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What Luther Says

Justification Is The Dividing Line

The Doctrine of Justification is often said to be "The True Dividing Line" when it comes to distinguishing between the true Gospel as opposed to a false gospel.

If that's true, then why is Justification considered "the dividing line" so-to-speak?

Whether or not we can use that specific language about this doctrine  (i.e., "The True Dividing Line"), there's no debating that Theologians and laypeople alike are right to suspect that there's something about this doctrine when compared to all the others that really gets to the heart of what it is a Christian or a church denomination really believes about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

So, below are a few reasons why a proper understanding of Justification is so important.

O Sweet Exchange!

Mathetes to Diognetus: "He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange (substitution)! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counselor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honor, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food."

*- "Mathetes to Diognetus," Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, Chapter 9.


The Roman doctrine of justification is nothing else than a complete denial, annihilation, and condemnation of the Gospel. Any sect is incomparably better than the Papacy, the Roman Church. The sects worry ever so much over their works of piety, their wrestling for grace, and their prayers, but they still hold fast the teaching that faith in the Lord Jesus alone justifies and saves a person. When a poor Methodist or Baptist is in his final agony, he realizes that faith alone saves, and he dies saved when he takes refuge in the Lord Christ. But the dying papist has to think of purgatory and how long he may have to be confined in it because he lacks charity and good works. He has to consider himself lost. That was the devil's aim when he founded the Papacy -- he wanted to destroy the redemption of Christ by the abominable doctrine that faith does not justify and save except when there is another element added to it which acquires salvation.

In conclusion Luther writes: "According to their fancy, faith without love is like a painting or anything beautiful to behold that is placed in the dark and cannot be seen until light is let into the place, that is, until love is added to it. By this view, love is made the essence of faith and faith the material on which love works. That means that love is placed above faith, and a person's righteousness is ascribed not to his faith, but to his love. For whatever gives a certain quality to something possesses that quality in a higher degree. Therefore the Romanists are really ascribing nothing at all to faith, because they ascribe righteousness to faith only on of Christ account of love. Moreover, these perverters of the Gospel of Christ say that infused faith, which has not been obtained by preaching or some other operation, but is wrought in man by the Holy Spirit, can exist in a person who is guilty of a mortal sin and can be found in the worst scoundrels. For this reason they declare it an inert and useless thing when it is alone, even if it were to be of the wonder-working kind. Thus they rob faith entirely of its function and ascribe it to love, by declaring faith utterly worthless, unless that which gives faith its proper form, namely, love, is added to it."

In his Commentary on Galatians (on chap. 2, 19), Luther writes (St. L. Ed. IX, 218): "When I have thus apprehended Christ by faith, have become dead to the Law, justified from sin, and liberated from death, the devil, and hell by Christ, I begin to do good works, to love God, to show Him gratitude, and to practise love towards my fellow-man. But my love, or the works that follow after faith, neither give the proper form to my faith nor do they adorn it, but my faith gives love its proper form and adorns it." Caritas non est forma fidei, sed fides est forma caritatis -- this axiom of Luther shows up still more plainly the hideousness of the papists' teaching regarding faith. For, mark you, they do not say that faith does not save when a person has formed faith by his own effort, but even when it is genuine faith, produced in a person's heart by the Holy Spirit. Even this true faith, they hold, can exist in a person who lives in mortal sin, as the Council of Trent has declared, and it does not justify a person unless love is added to it. The very opposite, Luther says, is true: It is faith that gives love its real essence and makes it genuine and good, not vice versa.

*- C.F.W. Walther, Law And Gospel,
Twenty-First Evening Lecture (March 6, 1885).


Article IV (II): Of Justification.

In the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and, below, in the Twentieth Article, they condemn us, for teaching that men obtain remission of sins not because of their own merits, but freely for Christ’s sake, through faith in Christ. [They reject quite stubbornly both these statements.] For they condemn us both for denying that men obtain remission of sins because of their own merits, and for affirming that, through faith, men obtain remission of sins, and through faith in Christ

2] are justified. But since in this controversy the chief topic of Christian doctrine is treated, which, understood aright, illumines and amplifies the honor of Christ [which is of especial service for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, and alone shows the way to the unspeakable treasure and right knowledge of Christ, and alone opens the door to the entire Bible], and brings necessary and most abundant consolation to devout consciences, we ask His Imperial Majesty to hear us with forbearance in regard to matters of such importance.

3] For since the adversaries understand neither what the remission of sins, nor what faith, nor what grace, nor what righteousness is, they sadly corrupt this topic, and obscure the glory and benefits of Christ, and rob devout consciences of the consolations offered in Christ.

4] But that we may strengthen the position of our Confession, and also remove the charges which the adversaries advance against us, certain things are to be premised in the beginning, in order that the sources of both kinds of doctrine, i.e., both that of our adversaries and our own, may be known.

5] All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal.

6] Moreover, in this discussion, by Law we designate the Ten Commandments, wherever they are read in the Scriptures. Of the ceremonies and judicial laws of Moses we say nothing at present.

7] Of these two parts the adversaries select the Law, because human reason naturally understands, in some way, the Law (for it has the same judgment divinely written in the mind); [the natural law agrees with the law of Moses, or the Ten Commandments] and by the Law they seek the remission of sins and justification.

8] Now, the Decalog requires not only outward civil works, which reason can in some way produce, but it also requires other things placed far above reason, namely, truly to fear God, truly to love God, truly to call upon God, truly to be convinced that God hears us, and to expect the aid of God in death and in all afflictions; finally, it requires obedience to God, in death and all afflictions, so that we may not flee from these or refuse them when God imposes them.

*- Philip Melanchthon, "The Defense of the Augsburg Confession."


Justification By Faith, Without The Deeds of The Law

When the sinner comes to faith in Christ or in the Gospel, he is at once justified before God by his faith. Since the Gospel offers him the forgiveness of sins gained by Christ for the whole world (objective justification), the acceptance of this offer, by faith, is all that is needed to accomplish his subjective justification (see Chapter Three). Subjective justification is meant when Paul says Rom. 3:28: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith."

"By faith," and that means, as Scripture expressly states, "without the deeds of the Law." Natural man cannot conceive of such a thing as the divine method of justification; he knows only a justification by works. Scripture therefore is intent on inculcating upon man the truth that any and all works of the Law are excluded from justification. Rom. 3:28: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law." Gal. 2:16: "Man is not justified by the works of the Law." All works, works of any kind or description, are excluded. Neither the "good" works of unbelievers, such as those of the Pharisees, nor the truly good works which flow from faith, such as those of faithful Abraham, can justify a man before God.

It is a method of justification unheard of among men. But Scripture tells us why God justifies men without the Law and the works of the Law. He does it (1) because He wants men to be sure of the forgiveness of sins (Rom. 4:16: "Therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace, to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed"); and (2) because He wants man to glory not in himself, but in God’s entirely unmerited grace in Christ (Eph. 2:9: "Not of works, lest any man should boast"; Eph. 1:6-7: "To the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the Beloved, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace").

*- Franz Pieper, 'Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2' (pp 303-305)


Justification By Faith In Action
By John T. Pless

Justification is both a problem and solution. Oswald Bayer has described human existence as forensically structured[1]. That is to say, that life demands justification. Listen to the way people respond when confronted with a failure. It is the language of self-defense, rationalization, or blaming. No human being wants to be wrong. Or listen to the eulogies delivered at the memorial rites for unbelievers. They are, more often than not, attempts to vocalize why the deceased person’s life was worthwhile. They seek to justify his or her existence. If one is not justified by faith in Christ, one will seek justification elsewhere in attitude or action.

To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: "Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment" (Psalm 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty.

But to speak of guilt requires some clarification today for another word has come to attach itself to guilt. So we speak of guilt feelings. Guilt is seen as the subjective reaction of the doer to the deed, i.e., how I feel about what I have done[2]. But this is not the case with the Scriptures use of the word guilt. In the Bible guilt has not so much to do with emotions as it does with what happens in a courtroom when a judge declares the defendant, "guilty." The criminal may or may not have reactions of remorse, regret or shame. It doesn’t matter. The verdict of the judge establishes the reality. God’s word of law unerring establishes His judgment. There is no appeal.

To deny the verdict means that the truth is not in us says the Apostle John. But denial can never bring release. Only God’s absolution can release from the accusation of the law and unlock the sinner from his sins. Lutheran theology is nothing if it is not realistic! Like the Scriptures, Lutheran theology does not start with notions about human freedom and the potential (great or small) that human beings have. Theologies that start with assumptions about human freedom end up in bondage[3]. Lutheran theology begins with man’s bondage in sin and ends up with the glorious liberty of the Gospel. The bondage to sin is not a slight defect that can be corrected by appropriate self-discipline. Neither is it a sickness that can be cured by the appropriation of the medication of regular doses of God’s grace. Sin is enmity with the Creator that carries with it God’s verdict of guilt and a divinely-imposed death sentence. To be a sinner is to be held captive in death and condemnation. The distance between God and humanity is not the gap between infinity and the finite but between a Holy God who is judge and man who is the guilty defendant.

Confession is the acknowledgment of this reality. So in rite of individual confession and absolution we pray: "I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all my sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most…." (LSB, 292). The sin is named not in an effort to "get it off my chest" but to acknowledge it before the Lord to whom no secrets are hid. Where sin is not confessed, it remains festering and corrosive, addicting the sinner to yet another go at self-justification. Confession admits defeat and so leaves the penitent open for a word that declares righteousness, a verdict which justifies. That word is called absolution. It is absolution alone, says Gerhard Forde that is the answer to absolute claim of God who is inescapably present to the sinner.[4]

The focus in confession and absolution is not on the confession per se, but on the absolution. Disconnected from the absolution, confession turns into just another effort to save ourselves. Then the old Adam begins to reckon that he is right with God because his confession was so completely sincere or deeply heartfelt. Or that he has been so pious and courageous to make individual confession a part of his regular spiritual discipline. In the medieval church, the requirement of no less than an annual trip to the confessional booth and the enumeration of specific sins had transformed confession into a spiritual torture chamber rather than an occasion for broken bones to be made glad in the Word from the Lord: "I forgive you all your sins." It is at this point that Luther filters the old practice of private confession through the sieve of the Gospel so that it could be reclaimed for the sake of terrified consciences. Thus Luther develops five major points in his "A Brief Exhortation To Confession" included in the Large Catechism:

Confession should be voluntary and free of papal tyranny. The practice of confession ought to be free of the unreasonable and tortuous demand that the penitent be able to enumerate his sins. People should be taught how to use confession evangelically for the comfort of terrified consciences. Christian liberty ought not be used as an excuse for setting private confession aside. Private confession stands with other forms of confession in the church (fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer where we confess to God and the neighbor).[5]

These pastoral themes are reflected in Luther’s short order of confession included in the Small Catechism.[6] The insertion of a short order of confession between Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar was intended by Luther to catechize people in the evangelical use of confession and absolution. "Luther’s discussion of confession, along with the shape of his liturgical rite, shows how he redefines its essence and practice so that it ceases to be a burden and instead becomes an instrument by which the Gospel is conveyed personally to an individual"[7]

In this new version of an ancient rite, the pastor is not there as an ecclesiastical detective to flush out hidden transgressions or an inspector who must assure that standards of quality control are indiscriminately applied to penitential acts. Neither is the pastor a therapist trafficking in slogans of affirmation, a ministry of presence (whatever that frightening term might mean!), or a coach to get you enabled for a sanctified life. No, the pastor is here as the ear and the voice of the Good Shepherd. His words of forgiveness are not his own, but the Lord who has sent him (see John 20:21-23).

The ear of the pastor becomes the grave that forever conceals the corpse of sin. It is buried there never to be disinterred. In fact the pastor’s ordination vow puts him under orders never to divulge the sins confessed to him. Never means never. Pastors learn to practice God’s own forgetfulness of sins (see Psalm 103:9-14). Sins confessed to the pastor are sealed away in silence.

But the pastor’s lips are not sealed. He has a verdict to announce on the basis of the death of the Righteous One for the unrighteous. Your sin is not loaded on your own shoulders. It is carried by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes it to Calvary. There it was answered for in His own blood. His verdict is the absolution: "I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." That is justification in faith in action. "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).

That collection of quotes comes to us courtesy of the wonderful Gnesio Lutheran website.

Now, you're probably wondering why we ended with a quote that's more about "confession of sin" and the resulting "absolution" rather than purely Justification, but I hope it's clear how the two are connected to one another and go hand-in-hand.

As for the others before it, what do you think? Do you now have a better understanding and a greater appreciation for a proper understanding of the Doctrine of Justification? Do you agree with others in saying that "Justification Is The Dividing Line" or not? Why or why not? Is there anything you would've left out? Anything you would've added to this list?

I would love to hear from you on this in the Comments Section below so please feel free to share your thoughts. Personally, I also think that Justification is the dividing line, but then again I'm also a little biased having escaped from American Evangelicalism recently and currently being part of a "Church Growth/Missional/Outward Focused/Purpose Driven" local church.

In a Lutheran layman's terms, it's important we know what we believe about the Doctrine of Justification and why, because Christ's saving work for you upon the cross through His death and resurrection is what the Gospel is all about.

In short, it's what He did (and does) for you, not what you can do for yourself (or Him in His name).

NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray. Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a Lutheran-In-Name-Only at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a "Book of Concord" containing our Confessions even existed. In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by common Evangelical concerns/criticisms that perhaps wouldn't be too big a deal for us Lutherans. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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