Justification in the Lutheran Confessions

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What does it mean to be a confessing or confessional church? Christians who have never heard these terms, may immediately imagine this has something to do with the Roman Catholic Church, thinking of the confessional booth, that place where practicing Roman Catholics confess their sins to a priest. Although the private confession of sin and the absolution of sin finds its place in a confessional church, the confessional closet does not approximate a description of the confessing church. It is the historic documents called The Lutheran Confessions that this paper will explore, not the confession of sin. It is the confession of a historic Christian Faith that is at the heart of what it means to be a confessing church. So what one professes or believes and certainly, what one does not believe, will be examined.

Confessions or statements of belief are nothing new. The statements, “I believe” and “We believe” are well-known in the church. The early church developed three brief but major confessions in response to times of crises of belief. These crises were over matters of heresy. At such times, the church needs to be reminded of what they believe. The Apostles’ Creed is one of these early creeds. Though no one knows for certain when the Apostles’ Creed was penned, some estimates suggest it was already in use in the late second century of the Christian or common era. Certainly it had been in use much earlier than 389 CE, since Ambrose of Milan (1) referred to it then in a manner that made it sound as if it had always been available to the church.

But if they will not believe the doctrines of the Clergy, let them believe the oracles of Christ, let them believe the admonitions of Angels who say, For with God nothing shall be impossible. Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled. (2)

The “Creed of the Apostles,” as Ambrose called the Apostles’ Creed, like all creeds, was written to establish what we believe or confess as true, in opposition to an error or heretical teaching that was seen as a threat to orthodoxy. As such, the Apostles’ Creed was written to affirm that Jesus Christ was no spirit, that he was truly man. The creed confesses that Jesus was actually a human being, in response to the heresies of the early gnostic groups, particularly the Marcionites, who taught that Jesus was a spiritual being and that the Hebrew God was inferior to Christ, having created an evil, material world.

There are many other early confessions of faith, most notably the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. As the Apostles’ Creed confesses the humanity of Christ, the Nicene Creed teaches his deity. This Nicene Creed of the fourth century is in response to the Arians, who denied that Jesus was fully God. The third major, early creed bears the name of the great defender of Nicene faith, Athanasius of Alexandria, and confesses the incarnate Christ—that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine—and that the Son and the Spirit are of one being with the Father. This creed confesses the true faith, once again, in response to the Arians. This creed is the longer of the three and seeks to define the Trinity (that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are together one God) more concretely.

Augustine also wrote his Confessions. Much later, in the middle of the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church penned their confessions at the Council of Trent. Their confessions (3) are in response to what they saw as the heresy of the Reformation. Much later, Karl Barth and the Confessing Church in Germany wrote in response to the Nazi movement of Adolph Hitler. Again, they did not write in a way that formed a new church or denomination but rather, they affirmed and confessed what Christians believe and this, in response to the spiritual and political crisis called Nazisim, and the heresy of the German Lutheran Church that bought into it nearly wholesale.

What this paper will explore however, are The Lutheran Confessions (primarily through “The Augsburg Confession” and its “Apology”) that began to develop just shortly before the decrees of the Council of Trent. What is it that those Lutherans confessed or believed nearly 500 years ago, and in response to what? The original Lutheran compulsion to draft a document or as it turns out, a collection of documents, developed in the sixteenth century during another spiritual and political crisis—the Reformation. The Reformation was tearing at the fabric of Europe such that Emperor Charles finally called upon the Pope to convene a General Council of the Church. (4) Leading up to this continental crisis of faith and imperial rule were Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, and his refusal to recant his teaching at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. He “was declared a criminal and a heretic…excommunicated and sentenced to death…” (5) Nevertheless, “by 1526, the Reformation had spread to the point that, during an Imperial Meeting at Speyer, the Lutheran princes forced through a resolution that gave each of them the right to arrange religious matters in their territories—in any way he felt was best…” This was the crisis of faith in culture that brought about The Lutheran Confessions. The result was that both the Emperor and the Pope called upon the Lutherans to write down what they confessed to be the true faith.

The Lutherans confessed nothing new but only that which had been historically held as true and faithful by the Church catholic.

These documents begin with the three ancient creeds of the church, in order to assert that the Lutherans confessed nothing new but only that which had been historically held as true and faithful by the Church catholic. Yet they could not and did not stop with the creeds, for these had not torn at the fabric of a society that realized a united church and state. What was it that Lutherans confessed in opposition to the church in Rome that was causing the problems that Charles faced? The remainder of this paper will deal with many of the additional documents compiled as the confessions Lutheran in The Book of Concord or Concordia, as well as what some others thought about those confessions.

It is in “The Augsburg Confession” of June 15, 1530, that The Lutheran Confessions continue after stating the three ecumenical creeds. Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s associate, wrote this…

comprehensive statement of faith. He did so without close consultation with Luther, but he relied heavily on the Schwabach, Marburg, and Torgau Articles—each of which was very much a product of Martin Luther. Luther indicated he approved of Melanchthon’s work, though he pointed out that he would never have been able “to tread as lightly” as Melanchthon did. (7)

The emperor had tried unsuccessfully to eliminate Lutheranism by military force. He would try again by academic and ecclesial persuasion. No one was better suited to be the voice of the Reformers than Melanchthon, being both thoroughly academic and at the same time able speak in tones more acceptable than would have been Luther’s. Nevertheless, in the Confessions, though it is Melanchthon’s style, it is Luther’s theological voice one hears in these writings that both confess what Lutherans held in common with Catholics and what they found to be wanting, and sometimes even heretical in the doctrines of Rome.

Melanchthon begins to confess for the reforming Lutherans with “God,” the title of the Article I in “The Augsburg Confession.” There is nothing new or surprising here, though the freedom of voice afforded by the Reformation gave radical groups opportunity to revive earlier heresies. (8) Lutherans, like Catholics, confessed God as one divine presence in three distinct persons. Luther himself, further spells out the catholic doctrine of God in Article II of his “Smalcald Articles.” Luther clearly and uncompromisingly goes to the heart of the Reformation doctrine of justification in what he called “The Chief Article.” Even in speaking to the doctrine of Christ as God, Luther declares:

All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25).

This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies. (9)

Karl Barth spots Luther’s summarized, central teaching here:

The issue is the justification of the sinful person before God through Christ alone through faith. The emphasis is upon “through faith.” The righteousness of the sinner before God is the righteousness of faith. That was the discovery that Luther made in Romans. That was the banner of the Reformation carried out under his name. It opposed the old church because it tortured the conscience on the one hand and on the other hand made the conscience careless through its demands for a righteousness of works. (10)

Luther insisted, “Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls.” (11)

Article II deals with “Original Sin.” Here already, Lutherans begin to part ways with Catholic doctrine, and in ways that are central to the Reformation. The difference is that the Roman Church taught then and teaches now in regard to original sin, merely the doctrine of concupiscence, that there is inborn in all humanity the inclination to sin. The Lutheran distinctive is that we not only have the inclination, but that we are by nature and definition born in sin. Again, this points to the “chief article” about the nature of Christ. He was not naturally born and therefore is the only one ever born outside of an “original depravity.” (12) “All who are naturally born are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with the inclination to sin,” (13) as well. These things that are inborn to our nature are themselves sin and bring eternal death on anyone who is not born again to what might be called an unnatural state of being. To deny this brings about the notion that one might actually be able to cooperate with God through good works and personal righteousness, and find justification by “his own strength and reason.” (14) The doctrine of concupiscence, the original inclination to sin, as opposed to that of actual original sin, was repugnant to Luther because it denies the need for a Savior. If one is even in the position of possibly being able to merit justification with God by his own works, then for that person, there is no need for Christ, the Son of God spoken of in Article III. Luther confesses that this is untenable.

Article IV pertains to justification. One might have expected Melanchthon to afford more space to that which Rome would surely take the greatest offense. He gives it one paragraph of three straightforward sentences. The Roman Catholic confutation of the Augsburg Confession was so forceful that he would find the need to give a great deal more space in “The Apology of the Augsburg Confession.” In Melanchthon’s defense, he likely thought the preceding three articles had clearly proved the need of our justification for Christ’s sake and not by any merit of our own. Moreover, he may naively have expected the Catholics to know and believe the teachings of the Church Fathers. He quotes Ambrose for them in Article XX: “Redemption by Christ’s blood would be worth little, and God’s mercy would not surpass man’s works, if justification, which is accomplished through grace, were due to prior merits. So justification would not be the free gift from a donor, but the reward due the laborer.” (15)

Article V takes aim at the Anabaptists, as well as the Catholics. In this article “On the Ministry,” Melanchthon further drives home justification by faith alone. The ministry of Christ’s Word and Sacraments, or what the Germans called the Preaching Office, was instituted by God as a means of grace. One comes to faith through this office. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17, ESV). Thus one experiences justification through faith alone, simply by hearing the Word of God. “The Holy Spirit works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news…” (16) No other activity or agent is required for justification but the gracious working of the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments.

Lutherans accepted into their congregations those who were baptized in other traditions. This is treated in Article VIII, which teaches against the Donatists, or those who require the Word and Sacraments to be administered by so-called good and righteous men. Again, the Donatist heresy takes away from the glory of God. If it takes a righteous man to effect justification, then what need is there of the Son of God?

If it takes a righteous man to effect justification, then what need is there of the Son of God?

Melanchthon confessed for Lutherans in Article IX that baptism is necessary for salvation, as the Word dictates. In Article X, Lutherans confessed that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper. The Readers Edition of Concordia, explains, “Lutheranism has no theory or philosophical explanation of how Christ is present. Rather, Lutherans insist on answering the what of the Lord’s Supper.” They teach that the bread truly is the body of Christ and that the wine is really his blood. Melanchthon’s “Augsburg Confession” states all of this in two sentences, without getting into squabbles over the Mass and transubstantiation. One sees here an opportunity where Luther would not have trod so lightly.

It may surprise many that Articles XI and XXV deal positively with confession. Lutherans believed in the practice of private confession and absolution, but not the need to confess each jot and tittle of their sins. “Our churches teach that naming every sin is not necessary and that consciences should not be burdened with worry about naming every sin.” (17) Luther had tried this to the point of mania and found it wanting, only to be answered by the doctrine of justification he discovered in Romans. The Lutheran practice of confession has waned over the five centuries since the Reformation but is still very much alive in strains of Lutheranism today.

Article XIII, “The Use of Sacraments,” teaches that sacraments were ordained by God, yet not to be used as a basis for further sinning. The practice of receiving the sacraments as absolution, just to condone continued sin because the sacraments would later alleviate guilt and condemnation, is condemned in the Augsburg Confession. Rather, Lutherans confess that the sacraments instead, “awaken and confirm faith in those who use them.” (18)

Article XVI, “Concerning Free Will,” again speaks to justification by faith alone, without actually mentioning the doctrine. The confession of the Lutherans at Wittenberg was that people have the ability or the “freedom to choose some civil righteousness and do things subject to reason.” (19) They are, however, wholly incapable of any freedom of the will when it comes to performing any spiritual righteousness, the righteousness of God, without the aid of the Holy Spirit. This is initiated by God and is therefore, not the free will of a person. We are incapable of producing “the inward motions, such as the fear of God, trust in God, chastity, patience, and so on.” (20) Although, “by the time of the Reformation, the Roman Church had fully developed a false and potentially damning doctrine, one that stated that a person is able, to some degree, to strive for and receive God’s mercy,” (21) the Lutheran confession was actually in keeping with the earlier Catholic teaching of Augustine.

We grant that all people have a free will. It is free as far as it has the judgment of reason. This does not mean that it is able, without God, either to begin, or at least to complete, anything that has to do with God. It is only free in the works of this life, whether good or evil…. For all of these things depend upon the providence of God. They are from him and exist through him. (22)

We are not by our own, natural power able to effect anything that produces the righteousness of God. We are “called, illumined and awakened by His prophetic Word.” (23) Again, even in an article of free will, the Lutherans speak to the chief article of justification by the grace of God through faith in Christ alone.

Once again, an article of faith in the Confessions is centered in the teaching of justification. This time, it springs from a bit longer article, number XX, “On Good Works.” Here, Melanchthon insists that Christians must do good works, yet they are not saved by them in any way. This differs with the Catholic teaching that we must have good works in addition to having faith in order to merit eternal salvation. The Lutheran position is that we satisfy the Law with good works, and please God in doing so. Yet his pleasure “is not because we satisfy the Law, but because we are in Christ,” (24) who moves us to keep his commands. Our “good works do not cause justification; rather, they are the result” (25) of our having been justified by God. “Ambrose says: ‘Faith is the mother of good will and doing what is right.’” (26) Good works are warranted but not worthy of justification. Only God’s grace conciliates the stricken conscience. Melanchthon points to the fact that no amount of good works ever appeases the guilty conscience. It is only faith that “consoles and encourages the terrified mind,” (27) a confession that Melanchthon returns to time and time again.

Up to this point, Melanchthon had tried to point to the catholic doctrines and how the Romans and the Lutherans agreed or, if they disagreed, how easily the matter could be corrected. In Article XXI, he comes to an issue that would cause no small amount of reaction from the defenders of the Roman doctrines. In dealing with the “Worship of the Saints,” he cautions:

Our churches do not dissent from any article of the faith held by the Church catholic. They only omit some of the newer abuses. They have been erroneously accepted through the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of canon law. Therefore, we pray your Imperial Majesty will graciously hear what has been changed and why the people are not compelled to observe those things that are an abuse against their consciences. (28)

Melanchthon knew full well that the practice of venerating the saints would be a troublesome article. He appeals to the emperor, knowing he could not do the same to the pope. The practice of the idolatrous worship of Mary and other saints was deeply entrenched, and remains so today.

Another practice that remains in the Catholic Church to this day, is the distribution of only the bread during the Lord’s Supper. Only priests drank the wine. The explanation given was that the body contains the blood at any rate, so the bread is sufficient. The Lutheran Confessions instruct that this is clearly in contradiction of the Scripture and that it is church tradition that is allowed to govern this practice. Sola Scriptura is invoked; what do the Scriptures teach us? Therefore, “the laity are given both kinds in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper because this practice has been the Lord’s command: ‘Drink it, all of you.’” (29)

Perhaps, suspecting that the Lord’s command would not be sufficient to the Roman Church, Melanchthon reminded them of Pope Gelasius’ command that, “the Sacrament not be divided.” (30) It had only been recent custom that had changed the command of the Lord to the order of a pope.

Another article addressed a relatively recent custom of the church. It too would cause some discontent. Article XXIII handles “The Marriage of Priests.” The Catholic practice then and now was that priests are forbidden to marry. The Lutheran position was that the church has no authority to forbid what the Scriptures do not teach. Furthermore, “it is clear that in the Ancient Church priests were married men.” (31) It had only been that “four hundred years [earlier] in Germany, for the first time, priests were violently forced to lead a single life.” (32) Even existing marriages were involuntarily dissolved. The notes in the Readers Edition of Concordia also point out that the Apostle Peter, whom the Roman Church points to as priest and pope, was married, and kept his wife while in the ministry.

Their desire was to sustain the practices of the Ancient Church.

Though there are places where the Lutheran confessions differ with the Catholics, their desire was to sustain the practices of the Ancient Church. For example, Lutherans kept the orthodox form of the Mass. In other words, they kept the practice of Holy Communion. The ceremonies and liturgies of the two churches were akin to each other. The practices were the same but what they meant at Lutheran and Catholic tables were very different. The difference was that while Lutherans confessed that Christ was really present in the Supper, Catholics taught that in the Mass, Christ was sacrificed again. Their view is based on the belief that the Mass takes away the sin by performing the act and that the act needs repeated performance due to our continued sinning. Therefore, “trust in God and true worship were forgotten.” (33) Conversely, Lutherans taught what the Scriptures state, that, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Christ once for all.” Christ’s single offering was all that was necessary to perfect forever those whom he sanctified. “Therefore the Mass is to be used for administering the Sacrament to those that need consolation. Ambrose says, ‘Because I always sin, I need to take the medicine.’” (35)

In Article XXVI, “The Distinction of Meats,” the chief article of the Gospel is again invoked. Whether or not someone should eat a particular kind of meat on a particular day, fast, or feast, is a matter of Christian freedom, not church mandate. By the time of the Reformation, it was taught and believed that such traditions somehow merited the favor of God. Indeed, it was taught that they were necessary to merit his favor, as though these or any other practice could do so. Melanchthon warned that “the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith has been obscured by this view.” (36) Nothing was more dangerous to the Lutheran mind.

Nothing was more dangerous to the Lutheran mind.

Another article that should have been regarded as a matter of individual faith practice was Article XXVII, “Monastic Vows.” Martin Luther and others who had been priests, had a great deal to say about the practice, and they had many good things to say along with all the bad. However, the one overarching evil was that people were compelled to enter and stay in their vows as a way of obtaining and maintaining their favor with God. By now, it should be abundantly clear why Melanchthon called justification by grace through faith alone “the chief article of the Gospel.” Every article points back to this chief article, including those pertaining to monastic vows, free will, and even eating fish as opposed to some tasty bratwürste. We may expect justification to hinge on the Mass and perhaps even on the article about God, but we see that justification is everywhere of paramount importance to the Lutherans. Karl Barth noticed. He wrote, “the doctrine of justification has had the function of a basic and central dogma in relation to which everything else will be either presupposition or consequence, either prologue or epilogue; that its significance has been that of the Word of the Gospel.” (37) Justification is the “unum necessarium,” (38) “the theological truth” (39) upon which all other theology must necessarily find its origin, else we cannot discover how to “lay hold of a gracious God.” (40)

Pope Benedict XVI noticed. In his third apostolic visit to his and Martin Luther’s homeland, Germany, he said in a recent speech, beginning with a question of Luther’s:

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of [Luther’s] whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. […] In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther. (41)

Notice Benedict’s focus on things Luther. How do we receive God’s grace? Even the pope saw it as Luther’s chief article. Nothing was more important to Luther; everything hinged upon justification.

Martin Marty also notes how important justification was to Luther, even though it only received a three-sentence treatment in “The Augsburg Confession” by Melanchthon. (42) The leader of the Lutherans was asked by John Frederick, the elector, to write a last will and testament in case he should die before a general council of the church could be convened. In this manner, the elector felt certain that Luther’s views would be known and adopted. The result was “The Smalcald Articles.”

The church of the Augsburg Confession included this personal document along with Luther’s catechisms in its defining statements. He sprang not a single surprise as he etched this summary of his teaching, since his whole mature life had focused on the one teaching labeled justification, which he called the sun, the day, the light of the church. This had to be the nonnegotiable teaching and the rallying point for his associates in any proposed council. The seal on this testament was brash: “Nothing in this article can be conceded or given up, even if heaven and earth or whatever is transitory passed away.” The voice was militant: “On this article stands all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world…. Otherwise everything is lost… (44)

Everything, every article of faith, stands on the doctrine of justification. That is why it permeates “The Augsburg Confession,” though the article “On Justification” is ever so brief. Marty states that, “On that theme turned Luther’s revolution.” (45) “For Luther, everything in his last will and testament (46) came down to the reality that Christ gave up his own certainty to the point of death and, in perfect obedience, did what sinners could not do on their own, namely offer himself to God to give them forgiveness and assurance.” (47) In a word, this is justification. We did not do what God requires and we never could do it. (48) Born into sin, it would not matter at any rate, for we would still be sinners, despite a lifetime of good works and perfection. Yet God loved us so much that in Christ, he provided the way for us to be made the righteous creation he intended.

Everything in “The Augsburg Confession” must by definition, turn on justification.

Therefore, everything in “The Augsburg Confession” must by definition, turn on justification. The article on Baptism (IX) also speaks to justification, since, “Baptism is necessary for salvation” (49) and justification is the qualifier for salvation. “Baptism, then, signifies two things—death and resurrection, that is, full and complete justification.” (50) In To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther treads far more heavily than Melanchthon. “Through canon law the Romanists have almost destroyed and made unknown the wondrous grace and authority of baptism and justification.” (51) Luther speaks specifically here to the priesthood of all believers, in that any Christian may baptize, since all are priests. But he does so in alluding to the point that in baptism one is justified by the Word of God—not through a ceremony of the church.

Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian provides a summary of his doctrine of justification. Here, Luther insists:

The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever, but only by faith. Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith. (52)

Luther goes further. Just as no good work can even assist in the justification of a person to God, he declares that no evil work makes him wicked or damned. (53) It is belief and unbelief in the work of Christ alone that justifies a person to God or for that matter, damns him.

In that Luther had penned these words to Pope Leo himself, one might wonder how the pope took Luther’s declarations. History reveals the facts. He and those Luther referred to as “the monsters of this age,” (54) the administrative apparatus of the Holy See, found his writings as well as The Lutheran Confessions heretical. Luther’s life was forfeit as the result.

Therefore, Article XXVII, “On Church Authority,” should be provocative yet continue to direct our attentions to “the chief article of the Gospel.” In this article, Melanchthon calls us to “keep in mind what the aim of the Gospel is.” (55) This had just paragraphs before been defined as “the authority of the Keys (Matthew 16:19), or the authority of the bishops—according to the Gospel…a power or commandment given by God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments.” (56)

The Lutherans’ concern in clarifying and restraining the power of the bishops was in this: that “some had terribly confused the power of the Church with the power of the State.” (57) The Lutheran states had especially felt this power, since their religion was forcibly attacked with military power. The Church was taking the empire away from the emperor. The Lutheran position was that the authority of the Keys was merely to teach and comfort, despite the actions of those taught, even if it be the emperor himself. The Church has the authority to deal in things eternal, and only by the ministry of the Word. The civil government deals with the other things, the temporal matters in which the Church and the Gospel do not rule on earth. Even this is decreed by the Word of God.

Melanchthon said that there were many more abuses of the Roman Church that he could have written about in “The Augsburg Confession.” He and those unnamed persons who worked with him, limited themselves to the “chief points” in order to keep from making too lengthy a Confession. For example, there had been complaints about matters one would have expected to see listed in the Confession. Indulgences, pilgrimages, excommunications, and who has the right to hear confessions, perform funerals, and preach are among many issues that would have been troubling the Lutherans. Yet the writers restrained themselves in the hope that they would be heard on the chief points mentioned in the articles.

These Confessions were penned in accordance with imperial edict. As such, they are signed and presented not by Philip Melanchthon and those who assisted him but by the emperor’s subjects: John, Duke of Saxony, George, a nobleman of Brandenburg, Ernest, Duke of Lüneberg, Philip, a nobleman of Hesse, John Frederick, Duke of Saxony, Francis, Duke of Lüneberg, Wolfgang, Prince of Anhalt, and the entire Senates of Nürnberg and Reutlingen. They were the ones, after all, who had signed on to the teachings of the Confessions and so, they attached their signatures of approval.

It is important to note their allegiance to the Augsburg Confession, since the emperor’s reply was essentially, “back down or else.” Melanchthon was willing to back down to the level of a compromise but the princes were unwilling. They were given until April 15, 1531, to concede to the emperor’s demands, with threat of seizure of their lands and possessions, and exile if they refused to yield. They held their ground and requested a copy of the Pontifical Confutation of the Augsburg Confession so that they could properly and sufficiently respond. They never received a copy and were instead ordered to not reply to it but to simply accept its conclusions. “Such outrageous demands were wholly unacceptable to the Lutherans.” (59)

While the confutation was being read, notes were being taken, making a reply possible whether the emperor wanted it or not. By the time ordered for concession, April 15, 1531, Melanchthon had written The Apology of the Augsburg Confession. This much longer work responded to the Roman confutation, and defended the original Confession of the Lutherans. Again, “the driving force in the Apology is the repeated insistence that the Bible’s most important and comforting teaching is justification by grace alone.” (60) Melanchthon would return to this “chief article of the Gospel” again and again.

As to the article “On Original Sin,” Melanchthon professes original sin to be an absence of any form of original or natural righteousness. As a result, we are not only bent on sinning, we are already sinners. This is seen in the most serious sins in our natures: ignorance of and contempt for God, a lack of fear of God and a hatred of his judgment, or any confidence in him on the other hand, and putting trust in the things of the world instead of in the grace of God. Lutherans confess that these things are inherent to our nature because we begin this life as entirely unrighteous. This is hardly a politically correct assessment of babies in our world—even in most parts of the Church, then or now. Yet Lutherans confess them as truly the Word of God, listing Scriptures to enforce their confession. (61)

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (62)

Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God
before his eyes. (63)

Barth puts it this way: “Our disposition to [God] is hostile.” (64)

Furthermore, and once again, the doctors of the church confess the same. Thomas Aquinas says: “Original sin includes the loss of original righteousness, and with this a disorderly arrangement of the parts of the soul; therefore, it is not pure loss, but a corruption of habit.” (65) The idea that a person is righteous in his own nature and eventually by his own power is itself a proof of unrighteousness, and “mere hypocrisy before God.” (66) Melanchthon does not wish to argue the points of original sin and states that if anyone wants to argue against the Lutheran position, “then let him argue with Augustine.” (67)

Let him argue with Augustine.

By this time, Melanchthon has gained some Luther-like backbone and calls such arguments, “childish and trivial sophistry.” (68) They are childish because they do not face the depth of our evil natures. “We will never be able to recognize Christ’s benefits unless we understand our evils.” (69) They are trivial because they “minimize sin and punishment when they teach that people can fulfill God’s commandments under their own power.” (70)

“The adversaries,” as Melanchthon steadily calls those who attack the Confessions, agree with the article on Christ. That is ironic since the doctrine of justification which the Romanists have such difficulty with, is anchored in the article on Christ and his fully natural and indivisible divinity and humanity.

Article IV of the Apology is “On Justification” and now receives far more than three sentences. There are several pages on justification in the Apology. In articles IV, V, VI, and XX, “the adversaries” condemned the doctrine of justification. In doing so, one may note that the doctrine was not hidden to their eyes. They, like Barth nearly five centuries later, spotted it even though it did not appear in the article on justification. And so, Melanchthon puts it concisely at the beginning of Article IV. “People obtain forgiveness of sins not because of their own merits, but freely for Christ’s sake, through faith in Christ.” (71)

The scholastics, or the so-called schoolmen, of the Roman Church taught otherwise, that by doing good works, God must give grace to the person who does those works. This is based in reason but ignores the Scriptures. Again, Melanchthon appeals to Scripture and Augustine:

If natural ability, through the free will, is enough for learning how one ought to live and for living aright, then Christ dies in vain. The offense of the cross is made void. Why may I not also cry out about this? Yes, will cry out! And, with Christian grief, I will rebuke them: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4; cf. 2:21) For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto God’s righteousness. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). (72)

“For the Law demands our works and our perfection. But for Christ’s sake, the Gospel freely offers reconciliation to us.” (73) As Barth sees it, this is grounded in the covenant and God’s faithfulness to his creation. So God has a problem. He is righteous and must judge; but he loves his unrighteous creation. This dilemma is resolved in “the lowly obedience of the Son in our place” that “reconciled the world with Himself…[and] affirmed man as His creature in spite of his sin” and as a result, “carried through his covenant with him.” (74) God was faithful to his creation even though his creation was not faithful to him.

We are thus, seen in “the mirror of Christ.” (75) When we look in the mirror dimly (1Cor 13:12), we see the image of Christ, standing in our place. Put another way, when God looks at justified persons, he does not see dimly, he sees truly. God sees his own Son when he looks at the person of faith. This is what the hymn writer means when she says we are “covered by the blood.” (76) When God looks at those justified by Christ alone, he sees people covered in the redeeming blood of Jesus. He sees us through rose-colored glasses, but he sees us clearly.

This is not to say that Christians are no longer actually wrong. They are very wrong in their relation to God; they are sinners. “In relation to God [man] is wrong, and therefore he is accused and condemned and judged by God. He is homo peccator, (77) and in this history, he never ceases to be homo peccator. How then, in the same sentence of God, and therefore in the same history, can he be homo iustus (78)? … How can he be simul peccator et iustus (79)?” (80) Here, Barth rearranges Luther, who said, “simul iustus et peccator.” (81) To look at this from the human perspective will never satisfactorily answer Barth’s question. One cannot couch this in the “Nietzschean motif of the highest and lowest man” (82) and get a solid answer to Barth’s question, let alone a Christian response. This is not a “great synthetic man,” (83) such as Nietzsche’s version of Zarathustra or Whitman’s contradictory but heroically large, America.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes. (84)

Nietzsche and Whitman have no answer to Barth’s question. For Barth, Luther, Augustine, and Paul, the Christian is no synthetic creation. She is not a contradiction or even a paradox. She cannot be a blending of sinner and saint that makes her neither one nor the other, but an inexplicable combination of the two that is somehow now acceptable to the righteousness of the holy God. The doctrine of justification states that the Christian is at once and the same time, simultaneously both a holy person and a sinner, acquitted and offender, innocent and guilty. The lines are not blurred; she is both simultaneously. Barth’s question is, “How in this justification can God be relatively true to Himself and therefore to man—to man and therefore primarily to Himself?” (85) God must be true to himself and yet true to his covenant with Abraham and his offspring.

Paul explains this: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.’” (86) In Christ, the Son of God, true God and yet truly man, God is faithful to both man and self. This is at the heart of the Lutheran Confessions and the doctrine of justification because it is the heart of the gospel. In Christ, God has instituted “a new covenant which cannot be destroyed or even disturbed by any transgression on the part of man.” (87) “The task of the doctrine of justification is to demonstrate the righteousness of God which overrules in the reconciling grace of God, and the grace of God which actually overrules the righteousness of God.” (88) How can he be both in Christ, or, if you will, God’s Everyman?

I was and still am the former man: man as a wrongdoer, whose wrong and whose being in identi?cation with his wrong can only perish and has in fact perished when confronted with the righteousness of God, with the life of the One who is majestically and unconditionally in the right, falling a victim to death, and actually dying and being removed and erased and destroyed under the wrath of God. But I am already and will be the latter man: the man whom God has elected and created for himself, whose right he himself has squandered and spoiled, but God has protected and maintained and re-established in de?ance of his wrong, in de?ance of the catastrophe which necessarily overtook him as the doer of that wrong; the man who is not unrighteous but righteous before God, righteous, because he is in an accord which has been maintained and restored with the right of God Himself. It is in this way that God is in the right both against man and for him. It is in this way that He activates and lives out His righteousness in the encounter with man. And it is in this way that man lives before Him his true and genuine life as a man… (89)

We lay hold of the offensive truth of the cross.

Barth expends a lot of words to say what the Confessions state succinctly: “We are for Christ’s sake counted righteous, or are acceptable to God through faith itself. ‘To be justified’ means that just people are made out of unjust people, or born again.” (90) There we lay hold of the offensive truth of the cross. The world finds this so distasteful but to the ones justified, to iusti homines, it is nothing short of wondrous glory. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor 1:18). Jesus said the same thing to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, who also found the idea ridiculous: “Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:7).

In this incredible, marvelous work of God is Barth’s answer—our answer. God creates in us a new person, the just from the unjust, homo iustus. As Barth notes, this is justly accomplished by “the right of God Himself.” Paul expresses it this way: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1John 1:9). If we admit to our one overarching fault, our original sin, and our fear of God’s justice, we are justified by the only one able and righteous to recreate the unjust person as one who is just.

This cuts at the sensitivities of the very people, like Nicodemus and ourselves, who demand justice but need God’s fairness. We see how ridiculous rebirth is because it is folly to expect that we can ever deserve it by achieving it in our own power. “If we relied on ourselves for justification before God, one of three things would happen: we could despair of our efforts to earn God’s favor, we could become self-righteous hypocrites, or we could completely reject our Savior.” (91) “Experienced consciences can easily understand this.” (92) We can never do enough to merit God’s favor; reconciliation must therefore originate in the rules of a higher power than ourselves, one in fact, that is equal to God himself. Therefore, it is only God who can justify, or declare righteous. Augustine conveys the conclusion this way: “A person is not justified by the precepts of a good life, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (93) Melanchthon says, “We are (like Abraham) counted as righteous for Christ’s sake before we love and before we do the works of the law, although love necessarily follows.” (94)

With God’s help, we can now obey the commands of God more completely but never perfectly. At such points of failure and even disobedience, the Confessions encourage us not to despair. Christ has overcome our sin; by faith we are righteous, though our deeds are unrighteous. This is incredible yet, “If anyone doubts whether sins are forgiven him, he dishonors Christ. For he judges that his sin is greater or more effective than Christ’s death and promise, even though Paul says, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.’ (Romans 5:20). This means that mercy is more comprehensive than sin.” (95) It means that we can never go back to the notion that it is our good works or even our best efforts that keep us in good stead with God. It is always the work of Christ, as Melanchthon expresses it, “for Christ’s sake,” that we stand justified before God. Indeed, “Christ does not stop being our Mediator after we have been renewed.” Some teach that Christ’s justifying work was an initial grace but that after being reborn, we must then fulfill the Law, thereby pleasing God and meriting his continued favor. However, the Confessions teach that, “We never satisfy the Law,” (96) even after being regenerated by God. “So we must always run back to the promise.” (97) Only there, in the abiding and continuing grace of God in Christ, may we find comfort when our consciences terrorize us through the Law.

Namely, that through faith, as St. Peter says, we have a new and clean heart (Acts 15:9-11), and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead (Romans 7:18), yet He will not punish or remember it. (98)

It is the “old self” (Col 3:9) who still sins. We must, as Melanchthon and Luther remind us, “run back to the promise,” by remembering that we “have put off the old self” and have “put on the new self,” (Col 3:9) who is Christ. This is not a new me, who will only fail again. The old self is dead and no judge can condemn to death one who has already died. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

We see here that justification is a complete work since it does not justify only initially but does so forever. There is nothing that can “disturb,” let alone undo that which God has done. “What is still sinful or imperfect in [us] will not be counted as sin or defect, for Christ’s sake.” (99) It is not merely the person but her works too that God declares righteous. The Law will continue to accuse us, since the old self is only too aware of her shortcomings and sins. The Confessions encourage us to remember, however, that “the doctrines of the Law and the Gospel must not be confused with each other.” (100) The Law accuses the old self but it can never condemn the new self who is Christ in us. The Confessions warn us that, in mixing Law and Gospel “into one doctrine,” (101) “Christ’s merits and benefits are easily hidden and the Gospel is again turned into a doctrine of the Law, as happened in the papacy.” (102)

Justification is the true daily bread of the fourth petition of The Lord’s Prayer.

A confessing church remembers “the chief article” that it professes. Everything springs from this central truth of the Gospel. All lasting comfort is received by remembering often that the work of Christ on the cross is an enduring work that cannot be undone, let alone by the likes of human beings. Justification is the true daily bread of the fourth petition of The Lord’s Prayer. (103) God daily provides more than food; each day, he provides us with his answer to the fifth petition: forgiveness of our trespasses. We cannot undo what he has accomplished. We must, and may through prayer, “run here and receive consolation to comfort the conscience again.” (104) God’s forgiveness, his justification, is “a thing that we have with us at all times,” (105) and must be remembered when our works fail us and even when they do not fail us. For whether we fail or succeed at good works, either will ultimately fail us. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa 64:6). “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:8). This is the doctrine of justification found in the articles of the confessing church. On this “chief article” stand all of the articles of the Confessions.


1. It is probably Ambrose himself who wrote this letter, since it comes down as an official document of the church in Milan, of which Ambrose was bishop.

2. See “Letter XLII” at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/ambrose_letters_05_letters41_50.htm#Letter42.

3. These Roman Catholic Confessions are typically called the decrees of the Council of Trent.

4. Concordia. The Lutheran Confessions. 2nd ed. (Concordia, St. Louis, 2006), 21.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid. 23.

8. Ibid. 31.

9. Ibid. 263.

10. Barth, Karl. The Reformed Confessions. (Westminster: Louisville, 2002), 70.

11. Concordia. Second ed. (Concordia, St. Louis, 2006), 263.

12. Ibid. 32.

13. Ibid. 31.

14. Ibid. 32.

15. Ibid. 43.

16. Ibid. 33.

17. Ibid. 50.

18. Ibid. 38.

19. Ibid. 40.

20. Ibid. 41.

21. Ibid. 40.

22. Ibid. 41. From Augustine’s Hypognosticon, Book III.

23. Gollwitzer, Helmet. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, A Selection with Introduction. Westminster: Louisville, 1994), 254.

24. Concordia. 105.

25. Ibid. 102.

26. Ibid. 43

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid. 45.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid. Dist. II, De Consecratione, cap. Comperimus

31. Ibid. 46.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid. 48.

34. Ibid. 49. Quoting Hebrews 10:10.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid. 51.

37. Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. IV, pt. 1. (Hendrickson: Peabody, 2010), 521.

38. Ibid. 524.

39. Ibid. 522.

40. Ibid. 521.

41. Genig, Joshua D. “A Lutheran Reflects on Benedict XVI’s German Visit.” http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/10/a-lutheran-reflects-on-benedict-xvirsquos-german-visit (First Things: New York, October 10, 2011).

42. There were unnamed others who helped Melanchthon. It took them a mere four days to hobble together the Augsburg Confession. (Martin Marty. Martin Luther. Penguin: New York, 2004), 155.

43. I. e.: The Book of Concord.

44. Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. (Penguin: New York, 2004), 175.

45. Ibid. 176.

46. “The Smalcald Articles”

47. Ibid.

48. Re: Article II, “On Original Sin.”

49. Concordia. 35.

50. Luther, Martin. Three Treatises. From The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. (Fortress: Philadelphia, 1970), 190.

51. Ibid. 13.

52. Ibid. 280.

53. Ibid. 298.

54. Ibid. 266.

55. Concordia. 62.

56. Ibid. 58.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid. 69.

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid. 70.

61. Only a few are listed here, in order to drive home their point.

62. Psalm 14:1-3. ESV.

63. Psalm 36:1. ESV.

64. Dogmatics. 515.

65. Concordia. 79.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid. 80.

68. Ibid. 81.

69. Ibid.

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid. 82.

72. Ibid. 86.

73. Ibid. 89.

74. Dogmatics. 514.

75. Ibid. 515.

76. Edwards, Nellie. “Covered by the Blood.” 1904. http://tinyurl.com/coveredbytheblood

77. A man…a sinner. It may just as well be stated that because he is a man, he is a sinner.

78. A just man.

79. At the same time, sinner and justified.

80. Dogmatics. 517.

81. At once, justified and sinner. Sometimes this is worded, “simultaneously saint and sinner,” and at other times, a very rough but working interpretation is, “Sin boldly!”

82. Neuhaus, Richard John. “Episcopal Straight Talk.” (First Things: Peabody, 2004). http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/02/episcopal-straight-talk–39

83. Müller-Lauter, Wolfgang. Nietzsche: his philosophy of contradictions and the contradictions of his philosophy. (Illinois: Champaign, 1999), 79.

84. Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass. (Bantam: New York, 2004). 76.

85. Dogmatics. 517.

86. Galatians 3:16. ESV.

87. Dogmatics. 518.

88. Ibid.

89. Ibid. 544.

90. Concordia. 91.

91. Ibid. 92.

92. Ibid. 94.

93. Ibid. 96.

94. Ibid. 100.

95. Ibid. 106.

96. Ibid. 107.

97. Ibid.

98. Ibid. 283, from “The Smalcald Articles.”

99. Ibid.

100. Ibid. 557, from “The Formula of Concord.”

101. Ibid.

102 Ibid.

103. Luther’s Large Catechism divides The Lord’s Prayer into petitions. The Small and Large Catechisms are included in The Book of Concord or Concordia.

104. Ibid. 419, from Luther’s Large Catechism.

105. Ibid. 420.

Works Cited

Barth, Karl. 2010. Church Dogmatics. Hendrickson: Peabody.

Barth, Karl. 2002. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids.

Barth, Karl. 2002. Theology of the Reformed Confessions. Westminster: Louisville.

Concordia. The Lutheran Confessions. 2nd ed. 2005. Concordia: St. Louis.

First Things. http://www.firstthings.com/ First Things: New York.

Gollwitzer, Helmet. Karl. 1994. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, A Selection with Introduction. Westminster: Louisville.

Holy Bible. 2001. English Standard Version. Crossway: Wheaton.

Luther, Martin. 1970. Three Treatises. Fortress: Philadelphia.

Marty, Martin. 2004. Martin Luther. Penguin: New York.

Müller-Lauter, Wolfgang. 1999. Nietzsche: his philosophy of contradictions and the contradictions of his philosophy. Illinois: Champaign.

Whitman, Walt. 2004. Leaves of Grass. Bantam: New York.

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