In his Exposition of Psalm 130.4, Martin Luther wrote, "If this article stands, the church stands; if it collapses, the church collapses." He was talking about justification by faith.
He thought he made a great discovery, justification by faith, in Paul's epistles to the Galatians and Romans. To Luther this discovery meant everything personally--it was more than just the article on which his church would stand or fall. It had this personal importance because of his fears.
An important statement, made in 1985 by a joint commission of Lutheran and Catholic theologians, admitted that "[i]n their situation [that of Luther and his associates] the major function of justification by faith was rather to console anxious consciences, terrified by the inability to do enough to earn or merit salvation. . . . The starting point for Luther was his inability to find peace with God. . . . [He was] terrified in his own conscience."
Any experienced confessor will recognize what the poor man suffered from: He was scrupulous. A scrupulous man has a generalized anxiety which expresses itself by latching first onto one thing, then onto another. The person fears he is constantly in mortal sin.
Luther solved this problem for himself by his "discovery" of justification by faith, which for him meant that it made no difference if he did sin mortally all the time. If he would just take Christ as his personal Savior, and then the merits of Christ would be thrown over him like a white cloak.
He could not be lost--he was saved no matter how much he might sin (short of apostasy). So he wrote to his great associate, Melanchthon (Epistle 501): "Pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius," which means: "Sin greatly, but believe still more greatly" or, better (since Luther is not to be understood as advocating sinning as such), "Even if you sin greatly, believe still more greatly."
As a popular bumper sticker puts it: "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven." In other words, Christians can sin as much as they want and get away with it. Others, for the same sins, go to hell.
Within his own framework, Luther was surely right in saying that his church would stand or fall with his idea of justification by faith. So we ask: Is it standing or falling? The answer: It has fallen--and for a double reason, according to his own calculations.
There are two key words, not just one, in the expression "justification by faith."
First, "justification": Luther thought that a sinner who is forgiven is still totally corrupt, unable to get away from sinning constantly.
Did Paul mean that? Not really.
He spoke of Christians as a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). They are made over from scratch-- they are not at all merely the same old total corruption! And he says more than once that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us as in a temple (1 Cor. 3:17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16). Can we imagine the Holy Spirit living in a temple that is total corruption?
Even more telling, if possible, is the idea Paul has of faith. Luther did not even make a good try at finding out what Paul meant by the word. He assumed what appealed to his scrupulous fears and said faith means confidence the merits of Christ apply to me. But there is an obvious way to find out what Paul really meant by faith: Read every place where Paul uses the word and related words. We can use a concordance to locate them, to keep notes, and to add them up.
If we do so this is what we get:"If God speaks a truth, faith requires that we believe it in our minds (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Cor. 5:7). If God makes a promise, faith requires that we be confident he will keep it (cf. Gal. 5:5; Rom .5:1). If God tells us to do something, we must obey (cf. Rom .1:5; 6:16). All this is to be done in love (Gal. 5:6).
How does this compare with just being confident that the merits of Christ apply to you? Quite a difference. So, by his own standard, Luther's church has fallen. What he thought was a great discovery was just a great mistake, and his whole system stands or falls on his error, as he himself admitted.
There is a large standard Protestant reference work, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. It first appeared in four fat volumes, with articles on everything pertaining to the Bible. In 1976 appeared a supplemental volume, which contained some new articles and revisions of some older articles. This latest volume has a new article on faith. We look for the subsection on Paul, since James uses the word faith very differently.
What do we find? Precisely the same as what we explained above. Faith is a complex of belief, confidence, obedience, love. The article even explains Paul's words in Romans 1:5: "The obedience of faith" means "the obedience which faith is." Luther thought we do not have to obey any commandment at all if we have faith. He did not see that faith itself includes obedience to God's commands (and obedience is a work).
Another pillar of Luther's church was "Scripture alone." It left him with a problem he could not solve: Which books are inspired and so are part of Scripture? In the first centuries, for instance, there were in circulation many books that were called Gospels, with the names of apostles on them. How could Luther know which ones were inspired? His answer: If a book preaches justification by faith strongly, it is inspired--otherwise not. But Luther never proved this was the right test. And it could not be: He or I could write a book preaching justification by faith, yet the book would not be inspired.
At a national Baptist convention in 1910, Gerald Birney Smith, a prominent professor, gave a paper on this very problem. He reviewed every way he could think of to determine which books are part of the Bible. He found all attempts insufficient. He said there was only one way that could work--the existence of a divinely-protected teaching authority to assure us. Smith believed we had no such thing. Therefore, he was, sadly, left with no way to know which books are part of the Bible. To be logical, he should have stopped quoting the Bible, since he could not know what works properly comprise it.
What a tragic fall the two columns Luther depended on have taken, "justification by faith" and "Scripture alone"! His whole supporting structure collapsed under him (though he may not have realized it). In a real sense, Luther had no right to quote Scripture at all. Even if he had had such a right, Scripture shows he was seriously wrong as to what Paul means by faith.