Luther’s Doctrine of Justification (4) – R. Hanko

MLutherThe Wedding Ring of Faith: Passive Justification

The exchange of our sins for Christ’s perfect righteousness, according to Luther, takes place through faith:

By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than the death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride, “without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word” cf. Eph. 5:26-27

of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation. In this way he marries her in faith, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice, as Hos. 2:19-20 says.6

According to Luther, that faith by which we are justified is entirely a work of God, and in no sense a work of man. By way of emphasizing this he often described justifying faith as passive:

For between these two kinds of righteousness, the active righteousness of the law and the passive righteousness of Christ, there is no middle ground. Therefore he who has strayed away from this Christian righteousness will necessarily relapse into the active righteousness, that is, when he has lost Christ, he must fall into a trust in his own works.7

By the use of the word “passive,” however, Luther did not mean that justifying faith is without any activity at all. He did not deny that faith is believing and trusting, resting and relying upon Christ. Nevertheless, he believed that faith was first and foremost union with Christ, the marriage of Christ and the believer by which they become one flesh, the union through which the sins of the believer are actually transferred to Christ and the righteousness of Christ given to the believer.8

His emphasis continues to serve as a necessary antidote to the current teaching that makes faith another work. He was much nearer the truth than those who deny gracious justification by speaking of faith as a decision of man’s own will or by suggesting that faith is man’s response to a well-meant “offer” of salvation in the gospel. Of this Luther would have nothing:

For faith is a divine work which God demands of us; but at the same time He Himself must implant it in us, for we cannot believe by ourselves.9

6. Luther’s Works, vol. 31, pp. 351, 352, “The Freedom of a Christian.”

7. Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 9, “The Argument of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.”

8. By the use of the word “passive” Luther also meant that the faith which unites us to Christ unites us to His suffering (the words “passive” and “passion” are related). Thus, too, justifying faith is far from inactive in that it shares, through union with Christ, in Christ’s suffering. That suffering, according to Luther, included not only sharing in Christ’s reproach and persecution, but in the agony of dying to sin and being killed by the law.

9. Luther’s Works, vol. 23, p. 23, “Sermon on John 6:28, 29.”

The fourth section of an article by Rev. Ronald Hanko found in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (cf. link below), a special Reformation issue focusing on the life and teachings of the great Reformer, Martin Luther. We are quoting from this article leading up to Reformation Day 2018 (Oct.31).

Source: Luther’s Doctrine of Justification (1) | Standard Bearer

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