The Cause of Salvation

“In human teachings the righteousness of man is revealed and taught, that is, who is and becomes righteous before himself and before other people and how this takes place. Only in the Gospel is the righteousness of God revealed (that is, who is and becomes righteous before God and how this takes place) by faith alone, by which the Word of God is believed, as it is written in the last chapter of Mark (16:16): ‘He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.’

For the righteousness of God is the cause of salvation.  And here again, by the righteousness of God we must not understand the righteousness by which He is righteous in Himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteousness by God.  This happens through faith in the Gospel.” Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, in Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 151. [Emphasis added]

The 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation allows us to focus intently on Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel.  This event originated with Dr. Luther’s intense study of the righteousness of God (iustitia Dei) in relation to the salvation of sinners.  While lecturing on Romans in 1515/16, Luther began to understand the righteousness of God as the gift of God received by faith in Christ.

He contrasted this divine gift with righteousness achieved by human effort. Augustine of Hippo (d.430) provided Luther with this understanding in On the Spirit and the Letter.  Luther contrasted the divine gift received by faith with the late medieval theologians’ adoption of Aristotle’s emphasis on human achievement as the basis for forming a habit of righteousness:

“According to him [Aristotle], righteousness follows upon actions and originates in them.  But according to God, righteousness precedes works, and thus works are the result of righteousness.” Ibid., p. 152.

While the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses and the subsequent controversy made Luther famous, the debate over how God grants salvation shaped the theological developments in early sixteenth century.  In following posts I will examine how this took place 500 years ago.


About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


The Cause of Salvation — 4 Comments

  1. “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” The authorship of this statement is in dispute, but I think it applies to Luther’s approach to the cause of salvation. He obviously had profound problems with his own righteousness, particularly when he compared it to that of God. When he became convinced from Scripture that we receive the, “righteousness by which we are made righteousness by God” as a gift from God, he discovered the Gospel.
    But that does not mean that Luther’s way to the Gospel is the only way, or that it shows the “cause of salvation.” That is and has to be God’s infinite love for His people. “Giving us His righteousness” is the mechanism, if you will. His motivation for employing this mechanism is that He loves us with an infinite, everlasting love from before the foundations of the world.
    “See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.”
    –Martin Luther, “What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Ed. Timothy F. Lull. 2nd Ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 106.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  2. Great article. I would just be careful using a passage from the end of Mark as a proof-text. I think there are plenty of good passages that affirm what you are saying that cannot be refuted on the basis of textual criticism. John 3: 16-18 I think does this very well. Paul also has a number of excellent passages such as in Romans 10: 9-10.

  3. For both commenters: The first two paragraphs quote Dr Luther’s lectures on Romans directly. Notice the quotation marks and source. He had no problem using the end of Mark as a proof text.

  4. I agree, however, we have come a long way in our understanding of the issues surrounding textual criticism since the 1500’s. If we advance our apologetic I think we will find that we are on a surer footing without compromising the doctrine because it is woven throughout the NT narrative in passages that are original to the manuscript evidence.

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