Unedited version of an article published in Dialog 46, 1 (Spring 2007), 24-30

            After finishing the manuscript of my recently published Paul on the Cross,[1] I remember thinking to myself that the first reactions to the book would probably come, not from biblical scholars, but theologians, particularly those in Lutheran circles questioning what such an interpretation of Paul might mean for our traditional understanding of justification. Indeed, this turned out to be the first question directed to me by the Editor-in-chief at Fortress Press after he had read through the manuscript: “where does all this leave ‘justification’ and ‘law/gospel’?” And then, scarcely two months after the book’s release, the first written reaction I received to it was a note from the Editor of Dialog, asking if I would be willing to do an article for this journal addressing the question: Did Luther get Paul right?

Before tackling that question, however, I feel it is important to address another one: namely, whether as Lutherans we are in fact open to considering the possibility that, at least in some important ways, Luther got Paul wrong. The question of whether Luther got Paul right seems to me to be of the same “no-win” variety as the Pharisees’ question to Jesus concerning paying taxes to Caesar, or Jesus’ question regarding whether John’s baptism was of divine or human origin: either answer will land you in hot water with someone, be it biblical scholars or Lutheran theologians. The “Lutheran Paul” has already been crucified and buried by New Testament scholars for some time, although there are still a few attempting to raise him from the dead.[2]

Is justification really the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae?

Among Lutheran theologians, however, it has seemed to me that, if forced to make a choice, they would rather hand Paul over to the clamoring mob than Luther. To sacrifice Luther would simply be too costly. If the doctrine of justification as taught by Luther and expounded in the Lutheran confessional writings is in fact the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, then to admit that Paul’s doctrine of justification is distinct would definitely leave us and our church on the cadentis end of things. It has been traumatic enough in recent years for Lutheran theologians to deal with the seemingly growing consensus that Luther’s teaching on justification differs in certain ways from that found in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord; to insist now that we must not only choose between Luther and the Confessions but in some regards give both of them up in order to remain faithful to Paul and the New Testament would simply be too much. In essence, we would prefer to turn the norma normata into the norma normans, rejecting out of hand any reading of the biblical and Pauline teaching on justification that is not in accordance with our Confessions and/or Luther, rather than accept the claims of a biblical exegesis that would call into question our understanding of the chief article of our faith, no matter how strong the arguments in support of that exegesis may be. Ultimately, we are more concerned about Paul getting Luther right than about Luther getting Paul right.

Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that, no matter how adamantly we as Lutherans may claim that our understanding of the doctrine of justification and its centrality for Christian faith is drawn solely and entirely from Scripture, our insistence on clinging fast to that doctrine is at least in part due to the fact that we have discovered its truth and importance in our own life and experience as believers and as a church.

In fact, such was the case with Luther himself. There can be no doubt that, even though at Worms Luther admitted in principle the possibility that he might be “convinced by Scripture and plain reason” that he was wrong with regard to his understanding of the faith, this was in fact impossible, no matter what biblical arguments his opponents might have thrown at him. And the reason Luther was so unmoveable with regard to his views was not so much his belief that his biblical exegesis had been impeccably done, but the personal, living encounter he had had with a merciful God who freely and graciously accepted him in Christ, in spite of his sin and unworthiness.

In other words, to some extent, it was not only Luther’s exegesis that convinced him of the truth of his experience of God’s grace, but his experience of God’s grace that convinced him of the truth of his exegesis. I would maintain that, in the same way, it is our experience as believers and as a church that has convinced us of the truth of our Lutheran teaching regarding God’s gracious justification of sinners in Christ, and not merely our biblical exegesis done on the basis of our doctrine of sola Scriptura. If this is the case, then the question of whether Paul got Luther right is an entirely valid one.


Is there an objective ground for justification?

Before we can address the question of whether Paul got Luther right, of course, we must get Luther right ourselves. History has shown that this in itself may be an impossible task.

One of the greatest difficulties in this regard has to do with Luther’s understanding of the basis upon which sinful human beings are justified. While obviously faith constitutes the subjective basis for justification, Luther seems clearly to maintain an objective basis as well, namely, Christ’s death for all. What is not so clear, however, is precisely how Christ’s death is salvific in Luther’s thought. Luther works with more than one model of atonement. One can find there the Anselmian view that Christ’s obedience makes satisfaction for human sin in that he thereby pays the debt human beings owe to God, as well as the slightly different idea of penal substitution, according to which Christ endures in the stead of human beings the punishment and divine wrath their sins deserve. Undoubtedly, both of these interpretations of Christ’s work are found in Luther, in addition to various forms of the “classic” or Christus Victor idea, according to which the cross is the means by which humanity is delivered from evil powers such as sin, death, the devil, and even the law.[3]

Precisely how all of these ideas are to be reconciled with one another is not clear. Luther scholars have struggled with this question repeatedly, at times arguing in favor of the centrality of one or another of these understandings of Christ’s work for Luther. Yet once it is also maintained that faith is necessary for justification, the question becomes academic. The reason for this is that the lack of faith renders ineffectual any type of objective salvation: in the end, those who do not come to faith remain under God’s wrath and condemnation on account of their sins, and subject to the powers of sin, death, and the devil. The most that can be maintained according to objective doctrines of salvation is that human beings have been saved “potentially” or “in principle” from these things through Christ and his death and resurrection; yet they are not “actually” saved unless they come to faith. In that case, Christ’s work consists merely of making possible what was previously impossible for God: prior to Christ’s coming and death, faith in God was not sufficient for salvation, because even if people did have such faith, without Christ it was supposedly not possible for God to forgive their sins or deliver them from the malicious powers to which they were subject.

In Paul on the Cross I have argued that the idea that it was impossible for God to save human beings without Christ and the cross is a product of later Christian theology, and that such an idea was held neither by the first Christians nor Paul. I have also argued there that the notion of Christ or his death having effected an objective salvation embracing all people is foreign to Paul’s thought, as are the later Christian interpretations of the cross based on the ideas of satisfaction, penal substitution, and the Christus Victor motif. With respect to these ways or models of understanding Christ’s atoning work, then, I would maintain that Luther got Paul wrong. Of course, in this regard he is certainly not alone in the Christian tradition.


Is Christ present in faith?

While at times Luther seems to regard what Christ did in the past as the basis upon which believers are justified, at other times he bases justification on the presence of the living Christ in believers: “Faith justifies because it takes hold of and possesses this treasure, the present Christ. . . Therefore the Christ who is grasped by faith and who lives in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, on account of which God counts us righteous and grants us eternal life.”[4] Related to this idea is Luther’s teaching regarding the fröhliche Wechsel or “joyous exchange” or “happy exchange. According to the exchange model, through his union with believers, Christ takes their sin and confers upon believers his righteousness. What is not always clear is whether Luther understood this merely in forensic terms, according to which Christ’s righteousness is imputed or reckoned to believers, or in some real or “ontological” sense as well, in which case the righteousness imparted by Christ to believers is some actual reality.

This latter idea has recently been stressed particularly by the Finnish Lutheran theologians, who argue that the idea of union with Christ is central for Luther’s doctrine of justification, as well as his soteriology as a whole. According to Tuomo Mannermaa, “in faith the human being really participates by faith in the person of Christ and in the divine life and the victory that is in it. . . Christ himself is life, righteousness, and blessing, because God is all of this ‘by nature and in substance’”; as “the divine righteousness, truth, peace, joy, love, power, and life,” Christ gives himself to believers through the “real union” that he has with them, and at the same time “‘absorbs’ the sin, death, and curse of the believer into himself.”[5] Similarly, Simo Peura argues that “God changes the sinner ontologically” by virtue of his or her union with Christ in faith, so that the believer’s righteousness “permanently flows from Christ,” who is himself grace.[6]

Personally, I am not convinced that the Finns faithfully represent Luther’s thought. It seems to me that ideas and concepts taken from Eastern Orthodox theological thought are being read back into Luther’s language. As far as I can tell, Luther himself rarely speaks of believers “participating” in Christ or God as persons, develops the notion of theosis in the same way that it is developed in Eastern Orthodoxy,[7] or concerns himself with ontological questions in discussing the presence of Christ in believers (“how he is present—this is beyond our thought; for there is darkness”[8]). Perhaps the most serious problem such a reading of Luther raises is that it seems to make justification dependent once more on the infusion of divine “energies” or “substances” into believers, as in Orthodox and Roman Catholic thought: if Christ himself is grace (gratia), as well as life and righteousness (iustitia), so that the believers’ righteousness is something that “flows from Christ,” then is not justification once again being based on a gratia infusa and a iustitia infusa, by virtue of a Christus infusus who is conceived of more as a transforming power, life-principle, or divine substance than a particular historical person?

The idea of a “joyous exchange” between Christ and believers raises other problems as well. If understood in an ontological sense, not only does Christ’s righteousness seem to be some objective reality or entity that can mysteriously be communicated to believers, but the sin of believers similarly appears to be conceived of as some type of actual substance with an existence of its own transmitted from believers to Christ so as to be “absorbed” by him. Furthermore, it is not clear whether this absorption of human sin by Christ takes place by means of the human nature he took at the incarnation (in which case “Christ has and bears the sins of all human beings in a real manner in the human nature he has assumed”[9]) or through the personal union effected through faith (in which case Christ “absorbs” only the sin of believers into himself).[10]

Of course, the idea of an exchange can also be understood in a forensic sense: Christ’s righteousness is merely reckoned to believers, while the sin of believers is conversely reckoned to Christ. Either way, however, if this is something that happens only when Christ comes to dwell in believers by faith, it appears that it is what the risen Christ does now that takes away their sin, rather than what he did on the cross in the past, when neither present-day believers nor their sin yet existed. It might be said that Christ assumed the sin that all people would commit when he died in the past, but then the problem of an objective redemption arises once more: if the sin or guilt of all people was assumed by Christ on the cross, why must they still come to faith? And if they must come to faith for their sin to be taken away by Christ, how can it be said that it was taken away when Christ died? At times it is said that Christ comes to dwell with his work in the believer;[11] but precisely how we are to conceive of such an idea is equally unclear.

In addition, as has often been pointed out, if Christ endured the penalty of human sin on the cross, then to speak of forgiveness is a misnomer―our sins are punished, but not forgiven. The idea of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to believers also implies that God demands righteousness of human beings, not for their sake (i.e., because only by living righteously in accordance with God’s will can human beings have well-being, wholeness, and justice), but for God’s own sake, that is, to satisfy some divine necessity related to God’s holy and righteous nature. This presupposes that due to God’s perfectly righteous nature, God cannot accept sinners (the “ungodly”), but only those who are fully righteous, either with their own righteousness (an impossibility) or with the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Finally, such an emphasis on the risen Christ who is present in believers and shares his righteousness with them does not seem to do justice to what Christ did in the past during his earthly ministry: it is as if Christ dedicated his life to achieving or building up in himself a righteousness that would either qualify him to die in the place of others or provide him with something to communicate to others once he had risen and been exalted. This is not the way Christ’s life is described in the Gospels.

While Paul clearly speaks of Christ living in believers (including himself, Gal. 2:20), precisely what he means by this is a subject for debate. As I argued in chapter 6 of Paul on the Cross, I do not believe Paul conceived of some type of union of substances between Christ and believers (and would question whether Luther did as well). Instead, it is best to understand Paul’s affirmation that Christ lives in believers and that they die and live with Christ in the same sense that Paul himself tells the Corinthians, “you are in our hearts, to live together and die together” (2 Cor. 7:3), just as his words about being “baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27) should be taken in the same sense in which Paul spoke of the Israelites being “baptized into Moses” (1 Cor. 10:2). In none of these instances should Paul’s language be taken in a literal, ontological, spatio-temporal sense.

I would also maintain that Paul’s teaching was that God simply forgave freely the sin of believers for Christ’s sake, and not that the sin of believers had been “reckoned” or transferred to Christ for him to make satisfaction for it or endure its penalty. Similarly, although Paul affirms that the faith of believers is reckoned or imputed to them as righteousness (Rom. 4:22-24), I do not believe that he taught that the righteousness of Christ is imputed or imparted to believers. While sinful believers are undoubtedly accounted righteous for Christ’s sake, and remain sinners as they practice the righteousness of God imperfectly in their lives, any actual righteousness they have is their own, though it is not brought about by themselves but by God in Christ (and as such is an “alien righteousness”). Because God wants all to practice righteousness and justice for the sake of human beings themselves rather than for God’s own sake, the only thing that could please God would be that they themselves become righteous, not that some substitute do so in their place.

With regard to these matters, then, there is undoubtedly a great deal of continuity between Luther and Paul: both maintain that Christ lives in believers and believers in him, that sinners are reckoned righteous for Christ’s sake, and that they nevertheless remain simul iusti et peccatores. However, many of the ideas associated with Luther’s understanding of the “joyous exchange” are simply not to be found in Paul.


Justification by faith alone

As mentioned at the outset, to a great extent Luther’s doctrine of justification grew out of his personal experience. After struggling for years to fulfill God’s commandments and thereby attain through his own efforts the level of righteousness required by God, he arrived at the conviction that this was impossible. His study of the New Testament, and particularly of Paul, led him to realize that in Christ God graciously accepted him as a sinner, forgiving his sins and bringing about in him the righteousness God desired and commanded. What was necessary was simply to trust in God and in God’s Son Jesus Christ, since this constituted true righteousness. In Luther’s words, “One does not become righteous by doing righteous deeds. No, one does righteous deeds after becoming righteous. Righteousness and fulfillment of the Law come first, before the works are done, because the latter flow out of the former.”[12] Thus “faith alone makes a person righteous and fulfills the law.”[13] The discovery that “the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith” was for Luther “truly the gate to paradise.”[14]

Proponents of the “new perspective on Paul” have repeatedly pointed out that Paul’s doctrine of justification was not born out of the same experience that Luther had, and that therefore in important regards Luther misread Paul. Paul had never experienced the same anguish that Luther did over his sins and the question of his salvation, nor had Paul or his fellow Jews ever believed that they could earn God’s grace and favor through strict obedience to the law. In Jewish thought, God did not require perfection, and was always willing to grant forgiveness to those who repented sincerely. In expounding his doctrine of justification by faith, Paul was not addressing the question of how sinners might find a gracious God, but whether Gentiles might be accepted into the community of the righteous without submitting to the prescriptions of the Mosaic law, such as circumcision. For these and other reasons, the “Lutheran” reading of Paul is rejected.[15]

While I believe that such an understanding of Paul and the Jewish/Gentile question is for the most part accurate, I would nevertheless maintain that Luther hit the nail squarely on the head in his interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification. For the central idea in Paul, as in Luther, is that the righteousness God demands is not something that can be brought about by striving to observe the law, but only through faith in Christ. This is because true righteousness and true fulfillment of the law do not involve observing outward precepts, its “letter,” but observing its “spirit”; and such righteousness and fulfillment are brought about by God in Christ only as one lives out of faith (ek pisteōs), receiving both the forgiveness and the new life God now graciously gives through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Although Paul and Luther were undoubtedly addressing two different contexts, in that Paul’s adversaries were insisting that salvation depended on literal observance of the Mosaic law while Luther’s adversaries were claiming that salvation depended on doing the works prescribed by God as defined by the church, in essence they were dealing with the same question, namely, whether faith alone was sufficient for salvation; and contrary to their opponents, both Paul and Luther answered that question with a resounding Yes!.

Yet it is important to understand their reasons for that Yes!, since both Paul and Luther were accused of undermining God’s law. Contrary to many interpretations of their thought, both insisted that God’s law must still be fulfilled by believers, who must practice the righteousness prescribed by the law; however, such fulfillment and righteousness can only be attained by living out of faith alone, receiving as a gift the righteousness and obedience that God brings about in believers through Christ and the Spirit. Undoubtedly, believers will continue to sin as they live out of faith, and thus will always be in need of the divine forgiveness that comes through Christ. Because both forgiveness and the new life of righteousness are brought about, not by believers themselves or their own works, but by God in Christ, their assurance of salvation is based solely on God’s grace in Christ; thus, because “faith alone fulfills the law,” sinful human beings are called only to look to God in faith and trust, depending entirely on God and God’s Son Jesus Christ.[16]

As I argued in Paul on the Cross, I am convinced that this understanding of justification has its roots, not in Paul, but in Jesus himself, for whom it was also the center around which all else revolved. Like Paul and Luther, Jesus insisted that the law had to be fulfilled (Matt. 5:17-20), but understood this fulfillment in a way distinct from many of his contemporary Jews in that he focused on the spirit of the law, and considered that freedom with regard to the letter of the law was at times necessary in order to fulfill its spirit (as Paul also taught). At the same time, he consistently had fellowship with “sinners,” accepting them as they were; for this he was condemned by supposedly law-observant Jews, just as Paul was condemned by law-observant Jews for receiving into the fellowship of the church “Gentile sinners” just as they were. Jesus’ teaching and practice, therefore, reflect the same principles that we find in Paul and Luther: people are changed and transformed into new persons, not by demanding that they submit obediently to the law and strive to practice the righteousness commanded by God, but by graciously accepting them just as they are into fellowship, so that as they look to Jesus in faith they may experience both forgiveness and a new life pleasing to God. Only in this way can they ever truly come to fulfill the law, which God desires that they do, not for God’s own sake, but for the sake of human beings themselves.

Of course, for Paul it is not only Jesus’ life and teaching, but his death, resurrection and exaltation that result in the “justification of the ungodly.” Jesus died precisely because of his commitment to bringing about a new community that would practice the true righteousness of God, and by giving up his life in faithfulness to that mission, when God consequently raised and exalted him Jesus obtained from God the salvation and justification of all who would come to form part of that community through faith, since he can now return to save those for whom he died. Believers are justified and forgiven because of Christ’s past and present Godward act of intercession on their behalf, as well as because of the new life of righteousness he brings about in them through his Word and his Spirit in the context of his community of followers. Yet the Godward and humanward aspects of Christ’s work must not be divorced from each other, but held together in the way that Luther did: “God forgives and is merciful to us because Christ, our advocate and priest, intercedes and sanctifies our beginning in righteousness.”[17] In other words, Christ’s intercession pro nobis is based on the new life of righteousness that he brings about in nobis through his past, present, and future activity.


In the end, I would contend that in some respects, Luther undoubtedly did get Paul wrong. This is hardly a surprise, given the fact that biblical and historical research has advanced far beyond what it was in Luther’s day, due primarily to the wealth of resources we now have at our disposal. Where it matters most, however, I think Luther got Paul right in a way that many of the “new perspective” school have not. But Paul also got Luther right in that, even though he apparently never experienced the same Angst over his personal salvation that Luther did, through his own experiences on the road to Damascus and as “apostle to the Gentiles” Paul discovered the same truth that was so dear to Luther’s heart: that God freely forgives and accepts sinners in Christ just as they are, so that through Christ, as they live by faith alone, they may be changed into the righteous people God wants them to be, not for God’s own sake, but for the sake of human beings themselves. And fortunately, I guess that means that as Lutherans we can put away our own Angst over the “Luther or Paul?” question, and instead rest assured that, at least with respect to our understanding of the essence of the gospel, both Paul and Luther would agree that we stand justified just as we are.


David A. Brondos

Published online October 31, 2017


[1] David A. Brondos, Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle’s Story of Redemption (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).

[2] See especially Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004).

[3] On these ideas in Luther, see especially Marc Lienhard, Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ (ET, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982), 56-63, 106-120, 176-185; Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (ET, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 201-223. For delineation of the models of atonement see; Ted Peters, “Six Ways of Salvation: How Does Jesus Save?” Dialog 45:3 (Fall 2006) 223-235.

[4] Luther’s Works (hereafter LW followed by volume and page number), Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986), 26:130.

[5] Tuomo Mannermaa, “Justification and Theosis in Lutheran-Orthodox Perspective,” in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 32-33.

[6] Simo Peura, “Christ as Favor and Gift (donum): The Challenge of Luther’s Understanding of Justification,” in Braaten and Jenson, eds., Union with Christ, 48, 52-53, 60.

[7] See for example the passage from LW37:371 quoted by Mannermaa in defense of his claim that Luther teaches divinization: “By faith [a Christian] is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor” (“Why is Luther So Fascinating?,” in Braaten and Jenson, eds., Union with Christ, 19). If it is maintained that Luther understands the believer’s being “caught up beyond himself into God” in real, ontological terms, must we not also interpret his words concerning the believer’s descending “beneath himself into his neighbor” in the same manner?

[8] LW26:130.

[9]  Mannermaa, “Justification and Theosis,” 29.

[10] The same problem arises when participation in the divine life is attributed simultaneously to Christ’s assumption of the human nature common to all persons and to his union with believers through faith and the sacraments: Why must we be ontologically united to Christ (and thus to God as well) through faith and the sacraments if we are already ontologically united to Christ and God through the incarnation?

[11] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville, MN: Unitas Books, Liturgical Press), 45-46.

[12] LW 27:223-224.

[13] LW 35:367

[14] LW 34:366.

[15] On these points, see Westerholm, Perspectives, especially 159-200, 249-258.

[16] On these points, see my article “Sola fide and Luther’s ‘Analytic’ Understanding of Justification: A Fresh Look at Some Old Questions,” Pro Ecclesia 13:1 (2004), 39-57.

[17] LW 34:153.