At the Core of the Evangelical Gospel

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.


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  • Presumably the first sentence of #2 should read “is divine judgment”? Nice brief summary.

  • It seems that those who do enter into more of the robustness of Luther’s theology are always decrying their sin, how they are sinners. That nothing good can come out of them.

    Whereas I see goodness given so that it is genuine in us through Jesus by the Spirit. While at the same time we still sin, and have sin, being sinners.

    I think people of the Lutheran persuasion make much of mixed motives. I think there’s plenty of truth in that. But there can be genuine love which really cares for another in the way of Jesus.

    This Lutheran theological stance seems to stop short of what the gospel is intended to do for the follower of Jesus in this life by the Spirit. Yet it does make an important point, our need to be grounded in Christ and in his death- and resurrection. How our only boast is in that.

  • Scott Gay

    Yes, I would say that contemporary evangelicalism’s gospel is a version or expression of Luther’s sense of justification. Theologia crucis.
    Whereas his successors, beginning with Melanchthon, do aim at logical sequence, formal structure, the closely articulated system( and reach it, alas), Luther’s mind is agile, inexhaustibly creative, bold to the point of recklessness. He is too close to experience and to the Semitic genius of the Bible to endure the strait waist-coat of a strictly systematic theology. His exuberant variety of statement, his truculent irrationalism, his self contradictions place his most distinctive insights expressed in paradoxes(meaning in the synthesis of logical opposites). Law and Gospel, Justification by faith alone, Gabe and Aufgabe, Believing sinner’s assurance, The calling and the Church. Yes he believed in the devil, original sin, and even the wrath of God. There was a time when to the more liberal this was faintly embarrassing. But to the truly open minded he is a contemporary, in that if you know from the beginning that Luther strongly worked out theologica crucis, what he meant by it was right. That there is also a theologica gloriae doesn’t mean we erect or fix any opposition. They are complimentary, not one without the other.

  • I’d say that it depends on which part of the evangelical spectrum you call yours. Salvationism certainly hangs on the idea that you can do nothing to save yourself and, even after “making a commitment,” you’re still pretty much a sinner–but it’s okay, because grace will get you to heaven. But the appeal isn’t so often made through a sense of judgment (in my experience) as it is through a sense of felt need, dissatisfaction with life, and inner emptiness. To be honest, I think a robust idea of judgment is more valuable than an idea that I come to Jesus because of my felt needs. Beginning with the idea of what I owe God is at least theocenctric; not so when beginning with the idea of how my life could be better.

  • 6. Farting is an effective tool to drive away the Devil. “I am of a different mind ten times in the course of a day. But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, “Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list?”

  • “Simul iustus et peccator” often works out, in practice in the life of many evangelicals, to the implicit conviction that grace is not transformative. In other words, grace does not necessarily entail or provide for the possibility of real human transformation, since we continue to be basically “justified sinners.” I think that this does not do justice to NT teaching on grace and on the availability of a different kind of life as a result of Christ’s resurrection and the indwelling of the Spirit. Paul says some very suggestive things about new creation, about the believer being able to offer her “members” to righteousness (which I believe means concretely doing things differently with her body), etc. Often these folks do “Protestant penance” in the form of constantly rehearsing their salvation experience, as though they believe that God continually holds over their heads the fact that they were brought from the gutter into his family, so to speak. It seems that they feel a scriptural obligation to routinely allow feelings of guilt to give way to cathartic feelings of thankfulness for God’s grace.

    I am certainly not suggesting that something like that is never helpful – surely all believers know from time to time what it is to be guilty of sin and to feel renewed afresh by God, and surely being reminded of God’s primacy in salvation is healthy – but I simply do not come away from close interaction with the NT with the conviction that we ought to define ourselves in large part as “sinners,” even as “justified sinners.” The only way this is possible is to embrace a (highly contested) reading of Romans 7, according to which Paul was there intending to describe a believer’s normative daily experience, and then read the rest of NT teaching on a believer’s life through that lens. I think this is poor hermeneutical and exegetical practice.

    I guess I would take issue with the idea that “nothing the believer can do is truly righteous.” What is it that the Spirit enables and creates in the life of a believer if not truly righteous and healthy patterns of life – even if those often look different for different people, and even if sometimes it does not seem or look like those patterns are actually there? People who are defined first and foremost by their having participated in Christ’s death and resurrection need not feel a continuing obligation to harbor guilty feelings about sin (to the extent that sin is being recognized and growth being fostered, two things that I believe can happen apart from what are commonly understood and experienced as “guilty feelings”).

  • Nathan C

    I’m not a Luther scholar, but I don’t think this is an accurate statement of his views. While most of the claims are true, the picture they’re being used to draw is misleading. Point #2 in particular.

    It would be a bit more accurate to say that at the core of Luther’s doctrine of justification is the conviction that what Christ says is true. This includes threats about wrath, but it also includes all those comforting things Jesus says about himself and the promises he makes to his followers. So, woe unto you, but when Christ is high and lifted up, he will draw all people unto himself because he is the one on whom the Father has set his seal.

    More concretely, justification (Luther thinks) is given in baptism and in later repentance, which is a return to baptism. After all, Christ also promises things like “what you loose on earth is loosed in heaven” (and also “this is my body”) and commands baptism “in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

    So, to answer the question… Not really, no. For Luther, justification by faith is largely a sacramental doctrine.