Luther, the believer is simultaneously righteous (through passive righteousness) and sinner (because nothing the believer can do is truly righteous). This blows out the medieval sense of penitence and indulgences: nothing can be done.