How does a person have a right to stand before God and obtain eternal life? The Bible presents two answers. Perfect obedience of all the commandments is one answer. Jesus once gave that answer to an expert in the law (Luke 10:25-37). But no one can do this. The other answer is faith, belief, and trust in Jesus. We read it in the most well-known passage in Scripture (John 3:16). Paul also expressed it clearly: “We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
This teaching that we are justified by faith alone has been obscured, even in the church. At the time of Paul, some tried to say that faith was not enough. You also had to obey certain Jewish customs to be a good Christian. Paul had an answer: “[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
By Martin Luther’s day, the church was teaching a similar combination of faith and works. Faith had to be completed by works. But whenever works are added, you cannot be certain that heaven is secure. How do you know if you’ve done enough works or the right works?
Luther was led to rediscover what the Scriptures had always taught. Only by faith in Jesus do we receive the blessings Jesus won for us through his life, death, and resurrection. The Augsburg Confession states concisely, “It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3[:21–26] and 4[:5]” (The Book of Concord, IV, pp. 38,40).
True Lutherans believe that we have a right standing before God through Christ alone by faith alone in Jesus. True Lutherans understand that it is all by grace and that faith is not a decision we make or the one work we must do but simply the hand that receives the gifts God gives through the gospel. To be truly Lutheran means to have the confident certainty of eternal life because faith holds on to Jesus alone.
This is the fifth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation.
Author: Joel Otto
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017