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How Did Jonathan Edwards "Complete" Martin Luther's Understanding of Justification?

How Did Jonathan Edwards "Complete" Martin Luther's Understanding of Justification?

 “Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards: A Fuller Understanding of Justification By Faith Alone”

[This is a slightly revised version of a presentation which was given on October 26, 2017, at the WRF Reformation Conference in Wittenberg, Germany.]

I.  Introduction

A.  I have written and spoken elsewhere about some of the unfortunate results of Reformation and, while that is not my topic today, I would like to mention one particularly unfortunate result before getting into what I do have to say about Luther and Edwards and justification.

B.  Assignment: Google

Google these words – “Why are Christians so . . . “ and see what Google says are the most often ways that phrase is completed.  A prominent American writer, Frank Viola, did so and wrote a blog about the results – among the words he found most often used were “negative,” “judgmental,” “intolerant,” “defensive,” “repulsive,” “mean.”


But what does this have to do with the Reformation? Well, one suggestion has been made by a book whose popularity in the U.S. has been overwhelming since its publication in March, THE BENEDICT OPTION, by Rod Dreher. It has been called “Already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade." 

Dreher says he wrote the book to trace the decline of Christianity in the West and the steady increase in hostility to traditional values – and he has all kinds of discouraging statistics to make his case.  Why is this happening? One key reason is:  “The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.”

D. Mark Noll at the 2017 EPC General Assembly

Dreher is not the only scholar who takes this view – in June, I attended the General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church at which one of the plenary sessions was led by historian Mark Noll whose topic was “The Reformation as a Great Blessing and a Great Problem.”  I recommend his lecture which may be seen here -

If you listen to Mark’s lecture, you will hear, among other things, a superb discussion of how and why others who agreed with his criticisms of the Catholic Church could not or would not join forces because of their different interpretations of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. 

Was Christ REALLY present in the elements or was the Supper just a “memorial” to Christ’s sacrifice?  I believe this is an important question but I am not sure that it was important enough to warrant the kinds of invective which invested the ranks of those earliest Protestants.  And I am fairly sure that it was not important enough to justify the official fragmentation of the Christian church which we see in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. 

E.  The Peace of Augsburg (1555)

That treaty can be summarized by four words –

“cuius region, eius religio.”  “Whose region, his religion.”

If ever there was a relativization of Christianity, that was it.  It basically stated that the true religion was relative to the preferences of the specific ruler.  If the ruler happened to be Roman Catholic, that would be the religion of the area he or she ruled.  If the ruler happened to be Lutheran, that would be the religion.  I suggest that this treat established a mindset which trivializes the truth of any specific expression of the Christian faith.

F.  Some Possible Results of This Relativization

1.  103 Presbyterian denominations in South Korea 2.  29 Presbyterian denominations in the U.S.

G.  But we still celebrate what happened 500 years ago and we SHOULD.  Why? Because of the biblical truths which were reaffirmed through the TWO CENTURIES of the Reformation.  The best result is the Reformation is that there was a reaffirmation of the most fundamental of all biblical teachings, summarized in the picture Revelation 7 paints of what heaven will be like:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen!  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.


II.  1517 was, of course, the date when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 

You really MUST take the time, if you haven’t already, to read the two pages that contain the theses.  To help you, here is a link to the theses in English with additional links provided there to the theses in Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, German, French, Chinese, and Afrikaans -

Ten minutes - that’s the MOST it will take you.

I really commend to you a reading to the 95 theses.

You will see that Luther was just proposing a DISCUSSION of some matters relating to what were called “indulgences.”  Indulgences were simply an agreement by the church that, if a person contributed toward the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, they would receive spiritual blessings.

And Luther doesn’t, in the theses, suggest that indulgences are always and completely bad.  He simply insists that the indulgences do not have the kind of absolute spiritual power that some Roman Catholic preachers were advocating.

Further, in the theses, Luther does not deny that the Pope has considerable spiritual authority.  In other words, the person writing the theses was still very much a Roman Catholic.

Let me quickly quote several of the theses:

#41.  Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

#44.  Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.

#48.  Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.

#56.  The true treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.

These are not the words that folks often think of when they think of Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517.  But they are the words Luther posted to the Wittenberg castle door and they are, it seems to me, very much the words of a faithdul Roman Catholic who simply wanted to correct abuses in his church.  He was a "reformer," not a "revolutionary."

Again, I urge you to read all 95 theses.

B.  Luther excommunicated and banned

However, the Roman Catholic hierarchy did see Luther’s theses as a threat and, as a result, in January of 1521, the Pope excommunicated Luther.  In addition, it is important to remember the specific context when Luther is said to have uttered his famous words: “Here I stand.” 

That occurred three months later, in mid-April of 1521, at a secular gathering – the Diet of Worms – called by Emperor Charles V.  Luther was presented with a stack of 25 of his printed works and he was asked if he was prepared to renounce the heresies in these works.  Luther protested that, unless the specific heresies were identified in the books were identified, he could not issue a blanket renunciation.  After all, as he pointed out, the Pope had approved some of the things he said. The presiding officer, Johannes Eck, refused to get specific and, in the end, Luther declined to issue a blanket renunciation. 

Unfortunately, we cannot be absolutely sure from the actual minutes of that meeting that Luther ever said, “Here I stand.”  There is no evidence that he did NOT say this but we ought to be careful when ascribing those specific words to Luther.     

III.  Luther after 1521

A.  But there is no question at all that, after 1521, Luther’s main contribution began to develop.

In 1538, Luther published his commentary on the Book of Galatians and he later said that this was the most important of his works.  To be more exact, this is precisely what Luther said:

“The Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am as it were in wedlock. It is my Katherine.”

The 95 theses were – and were intended to be – a Roman Catholic document correcting abuses within that church.  But the later works, especially the Galatians Commentary were much, much more.  These, much more than the 95 theses, form the theological foundation of the Reformation.

B.  Luther’s Comment on Galatians 2: 15 - 17

If you read anything, read his commentary on Galatians 2: 15 – 17.

Here is where Luther makes the wonderful statement that is associated with his name:

The true way of becoming a Christian is to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by the works of the Law.

Here the question arises, by what means are we justified? We answer with Paul, “By faith only in Christ are we pronounced righteous, and not by works.” Not that we reject good works. Far from it.  But we will not allow ourselves to be removed from the anchorage of our salvation.

Note that wonderful phrase, “the anchorage of our salvation.” 

C.  Luther’s Fundamental Positive Contribution


Luther provided the key biblical insight with respect to HOW sinners are justified.  

In this, Luther vigorously and correctly reflected the basic vision of Revelation 7 – that God gets ALL THE CREDIT for the justification of sinners.  The Lord of heaven and earth ALONE is worthy of praise when a sinner is justified. 

And by the mid- 1530’s,  this insight had taken Luther clearly outside the fold of the Catholic Church.  He was openly and vigorously critical of “papists”:

God has punished the contempt of the papists, by turning them over to a reprobate state of mind in which they reject the Gospel . . . . God punished them justly, because they blasphemed the only Son of God.

D.  But Luther was not much of a “uniter” in his theological opposition to Rome.

He was just as critical of other protestants as he was of the papists.  For example, the Anabaptists took Luther’s ideas to an extreme and Luther responded with these words:

With their doctrine, these lying sects of perdition deface the benefits of Christ to this day.

This was his comment about OTHER PROTESTANTS and it, too, is part of his discussion of Galatians 2:17. 

IV.  The WHY of Justification

A.  Still, one must, I believe, celebrate the clear biblical truth that, in terms of justification, the “how” is Christ – Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.  Luther had this part right.  Thus, it is abundantly clear that we should, we MUST celebrate what the Lord did for His church through Martin Luther. 

But there is a further step one could and should take in applying Luther’s basic biblical insight to Christian theology and the Christian life.

Why should we seek justification?

What is the fundamental MOTIVE for seeking justification?  The “why?” question is just as important as the “how” question.

According to Luther himself, we should seek justification for “the benefits” of Christ.  He uses this phrase twice in his explication of Galatians 2: 17. 

But I suggest that Luther, for all his superb biblical insight into HOW sinners are justified, perhaps missed the opportunity to apply his greatest contribution clearly and specifically to the matter of “why.” What is our motive in seeking justification?

B.  I would go so far as to suggest that the failure to take this final step may be one of the reasons so much of the continues to suffer from some variant of the prosperity Gospel.

Unless we are clear on WHY we should seek justification, we may leave open the door to some form of prosperity Gospel teaching.

C.  Many theologians have addressed this issue but none more biblically than Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was, of course, an American theologian, some might say the most important American theologian ever.  And in partial recognition of that fact, The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale, in conjunction with Eerdmans Publishing Company, recently published THE JONATHAN EDWARDS ENCYCLOPEDIA   

D.  For our purposes – and I believe for most other purposes as well – Edwards Treatise on Religious Affections is the most significant work.  In section 2 of Part III of The Affections , Edwards takes Luther’s fundamental insight about the “how” of justification and applies it to the “why.”  Using language different from Luther’s but addressing the same point, Edwards says this:

The exercises of true and holy love in the saints arise in this way – they first see that God loves THEM and then see that He is lovely; but they first see that God is lovely, that Christ is excellent and glorious; their hearts are first captivated with this view . . . and then, consequentially, they see God’s love and great favor to THEM.  The saints affections begin with God and self-concern has a hand in these affections consequentially and secondarily only.

E.  Luther showed that the “how” of justification centered on God.  Edwards continued this train of thought to demonstrate that the “why” must be centered there as well.  WHY do we believe in Christ?  First and foremost, because HE IS WORTHY of our faith.  He DESERVES our trust and our worship and our obedience.

F.  But doesn’t the Bible teach that great – even phenomenal – blessings come to those who exercise faith and are justified?  Of course!!  But those blessings come secondarily and consequentially – as Jesus put it in Matthew 6:33 – faith is the process by which we SEEK FIRST the Kingdom of God . . . and, when we do, all other good things will be added to us.  Also Jesus’s instruction about how we are to pray:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your Kingdom come; your will be done.

Our problem is that we all tend to reverse the order which Jesus laid out.  We often emphasize in our preaching that we must “trust Jesus” in order to be blessed?  And this is true.  But do we ever get around even to MENTIONING that the most powerful reason for trusting Jesus is rooted in the very character of our God?  He deserves our trust and our obedience.  He really is worthy!!  

V.  Now a couple of quick applications

A. We all – quite rightly – protest when we hear materialistic prosperity Gospel preaching.  Have faith and God will pour out untold wealth on you.   What a travesty . . . even though God may, indeed, do that.  But how about this – have faith and God will heal your body?  Or this – have faith and you will experience peace and joy.  There can be – and all too often is – a form of spiritual prosperity Gospel preaching which makes God a means to the end of our blessing . . . rather than the end Himself. 

B.  The trajectory of Luther’s and Edwards’ thought leads to the obvious but often neglected truth that our fundamental motive in prayer and preaching and in our entire lives must never be to “get from God.”  It must be to “give to God” that of which He is worthy

C.  What about missions and evangelism.  And again – why?  Why do we evangelize?  Why do we send missionaries?

Of course, the primary answer is because Scripture tells us to.  No matter whether we can verbalize the reason Scripture gives this directive, it does.  God tells us to.

But God does not leave us without any explanation.  In fact, He provides a whole series of explanations but problems arise when we don’t ORDER them as God Himself does.  It is absolutely true that those whom Christ does not save will go to hell forever. 

We evangelize and send missionaries out of love for those who need Jesus to avoid hell.  Yes, of course we do.

But that is very much a secondary reason . . . and if we don’t keep it secondary, we will end up with “prosperity missions.”  “Come to Jesus in order to GET the benefits of heaven.”

No, come to Jesus first and foremost to GIVE the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit your worship and praise.  Keeping the primary reason primary will help evangelists and missionaries avoid all the many temptations to compromise the truths of Scripture for the sake of “results.”     

D. In this context, I will recommend two books, both absolutely superb and will give Reformation shape to your life and service.

1.  First, a classic – J. I. Packer’s Knowing God.  An easy but powerful read and a superb resource for those who want to live and witness to a love for the majesty and beauty of God.  Of course, all of the joys of salvation are ours, but, even when those certain joys seem out of reach in this present evil age, the sheer beauty of our God shines from our words and our lives and can lead to REFORMED LIVES!   

2.  Secondly, a very heavy book, one which was named “Book of the Year for 2016” by Christianity Today.  It is 750 pages entitled The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,” by Fleming Rutledge.  It is an absolutely gruesome description of the horror of what Christ suffered which Rutledge turns into a breath-taking demonstration of how this terrible event revealed the depth of the infinite and magnificent love of God for the very WORST of sinners . . . like me, like you.  During Lent last Spring, I posted 10 different selections from this book on my Facebook page and I actually find myself returning to those posts a worship guides.  In one of those posts, I try to make the point that Rutledge makes the best case I have ever read with respect to the theodicy – how we might see even the evil and suffering in our world as a ground for praise to God. 

Yes, of course, we should warn people of the dangers of hell.

And yes, of  course, help them to see the blessings of heaven.

But also, follow Luther and Edwards.  We should describe for our friends and loved ones the sheer beauty and majesty of our Creator and Redeemer God. We should cause them to know that, more than anything else, He is worthy of their trust and their love and their worship. 

E. Be sure to include Revelation 7 in your Reformation reading schedule:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen!  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.



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