Expanded version of a presentation given at the
Fourteenth International Congress for Luther Research
California Lutheran University
Thousand Oaks, California
August 17, 2022
Of all the teachings of Martin Luther, none is generally considered to be more central to his thought than the doctrine of justification by faith. There can be little doubt that, for Luther, that doctrine constitutes the very essence of the biblical gospel.
Yet while the centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith in Luther’s thought may be beyond debate, the manner in which he understood that doctrine continues to raise many questions. What exactly did he mean when he spoke of justification? How did he understand and define justifying] faith? And why is it that faith in Christ justifies?
Since the sixteenth century, Luther has been interpreted as having answered questions such as these in essentially the same way as the other Protestant Reformers of his day did. A careful analysis of Luther’s writings, however, reveals that in some ways his understanding of justification by faith and the gospel was fundamentally different from that of the other theologians of the Reformation period. In particular, Luther’s conception of justification as a healing process can be seen as providing the basis for an alternative paradigm for the doctrine of justification by faith that resolves many of the problems associated with the traditional Protestant formulations of that doctrine and also recaptures the logic and power of the New Testament gospel.