How do Christians Live
19th Annual Minnesota Lutheran Free Conference
Redeemer Lutheran Church|
By Rolf Preus
I encourage you all to read it first of all because Luther remains an excellent teacher. God doesn’t preach to us through angels. He chooses men. In the case of Luther, God chose a man who had been through the spiritual mill. Self-justification is ultimately impossible, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t try. Luther’s story is, to a certain degree, the story of us all. It is as he tries and fails to find peace with God through his own efforts that Luther is rendered weak, helpless, and utterly defeated. In his defeat he discovers the gospel. He doesn’t discover it within himself. He discovers it in the Bible. It was there all along, but he couldn’t see it. While one man’s experience can hardly serve as the norm for anyone else, in Luther’s case, his struggles prepared him to listen to God. In listening he learned. He has much to teach us today.
I encourage you to read this
treatise secondly because it treats so well that topic of Christian
teaching that is more important to you than any other topic.
I am talking about how God justifies you so that you can live with
Him. The life we live with
God is the life that God gives us to live as He justifies us.
How do Christians live with God? First, let us review what Luther says in this little book in
chapters two through seven. Then
we’ll talk some more about faith.
One: Review of Chapters Two through Seven
Chapter Three is titled, “Law and Promise.”
In this chapter we see what the primary purpose of God’s law is.
Simply put, it is to show us that we cannot fulfill it.
We find in ourselves no reason for God to justify us.
This is what God’s law shows us.
Yet the law must be fulfilled.
God’s promise tells us that the law is fulfilled in Christ, that
is, in the promise, that is, through faith.
Luther writes, “The promises of God give what the law demands and
fulfill what the law commands.” (p 23)
Whoever has faith has everything and whoever does not have faith
has nothing. Faith, God’s
promises, and Christ go together. The promises of God saturate and penetrate the soul.
These promises are words that bring to us “holiness, truth,
righteousness, liberty, and peace.” (p 23)
The soul receives from God all that God’s word possesses.
Chapter Four is the heart of this section. It is titled, “Characteristics of Faith.”
Faith alone justifies the Christian.
Therefore, faith does not need the law.
This makes faith the freedom of the Christian.
We don’t need the law or works for our justification and
salvation. Faith honors
Christ by believing what He says to be true.
In this way faith holds God in high esteem.
Faith says that God possesses truth, righteousness, and goodness.
It is an insult to God not to believe what He says.
Indeed, it is defiance and impiety.
God honors the faith that honors Him.
God gives to faith what faith ascribes to Him. Luther writes:
itself is true and righteous when it ascribes to God what is His.
In return, God glorifies our righteousness.
It simply is true and righteous that God is true and righteous.
To confess this fact and ascribe to God these attributes is to be
true and righteous ourselves. (p 28)
Faith unites the soul of the
Christian to Christ. The soul
and Christ are one flesh. What
belongs to the one belongs to the other.
Listen to Luther:
means that whatever belongs to Christ becomes the possession of the
Christian soul and it can boast about it as if it were his own!
Whatever is the possession of the Christian soul Christ takes to be
comparison then, it is obvious that the Christian soul, through this
marriage, has experienced an incalculable gain of possessions.
Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation.
The soul is full of sin, death and condemnation.
faith, sin, death and hell become possessions of Christ.
Through faith grace, life, and salvation become possessions of the
soul. Being the Husband,
Christ must take responsibility for what belongs to the wife.
At the same time, He gives to the wife what is His.
If He gives to His wife His own body and Himself, how can Christ not
give her all that He possesses? If
He takes to Himself the body of His wife, how can Christ not also take to
Himself all that is hers as well? (p 29)
Clearly, when sin, death, and hell
become Christ’s, Christ is paying to the penal justice of God what
God’s law requires of us all. Christ
is suffering the curse of the law in order to remove that curse from us.
This is often called Anselm’s theory of the atonement because it
was systematically set forth by Anselm of Canterbury in his book, Why
God Became Man. Ever
since the publication of Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor, it has
been fashionable in certain Lutheran circles to criticize the assumption
that Luther shared Anselm’s view of the atonement.
It is argued that Luther rather accepted the Christus Victor view
of the atonement, which, as the term suggests, sees the atonement as
Christ’s victory over the powers of hell.
Luther himself would have been surprised at the notion that there
is any conflict at all between teaching that Christ, as the sin-bearer,
pays to God the ransom to set us free and teaching that Christ is the
Victor over sin, death and hell. For
Luther, the vicarious atonement of Christ and Christ as Conqueror of hell
are one and the same thing. Listen
to how he puts it:
say that Christ is a Person who through the wedding ring of faith becomes
a part of the sin, death, and hell of His wife – no, even better, He
makes them His possession what I mean is that Christ deals with them in no
other way than if they actually were His and He Himself had sinned.
When Christ suffered, died, and descended into hell, He did so to
overcome all things. Sin,
death, and hell, could not swallow Christ up.
In a stupendous conflict, Christ swallowed up sin, death, and hell.
After all, Christ’s righteousness rises above the sins of every
man. Christ’s life is more
powerful than death. Christ’s
salvation is unconquerable by hell. (p 30)
And what does this mean to faith? Luther goes on:
then, the believing soul, through faith in Christ, becomes free of all
sin, unafraid of death, and safe from hell. (p30)
It is because faith receives what
is Christ’s that faith alone can fulfill the law.
Luther says: “Faith alone is the righteousness of the Christian
and the fulfilling of all the commandments.”
By this Luther is not ascribing a quality to faith by which faith
as faith becomes the Christian’s righteousness.
Here is what the believing soul does, according to Luther.
her husband, Christ, a righteousness which now she can claim as her own
and can erect opposite all her sins, death and hell, she can claim:
“Even if I have sinned, my husband, Christ, in whom I believe, has not
sinned. Everything that
belongs to me has become His possession.
All His possessions have become mine.” (p 31)
Chapter Five is titled, “Christ the Firstborn: Priest and King.”
Christ both intercedes for us in heaven and sends to us on earth
His Spirit who teaches us inwardly in our spirits.
Chapter Six is titled, “The Christian: Priest and King.”
Luther argues that by faith Christians are exalted above everything
in this world. As far as
spiritual matters are concerned, the Christian is lord over everything
that is earthly. In fact, all
things are compelled to serve the Christian for his salvation.
He cites St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 that everything works
together for good to those who love God, whom God calls according to His
purpose. This reign of the
Christian is especially apparent and powerful in moments of distress and
weakness. Here is how Luther
It is a
reign which arranges all things for the benefit of my salvation.
Even the cross and death are compelled to serve me and to work for
my salvation. The reign of
the Christian is lofty and eminent in dignity, and a true and almighty
dominion. It is a spiritual
empire in which there is nothing so good, and nothing so bad, that it will
not work together for my good – if only I believe. (p 41)
The Christian as priest has the
right to come before God, to pray, and to teach others about God.
It all depends on faith. Luther
makes it crystal clear that only Christians can pray to God. He writes:
unbeliever is in no way a priest but an unholy person whose prayers are
sin. The unbeliever never
appears in the presence of God simply because God does not hear sinners.
Prayers offered to the god of
Muhammad, who neither begets nor is begotten, are not offered to the God
and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
All such prayers must be identified as sinful idolatry.
The Christian’s kingly
priesthood has royal power to rule over life, death, and sin.
But if a Christian were even to pretend that he is justified, set
free, and saved by any work of his own, he would lose both his faith and
all the benefits that faith receives.
Luther compares such a person to the dog in Aesop’s fable who
crossing over a bridge with a piece of meat in his mouth saw his
reflection in the water and in his attempt to get that dog’s meat lost
his own. (p 42)
Chapter Seven is titled, “Pastors and Preaching.”
Luther’s emphasis here is predictable from what has gone before.
He despises all of the exalted titles given to pastors and suggests
that they simply be called ministers, servants, and stewards.
It is what they administer that is critical.
They must promote faith in Christ.
They must preach not just that Jesus is the Christ but that He is for
us. They must preach
Christian liberty; that Christians are lords, priests, and kings over all
things, and that everything we Christians do in the presence of God is
pleasing to Him. This is a
radical thought that permeates Luther’s theology. But if my sin is Christ’s and Christ’s righteousness is
mine, then clearly I am pleasing to God and have no fear of death or hell
or the devil himself.
Two: Talking about Faith
But this doesn’t mean that we
should not talk about faith. We
should. The gospel in which
God’s righteousness is revealed is from
faith to faith. (Romans 1:17) As
you know, this was the text that brought Luther to his understanding of
justification by faith alone. Luther
learned of the nature of the righteousness by which we are justified when
he finally saw – from the plain words of St. Paul – that this
righteousness was to be had by faith and by faith alone.
The gospel is never merely a proposition to debate or a theological
formula to recite. The gospel
is divine proclamation that offers what only faith can receive.
For this reason it is appropriate that we talk about faith, even as
we must insist that faith doesn’t exist except in receiving the gospel.
There are three things about faith
to which this portion of Luther’s treatise on Christian freedom directs
us. First, faith is inextricably joined to the word of God.
Second, faith receives everything that Christ has to give.
Third, faith is the Christian’s life with God.
faith is inextricably joined to the word of God.
The very concept of faith apart from God’s word is idolatrous.
To trust as divine what is not from God is idolatry.
How can we talk about “people of faith” without knowing what it
is that the people believe? We
cannot, unless faith comes from within.
If it does, it is not the Christian faith.
Faith is not only subordinate to the word of God; it has no
existence apart from it.
By word of God we are talking most
specifically about the gospel that promises: “Christ is the end of the
law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)
Where did Luther find this righteousness? What, specifically, what was he doing when this gospel
penetrated his soul, brought him to faith, and bestowed upon him
Christ’s righteousness? He
was reading the Bible. The
Bible is the word of God. You
can depend upon what it says. It
cannot err. It cannot deceive
you. Its purpose is to bring
you to faith and keep you in the true faith.
This is implicit throughout Luther’s writings.
He does not pit the Bible against the gospel or the gospel against
the Bible so as to argue that the one is God’s word on account of the
other. Rather, he finds the
gospel in the Bible. For him
the normative authority of the Holy Scriptures cannot be disjoined from
the causative authority of the Bible as a means of grace.
Systematic theologians may do well to make such distinctions, but
for faith the authority of the word and the efficacy of the word must be
tightly bound together. The
promise is true. The promise
is powerful. It is true.
Faith may rely upon it. It
is powerful. Faith is born by
We speak of the object of faith,
but when speaking in terms of subject and object we might assume a
theoretical separation of the two. There
is no possible separation between faith and God’s word.
Why is that? It is
because the Word of God justifies. It
speaks to faith what faith alone can receive and which by that receiving
becomes true faith. Luther
touch of Christ healed, how much more would His tender spiritual touch –
the Word truly absorbed – give to the soul all that His Word possesses?
It is in this way, therefore, that the soul, alone through faith,
without works, is justified from the Word of God. It is justified, sanctified, clothed with truth, peace, and
liberty, filled completely with every good thing, and truly made a child
of God. (p 23)
Faith is inextricably bound to the
word of God. Faith is the
reason the Bible was written. Faith
is the reason the preaching office was instituted.
While Luther doesn’t speak directly to all of the many current
debates on the ministry, there are certain applications that we should
make. First, there is no
authority of the preaching office except the authority of the word of God.
By word of God I mean that which is clearly taught in the Holy
Scriptures. Second, the sole
duties of the preaching office are to proclaim the word of God and to
administer the sacraments of Christ.
Third, the only purpose of the preaching office is that we may
obtain and possess that faith through which we are justified by God.
No earthly power may supplant the sole authority of God’s word.
No ecclesiastical entity may form another office whose duties
diverge from that which Christ commissioned His first ministers to do. No other purpose of this office can exist than that purpose
for which Christ instituted it: the justification of sinners through
It is false doctrine to teach a
divine call to an office that claims an authority other than the authority
of the clear Scriptures. There
is no divine call to carry out the instructions of men.
There is only a divine call to carry out instructions from God. It is false doctrine to teach the divine institution of an
office that does anything but what Christ personally gave the office to do
when He told His apostles to do it. It
is false doctrine to teach that the purpose of the ministry of the word is
to enable or equip others to do the work of the ministry or to do any
other work, for that matter. The
sole purpose of the ministry of the word is faith. (AC V)
Whatever comes between faith and
the word of God destroys faith.
faith receives everything that Christ has to give. When the later Lutherans defined justifying faith as pure
receptivity they confessed the doctrine already taught by Luther in 1520
when he wrote the treatise we are discussing today.
Luther was a confessional Lutheran already in 1520 long before the
Confessions were written. His
doctrine of justification is the same doctrine confessed in the Apology
ten years later, in the Formula of Concord 57 years later, and by the
Lutheran dogmaticians throughout the Seventeenth Century.
It is perfectly true that Luther did not use all of the theological
formulations with which we are familiar today.
But it is not true that the Lutheran Confessions parted from
Luther’s doctrine of justification.
When Luther speaks of faith he may
describe it as being active rather than passive.
But this can be misunderstood.
For example, Luther writes:
be obvious why so much importance is attributed to faith.
Faith alone can fulfill the law and justify with works.
The First Commandment, “You shall have no other Gods,” is
fulfilled alone by faith. (p 31)
But faith does not justify with
its own works. It justifies
with Christ’s works, as we have seen.
Luther points out that in a marriage “whatever each possesses
becomes the common property of both.” (p 31)
Faith justifies, therefore, by receiving the property of Christ.
God does not justify the believer
on account of a presence of Christ in faith, as if justification occurs by
means of Christ indwelling the believer (Tuomo Mannermaa).
Nor does God justify the believer proleptically, that is, in view
of the good that God will bring to perfection in the believer in the
future (Karl Holl). Nor is
the justification of the believer accomplished by means of a sacramental
presence of Christ that brings about a recreation of the believer that
restores him to the image of God. All
of these ways of describing justification are designed to avoid the very
heart of the matter, which is this: God justifies the believer by
reckoning to him the righteousness of Jesus, that is to say, by forgiving
him his sins. There is no forgiveness of sins or righteousness apart from
Christ, and this means that there is no forgiveness of sins apart from
God’s word, and this means that there is no forgiveness of sins except
by faith alone in the word of Christ that tells us our sins are forgiven.
When Luther talks about faith as
an activity that sets Christ and His righteousness against the judgment of
the law, he is not thereby defining faith as active rather than passive.
He is saying that the essence of faith is confidence or trust in
what it has received. Faith
receives Christ and all that belongs to Christ.
It boasts in Christ and in all that Christ has to give.
Faith isn’t the victory over sin, death, and hell because of how
it actively participates in this or that virtue that belongs to Christ.
No, faith is the victory over sin, death, and hell because it is
through faith that all of our sin becomes Christ’s and all of Christ’s
righteousness becomes ours. But
how can all of our sin become Christ’s through our faith?
Didn’t our sin become Christ’s by imputation when He died for
us? Yes, but faith sees this,
knows this, and rests secure in this because the promise of God’s word
says it is so and, as we have seen, faith and the word of God are
inextricably entwined. Luther
frequently uses the word faith as a synecdoche referring to the word of
God to which it is attached and by which it is defined. The word is never an inert proposition, but it is always God
Himself speaking and binding Himself to the promises He speaks.
So then, faith, the word, Christ, and our justification are all
bound together and inseparable. The confidence of faith is Christ and His righteousness given
to us in the promise of the gospel.
And this is our life with God.
faith is the Christian’s life with God.
“The just shall live by faith.”
That is, he shall live with God by faith.
We don’t live with God by works.
That’s the error of those who live to justify themselves.
That’s a life of insulting God and calling Him a liar.
The life of faith is the life of honoring God by affirming that His
promises are true. Faith does
not demand from God what God has not promised, but faith takes what God
has promised and holds on to it for dear life because the promises of God
are our life.
The life of faith is lived under
the cross. The cross we bear
is the contradiction between what we believe and what we experience. We believe that we are righteous and we experience sin.
Our cross is relieved by Christ’s cross.
The contradiction between our faith, which is our life hidden with
God in Christ, and the life we see and feel in our bodies cannot be
resolved except in the suffering of Jesus.
No other resolution will do and any other attempt to resolve it
will undermine our faith.
The only way that faith can be our
life with God is if any consideration of our works – even those done as
the fruit of faith – is entirely discarded.
We may not even think of them.
They are irrelevant. As
Luther put it, “Faith cannot coexist with works.” (p 16)
Whenever you hear the words, “merely forensic” as a criticism
of the traditional Lutheran doctrine of justification you know that it is
your own personal faith and thus your own personal life with God that is
being attacked. When we say
that justification is purely forensic we are merely saying that God says
we are righteous and His saying it makes it so.
God justifies sinners by what He says to them.
Whether we use terms like reckon, impute, the blessed exchange, or
whatever, we are talking about God rendering upon us a verdict that is
revealed in His word and that verdict is that Christ’s righteousness is
ours even as our sin became His and so for Christ’s sake we stand before
God as righteous saints without any charge against us.
It is God who justifies! Who
is he that condemns?
Faith is born in weakness because
God puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts them of low degree. Weakness comes from seeing the contradiction between what we
believe and what we see. We
see sin, sickness, doubt, pain, and finally death.
But God teaches us that what we see is not so. He teaches us that in Christ, that is, for Christ’s sake,
we are pure, holy, and righteous and that we shall never die or face
death. So when we confess our
sins to God we are always rejecting every attempt at self-justification. The source and strength of all religious efforts at
self-justification is our own sinful heart.
Faith stubbornly insists upon the verbal assurance of our
justification and salvation. In
other words: God said it and that settles it.
And as far as our life with God is
concerned, there is nothing more to be said.
We cannot begin to live with one another and with our neighbor
until our life with God is established.
This life is faith and it is faith alone.
Therefore it must exclude all works we do or will ever do.
Faith is quite stubborn in this regard.
It won’t permit anyone to change to subject. “Yes, but you must do . . .” “NO!” Faith replies.
Don’t tell me what I must do to receive the life that God has
given me to live. He has
given me this life. I
didn’t choose it for myself. He
has prepared this life for me. I
didn’t prepare it myself. The
righteousness and holiness and virtue and beauty of this life are wholly
His gracious doing in the person and work of His dear Son, and there is
nothing I can do to supplement, improve, refine, or perfect what my Savior
has done for me. So do not
tell me about what I must do to live with God. Point me instead to the Son in whom His Father is well
pleased. Tell me of what He
did it and how He did it all for me.
Bring Him to me as I confess to God that my works have failed so
that through faith I might be found in Christ, having his righteousness
alone. This faith is my life with God.
When God tells us that we are lords over everything for Christ’s sake, we take Him at His word. All that exists in heaven and earth serves the cause of maintaining this lordship to which God has called us. All creation exists to serve us. God has said so. That makes it so. And only from this exalted position given to us by God in Christ may we learn to humble ourselves to serve our neighbor.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus