(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
JustificationApril 1521. Pope Leo had done all he could do. After excommunicating Luther, the Church had played her best ecclesiastical hand. The only thing left was to turn to the secular arm, which meant to seek Luther’s execution. (This maintained the illusion that the Church never executed anyone—only the state executed. Of course, the Church controlled the state…) To this end, the pope requested, and Emperor Charles V agreed, to summon Luther to the Diet of Worms.
Protected by an offer of safe-conduct, Luther left for Worms on April 2, 1521, convinced that he would never return. His journey was like a victory parade with crowds lining the street, waving and cheering as he passed by.
At four o’clock in the after noon on April 17, Luther appeared before the diet. Before the Emperor, noblemen, and the papal prosecutor stood a poor and powerless priest, the son of peasants. Charles V was twenty-one and dressed in splendor. Luther was thirty-seven, and wore the robes of an Augustinian monk.
An official asked Luther, pointing to a stack of books and pamphlets, “Are these your writings, and do you wish to retract them?” Luther spoke, first repeating the two questions. He answered yes to the first question, and asked to be given twenty-four hours to consider his answer to the second. Luther’s request for twenty-four hours was not a sign of wavering but a sly political move. The papal delegation wanted an immediate decision and tried to persuade Charles V. Charles, on the other hand, did not want to appear as a papal puppet, so he granted Luther’s request. Luther, in effect, helped Charles to assert imperial authority over papal wishes.
The following day, April 18, Luther returned. He spoke at length, after which the Emperor demanded a plain, straightforward answer to whether Luther would recant. To this Luther gave his famous response:
"If the Emperor desires a plain answer, I will give it to him. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. God help me. I cannot do otherwise."The Emperor gave a sign that the meeting was over. Luther turned and left the tribunal. A few days later, Luther was ordered to leave Worms and return to Wittenberg. The plan was, after the promise of safe conduct was nominally provided, that Luther would be seized and put to death as a heretic.
There is a small gate in the wall of Worms. By that gate, Luther left worms on the night of April 26. The gate is now known as Luther’s Gate.
Luther traveled toward home, at times stopping to preach (which he had been forbidden to do.) On May 4, after preaching and enjoying dinner, he set out on the road. In the forest, five masked riders kidnapped him from his carriage and took him to Eisenach. This was done on the order of Luther’s benefactor, Frederick the Wise, who knew Luther would be seized when his safe conduct expired. Luther stayed in Frederick’s protection for ten months, before returning to Wittenberg to deal with excesses in reformational behavior.
Luther had transformed the world by holding fast to a doctrine known as Justification by Faith Alone, or sola fide. It is useful to look at this in detail.
Today, many Christians do not know what Justification means, even though it is, in the final analysis, the doctrine over which the Reformation was fought. The modern ignorance of the concept of justification is humorously described by John Gerstner. He once spoke to a group of businessmen on the topic of justification, a meeting that was covered by a local reporter. The next say, the newspaper reported on Dr. Gerstner’s speech on “Just a Vacation by Faith!”
In his Primer on Justification, Gerstner lists, in equation form, five views on justification. The equations connect Justification (being made acceptable to God) with faith and works.
- Liberalism: Works → Justification – Faith
- Catholicism: Faith + Works→ Justification
- Neoorthodoxy: Faith → Justification – Works
- Antinominanism: Faith → Justification – Works
- Evangelicalism: Faith → Justification + Works
1. The Liberal View on Justification
Gerstner denotes Liberalism by the equation: Liberalism: Works → Justification – Faith. He points out that this can be a little misleading. Liberals are not without faith. In fact they have enormous quantities of faith. The subtraction of faith is for a very specific type of faith: faith that they are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.
The liberal claims to be Christian, in fact he often claims to be the only true Christian because he has absolute faith in Jesus’ central moral teaching: The Golden Rule. Liberal faith in Jesus is not in the good news that his shed blood has paid for our sins, but is confined for the most part to two verses:
And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. (Luke 6:31)The second of these is taken as a blanket endorsement for absolute tolerance. Rarely does the liberal look ahead five verses:
Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matt. 7:1)
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matt. 7:6)and explain how, if Jesus is teaching us never to judge anyone, are we supposed to follow the instructions of verse six without making a judgment about who is a “dog” and who is a “pig?”
Indeed, the liberal does even believe in a pathological form of Justification by Faith. His faith, however, is placed in himself and his fellow man. The liberal believes that he has the ability to justify himself before a Holy God by being a good enough person, and perhaps acknowledging that there was a Jesus whose job was to teach us how to live. Perhaps surprisingly, the examples of liberals from Jesus’ time are the Pharisees. The Pharisees trusted in their own righteousness for their salvation. Like the modern liberal, they were insulted by the concept that they could not save themselves, and were especially outraged that another truly righteous man would have to die in order to secure their salvation. Ironically, the Pharisees played their part through in complicity in Jesus’ murder, and today the liberal continues the insult the gospel by denying Christ’s necessity.
Liberals, as described here, regardless of their claim to authenticity, are not Christians. Now this is a very serious charge. We do not want to go around willy-nilly saying this or that person is not a true Christian. However, while not tightening the circle too much, we must remember that there is a circle that defines the essentials. And among the essentials nothing is more important than the gospel: We cannot do anything to pay for our sins, only the finished work of Jesus Christ can make that payment. Liberals deny the very gospel—as such they cannot be considered Christians. Loosely speaking they might be described as followers of Jesus in the sense that they accept some of His moral teachings—but they are not Christians given that they do not place their faith in His blood, but rather their good deeds.
Gerstner describes a Unitarian minister who understood this. Invited to speak to one of Gerstner’s classes at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, The Rev. Cahill of the First Unitarian Church said:
“Dr. Gerstner is a Christian. I am not a Christian. Christianity is a religion of redemption, and your professor believes in it and is entitled to the name Christian. I don’t believe in the supernatural events of divine salvation through Jesus Christ, which I admit is the definition of Christianity. I am, frankly, not a Christian. I am a liberal and I have a religion which is quite different from your professor’s, as he understands and I also understand.”The fact that the liberal equation, unlike the other four views, doesn’t start with faith represents that this view cannot, even in principle, be Christian.