From Doubt to Certainty: Luther’s Transformation

A.S. Haley looks at Luther’s path towards justification by faith alone by grace alone

Despite all the tumult and clamor, the year 2017 did not mark the “500th anniversary” of the Reformation movement begun by Martin Luther. At most, it marked the 500th year after Luther sent off his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, to protest the manner in which indulgences were being offered and awarded under that eminence’s authority.

(As Richard Rex shows in the opening pages of his recent work, The Making of Martin Luther, the notorious incident of Luther’s nailing the theses to the wooden doors of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on All Hallows’ Eve of 1517 is in all probability a myth that was loosely fabricated, just after Luther died, by his colleague Philipp Melanchthon. Its vividness has gripped the popular imagination ever since, but it never happened in that way in 1517. Instead of posting them publicly, Luther quietly mailed his theses, and a fawning covering letter, to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, who in due course referred them to the local university for advice. They did not see print, translation (from Latin into German), and wider circulation until January 1518.)

As noted, the Ninety-five Theses were directed against the offer and award of indulgences, which in Luther’s case had been authorized by Pope Leo X and (in his territory) Archbishop Albrecht for contributions made toward the cost of building the massive edifice that would become St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Ironically, Luther’s own sovereign, the Elector Frederick, did not authorize them in his territory of Wittenberg, due to the fact that he already enjoyed a steady stream of pilgrims coming to view the huge collection of saints’ relics he had amassed over the years, and did not want to contribute in any way to a lessening of that trade.

Indulgences had developed in the Middle Ages as a means of remitting the temporal penalties due on account of a Christian’s sins committed after baptism (which wiped the slate clean as of that point, so to speak, but could do nothing about a Christian’s subsequent falls from grace). These penalties were imposed as part of the Catholic rite of penance, and in the Middle Ages involved harsh fasting and mortification of the flesh.

At the beginning of the second millennium, indulgences were offered as an inducement to undertake the perilous pilgrimage to Jerusalem (whether as a Crusader or otherwise), from which many did not return. Later, they expanded to cover still other charitable acts, and could be applied by the living to shorten the time in Purgatory of those already dead. The notion of their being “sold” derived from their use to pay the cost of building St. Peter’s — technically, the money went in as a “contribution”, and the indulgence was granted in order to induce the contribution. The Catholic Church still offers indulgences today for certain penitential acts and attendance at special masses.

Thus, it is fascinating to note that in 1517, Martin Luther’s chief complaint about transactions in indulgences was that the faithful were being deceived into believing that they could “purchase” an assured salvation, simply by acquiring enough indulgences. Take a look at these selections from Luther’s 95:

23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.

24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty. 

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. 

30. No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission.

32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

33. Men must especially be on guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.

Luther thus was railing against the notion that a sinner’s salvation could be assured, i.e., made certain in this life, by acquiring enough indulgences. As he added, in his cover letter to Archbishop Albrecht:

For a human being does not attain security about salvation through any episcopal function, since a person does not even become secure through the infused grace of God. But instead the Apostle [Paul] orders us constantly to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” “It is hard for the righteous to be saved.” Furthermore, “the way is [so] narrow that leads to life,” that the Lord through the prophets Amos and Zechariah calls those who will be saved “a brand plucked from the fire.” The Lord, too, announces the difficulty of salvation everywhere. How then can the [indulgence preachers] make the people secure and unafraid through those false tales and promises linked to indulgences…?  

When most people speak of Luther’s “Reformation”, they refer to the promulgation of his doctrine of “justification through faith alone.” Again, however, it is necessary to observe (again, as shown superbly in chapter 4 of Prof. Rex’s book linked above) that Luther knew nothing of any such doctrine in 1517. Its first glimmerings appear in his writings in 1518. And it is in the uncovering of Luther’s development of that doctrine that the real truths behind the Reformation emerge.

Note, first of all, the paradox in Luther’s doctrine compared to his criticism of indulgences. If one can be saved by faith alone, then there is a path to assured salvation in this life by the believer’s making certain of his genuine (and repentant) faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing more, according to Luther, is required.

Yet not even the Pope himself, again according to Luther (see above), could assure anyone in this world of salvation by the Pope’s plenary power (the keys given to Peter by Christ — see Mt. 16:19) to remit sins here on earth.

Thus Luther went from criticizing a “get-out-of-jail-free” card offered by the pope for contributions to offering one of his own, which required nothing more than the believer’s sincere confession of faith — and all this in the space of one year. What happened to cause such a “revolution”?

The details are carefully and painstakingly compiled in chapter 4 of Professor Rex’s book. In general, Luther by 1517 had become an extremely insecure and anxious Augustine monk, for whom no amount of self-mortification, fasting, or other harsh penances performed to restore him to grace after confession could prevent him from sinning again (and needing to go through penance once more). A redoubling of his efforts left him exhausted and just as depressed and uncertain as before; his confessor encouraged him to let go of his guilt and “love God.”

Then, at some point in the Lenten season of 1518, Luther had his famous revelation (“in cloaca” — presumably, while sitting in the privy) based on his re-reading of Romans 1:17: “. . . [T]he just [righteous] one shall gain life [be preserved] because of his faithfulness” (quoting Hab. 2:4). He then developed his famous doctrine out of the following syllogism:

A. Christ Himself promised that “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mt. 16:15).

B. Christ’s promises are as certain as certain can be, because He is God.

C. Therefore, the only thing a sinner needs to be certain of enjoying the fruits of Christ’s promise is an abiding faith in Him.

From this point forward, Luther insisted that to doubt this doctrine was to disbelieve in Christ, and in the certainty of His promise, so that the very act of doubting would prevent the faithful believer from achieving salvation. For example, before his transformation, Luther in his Lectures on Romans  (1515-16) had cited the traditional text against the certainty of knowing salvation here on earth, Eccles. 9:1, and had acknowledged Aquinas’ conclusion that in accordance with this text, “no one can know whether they possess justifying grace” (Summa Theologiae, 1a 2ae q. 112, art. 5).

But in 1518, he wrote, in his lectures on Hebrews (comment on Heb. 9:24):

[One must] treat with the utmost caution the opinion of those who apply this text [Eccles. 9:1] … to the circumstances of the present moment so as to make people uncertain about the mercy of God and faith in salvation. For this is to overthrow completely Christ and His faith. 

According to Luther, before Christ came and made his promise as stated in Mt. 16:15, the sinner could abide only in the ambiguous uncertainty afforded by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 9:1, and hence was doomed to be always in doubt. But after Christ’s appearance on earth, there could no longer be any basis for uncertainty on the part of the believer, since Christ (corroborated by Paul) had promised salvation to everyone who believed in Him. Any such uncertainty made one unworthy of confessing his sins (uncertainty meant the Christian had doubt as to whether his confession and the priest’s absolution could operate to remit his sins), and thus disabled the doubting sinner from being the recipient of God’s grace through faith in Christ, as promised by Christ Himself.

For Luther after 1518, faith in Jesus Christ alone made certain the sinner’s justification (being declared righteous before God), while any doubt that one could be so justified constituted a betrayal of Christ’s solemn promise, and hence was a form of blasphemy. (There is much more detail on this point in ch. 4 of Prof. Rex’s book; see also his own “95 Theses”, posted here.) This severe, but very bright, line placed Luther on a collision course with the Church in which he both evolved and taught. And when it led inevitably (due to Luther’s intractability, and fondness for hurling invective at his opponents, both Catholics and otherwise) to his excommunication from that Church, it sealed the fate both of that Church and of the millions who ever since have trusted Luther to show the way to salvation.

There is much more to be said about Luther’s doctrine of salvation through faith alone. Notice, for example, that Christ in Mt. 16:15 made faith in Him a necessary, but not expressly a sufficient, criterion for the sinner to be saved. Christ affirmed was that it was essential for a sinner to place his belief (trust) in Christ to be saved — so much is undeniable — but He nowhere asserted that a sinner could be saved on the basis of his trusting faith alone. (Compare John 3:16, as well as numerous other passages in Paul, to the same effect.)

It was Luther — seeking any plausible way out of his depression and anxiety over what he could do to be saved — who read the word “sola” (alone) into the text of Matthew. In doing so, he transformed a necessary condition for salvation into an ostensibly sufficient one, and changed the course of religious history ever since. For who can be the judge (in this life) of sola fide in a believer, but that believer himself?

And thereon hangs another entire chapter of the Lutheran “Reformation”. In order to put that chapter into context, it will first be necessary to examine a question which has been the topic of much recent scholarship: namely, whose faith is it that is a criterion for salvation according to St. Paul? Did St. Paul teach that it was the faith of the sinner in Christ that operated to save him, or did he mean that it was Christ’s faithfulness to God’s will that established the necessary precursor to everyone’s salvation? That will be the topic I will take up in my next post.

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