Luther's theology of the Cross - pt 1 Justification

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Luther's Stein asks...

"So Shark, How do you understand Justification and the legal motifs apart from a penal-substitution model?"

I was planning on going into this with Luther, so I thought I would answer this comment in a post. I've been reading Alister McGrath's "Luther's Theology of the Cross" which I highly recommend. In it he talks about Luther's struggle with the law. Penal Substitution has its foundation in a judicial understanding of justice based on a punishment and reward system. As Luther says

"I had hated that phrase 'the righteousness of God' which according to the use and custom of the doctors I had been taught to understand philosophically... by which God is righteous and punished unrighteous sinners" (Luthers Werke Wiemar Ed. 54.185.12)

Luther goes on to say that

"I did not love, and in fact I hated that righteous God who punished sinners...I was angry with God...I drove myself mad with a desperate disturbed conscience". (Ibid)

Because his understanding of justice, which he had inherited from the 500 years since Anselm was one based on a criminal law understanding of justice. Luther describes this kind of justice as a "tyrant". In his commentary on Galatians Luther writes

"Did the Law ever love me? Did the Law ever sacrifice itself for me? Did the Law ever die for me? On the contrary, it accuses me, it frightens me, it drives me crazy”

Luther's breakthrough of finding grace was in discovering that the justice that Paul speaks of was not in the legal sense of punishement but in the Hebrew sense of "making things right". Hence Paul speaks of "justification" which means "setting something right". A justice based on our own performance (works) is a death trap. But a justice that originates from God's goodness through faith means that God sets things right in our lives when we open our lives to him. The first is legal and in conflict with mercy. It sees justice as punishing (active) and mercy as leniency (inaction). That later biblical justice is in contrast about "making things right" and comes through acts of mercy as seen in the ministry of Jesus who came to establish justice in us though acts of healing and restoration. In this there is no conflict between justice and mercy becasue restorative justice comes through acts of mercy. Luther again:

"I began to understand that 'righteousness of God' refer to a passive righteousness by which the merciful God justifies us by faith...this immediately made me feel feel as if I was born again, a though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light...and now where I had once hated that phrase the phrase 'the righteousness of God' so much I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of words" (Luthers Werke, Op Sit)

So rather than reading the idea of justice in the legal sense of punishing, we need to read with Luther the idea of justification and justice in relational terms as God setting things right, as him through mercy breaking us out of the shackles of performance and law. God did not do this by "satisfying the demands of law" as Penal Substitution would say, but by "nailing the law to the cross" (Col 2:14) by overcoming it along with sin, condemnation, wrath, and the devil and putting all of these tyrants under Christ so that they would no longer oppress us and keep us from life, but serve us and point to the God of grace. In a nutshell we could say that biblical justice is about restorative justice not punitive justice. Punitive justice is the consequence of sin, but God's righteousness and justice is revealed in mercy which sets us right God breaks us out of that death trap putting it to death.

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At 8:31 PM, Blogger T. Baylor said...


I appreciate you entertaining my question and being patient with my novice. I have not had much exposure to defending Penal Substitution – it has always been a given for me, so bear with me. I think for our discussion to go anywhere it might be better for us to discuss particular texts, however I would like to briefly challenge your thesis on 2 counts.

1. I think that while you rightly perceived Luther's aversion to law, you may have overlooked the penal themes which Luther attaches to the cross and the law. In his commentary on Galatians this theme is most predominant (For a good survey, see Westerholm Perspectives Old and New On Paul, pg. 30-32). This is not to deny Christus Victor elements, but I think it is pretty well established that Luther held primarily to Christ's satisfaction of the demands of the Law.

The following is a quote from Luther’s Table Talks (my favorite because it is Luther at his most virulent – and perhaps drunk!)

‘There is but one God,’ says St. Paul, ‘and one mediator between God and man; namely, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all.’ Therefore, let no man think to draw near unto God or obtain grace of him without this mediator, high priest, and advocate. It follows that we cannot through our good works, honesty of life, virtues, deserts, sanctity, or through the works of the law, appease God’s wrath, or obtain forgiveness of sins; and that all deserts of saints are quite rejected and condemned, so that through them no human creature can be justified before God. Moreover, we see how fierce God’s anger is against sins, seeing that by none other sacrifice or offering could they be appeased and stilled, but by the precious blood of the Son of God.

2. I think that understanding justification with the background of “setting things right” distorts the data somewhat. Unfortunately, the field is much too broad to discuss here, but I think to understand justification we must understand it against its legal background. Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism discusses the issue in the primary literature quite thoroughly. Paul regularly turns to the dik* word group to refer to both the believer’s righteous (“law abiding”) standing before God and the fulfillment of the law’s requirements (the meaning of “righteousness”) (e.g. Romans 3:25-26; Gal. 3:10-11; Phil. 3:6-10). I think there is a sense in which we can speak of justification “setting things right” in a practical sense, but in a technical sense, the word means “to declare righteous” – righteous, in turn, refers to conformity with the law. This implies, of course, that something must be done to fit the sinner to be in conformity with the law (hence Luther’s “Simul Iustus Et Peccator”)

I think it would be difficult for us to get anywhere like this. Could you make your next post on Rom. 3:25-26; I think this would help further our discussion.

Thanks again for the quick response.

At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luther S.

You raise the important issues and questions. I wanted to clarify a bit more exactly where you are coming from so I can address them better. You say "I think it is pretty well established that Luther held primarily to Christ's satisfaction of the demands of the Law". Could you direct me to where Luther says something like this? I can see in Luther themes of God's wrath and also of Christ bearing sin. I would be most surprised if he spoke of "satisfaction of the demands of the Law" since Luther hated the law so much. He does use the words like "satisfaction" and "appeasement" since these are part of his inherited vocabulary, but I see him as concerned with how God can solve the problem of the tyranny of the law and how we are freed from its bondage, not how it is "satisfied". For Luther law=devil.

Perhaps what would help is to define some terms. I do see strong aspects of substitutionary and vicarious atonement in the cross. That's probably the major theme. But I don't see it in the context of "satisfaction" for an offense. You mention Luther's penal themes in his commentary in Galatians. In one of the most famous passages, commenting on Galatians 3:13 Luther says

"He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: “Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them"

We have clear themes of vicarious suffering and substitutionary atonement. Luther uses words like "satisfaction" and "pay". Since Luther was so prolific it is extremely hard to pin down just exactly what his theology was on the cross. But I'd like to suggest that one cannot understand Luther strictly as espousing Penal Substitution because Luther also is constantly describing these sacrifices as "apart from all law and custom" (Luther says this in his commentary on Isaiah 53). So to say that Luther saw Christ bearing the pain and penalty for sin in our place is true. But the context in which he saw this vicarious atonement was actually one of Christus Victor. Luther continues the above commentary on Galations saying

"The sins of the whole world, past, present, and future, fastened themselves upon Christ and condemned Him. But because Christ is God He had an everlasting and unconquerable righteousness. These two, the sin of the world and the righteousness of God, met in a death struggle. Furiously the sin of the world assailed the righteousness of God.. This tyrant pounces on Christ. But Christ’s righteousness is unconquerable. The result is inevitable. Sin is defeated and righteousness triumphs and reigns forever"

"Because Christ is God". This is crucial because the incarnation tells us that ultimately it is God on the cross who has "become sin for us". God did not need to bribe himself into loving us, God out of his love entered into our wretchedness and blackness in solidarity with sinners because he "first loved us while we where his enemies". Reducing that to a legal requirement severely limits the scope of Christ becoming forsaken for our sake. God bears our sin, but also our sorrows and our infirmity (Isa 53). He bears all that would separate us from him and in bearing it he overcomes it.

I hope I haven't rambled too much here and that this furthers our conversation. I'd be happy to go into Romans 3:25 and the issue of hilasteron and propitiation later, but wanted to see if we could get more on the same page first so I don't just take off on a tangent without you.

At 7:33 AM, Blogger T. Baylor said...

Oh yeah, I would want to be careful not to give the impression that Luther doesn't think in terms of Christus Victor -- this is pretty clear from several passages even in the Galatians Commentary. My point was that his concern with wrath and righteousness, his concern with the abrogation of the law for believers, and his concern with justification all point to a penal emphasis as well. While the exact wording "satisfaction of the law's demands" might not be found, I think reading on Luther's conception of law will bear out that the reason that the law is not binding to the Christian is precisely because Christ's death has made God propitious -- this can be seen frequently in Luther's warnings concerning the mistake of self-atonement through doing the law (see Table Talks, 114, 182, 260, 274, 276, 278). I think these passages and others show that Luther's disdain for the law is anthropological with reference to self-atonement (TT, 290). Luther does speak approvingly of the Law at points, but generally with reference to Christ's fulfillment of it. Since Christ has fulfilled the law, it can no longer condemn -- however, it does remain a guiding principle in how the believer relates to God; the Spirit guided believer fulfills the law, though he does not look for a righteous standing from it.

"Whoso has Christ, has rightly fulfilled the law. But to take away the law altogether, which sticks in nature, and is written
in our hearts and born in us, is a thing impossible and against God. And whereas the law of nature is somewhat darker, and speaks only of works,therefore, Moses and the Holy-Ghost more clearly declare and expound it, by naming those works which God will have us to do, and to leave undone. Hence Christ also says: “I am not come to destroy the law.” Worldly
people would willingly give him royal entertainment who could bring this to pass, and make out that Moses, through Christ, is quite taken away. O,then we should quickly see what a fine kind of life there would be in the
world! But God forbid, and keep us from such errors, and suffer us not to live to see the same (Table Talk, 286)."

I hope this answers the question.

At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tried to look up several of the quotes from Table Talk you gave but on several I was wondering if the numbering got mixed up somewhere. Could you maybe quote just a tad from what you are referencing so I can bee sure I'm reading the right stuff? Often times I wan not sure why I was reading what I was (for instance in 260 I read "The sins of common, untutored people are nothing in comparison with the sins committed by great and high persons" and wonder if I'm reading the wrong talk.

"My point was that his concern with wrath and righteousness, his concern with the abrogation of the law for believers, and his concern with justification all point to a penal emphasis as well.

I would emphasize all of those too, but I don't believe in Penal Substitution. Remember, simply having a theme that has to do with law or punishment does not equal Penal Substitution. PS is specifically saying that the means of Christ's atonement were to satisfy the demands of justice through punishment of the innocent Jesus in place of the guilty as a legal exchange of penalty so God will not have to punish us. I don't see that in Luther.

"While the exact wording "satisfaction of the law's demands" might not be found, I think reading on Luther's conception of law will bear out that the reason that the law is not binding to the Christian is precisely because Christ's death has made God propitious"

I agree that Christ's death has made God propitious. The question is how. Notice in your quote from TT that Luther says about "fulfilling the law" that, as I mentioned, the law is thus "overcome"

"Christ... fulfilled and overcame the law; for most
certain it is, that no one else could have vanquished
the law, angel or human creature, but Christ only, so
that it cannot hurt those that believe in him" (TT

Maybe I'm wrong about Luther, but I still think his understanding of the cross was not Penal Substitution, but rather Christus Victor (God/Jesus liberating us from bondage and tyrants) through Vicarious Atonement (God/Jesus bearing our sin, sorrow, and sickness).

At 12:43 PM, Blogger T. Baylor said...


I just reread your essays on the atonement and I am thoroughly confused on both your theory of justification and propitiation. So I think I will chill until we talk about your view of justification in Rom. 3.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger T. Baylor said...


Check out this link:

It is to a lecture by J. I. Packer -- footnote 33 deals with Luther's themes of Penal Substitution. He might succeed where I have failed.

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luther S.

I've read the Packer article many times. It's one of my favorites.

Packer says "The essence of Christ’s victory, according to Luther, is that on the cross as our substitute he effectively purged our sins so freeing us from Satin’s power by overcoming God’s curse" This I whole heartedly agree with. I also agree with Packer that following Aulen the presentation of Penal Substitution should focus on the saving drama rather than on the mechanics. Where I disagree is where Packer speaks of the "penal" as having to do with "retribution". If that is how he defines Penal Substitution (and I think it is a correct definition) I do not see that in Luther. Again I see substitution, I see bearing of sin, bearing of wrath, and bearing of injustice. I suppose you could call that "penalty". But I do not see the purpose or result of this as being a retribution or payback to God's need for vengeance. That I think is just flat out wrong.

Have you read Moltmann? His view is following Luther's idea of Christ "becoming sin" and is a good signpost for where I am coming from.

FYI I posted on Romans 3:25. Not sure if it is what you were after...


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