Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Martin Luther on Justifying Faith

In this passage from The Freedom of a Christian, originally published in German in 1520, Martin Luther develops the idea that faith unites the believer to Christ, in much the same way as marriage unites a bride and bridegroom. The soul is thus made “single and free” from its sin on account of being married to Christ; Luther’s language here suggests the image of being “divorced from sin” in order to be “united with Christ.” Through this union, the believer shares in all Christ’s riches, while Christ swallows up the believer’s sin. The passage serves to emphasize that Luther sees faith as far more than intellectual assent to propositions. Faith establishes a living personal relationship between Christ and the believer.

[In the twelves place], faith does not merely mean that the soul realizes that the divine word is full of all grace, free and holy; it also unites the soul with Christ (voreynigt auch die seele mit Christo), as a bride is united with her bridegroom. From such a marriage, St. Paul says (Ephesians 5:31-32), it follows that Christ and the soul become one body, so that they hold all things in common, whether for better or worse. This means that what Christ possesses belongs to the believing soul; and what the soul possesses, belongs to Christ. Thus Christ possesses all good things and holiness; these now belong to the soul. The soul possesses lots of vices and sin; these now belong to Christ.

Here we have a happy exchange (froelich wechtzel) and struggle. Christ is God and a human being, who has never sinned and whose holiness is unconquerable, eternal and almighty. So he makes the sin of the believing soul his own through its wedding ring (braudtring), which is faith, and acts as if he had done it [i.e., sin] himself, so that sin could be swallowed up in him. For his unconquerable righteousness is too strong for all sin, so that it is made single and free (leding und frei) from all its sins on account of its pledge, that is its faith, and can turn to the eternal righteousness of its bridegroom, Christ. Now is not this is a happy business (ein froehliche wirtschafft)? Christ, the rich, noble, and holy bridegroom, takes in marriage this poor, contemptible and sinful little prostitute (das arm vorachte boetzes huerlein), takes away all her evil, and bestows all his goodness upon her! It is no longer possible for sin to overwhelm her, for she is now found in Christ and is swallowed up by him, so that she possesses a rich righteousness in her bridegroom.”


1) The Freedom of a Christian; in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, vol.7 (Weimar: Bohlaus, 1897), 25.26-26.9.
2) The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrath (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1995), pp. 229-230

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