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date: 04 October 2023

Martin Luther and Justificationlocked

Martin Luther and Justificationlocked

  • Olli-Pekka VainioOlli-Pekka VainioUniversity of Helsinki


The doctrine of justification is an account of how God removes the guilt of the sinner and receives him or her back to communion with God. The essential question concerns how the tension between human sin and divine righteousness is resolved. Luther’s central claim is that faith alone justifies (that is, makes a person righteous in the eyes of God) the one who believes in Christ as a result of hearing the gospel. This faith affects the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that covers the sins of the believer. In contrast to medieval doctrines of justification, Luther argues that Christ himself, not love, is the form, or the essence, of faith. Love and good works are the necessary consequences of justification even if they are not necessary for justification. However, the inclination to love and perform good works is present in the believer through Christ, who is present in faith, but these characteristics do not as such, as renewed human qualities, have justifying power.

Luther’s doctrine of justification cannot be classified with simplistic categories like “forensic” and “effective” (see the section “Review of the literature” below). Often these terms are used to refer to differing interpretations of justification. However, several recent traditions of scholarship perceive this categorical differentiation as simplistic and misleading. Instead, these terms may well function to designate different aspects of God’s salvific action. In the narrow sense, justification may refer to the forensic and judicial action of declaring the sinner free from his or her guilt. A broader sense would include themes and issues from other theological doctrines offering a holistic and effective account of the event of justification, in which the sinner believes in Christ, is united with Christ’s righteousness, and receives the Holy Spirit.

Depending on the context, Luther may use both narrow and broad definitions of justification. Here Luther’s doctrine of justification is approached from a broader perspective. On the one hand, justification means imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness to the believer without merits. On the other hand, faith involves effective change in the believer that enables one to believe in the first place. This change is not meritorious because it is effected by Christ indwelling in the believer through faith. Thus, Christ gives two things to the sinner: gratia, that is, the forgiveness of sins, and donum, that is, Christ himself. The media through which Christ offers his mercy are the word and sacraments. Thus, Luther’s sacramental theology, Christology, and soteriology form a coherent whole. Because justification involves union with Christ, which means participation in Christ’s divine nature, Luther’s doctrine of justification has common elements with the idea of deification.


  • Christianity

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