the audio recordings of these papers are available here:

Part II God’s Grace

On 1st November 1517 a special sale was due to take place over the river from Wittenberg, then a small and rather scruffy town in central Germany.

[1] On sale would be a new stock of ‘indulgences’. The idea was that there is a bank of merit in heaven, massed up by ‘saints’ who have done more good in this life than they need themselves to get to heaven. You could tap into their merit by purchasing an indulgence. You could then use it to pay off some of the penance imposed by a priest when you confessed your sins. Or you could use the indulgence to reduce the time in ‘purgatory’ being endured by a departed loved one. The real winner from the sale was going to be Pope Leo X. One of the most ambitious building projects in history had been initiated in 1450, St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Massively expensive, this had to be paid for. In fact, the preacher-salesman who arrived in autumn 1517 was raising funds for other murky dealings as well. Johann Tetzel was a true professional. In town after town in Germany he polished his performance, and left with chestfuls of money. Horsemen, drummers and trumpeters would go ahead. A stack of pre-printed indulgences with blank spaces for the names of purchasers would be placed next to a large money chest. Finally, Tetzel and an armed guard would arrive in style. Pope Leo’s coat of arms was held high above them, along with a copy of the indulgence lifted up on a cross. Then Tetzel would start preaching:

‘Do you not hear the voices of your dead relatives, and others, crying out to you, and calling ‘Pity us! Pity us! We are in dire punishment and torment for which you can redeem us for a pittance! Will you not for a quarter of a florin, receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead an immortal soul safely into paradise?’[2]

He would close with a ridiculous rhyme, along the lines of:

Place your florin on the drum,

Heaven’s doors open!

In goes Mum![3]

Many were outraged by such bare-faced emotional manipulation. Some German rulers, including Frederick the Wise, ruler of Saxony, called him a ‘Roman bloodsucker’ and wouldn’t allow him into their territory.[4] But inhabitants of Saxony simply crossed over the River Elbe to purchase their indulgences in the next state.

Martin Luther, aged about 34 in 1517, was at this time a monk and theological lecturer in Wittenburg, Saxony. He was also a pastor. He was enraged that open sinners were promised pardon in such a crude way. To pre-empt Tetzel’s performance, he nailed a list of 95 Theses (points for debate) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther was not, at this point questioning the authority of the Pope. Or the existence of Purgatory. Or even indulgences. But he hated the way Tetzel was selling them. His first point for debate was:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, he called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.

Ninety-four other points followed.[5] Written in Latin, the theses were quickly translated into German. Copies were printed and sold all over Germany. Popular cartoons were distributed pouring scorn on the greedy salesman. Tetzel’s fund-raising tour collapsed in ridicule and shame. More significant, the posting of the theses, and the subsequent storm, brought Luther to the attention of the Pope. The Pope’s efforts to silence Luther only pushed Luther further down the road of clarifying the answer to this fundamental question: ‘How can a sinner be right with God?’ That was the fundamental question answered by the Reformation.

A. God’s Grace Obscured: Luther’s search for peace

Martin Luther was born in 1483 near Mansfield in central Germany. His parents were from the poorest labouring class. By sheer determination his father, Hans found work as a copper miner and worked his way up to become a prosperous mining industrialist.[6] Luther was sent to the local school. Education took place in Latin rather than German. Mastery of Latin, the universal language, was the passport to future success. In 1501, aged 18, Martin was sent to Erfurt University. His ambitious father wanted him to become a lawyer. In the age before pensions were dreamed of, your children were your pension. A lawyer would be able to provide generously for his parents, and indeed the whole family. To Hans’ vast pride and delight, Martin attained first his BA in 1502, then his MA in 1505. But inwardly, Martin was troubled. He experienced fear of God’s anger, fear of death, and fear of judgment. As we saw last time, the medieval Catholic Church failed to give people assurance of salvation.

Luther’s underlying anxieties burst to the surface one day in 1505, when he was out on the open road, and caught in a tremendous thunderstorm. A flash of lightening threw him from his horse. Thinking he was about to die, knowing that he was not ready to face judgment, he cried out to his family’s patron saint St Anne. Who was that? There is no reference to ‘St Anne’ in the Bible. In the New Testament, all  believers are described as ‘saints’. But by this time the Catholic Church had constructed a hierarchy. Extraordinarily pious individuals were recognised as ‘saints’, and some of them were entirely fictitious. St Anne, Mary’s supposed mother, was the favourite with the German mining communities. Just as their copper and silver mines produced precious treasures, so, they believed, Anne had ‘nurtured in her womb a unique treasure’ (Mary).[7] That’s why, in his moment of deathly fear, Martin instinctively cried out to Anne with a plea and a promise. The plea: ‘Spare my Life St Anne’.The promise: ‘And I will become a monk.’ The lightening didn’t kill Martin. St Anne, he believed, had heard and answered his plea. So he would have to keep his promise. He entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt on 16 July 1505, taking a lifelong vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. He was ordained to the ‘priesthood’ two years later in 1507. Hans’ dreams for his son had been smashed on the rocks of Martin’s conscience. And Hans’ own life insurance policy had gone up in smoke.

We can see God’s hand on Luther in two significant ways over the years between 1505, when he entered the monastery, and 1517, when he hammered the theses to the church door.

Firstly, he studied the Bible in depth. He achieved another degree in biblical studies in 1509, and was then sent by his order to lecture in Philosophy at the new university of Wittenburg, founded in 1502, by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony’. In 1512, at the age of 28, Luther received a Doctor’s degree in theology and became Professor of Biblical Theology. He was also asked to preach regularly at the town church. Daily, as he prepared to lecture and preach, he was going back directly to the Word of God, and fighting to get back to what the text was actually saying. He studied Greek and Hebrew so that he could get back to the original text.[8] Abandoning reliance on medieval commentators, he would have the biblical passages printed out for his students on pages with wide margins, so that they could take detailed notes on the text itself, word by word.

Secondly, alongside this intense Bible study, Martin was following the daily routine of the life of a monk: prayers, contemplation, obedience. But although he followed all the religious rules, he never attained any real sense of peace with God. Not even when he visited Rome itself and crawled on his knees all the way up the stairs at St Peter’s Basilica, pausing and asking for forgiveness on each step. God was showing him, the hard way, that assurance of forgiveness cannot ever be achieved by what we do ourselves. When Luther asked ‘How can I be right before a righteous God?’ the standard answer of the Catholic Church of the time was ‘do what is in you’, or ‘do your best’. But Luther experienced for himself the obvious problem with this formula. When is ‘your best’ good enough? The harder he tried, the more he was conscious that his best never would be good enough for a perfectly holy God. It was when he studied through the Psalms and the Letters of Paul, that Luther was forced to challenge the Churches’ understanding of sin. The Catholic church regarded sin as a sickness. You could come back and back to the church for the sacraments which offered a temporary cure. From the Bible, Luther came to see that sin was far worse than that. Sin is death. It is pathetic and cruel to ask a dead person do their best. A dead person needs new life.

B. God’s Grace Revealed: Justification by Faith

So, the issue Luther kept getting stuck on was this: He was unrighteous. The holy God demanded righteousness.

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Romans 1:17.

Luther was grappling with the phrase ‘the righteous shall live by faith’. What does it mean to be ‘righteous’? What is the ‘righteousness of God’ that is revealed? He later wrote:

For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’  . .  I had been taught to understand [that this means that] God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was satisfied with my prayers and good deeds. I did not love, rather I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. I was angry with God, and said, As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law, without God threatening us with his righteous wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon the text, strongly wanting to know what Paul was saying.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by means of a gift of God – received simply by faith. ‘The righteousness of God’ means the gift of Christ’s righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith.

Now I felt that I was altogether born again. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory seeing this truth throughout. And I extolled the sweetest word ‘righteousness with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated it. That place in Paul was for me truth the gate to paradise.[9]

Luther explained this break through in grammatical terms. The righteousness that God demands is not active but passive. It’s not a righteousness we actively earn—it is one earned for us by Christ. We passively receive it. God’s righteous demands are fully satisfied by Christ’s obedience. Christ obeyed in life. He obeyed the law perfectly. Christ obediently submitted to death, and suffered the punishment due to our sins. So we are not justified before God by our works or merits. We are justified by Christ’s work alone, reckoned to us by grace alone, through faith alone. The Latin summary of this is Solus Christus, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia. Christ alone, Faith alone, Grace alone. When he grasped this, Luther no longer hated God. Instead, he loved God, and loved those words, ‘the righteousness of God.’

Luther’s new understanding was laid out in the Heidelburg Disputation (1518).[10] Human love is reactive. It responds to something attractive in another person. But God’s love is different. He does not find that which is lovely and then love it. Rather, God’s love is creative. We are made lovely when God first sets his love on us.[11]

Another way Luther expressed this was to talk of the joyful exchange. My sins are passed to Christ. In exchange, Christ’s righteousness is passed to me. Luther’s favourite illustration of this was the relationship between a bride and the groom. If a wealthy prince marries a poor peasant girl, she receives his wealth, while he takes over her debt.[12] The biblical term used is that Christ’s righteousness is credited to, reckoned to, or imputed to the sinner. This has legal, forensic overtones. God declares the sinner to be righteous.[13] This gift of Christ’s righteousness is ‘alien’ to us, outside of us, and placed upon us. It means that the believer is at the same time both ‘righteous and a sinner’. The Latin phrase Luther often used for this was simul iustus et peccatoris (simultaneously righteous and a sinner). In myself I am 100% sinful. Seen by God, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, I am 100% righteous. Understanding this means that we can be truly humble and repentant, but at the same time confident of our salvation.[14]

Luther used the Heidelberg Disputation to lay out two contrasting theologies. The theology of glory was pushed by the medieval church when it exalted human effort. But the theology of the Cross was found in the Bible. It was truthful about the hopeless state of sinners, and the need to rest wholly on the finished work of Christ. Luther came to understand justification as entirely the work of God (monergistic – the work of one; mono = sole; ergon = work). He laid this out even more clearly in his 1525 publication On the Bondage of the Will.[15] This was written in response to On Free Will by Erasmus. The Catholic Church taught that righteous acts of believers are performed in cooperation with God (synergistic – working together; syn = together; ergon = work).

The apostle Paul states: ‘As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). In that state of death, our wills are bound, not free. How can a corpse cooperate with anything?

Luther had been immersed in the direct study of the Scriptures for several years. He was also well read in the teachings of the Church Fathers. He was convinced that his teaching on Grace was not ‘his’ teaching but that of Paul, and that of the rest of Scripture, and that of the Church. He hoped to stay in the Church. He wanted it to proclaim the biblical doctrine of grace. He was not looking for schism. Tragically, his call to embrace salvation by grace was rejected by the Church hierarchy.

C. God’s Grace Rejected: Luther Excommunicated

Following the challenge to indulgences, and the spiritual breakthrough regarding justification, the rift between Luther and the pope grew wider. On 15 June 1520, the Pope warned Luther with a papal ‘bull’, Exsurge Domine (‘Arise O Lord against the foxes that have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard and the destructive wild boar from the forest’). Luther would be excommunicated unless he recanted his teaching. At first, Luther tried to win by argument, and in 1520 he published three key works.

The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation was written in German in August. It was a war cry to storm what Luther described as ‘the three walls’ of the Romanists.[16] It argued that the political pretensions of the Roman Pope were unbiblical and destructive. Luther also attacked the churches creation of a separate class of clergy which was supposedly superior to the laity.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church[17] was written in October, in Latin, for the clergy. Luther attacked the Roman teaching on the sacraments, especially the Mass. He showed from Scripture that Christ was sacrificed once for sin. Clergy are just servants, ministers, of the church, not a superior priestly caste.

The Freedom of a Christian[18] was written in November, first in Latin, then translated into German. It addressed the issue of grace and works. Salvation is by grace. This doesn’t mean that Christians can live as they please. They are to live in obedience in love and gratitude to the Saviour. In this work, Luther was still appealing to Pope Leo X, addressing him as ‘Blessed Father’, and a ‘lamb among wolves’, inferring that he is held captive by ungodly advisers. We need to note that Luther’s passionate appeal for freedom in this work was taken up by the oppressed class of peasants, and used as part of the rationale for the uprising just four years later, known as the Peasant’s War.

Leo X was not impressed with Luther’s arguments, or swayed by Luther’s efforts to placate him. Luther realised that there was no point in further appeal. On 10 December 1520, Luther called the pope the Antichrist and publicly burned the Bull and other papal writings. In response Leo X excommunicated Luther on 3 January 1521. Luther was then summoned before the Imperial Parliament (or ‘Diet’) held in the German city of Worms. On 18 April 1521, pointing to the heap of writings before him on the table, Luther’s accusers asked him if those were his writings. He said ‘yes’. Then he was asked to renounce them. Luther took a day to prepare himself. The next day Luther stood before the impressive gathering of church and civil officials, including the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles. Again, he was asked to recant his writings. Instead, he declared:

‘Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I answer without horns and without teeth [ie. plain and unvarnished]: Unless I am convinced by  Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe or right. God help me. Amen. Here I stand. I can not do otherwise.’[19]

Whether or not a scribe was responsible for the final sentence, the words would be repeated throughout Europe and down through the centuries, because they encapsulate the Reformation principle Sola Scriptura. The Scripture is the supreme authority for the church, because it, alone, is the living Word of God.

To defy the Pope and to defy the Emperor meant certain death. Now we note yet another providence of God. Wittenberg was in the territory of the Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise. Because he held one of the key votes to elect the Holy Roman Emperor, he was immensely powerful. He used his influence to protect Luther, the famous and increasingly popular theology professor at his new university. So Luther was ‘kidnapped’ by the Elector’s agents, and hidden away in the Elector’s Castle, the Wartburg. And the Elector continued to shield Luther from the Emperor and from Rome. When Frederick died in 1525 he was succeeded by his brother John. John declared Lutheranism as the State Church in Electoral Saxony with the Elector (himself), as the Chief Bishop.

Luther lived until 1546, and played a significant role in pushing through reform of the Church, not only in his own territory in Germany, and far beyond.

D. God’s Grace and Reformation

1 Translation of the Bible

Foundational to reform was the Bible in the German language. The Bible had been translated into German by this time. But Luther’s translation had massive influence and became the basis of the modern German language. After his ‘kidnapping’ and imprisonment in the Castle of the Wartburg, he had little with him except his Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. In just eleven weeks, working from the Greek text, Luther produced an exceptionally beautiful German New Testament.

2 Preaching and Lecturing

After ten months, Luther returned to Wittenburg. He resumed his lecturing and preaching. He calmed down the religious radicalism that threatened, in his mind, to undermine any hope of lasting reformation. He organised church reform in Saxony, even as others who adopted Reformed ideas pushed through church reform in other territories in Germany, Switzerland, and far beyond, including Sweden and Denmark, England, and Scotland.

3 Education and Catechising

In the autumn of 1528 Luther visited churches in Saxony and was appalled at the widespread ignorance he found. He wrote a ‘Small Catechism’ to teach all young people.[20] Radically he promoted universal schooling for both boys and girls. He called parents who failed to teach their children ‘shameful and despicable’. His great desire was for all, whether male or female, to be able to read and understand Scripture.[21]   

4 Church and State

For the rest of his life, Luther was under the Imperial Ban, which carried the death sentence. And for the rest of his life he was dependent on the protection of the Elector of Saxony, first Frederick, then John. He also depended on the Elector for the furtherance of the Reformation. Luther was still operating in the context where church and state were inseparable. He and the other so-called ‘magisterial’ Reformers depended on the civil authorities, whether Princes or City Councils (magistrates) to push through changes in church practice. We will return to this in the fourth session. For now, we note that this conflation of church and state led to problems. The most obvious problem was the lack of scriptural support for the idea that secular rulers should govern church affairs. It was a pragmatic arrangement: the only way, in practice, that reform seemed likely to take hold. It represented the unbroken tradition of centuries. But relying on pragmatism and tradition arguably undermined Sola Scriptura.

Another obvious problem was that in time territories that were officially ‘Lutheran’ would be filled with nominal ‘name only’ Christians. By the eighteenth century Lutheran clergy were notoriously worldly, a factor that lay behind the powerful revival movement later labelled ‘pietism’ which reacted against nominalism. In addition, some secular rulers were going to be motivated as much by political ambition, for example the desire to regain control of land and wealth from Rome, as much as by  spiritual concern.

Another problem arose when the behaviour of a secular patron of reform was downright scandalous. In 1740, when Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, a key sponsor of reform, fell for an attractive seventeen year-old, Luther secretly gave assent to his bigamous marriage. Luther told him to lie about it and deny the marriage completely.[22] Luther’s reputation was hugely compromised when his endorsement of bigamy was exposed. Luther’s desire for political stability provoked him to an intemperate exhortation to the princes to crush the peasant’s revolt in 1524-5. His invective was horrible: ‘therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.’[23] Ultimately, in a terrible bloodbath, the aristocracy and their armies slaughtered up to 100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers.The suffering peasants felt he had utterly betrayed them. Arguably the cause of the gospel was severely damaged by such violent rhetoric.

In similar vein, tragically, we have to note that Luther wrote a shocking, violent, and notorious tract directed against the Jews. All this tarnished his reputation. But all this was bound up, to a greater or lesser degree, with the identity of the church with the political territory.

It was the sacral system, the uniting of church and state, that resulted in the horrors of war between different religious factions. Famously Zwingli died on the battle field, fighting against Catholics. In 1555, the Treaty of Augsburg attempted to bring peace within the Holy Roman Empire, by enforcing the principle of cuis regio eius religio. The religion of the prince was to be the religion of the people ( though only two options were allowed, Catholic or Lutheran). Lutheranism took root where the ruler of a territory adopted it. To begin with, it spread in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire (broadly, present day Germany). It then spread beyond, to countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland.

The word ‘Reformed’ today is often used to denote ‘Calvinist’ with regard to believing in Divine sovereignty in salvation. But, historically, the word ‘Reformed’ has had more of a denominational meaning. It distinguished those churches that followed Calvin from those that followed Luther; especially in Switzerland, Scotland, the Netherlands, and present day Hungary.

England adopted Anglicanism. The Elizabethan settlement took a middle way: accepting Reformed doctrine, for example with regard to Justification by Faith, but keeping many aspects of Catholic practice. The Puritan movement aimed to reform those aspects of church life. In these four sessions, sadly, we do not have time to look at the Puritan movement, which arguably represented the full flourishing of the Reformation. A helpful series of lectures on ‘The English Reformation and the Puritans’ by Dr Michael Reeves is available on the Christian Institute website:

So, all Protestants accepted the need to break from Rome, and the truth of justification by faith, but there were deep divisions. With regard to worship, Luther retained some Catholic elements. For a long time he held onto Confession as a third sacrament. He taught that infant baptism actually brings about regeneration. In terms of worship and ritual, he taught that if something is not actually forbidden by Scripture, we are free to use that in worship (the ‘normative’ principle). There are, for instance, often images of saints or of Mary in Lutheran churches. On this point, Calvin absolutely disagreed, saying that unless God commands a practice in worship, we cannot use it (the ‘regulative’ principle).

With regard to the Lord’s Supper, Luther held to a view closer to the Catholic view, that there is a ‘real presence’ of the Lord’s body and blood at the Table. He condemned Zwingli who taught that the Lord’s Supper was a simple memorial service. Luther thought Zwingli was an unbeliever, not taking Christ’s words ‘this is my body, this is my blood’ seriously.

5 Vocation

In some ways Luther never shifted far from the medieval mindset, in particular the identification of church and state. But, positively, Luther revolutionised the concept of vocation. In the medieval context, vocatio, Latin for ‘calling’, had been applied to church work. Monks, nuns, and priests all had a vocation from God. Others simply worked. Luther applied vocatio to all the professions and to all the various roles that we play. Being a husband, son, father, wife, daughter or mother was a calling. So was being a farmer, a miner or a stonemason. All of life could and should be lived for the glory of God alone. Luther was inspired by Paul’s words:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31).

This is what Luther taught his people:

‘Therefore, when servants and maids serve faithfully and diligently do what is commanded them, they serve not only their masters and mistresses but God in heaven . . The whole world would be replete with service to God were each individual to live and do what was commanded him . . . such trivial work cannot but be extolled as a service to God, surpassing by far all the holiness and austere life of all monks and nuns. . . a poor servant girl has joy in her heart and can say, ‘My job is to cook, make the bed, and clean the house, who has commanded me to do these things? My master and mistress . . Who has given them such authority over me? God has ordained this. Ah, then it must be true that I am serving not only them but also God in heaven and that God has pleasure in this. How, indeed could I be more blest? It is tantamount to cooking for God in heaven.’[24]

John Mackay writes:

‘God is still at work in providence, in history, in the world around us. We must see our work as part of his work. There is meaning and significance in human work because it is divinely appointed. Luther’s concept of vocation made much of this divine–human cooperation in work . . . when we carry out our vocation in faith to God and in obedience to his commands, God will work through us. Such a view of work provides us with the incentive to work because there is meaning in what we are doing: God’s meaning.’[25]

6 Family Life

Famously, Luther said that when a father changes his babies nappies, God in heaven smiles with pleasure. ‘These insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties . . . are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels’.[26] Luther revolutionised the concept of family as a vocation. The Catholic church held that celibacy was the superior state. But Luther and other Reformers pointed to the biblical teaching that marriage is blessed by God. They pointed out that the New Testament condemns those who forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4:3).

Luther led by example. Aged forty-two, he married twenty-six year old Katherine von Bora, a former nun. At the age of ten, little Katherine had been put in a convent. During her early teens she began to hear snippets concerning the sermons of Martin Luther and his challenges to the abuses in the Church. By the time she was seventeen, she and several other youngsters had secretly became convinced of Reformed doctrine. They wrote to their guardians asking if they could leave the convent. Nothing happened. In despair, they wrote direct to Luther himself. He arranged for a dramatic night-time rescue. The girls were smuggled to Wittenburg in a covered wagon behind barrels of fish. He arranged either marriage or suitable accommodation for each one. Katherine was placed with a kind and prosperous family. She refused at least two offers of marriage.

Eventually, Luther married her himself, and she proved to be a devoted wife. Luther suffered much ill health[27] and also frequent depression. Katy ministered to his health by means of all manner of herbal remedies, and to his depression by inviting in friends who would raise his spirits by their lively conversation. In 1540 Luther bought her a small estate, and she proved a brilliant farmer and manager. She organised all the family finances, as well as caring for their six children. Their marriage proved to be an attractive role model, promoting the idea that marriage is a God-given calling. It became an advertisement for the still radical notion that church ministers could get married.

E. God’s Grace in Life and Death

The doctrine of Justification isn’t just theory. It is the only certain hope we have in life and death. Seventeen years after Luther’s death, Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate commissioned a new Catechism for use in his territory. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) has become one of the most popular Reformed Catechisms. Famously, question 1 reads:  

Question: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer: That I belong – with body and soul, in life and death – not to myself , but to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.[28]

The gospel means we can be sure that God accepts us, and will accept us.

Martin Luther was flawed. He did not get everything right. But he is remembered as the one who really did grasp salvation by grace, justification by faith, our absolute dependence on Christ for salvation. Fittingly, after he died, it was discovered that the last words he ever wrote were ‘we are all beggars now’. That is how we all stand before God. The truth of justification by faith transformed the lives of men, women, young people and children all over Europe during the sixteenth century. We could look at the testimony of many, but I have chosen a young teenage girl. She was and is hugely well known, as she was caught up like a pawn in political forces outside her control and executed at the age of sixteen.

Lady Jane Grey is famous for her tragic death. We should, however, remember her triumphant testimony in the face of death. When Edward VI, the young Protestant King of England, lay dying in 1553, powerful nobles persuaded him to change his will. He declared that the succession should pass to his cousin Jane, rather than his Catholic sister, Mary. Jane was known to be a deeply committed Protestant. She had received a thorough education, in Latin, Hebrew and Greek. She had corresponded with the Reformers in Europe. She loved her Bible and she loved the Lord. When Edward died, her guardians informed her that she was now Queen. She only accepted the crown very reluctantly. Predictably, the late King’s older sister Mary was able to rally support and claim the throne. Equally predictably, Jane was arrested and charged with treason. She was told that if she would take the Roman Mass, her life would be spared. When Jane was interrogated by Mary’s Catholic Archbishop, she eloquently defended the Reformation principle of justification by faith. When the archbishop tried to trip her up by accusing her of undermining the place of good works, Jane replied:

‘I affirm that faith only saveth, but it is meet for a Christian to do good works, in token that he follows the steps of his Master, Christ. [But] when we have done all, we are unprofitable servants and faith only in Christ’s blood saves us.’[29]

Two days later, on February 12, 1554, she was executed. Her last words were:

‘I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son, Jesus Christ.’[30]

F. God’s Grace Today

A current challenge to the Reformation teaching of justification by faith comes from the ‘new perspective’ put forward by NT Wright and others. This suggests that the traditional Lutheran approach to Paul was mistaken, and argues that Judaism was not a legalistic religion of works-righteousness. So the ‘new perspective’ is that Paul was criticising Judaism for being exclusive (saying that you could only be right with God by staying within the national boundary markers like circumcision and the food laws), and for not welcoming Gentiles into the covenant. For NT Wright, justification does not primarily refer to how we are made right with God, it refers to the fact that we are members of the church, covenant members. The central point of debate is imputed righteousness. NT Wright says:

‘It is not God’s own righteousness, or Christ’s own righteousness, that is reckoned to God’s redeemed people, but rather the fresh status of ‘covenant member’, and/or ‘justified sinner’, which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with ‘the obedience of faith.’[31]

Wright does not believe God’s righteousness is anything that he can give or that can be transferred to a believer, rather he argues that the believer is declared righteous because he is now a covenant member. Paul, however, says categorically:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21).

A helpful critique of the ‘new perspective’ is included in Tom Schreiner’s book, Faith Alone: the Doctrine of Justification.[32] John Piper has a whole book on this topic, freely available  via the Desiring God website, called The Future of Justification.[33]  

Has Rome changed its teaching on justification by faith?

Some Evangelicals (such as Mark Noll) claim that the Catholic Church now accepts ‘justification by faith alone’,[34] and they point to the most recent Catholic Catechism. However, what the catechism means by ‘justification’ is something that is administered via the sacramental system of the Church. The word is the same but the theological meaning attached to the word is very different.[35] For Catholics, ‘justification is not only the remission of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the interior man’.[36] The Catholic doctrine combines the new birth ( which comes about, according to Catholicism, by the sacrament of baptism), with sanctification (which is viewed as lifelong transformation, fuelled by the sacraments), and forgiveness.

By contrast, justification, according to the Reformation teaching, is an act of God. God declares sinful people ‘not guilty’, but instead ‘righteous’. God imputes, or credits, the perfect righteousness of Christ to them. According to Protestant theology, salvation is monergistic. The apostle Paul knew that if it had been left to him he would have been eternally lost.

It does not therefore depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy (Romans 9:16).

According to Catholic theology salvation is synergistic. God and people work together to operate the salvation of sinners. The grace of God initiates the process, the faithful cooperate with that grace. Grace is infused through the sacraments, transforming the faithful so they can engage in good works in order to merit eternal life. Salvation is a lifelong process. Catholics believe that we can lose our salvation. They cannot enjoy certain assurance of salvation.

So salvation continues to be a major doctrinal divide.[37] The doctrine of justification by faith is so important because whether or not we are right with God or not determines where we will spend eternity. It is a matter of life and death. And it is important because to acknowledge that salvation is a free gift of God places the glory and praise for our salvation with God alone. Paul concludes his discussion of God’s sovereign grace with these words:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out! . . . to him be the glory for ever!’ (Romans 11:33-36.) 

That is the Reformation theme we return to in the next session: Soli Deo Gloria. ‘To God alone be the Glory’.


[1] James M. Kittelson, Luther, the Reformer, IVP, 1989, p63. ‘Many observers remarked that the town market was but a mudhole to accommodate the Wittenbergers’ drinking and brawling’.

[2] James M. Kittelson, Luther, the Reformer, p103.

[3] Michael Reeves, On Giant’s Shoulders, IVP, 2011, p15.

[4] James M. Kittelson, Luther, the Reformer, IVP, 1989, p104.

5 Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1961, ‘The Ninety Five Theses’, pp489-500. Other questions for debate included: 27 There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest. 32 All those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation by means of letters of indulgence will be eternally damned, together with their teachers. 52 It is vain to rely on salvation by letters of indulgence, even if the pope himself were to pledge his own soul for their validity. 

[6] Michael Mullett, Luther, Lancaster Pamphlets, Methuin, 1986, p17.

[7] Michael Mullett, Luther, p11.

[8] James M. Kittelson, Luther, the Reformer, p88.

[9] James M. Kittelson, Luther, the Reformer, p134.

[10] Martin Luther, ‘Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation, 1518’, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, pp501-503.

[11] Thesis 28 states that ‘The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.’

[12] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian Man. Luther, Martin, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1961, p60.

[13] Another way of expressing it is found in Luther’s 1519 sermon Two Kinds of Righteousness. This distinguishes between two kinds of righteousness. Alien righteousness is the gift of Christ’s righteousness. It’s ‘alien’ to us, in that we don’t create or produce it. We simply receive it. But once we have received Christ’s righteousness, and been justified, we live the Christian life, by the power of the Spirit. This is called ongoing sanctification, becoming holy. This progressive work, Luther described as proper righteousness’. Martin Luther, ‘Two Kinds of Righteousness’, Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, pp86-96.

[14] This understanding of justification was a break with Augustine. ‘For Augustine . . . the infusion of grace through the sacramental penitential system of the church continued the process of justification begun in baptism.’ Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, Broadman Press, 1988, p64.

[15] Martin Luther, ‘The Bondage of the Will’, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, pp166-203.

[16] The ‘three walls’ being: The Catholic Church held that secular authority has no jurisdiction over Pope and priests; Only the pope is able to explain Scripture; Only the Pope can call a general church council. Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, pp403-417.

[17] Martin Luther, ‘The Babylonian Captivity (or Pagan Servitude) of the Church’, 1520, Selections from His Writings,  ed. John Dillenberger, pp249-359.

[18] Martin Luther, ‘The Freedom of a Christian’, 1520, Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, pp42-85.

[19] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Pierce and Smith, 1950, p144.

[20] Mark A. Noll, ed. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, Baker Book House, 1991, Martin Luther, ‘Small Catechism’, pp59-80.

[21] Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, Zondervan, 2004, p177.

[22] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p293.

[23] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p217.

[24] Martin Luther, Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34. Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, First Sermon, 1532. The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 7, ed, Eugene F.A. Klug, Baker Books, 2000, pp10-11.

[25] John L. Mackay, The Dignity of Work, The Christian Institute, p. 13,

[26] Martin Luther, Sermon on Marriage, 1522. accessed 21/4/2017.

[27] Luther’s many ailments included gout, insomnia, catarrh, haemorrhoids, constipation, stone, dizziness, and ringing in the ears.

[28] Mark A. Noll, ed. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, ‘The Heidelberg Catechism’, pp137-164.

[29] Faith Cook, Lady Jane Grey, Evangelical Press, 2004, p186.

[30] Faith Cook, Lady Jane Grey, p198.

[31] Rutherford House Conference 2003, Rutherford House, Edinburgh

10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, 25–28 August 2003, New Perspectives on Paul, N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham.

[32] Tom Schreiner, Faith Alone. The Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015)

[33] John Piper, The Future of Justification (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007)

[34] Greg Allison, ‘Has Rome Really Changed its Tune?’ accessed 21/4/2017.

[35] accessed 21/4/2017.

[36] Mark A. Noll, ed. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, ‘Canon and Decrees of the Council of Trent’,
pp165-205, Decree on Justification, 7, pp176-7

[37] ‘The Church is considered a prolongation of the Incarnation, mirroring Christ as a Divine-human reality, acting as an altera persona Christi, a second ‘Christ.’ It is therefore impossible for Roman Catholicism to cry with the Reformers solus Christus, for this would be seen as breaching the organic bond between Christ and the Church. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church—in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word, and its administration of the sacraments. There is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the Church) and ecclesia in Christo (the Church in Christ).’