Picture this: a bride and groom dashing out of the church, through the showers of birdseed and into the limo, all aglow with the light of love from the vows they've just taken. In the backseat of the car, en route to the reception, they embrace and kiss. Then the groom announces that he has something to say.

"Now you realize, my dear," he begins, "that, as far as I'm concerned, we can't really say we're married, because I don't know yet what kind of wife you'll turn out to be. I hope for the best, of course. And I'll help you all I can. But only at the end of our lives will I be able to tell if you've lived up to my expectations. If you have—then, and only then, I'll agree that we truly got married today. But if you don't, then as far as I'm concerned we were never married at all. After all, how can I call you my wife if you fail to be a wife to me?"

Under such circumstances, it will not be a happy honeymoon—if there's one at all. A wife cannot be a wife if her whole existence as wife is conditional and under constant scrutiny (likewise for a husband). She will certainly fail. This groom has completely misunderstood what just happened. A marital vow is a forward-looking creative act, not a retrospective judgment. The couple that tied the knot only 60 minutes ago is every bit as married as the couple celebrating their 60th anniversary. Whatever happens in the course of the marriage does not affect the "married-ness" of that couple.

But it would be just as awful a misunderstanding if the bride were to recite to her new husband the following speech: "I'm glad you married me. I've always wanted to be married. But mainly what I wanted was the status; I was tired of being a single girl. I'll stick by you and never seek a divorce, so I can go on calling myself married, but don't expect any closeness, friendship, or desire from me. I've already gotten everything I want out of you and I've already given everything I intend to give to you."

The bride is right—unlike the aforementioned groom—that the two are truly married, even if love and devotion are completely absent from the relationship (though her chances of getting lifelong married status out of it are pretty slim). But while she has grasped the status of the vows, she has entirely missed the point of taking them. It's not merely having the status, but what the status enables. The vows that create the marriage on its first day are the platform of trust from which the whole life of love can and should grow. The couple will never be more married than on their wedding day, but as the years go by they should be more trusting, more loving, more real together.

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Comparing our relationship with God to a marriage is an age-old theological device. Hosea, the Gospels, Ephesians, and Revelation all use bride and bridegroom metaphors to illustrate divine-human relations. Most patristic and medieval interpreters of the Song of Songs took it to be as much, if not more, about God and the soul or Christ and the church as about human lovers. The medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux cultivated a spiritual-marriage mysticism between God and the human soul. Martin Luther, in turn, found Bernard's imagery to capture beautifully and insightfully his newfound understanding of justification by faith.

Good Works, Before and After

Luther started on the path to reform with his objection to justification by works, the notion—whether stated explicitly or implicitly, in church practice or preaching, in the most ham-handed fashion or with consummate subtlety—that salvation from sin is ultimately dependent on you and your efforts to be righteous in the eyes of the Lord. But only a few years passed before Luther's great insight was flipped on its head and turned into antinomianism by some of his own followers. They claimed not only that good works aren't necessary in the Christian life but that they might be actively harmful, luring you back into trusting in yourself. Luther was no more pleased with this distortion than with the traditional line. Both were premised on the same flaw: the absence of Christ from the believer.

It is because Luther was so strongly convicted of the presence of Christ in faith that he loved the marital imagery of Bernard and the Bible. In a sermon from early in his career (probably 1519) called "Two Kinds of Righteousness," Luther preaches: "Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride's and she all that is his—for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh—so Christ and the church are one spirit." In this joyful exchange, our sin with its consequent death and damnation becomes Christ's, while Christ's righteousness becomes ours (1 Cor. 1:30). Only after we have received Christ's "alien righteousness," as Luther called it, do we begin to get somewhere with our own "proper" righteousness.

For Luther, a God demanding good works as the condition for our salvation would be as bad as the groom in the limo. How could we ever know that we had done enough? How much righteousness is needed to get us across the boundary line from damnation to salvation? And how can we be expected really to love and trust a God always watching us like a hawk to see if we fail? Promises to help us can only ring hollow. In reading Paul's letters over and over, Luther finally got it: Righteousness is not something that we generate from within ourselves and then offer to God. Righteousness is something that God gives to us—and this is exactly why we may trust in and grow to love God.

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But Luther didn't expect that getting righteousness as a gift (instead of performing it ourselves) would have no effect on us at all. Certainly he couldn't imagine that we'd become like the callously indifferent bride, basking in the benefits of marriage but promising neither love nor devotion in return. Instead, our "soul no longer seeks to be righteous in and for itself, but it has Christ as its righteousness and therefore seeks only the welfare of others." In other words, it is only when good works are removed from the question of salvation—and when righteousness is a gift from God instead of a payment from us—that we can truly start performing them. They matter; not to God, since they aren't needed to settle the scales of divine justice anymore, but to our neighbors, the very people and the earth itself that God gave us in the gift of creation, even before the gift of righteousness.

By Grace or By Faith?

Being made righteous, being justified, is an act done to us by God, not something we enact ourselves. But where does faith come into it? Why does Luther insist that we are justified by faith—and why is it not enough to say that we are justified by grace? It is often thought that "justification by grace" would be the more accurate phrase, since it puts the emphasis on God's doing instead of ours. "Justification by faith" seems to suggest that actually, in the end, it's up to us to have faith: Salvation by good works has slipped in through the back door, faith being the ultimate good work.

But contrary to popular Protestant polemics, nobody in the whole Christian tradition—certainly not Thomas Aquinas or his diverse cohort of fellow medieval scholastics—has ever seriously disputed that justification is by grace. The problem is that grace, however mighty a concept, involves a certain ambiguity. What exactly does divine grace do? Luther believed that some of his predecessors, chiefly the German scholastic Gabriel Biel, held that grace is divine assistance to a human nature eminently capable of pursuing righteousness, but too lazy or disinclined to achieve it without some prodding. As far as Biel was concerned, it was already amazing grace that God had provided any opportunity for salvation after the Fall; we should be grateful, then, that God gives us the chance to do our very best in amassing good works. In short, grace would enable us, with God's help, to save ourselves. But saving ourselves would remain our obligation. And to Luther, that was not good news. That was the marriage vow taken hypothetically and conditionally, waiting to see how the spouse would shape up in the end—and destroying the spouse in the process.

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So for Luther, explaining why justification is by faith starts with giving a clearer account of grace. Our faith begins with the Holy Spirit graciously coming to us, seeking us out and tracking us down. The Spirit's work is to bring the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ to bear on our own biographies and circumstances, beyond all limitations of time and space. Through baptism and preaching, the Spirit says to you, to me, to everybody: "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8), and so the Father promises to forgive us all our sins, grant us Christ's own righteousness, and raise us up to new life in the heavenly kingdom.

That is the promise that the Spirit brings. But we can't see these realities now. God indulges in empirical proofs on very rare occasions, and even those don't always persuade—think of Gideon and the wool (Judges 6:36-40), or the disciples at the end of Matthew's gospel who see the risen Jesus yet still don't believe. The one and only way to receive a promise is to believe in it. Believing in God's promise counts as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

For Luther, explaining why justification is by faith starts with giving a clearer account of grace. Our faith begins with the Holy Spirit graciously coming to us, seeking us out and tracking us down.

But still the anxiety lingers: How do I know that I really have faith in the promise? True faith, enough faith—justifying faith? If the answer lies with me, then I'm lost, as much as when I depended on my good works. Thankfully, the answer lies with God. For it is Christ, brought from heaven to earth by the Spirit, who does the believing in and for me, much as Paul says: "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Christ dwells in me, and so the Father judges me as righteous—not as a legal fiction, but as a truth, because the Father has truly given me Christ's own righteousness, and through the Spirit I have received it. In a right understanding of justification, there is no competition between "the faith in Christ" and "the faith of Christ." They are the same reality.

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That's why Luther, following Paul in Romans 3:28 and elsewhere, argued that we are justified, made right with God, through our faith. And this faith is so great that it can even give us assurance of our salvation, a position that horrified his opponent Cajetan, the Italian cardinal, who could only hear it as a presumption on God, and even as "build[ing] a new church."

About the latter supposition, Cajetan was unfortunately, prophetically, correct. But in the ensuing centuries, Luther's understanding of faith would also suffer distortions at the hands of fellow Protestants. Faith has become a leap in the dark, divorced from the concrete good news of Christ's death and resurrection. Or faith has become "all you have to do is … "—invariably a sign of a bad theology in progress. Or it has been downgraded to sheer intellectual knowledge, a sign-on-the-dotted-line kind of belief, which among other things promotes terrible hostility toward marginal- and non-Christians. Or it has turned into a psychological vortex, where I am saved only if I believe enough, but I start to wonder if I believe enough, and then I doubt that I believe at all. But Christ's faith is resilient enough to handle our doubts; it transforms not only our minds but our hearts as well; and it cuts the ground out from any Christian self-congratulation—for it is the living work of the living Lord.

The Justified Life

The implications of justification by faith are vast. In the early church, it broke down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, making unity between disparate ethnic groups possible. It challenged the medieval church for selling what God gives away abundantly and for free. It pops the bubble of well-behaved Christians who think their sanctified lives set them apart from the wretched and dissolute. It lifts up the weary who try and fail to produce impressive fruits of righteousness, gently reminding them that all of us depend on a righteousness not our own. It gives us the courage to confess our sins instead of covering them up, because we are no longer invested in proving our progress. It even eases anxiety over the act of faith itself, confirming that any faith we have is Christ's own faith, not an accomplishment we can credit to ourselves.

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In fact, Luther assumes (again in "Two Kinds of Righteousness") that justification by faith will transform not only our souls but all of our social relations, including the harmful ones that all too often characterize church life: "For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them. You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself would wish to be taught. You are righteous that you may vindicate and pardon the unrighteous, not that you may only condemn, disparage, judge, and punish." Christ gave what he had to us; so we Christians in turn give what we have to others.

The doctrine of justification means that Christ's righteousness is an unconditional gift to the ungodly. It means that faith really does have the power to move mountains, especially the mountains of guilt, pride, and despair that weigh down our souls. As Luther once notoriously wrote in a letter to his friend and colleague Philip Melanchthon: "If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world."

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the editor of Lutheran Forum.

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