Joel D. Otto
How does a person have a right to stand before God and obtain eternal life? The Bible presents two answers. Perfect obedience of all the commandments is one answer. Jesus once gave that answer to an expert in the law (Luke 10:25-37). But no one can do this. The other answer is faith, belief, and trust in Jesus. We read it in the most well-known passage in Scripture (John 3:16). Paul also expressed it clearly: “We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
This teaching that we are justified by faith alone has been obscured, even in the church. At the time of Paul, some tried to say that faith was not enough. You also had to obey certain Jewish customs to be a good Christian. Paul had an answer: “[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
By Martin Luther’s day, the church
was teaching a similar combination of faith and works. Faith had to be completed by works. But whenever works are added, you cannot be certain that heaven is secure. How do you know if you’ve done enough works or the right works?
Luther was led to rediscover what the Scriptures had always taught. Only by faith in Jesus do we receive the blessings Jesus won for us through his life, death, and resurrection. The Augsburg Confession states concisely, “It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3[:21–26] and 4[:5]” (The Book of Concord, IV, pp. 38,40).
True Lutherans believe that we have a right standing before God through Christ alone by faith alone in Jesus. True Lutherans understand that it is all by grace and that faith is not a decision we make or the one work we must do but simply the hand that receives the gifts God gives through the gospel. To be truly Lutheran means to have the confident certainty of eternal life because faith holds on to Jesus alone.
Questions to consider
1. Read Romans 4:4-8 and Ephesians 2:8,9. How do these passages help answer the idea that faith is the one work we must do?
In Romans chapter 4, Paul contrasts faith with doing something that earns a wage. Faith is not working to earn a wage. Instead it is receiving a gift already completely purchased and earned for us by Christ. In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul says that the whole concept of being saved “by grace through faith” is God’s gift; nothing about it is a work in which we can boast. Both passage clearly show that faith is not the one condition we have to meet or the one work we have to do in order to complete our salvation. God freely gives us the completed work of Christ, and the gospel works faith in our hearts to receive it.
2. Luther emphasized that we are saved by faith alone, but he also frequently said that faith is never alone. Read Romans 3:28 and James 2:20-24. How do these passages seem to contradict each other? Describe how they do not contradict each other.
At first, these passages seem to contradict each other because Paul excludes works from justification (“apart from the works of the law”), while James says the opposite (“faith without deeds is useless”). But they are writing from different perspectives. Paul is considering justification before God. If we are to receive the “not guilty” verdict from God, it has to be a gift of God’s grace, received by faith, because our works are always incomplete; we are all sinful and fall short of what he demands (Romans 3:23,24). James is considering justification in the context of the world and what people see. Others cannot see faith in our hearts. They can only see our faith in action. James is speaking about the fact that our faith in Jesus naturally produces good works to thank and glorify Jesus for what he has done for us. These good works are evidence of the faith in our hearts. If there are no good works, faith doesn’t exist.
To put it another way, Paul is speaking about how we are saved (justification), while James is speaking about how the saved person lives (sanctification). The good works James is speaking about do not save us, but they are evidence that we are already saved.
3. Which is more important and why: the act of believing or what we believe?
Faith, or the act of believing, is trust in something. If a person believes the wrong thing or trusts in someone who isn’t trustworthy, that can have disastrous results. For example, if you believe that a ladder is sturdy and well-constructed, you’ll climb up the ladder to clean out your gutters. If it turns out that the ladder has faulty construction, you could end up with serious injuries. That is why the content of what we believe, the object of our faith, is more important. For example, if someone believes that their good lives will earn them heaven, the object of their faith is wrong and useless. No matter how firmly they believe such a thought, it does not save them. The correct object of our faith is Jesus and his work of redemption. When we believe in Christ, we receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation he has won for sinners like us.
The wonderful way God works is that the gospel, the good news about Jesus which reveals how God saves, is not only what we are to believe (the object of our faith) but it is also the tool the Holy Spirit uses to bring us to believe (the means of grace). Read more in Romans 10:17 and Romans 1:16.
Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This is the fifth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Feb. 5 at wels.net/forwardinchrist.
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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017
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