Justification Part VI

To sum up last post: Luther strove for what all great saints strove for – the pure love of God for his own sake. A number of fine Luther scholars claim that this search is the bedrock of his entire program (esp. the so-called School of Finnish Luther Research). I agree with this claim. One finds evidence of this esp. in “Freedom of a Christian,” perhaps his most balanced and clearly constructed piece. Also, one finds this in his 1515 commentary on Romans. One also finds this in his Heidelberg Disputation and Leipzig debate, etc. The search for the pure love of God. This is a good foundation.

However, he understand that foundation to mean that every motivation in action other than love of God for his own sake is necessarily sinful. And all sin is mortal.

This addition, this construal of the pure love of God put Luther between a rock and a hard place. For it is obvious that we desire our own happiness. If that desire is incompatible with love of God for his own sake, then we inevitably sin in every work. And he held exactly this. Even the saints sin in every work, he said.

His solution was justification by faith alone. That way, if I am justified simply by God declaring me innocent and not holding me accountable for my sins, both past sins and ever occurring sins, then – Luther thought – I am free. Free to love God gratis. I can give him totally pure love. If, Luther argued, justification did not look like this, if it were still necessary to obey the commandments in order to be saved eternally, then we would only love God for the love of ourselves. We would only love him because we fear punishment. And we fear punishment only because we love ourselves. And love of self is incompatible – again, this is Luther – with love of God. Therefore, whose love for God is motivated by fear of punishment – even in part – is a wicked sinner. So far, Luther.

Let us observe his solution more deeply. He contends that unless we are declared innocent and unless the Law is no longer held against us (at all), we would only do service to God out of self-interest. And all self-interest for Luther is sinful. Therefore, we must first be declared free from the Law. Once so declared we are then able to be generous. Because we rest in the comfort of God’s ever-occurring-acquittal of the sins-we-are-still-committing. If at any moment God no longer declared us acquitted, we would immediately hate God and fear him (which for Luther is the same thing).

Thus, Luther shows that the first and foremost good that must be secured – in justification sola fide – is freedom from Law, freedom from judgment, freedom from punishment. This is the first thing that must happen. It is the foundation sine qua non. The foundation without which nothing else follows. It is the first good we must have secured. If that good is not secured, we cannot and would not pursue any other good.

Evaluation: This solution will not get Luther what he is looking for. Why not? Because it shows that all along what he most prizes is freedom from punishment. God secures that for him, and Luther will give God many good deeds. God doesn’t secure that for him, and Luther will give God nothing but fear and hatred, which are the same thing. Therefore, Luther praises God’s Favor precisely insofar as it secures freedom from punishment. Some citations are in order:


“We would perhaps have disregarded corruption [i.e., our own sin] and been pleased with our evil unless this other evil, which is wrath [i.e., the punishment threatened by divine anger], had refused to indulge our foolishness and had resisted it with terror and the danger of hell and death, so that we have but little peace in our wickedness. Plainly wrath is a greater evil for us than corruption, for we hate punishment more than guilt” (Martin Luther, Against Latomus (LW 32:224 [WA 8.104.17–21]). See the whole discussion (LW 32:223–27 [WA 8.103.35–106.28]).)

My comment: If we hate punishment more than our own actions offensive to God, why? Because punishment is injury to us, and sin is offense against God. And we love ourselves more than we love God. This is just the opposite of what Luther was aiming at, and yet there it is. Also, it is just the opposite of what all the saints proclaim.


“Hence, just as wrath is a greater evil than the corruption of sin, so grace is a greater good than that health of righteousness which we have said comes from faith. Everyone would prefer – if that were possible – to be without the health of righteousness rather than [without] the grace of God, for peace and the remission of sins are properly attributed to the grace of God, while healing from corruption is ascribed to faith” (Martin Luther, Against Latomus (LW 32:227 [WA 8.106.4–20]).)


“But our Diatribe [Luther is speaking of Erasmus’s book against him, Erasmus defending free will], again making no distinction between words of law and of promise, takes this verse of Ezekiel as an expression of the Law, and expounds it thus: ‘I desire not the death of a sinner,’ that is, ‘I do not want him to sin mortally or become a sinner liable to death, but rather that he may turn from his sin, if he has committed any, and so may live.’ For if she did not expound it so, it would not serve her purpose at all. But this means completely throwing overboard the loveliest thing in Ezekiel, ‘I desire not death.’ If that is how in our blindness we wish to read and understand the scriptures, what wonder is it if they are obscure and ambiguous? For he does not say, ‘I desire not the sin of a man,’ but, ‘I desire not the death of a sinner,’ plainly showing that he is speaking of the penalty of sin, which the sinner experiences for his sin, namely, the fear of death. And he lifts up and comforts the sinner from his affliction and despair, so as not to quench the smoking flax and break the bruised reed [Isa. 42:3], but to give hope of pardon and salvation, so that he may rather be converted (by turning to salvation from the penalty of death) and live, that is, be at peace and happy with an untroubled conscience” (Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will (LW 33:136–37 [WA 18.683.28–684.3]).)


Now, one loves freedom from punishment because one loves oneself. Therefore, Luther loves God’s Favor precisely because he loves himself. But that is – as Luther himself states – sin! Thus, the motive to have faith is precisely a sin. Luther really is right, we sin in every good deed, even in the act of faith. But we have not become true lovers of God. If the foundation is ever necessary, we never leave it. Therefore, we build our lives on self-love, not on love of Christ, insofar as we embody Luther’s theology of justification. This is akin to those hypocrites who lived luxuriantly and went to Temple. They imbibed the pleasures of earth, but paid sacrifice to God externally. Hypocrites! The Temple is meant for the restoration of the man, not for his ongoing declaration of forgiveness while he never yet repents and changes. Thus, Lutheran theory of justification is also akin to that which the prophets condemned long ago.

And none of this is what Luther or anyone who likes his theology wants in his best of hearts. Nor is it what we in our best heart should want. The Catholic solution is different.

The Catholic belief is that self-love can be good or bad. Good self-love is the desire for happiness, which God plants in your heart. This is the beginning of the moral life. However, maturity shows that true happiness is the commitment to God in love. Thus, what begins with a kind of self orientation blossoms into an ecstatic love of God for his own sake. That shall be the happiness I was seeking. That is true life.

Further, Catholic belief is that fear of punishment is not evil. It is not a sin. It can be a sin if you love yourself above all things. But just in itself, fearing punishment and pain is not evil. Rather, it motivates a wicked sinner who presently does not love God, to quit his sin, lest he be burned. So it is good for the pre-beginner. Once you convert to God, however, fear of punishment must increasingly take on a decreasing importance! Final maturity is total freedom from fear of punishment (1 Jn). So, the fear of hell is not evil; it is good but not meritorious; it leads to conversion; it provokes the immature along the way to grow quickly; and it disappears in the mature.

Further, Catholic belief is that God gives us the graces we need to fulfill our obligations to him. And these become a sweet yoke of sonship. I want to approach God as Father and love and honor him. Thus, I avoid all ways of evil. (That’s the desire we have as sons.) Sometimes, we do something not quite harmonious with that sonship but not destructive of it. Like an unruly child who gets out of line. That is venial sin. Sometimes, we do something destructive of the relationship. That is mortal sin. However, we can with God’s help avoid all mortal sins and achieve final beatitude. Let us rest on God, who gives us the strength to love him. And without love, even our faith is a noisy gong (1 Cor 13.)