One of the tragic ironies of Christian history is that the deepest split in the history of the Church…this split between Protestant and Catholic originated in a misunderstanding.  And to this day many Catholics and many Protestants still do not realize that fact. -Peter Kreeft,  Justification by Faith

What was the misunderstanding? Was Martin Luther a hero that rediscovered the true gospel? Or was he a rebel at heart?  Did he  understand the doctrines he was fighting against? Or did he act in ignorance?

The Narrative of the Reformation

When I was a child I learned the “Narrative of the Protest” which goes something like this:

Catholics do believe in Jesus and the bible, but they wrongly give equal weight to their  own Tradition or “ traditions of men”. Over time the Catholic church invented a bunch of unbiblical doctrines like purgatory, worshipping Mary, and teaching  salvation by works. They got so far off track that they even started selling indulgences.  That’s why the Reformation was a wonderful thing! The Catholic church started out with truth but began adding man-made traditions and corrupted the true gospel. Imagine it like a garden that had been overrun with weeds that choked out the truth. The Catholic hierarchy  was  so bent on controlling laypeople that they even tried to keep the bible from them so they wouldn’t know how unscriptural Catholic teaching had become. The Reformation  reintroduced  the pure and simple New Testament gospel, free of the rituals and man-made religion and traditions .

That Narrative has been told and retold in different ways. There was a time that Martin Luther was one of my heroes. When he stood before the Church and stated: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”, I thought it was a  valiant stand for the true gospel.  Then, one day, after I began reading  original sources , I realized that there was far, far  more to the story than I had been told.

I had been told that Luther “rediscovered” the “biblical” doctrine of justification.

What I discovered is that his view had never been taught  in the history of Christianity and is in fact, unbiblical. Tim Staples lays it out in seven minutes here:

Martin Luther and Faith Alone

One of the cries of the Reformation was “faith alone”. Martin Luther was convinced that the word  “alone” belonged in Romans 3:28. His reason? He believed, based on his own private interpretation, that: “The text itself, and Saint Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it”. Luther was so convinced that  the text demanded it that  he proceeded to alter Sacred Scripture to fit what HE thought it should say.

Martin Luther touted his intellectual ability and called those who submitted to the authority of the Church’s teaching “papists”,and referred  to them as “blockheads and donkeys”.  Luther insisted that his superior intellect gave him the right to not only TRANSLATE  the inspired Word of God, but he also thought he could  INTERPRET it correctly based on nothing more than his  personal  authority. In his Open Letter on Translation he says,

If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.”
…For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine!

Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I.”

“I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, “I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together.

Martin Luther

 Martin Luther  knew that the word “alone” was not in the original text of the inspired Word of God and  he didn’t care.  He said,

“I know very well that in Romans 3 the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text — the papists did not have to teach me that. It is fact that the letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text — if the translation is to be clear and vigorous [klar und gewaltiglich], it belongs there.Martin Luther

 Scripture Alone Or Interpretive Authority From Christ?

The second cry of the reformation was “scripture alone”. Did you ever stop to think about the fact that the first Christians didn’t have a bible? Jesus didn’t give the early Christians a book.  He breathed on his apostles and gave them   authority and said to them “whoever hears you, hears me”. 

The  Catholic Church  exercised that authority to decide the canon of Scripture  over 300 years after the time of Jesus.   Many Protestants claim that the Catholic Church added the 7 Deuterocanonical books after the reformation. Not true. That canon of Scripture had already been settled for over 1,000 years when Luther decided  to change it to  fit  his own private interpretation. He  also removed 7 books from the bible because they didn’t agree with his  own doctrines. He called James “an epistle of straw” because it states,  “faith without works is dead”.

The canon of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was  settled at the Council of Rome in 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. It was soon reaffirmed on numerous occasions. The same canon was affirmed at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at the Council of Carthage in 397. In 405 Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the canon in a letter to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage, this one in the year 419, reaffirmed the canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface to “confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.” All of these canons were identical to the modern Catholic Bible, and all of them included the deuterocanonicals. –Defending the Deuterocanonicals, James Akin

Protestants removed the 7 Deuterocanonical books because they contradicted their personal ideas.   Yet, Jesus and the NT authors quoted from the Deuterocanonical Books:

The Septuagint version of Scripture, from which Christ quoted, includes the Deuterocanonical books, books that were supposedly “added” by Rome in the 16th century. And this is by no means the only citation of the Septuagint in the New Testament. In fact, fully two thirds of the Old Testament passages that are quoted in the New Testament are from the Septuagint.- 5 Myths About 7 Books Catholic


Martin Luther Acted on His Own Subjective  Authority

Luther believed that  his intellect qualified him to translate into German and refused to submit to the authority that Christ gave to the Church.

“Ah, translating is not everyone’s skill as some mad saints imagine. It requires a right, devout, honest, sincere, God-fearing, Christian, trained, educated, and experienced heart.” I would need an entire year. I have learned by experience what an art and what a task translating is, so I will not tolerate some papal donkey or mule acting as my judge or critic. They have not tried it. If anyone does not like my translations, he can ignore it; and may the devil repay him for it if he dislikes or criticizes my translations without my knowledge or permission. If it needs to be criticized, I will do it myself. If I do not do it, then let them leave my translations in peace. Each of them can do a translation for himself that suits him — what do I care? An Open Letter on Translation

Martin Luther judged the books of the bible ” according as they appealed to his own subjective nature, or according to his spiritual needs. He often exercised his reason in determining the respective worth of the several books of the Bible, and in a way which has been confirmed to a surprising degree by subsequent researches. He denied the Mosaic authorship of part of the Pentateuch; he declared Job to be an allegory; Jonah was so childish that he was almost inclined to laugh at it; the books of Kings were “a thousand paces ahead of Chronicles and more to be believed.” “Ecclesiastes has neither boots nor spurs, but rides in socks, as I did when I was in the cloister.” -Historian Preserved Smith“

Luther attempted to defend his personal interpretation of “faith alone” by claiming that it had been taught by the Church Fathers:

Furthermore, I am not the only one, nor the first, to say that faith alone makes one righteous. There was Ambrose, Augustine and many others who said it before me. And if a man is going to read and understand St. Paul, he will have to say the same thing, and he can say nothing else. Paul’s words are too strong — they allow no works, none at all! Now if it is not works, it must be faith alone. Oh what a fine, constructive and inoffensive teaching that would be, if men were taught that they can be saved by works as well as by faith. That would be like saying that it is not Christ’s death alone that takes away our sin but that our works have something to do with it. Now that would be a fine way of honoring Christ’s death, saying that it is helped by our works, and that whatever it does our works can also do — which amounts to saying that we are his equal in strength and goodness. -Martin Luther

Let’s examine Luther’s claim. His first mistake is a big one. He midunderstands the  Church’s position to be   that works “help” Christ’s death. He  set up a straw man to argue against. The Church’s position has always been that justification is through Christ alone and that as  Galations 5:6 teaches that our  faith must work through love.

Martin Luther was right in one regard. He is not the only one who to say “Faith alone”.  Anti-nominans and other  heretics have taught “faith alone” throughout history.  But  Augustine and Ambrose did not agree with his invention. Not even close.

Saint Augustine,  in his treatise, entitled, “On Faith and Works”, actually said the opposite:

In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved. (no. 21)

. . I do not see why the Lord said: If you will enter into life, keep the commandments [Matt 19:17], or why, after He had said this, He listed those which one must keep in order to live a good life [Matt 19:18-19], if one can obtain eternal life without keeping the commandments, by faith alone, which without works is dead [Jas 2:14]. And then, too, how will the Lord be able to say to those whom He will place on His left hand: Go you into the everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels [Matt 25:41]? For it is evident that He rebukes them, not because they did not believe in Him, but because they did not perform good works. [Matt 25:44] (no. 25) -Augustine, The Sacred Page

Augustine writings DO teach the  Catholic view of faith working through love:

The faith which works by love in such wise, that God recompenses it according to its works with eternal life. But inasmuch as we have even our good works from God, from whom likewise comes our faith and our love, therefore the selfsame great teacher of the Gentiles has designated “eternal life” itself as His gracious “gift.”

Its clear that Augustine didn’t teach Luther’s novel doctrine. What about Luther’s claim that  Ambrose taught his version of faith alone?

Here’s what Ambrose wrote:

If thou clothe the naked, thou clothest thyself with righteousness; if thou bring the stranger under thy roof, if thou support the needy, he procures for thee the friendship of the saints and eternal habitations. That is no small recompense. Thou sowest earthly things and receivest heavenly… Not again is nay one more blessed than he who is sensible to the needs of the poor, and the hardships of the weak and helpless. In the day of judgment he will receive salvation from the Lord. -Ambrose

The Misunderstanding that Fueled a Revolt

When Luther taught that we are saved by faith alone, he meant by salvation only the initial step, justification, being put right with God. But when Trent said we are saved by good works as well as faith, they meant by salvation the whole process by which God brings us to our eternal destiny and that process includes repentance, faith, hope, and charity, the works of love.”- Peter Kreeft, Justification by Faith

In  scripture, justification is not a one time judicial declaration. Scripture speaks of salvation as a Process of Past, Present, and Future Events in the life of believers.

It is a Past Event :

Romans 8:24 for in hope we were saved

Eph 2:5 by grace you have been saved by faith Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

It is a Present Process:

Phil 2:12 work out your salvation with fear and trembling

I Cor 1:18 To us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God

John 15 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept mmy Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

Rom 11:22 Provided you remain in  his kindness, otherwise you too will be cut off

I Cor9:27  for I fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified

It is a Future Event

Mat 10:22 he who endures to the end will be saved

Mt 24:13 he who perseveres to the end will be saved

Mk8:35 take up your cross and follow-whoever loses his life for my sake will save it

Matt 19:17 If you wish to enter eternal life, keep the commandments

Galatians 6 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

We are justified by grace alone and by Christ alone. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves! But as the verse in Galations above says and Jesus himself said, we have to participate to endure to the end and gain eternal life.

It boils down to this: Luther didn’t understand Paul’s writings on  faith and works in context and he didn’t understand Church teaching on faith working through love.

Taylor Marshall, in the The Catholic Perspective on Paul, depicted these  percentages to give a picture of how   the Church’s historic and biblical view salvation compares  from other views:

Calvinism: 100% God and 0% man (In this view, no one can choose God. Jesus only died for those he predestined.  The rest of the people go to hell).

 Arminianism: 99% God and 1% man  (In this view man has free will but needs Divine aid to choose Christ). 

 Semi-pelagianism 50% God and 50% man 

Pelagianism  0% God and 100% man 

Catholic 100% God and 100% man (Augustine and Aquinas both taught this)

  The Catholic understanding is  not a “zero-sum” approach to Christ. Jesus  gives us 100 % of what we need to be saved. We cannot do it without grace. We cannot merit anything from God, because we receive everything from Him (CCC # 2007), including our ability to do good works. But we have to participate and continue in his kindness:

Jesus said, Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.  Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.

Tim Staples, in “We Can Work it Out” explains that just one chapter before the Romans 3 verse that Luther altered that  “Paul made very clear in Romans 2:6-8 that good works are necessary for attaining eternal life, at least for those capable of performing them:

“For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Jesus said, “If you forgive your brother your Heavenly Father will forgive you. If you do not forgive your brother, neither will you be forgiven” and “Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter eternal life, but He who does the will of my Father”.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

So What About the Fact that Paul Also Said we are “Justified by Faith Apart from Works of Law?

Paul ” was writing to a church in Rome struggling with a very prominent first-century heretical sect known today as the “Judaizers.” These heretics taught that belief in Christ and obedience to the New Covenant was not enough to be saved. A man also had to keep the Mosaic Law (which, according to Hebrews 7:11-12, has been superseded in Christ) and be circumcised in order to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1-2).

Paul gave us one clue—among many—that he had this sect in mind when he wrote in Romans 2:28-29, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal . . . ” Paul told us in Colossians 2:11-12 that this true “circumcision of Christ” is baptism. It is in this context that Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from works of law.” He did not in any sense say that works are unnecessary. He specified works of law because these were the works without which the Judaizers were claiming one “cannot be saved.”…

…Paul used the example of the “Judaizers” to teach the truth about the nature of justification and works. The works that justify us—as we saw in Romans 2:6-11 and James 2:24—are works done in Christ

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, he had these same “Judaizers” in mind:

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh . . . Now I Paul say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness (Gk. dikaiosoune, justification). For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. (Gal 3:2-3, 5:2-6)
Evidently, some of the Galatians were giving in to the false teaching that commanded them to return to the Law of Moses for salvation. He warns them that returning to the old Law is to reject Christ. But he in no way even hints at any idea of a “justification by faith alone” that would deny the necessity of “faith working through love.”

“Paul writes in the simplest of terms, in Galatians 5:19-21 and 6:7-9, that if Christians allow themselves to be dominated by their “flesh,” or lower nature, they will not make it to heaven. While on the flip side, Christians will only reap the reward of eternal life if they continue to “sow to the Spirit” or perform good works:

Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God . . . Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption (eternal death); but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.

Justification is described in the Bible as having a past (Rom 5:1-2, 1 Cor 6:11), present (Rom 5:9; Phil 2:12), and future orientation (Rom 2:13; 3:20; Gal 5:5). Protestants generally contend that it is “a one-time event”. We say it is not a one-time event because it is multiple and perpetual. If Scripture refers to it in three tenses, then multiple occurrence is the most plausible interpretation.” –Tim Staples,  We Can Work it Out

In Summary

So, in summary, Martin Luther misunderstood who and what Paul was addressing in Romans 3:28.  He imposed a meaning that contradicts what Paul said in the previous chapter.

Luther took it upon himself to change Sacred Scripture because he thought the text demanded it. In the end, Martin Luther was not a hero that championed the true “gospel”. He was a rebel who incited a break from authority of the Church and the fullness of the faith based on his own doctrine.

Luther failed to understand the relationship between faith and works and what the Church really teaches about that relationship: that faith has to work through love. We can’t do that on our own. It is only through Christ’s gracious gift of salvation that we are even capable of working through love. But Jesus taught that we have to participate in Him and to persevere to the end to enter eternal life:

Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers  until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew

Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation. ” John 5:28-29”

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. Revelation 22:12

Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.  Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’  and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with adrunkards,  the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know  and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place cthere will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
Matthew 16:27

And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Luke 3:9 (+ Mt 3:10; 7:19)