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What Martin Luther Really Said ::: Luther’s Sola Fide

Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification is all too often assumed to be the same doctrine that later wound up in the Reformed Orthodox creeds.  This sola fide (the one of Reformed Orthodoxy) tends to be read back into the magisterial Reformers, and in this manner the nuances of the original Reformation sola fide are missed.  

The excerpts below come from Martin Luther’s introduction and summary of the book of Romans.  Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classic, Zondervan, 1954).  

Notice that Luther’s notion of justifying righteousness is faith itself because faith satisfies the law.  Luther’s notion of justifying righteousness, then, was not Christ’s active and passive obedience, as in much of the Reformed versions of the doctrine of imputation.  

Furthermore, Luther’s fundamental understanding of justification is one of being “made righteous” by God’s granting of faith precisely because faith is transformational to the core of our hearts.  Luther’s understanding of “none are righteous,” is this: None are righteous apart from the heart transplant of faith, but with that transforming grace, people can be made righteous.  Luther’s understanding of “the works of the law” (pejoratively referred to today as works righteousness) is this: The works of the law are works done without transforming grace.  Good works, on the other hand, for Luther, are those done by the power of grace worked in the heart.

Luther’s entire paradigm from which he affirms that man is justified by faith alone is quite different from today’s Protestant versions of sola fide, as you will see if you read excerpts from Luther’s summary of the book of Romans below.      

To begin with we must have knowledge of its language and know what St. Paul means by the words, law, sin, grace, faith, righteousness, flesh, spirit, etc., otherwise no reading of it has any value (xiii).

If the law were for the body, it could be satisfied with works; but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it, unless all that you do is done from the bottom of the heart.  But such a heart is given only by God’s Spirit, who makes man equal to the law, so that he acquires a desire for the law in his heart, and henceforth does nothing out of fear and compulsion, but everything out of a willing heart (xiv).

Accustom yourself, then, to this language, and you will find that doing the works of the law and fulfilling the law are two very different things.  The work of the law is everything that one does, or can do toward keeping the law of his own free will or by his own powers. … That is what St. Paul means in chapter 3, when he says, “By the works of the law no man becomes righteous before God” (xv).

To fulfill the law however, is to do its works with pleasure and love, and to live a godly and good life of one’s own accord without the compulsion of the law.  This pleasure and love for the law is put into the heart by the Holy Ghost, as he says in chapter 5.  But the Holy Ghost is not given except in, with and by faith in Jesus Christ, as he says in the introduction; and faith does not come, save only through God’s Word or Gospel, which preaches Christ, that He is God’s Son and a man, has died and risen again for our sakes, as he says in chapters 3, 4, and 10.

Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be (xv).

And the scriptures look especially into the heart and have regard to the root and source of all sin, which is unbelief in the inmost heart.  As, therefore, faith alone makes righteous, and brings the Spirit, and produces pleasure in good, eternal works, so unbelief alone commits sin, and brings up the flesh, and produces in bad external works, as happened to Adam and Eve in Paradise (xvi). 

Faith, however, is a divine work in us.  It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Ghost (xvii) … and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith.  Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light fires (xvii).

Righteousness, then, is such a faith and is called “God’s righteousness,” or “the righteousness that avails before God,” because God gives it and counts it as righteousness for the sake of Christ, our Mediator, and makes a man give to every man what he owes him” (xvii).

… moreover, the law works wrath rather than grace, because no one keeps it out of love for it and pleasure in it, so that what comes by the works of the law is disgrace rather than grace.  Therefore, faith alone must obtain the grace promised to Abraham … (xx). 

There is sin; but it is no longer counted for condemnation, because of the faith that strives against it (xxi).

… but we are under the law when, without grace, we occupy ourselves in the work of the law. …. Grace, however, makes the law dear to us, and then sin is no more there, and the law is no longer against us, but with us.  This is the true freedom from sin and the law, of which he writes, down to the end of the chapter, saying that it is liberty only to do good with pleasure and live a good life without the compulsion of the law.  Therefore this liberty is a spiritual liberty, which does not abolish the law, but presents what the law demands; namely, pleasure and love.  Thus the law is quieted and no longer drives men or makes demands of them. (xxii)

Therefore a man must have something else than the law, and more than the law, to make him righteous and save him.  But they who do not rightly understand the law are blind; they go ahead, in their presumption, and think to satisfy the law with their works, not knowing what the law demands, viz., a willing and happy heart. (xxiii). 



  1. […] much overlap between their views, and between their views and Catholic views).  Thus, Martin Luther taught a sola fide, Calvin taught a sola fide, and Catholics also teach a sola fide, yet each are different […]

  2. paul says:

    Mark sossa, had suggested that i read some of your thoughts on luther and justification.
    i would like to focus on justification first.
    please let me know your own view on justification so that i can understand it.
    Paul L

  3. theophilogue says:

    Thanks for your interest.

    Paul give me your e-mail address and I could send you something that would help you understand my view, and then after you read it, we could maybe talk over the phone.


  4. paul l says:

    is anything posted…
    if you can post…then i can read and post some comments…since ur blogging, i do not want to make this private …

  5. theophilogue says:

    If you type in the word justification, several posts will pop up. You can read those, but my views on justification are still developing, as I allow myself to be reformed daily by the renewal of my mind. Just as you do not wish to make this private, so desire not to publish my views until I am able to fully articulate and defend them from scripture. I guess that means we will not be able to engage on this issue apart from you reading the several posts I have written so far. I hope you find them helpful.



  6. Paul L says:

    Fair enough.
    all the best on the search.
    i have typed in justification …but i did not see any info on something called ‘Objective Universal Justification’ OUJ in short. its an old Lutheran dogmatic…Just FYI.
    Happy journey…

  7. Andrew C says:

    Hi I’m a Roman Catholic (recent evangelical convert) and I stumbled across this blog. As someone who has very recently studied the Magesterial Reformers and the Council of Trent, I found this a very interesting look at Luther’s doctrine of Sola Fide against Calvin’s. Though of course with Luther, depending on the day of the week his theology shifted, but this is quite a divergence between the two.

    Good post.

  8. theophilogue says:


    Thanks for your gracious words. I find it interesting that you have converted to Catholicism. I will be attending the University of Dayton soon, and so will be taking a deeper look at Catholic theology. I am very eager to gain a better perspective on the Catholic Church and Catholic theology.

    I will be posting in the near future again on Luther’s view of justification compared to Roman Catholic teaching. I think people will be surprised (if they read it) how alike they are.



  9. […] of salvation through faith alone begins its formulation under the great reformer Martin Luther. In his introduction to Romans he […]

  10. Nick says:

    I agree with the notion that it’s important to distinguish between what the Reformers taught versus what later became solidified in Confessions. For example, the concept of “Active Obedience” is a critical aspect of Justification for the majority of Reformed Protestants (for a good reason), yet I wrote an article showing Calvin never taught Active Obedience (nor do I see any evidence Luther did). Thus, by definition, Calvin taught another version of Sola Fide than his ‘followers’ in the Confessions came to teach.

    From my understanding of the matter, Luther was not very systematic when he formulated Sola Fide, so he is either not consistent or doesn’t have a clear view of Sola Fide in mind compared to later Protestants. At that point one is stuck either trying to follow someone like Luther but having to sift through lots of relatively unorganized (even evolving) thoughts, or they can go along with ‘second generational’ formulations that systematized “Lutheranism” or “Calvinism” (e.g. Book of Concord; Westminster Confession). If the second generation folks weren’t faithful representatives, then that alone should cast serious doubt on the original validity of the movements.

    In my learning and debating the manner, I’ve come to believe the Reformed view on Sola Fide is the most consistent and systematic, and thus if it can be refuted then other versions of Sola Fide don’t have much chance. Here is a brief Article I wrote addressing (and refuting) many of the key tenets of Sola Fide that most people forget to address (either because they have no idea, or worse yet think everyone believes the same thing). I’d like your thoughts on this article, as well as your personal views on Sola Fide.

  11. Nick,

    Thanks for your thoughts on the topic. I appreciate what you have written on Sola Fide and I will check it out and let you know what I think!


  12. […] of salvation through faith alone begins its formulation under the great reformer Martin Luther. In his introduction to Romans he […]

  13. Bill says:


    I read your article and then began reading the blogs back and forth. I am currently a student of Religion with Liberty University. I am writing a paper on Justification by Faith. I am interested in picking your brain to use in my paper if you would not mind. I am somewhat torn on the idea of whether you are saved by strictly by faith, or by faith plus works. I have some ideas for each, but I would like to get another side to add along with the references that I will be using. Thanks.


  14. I sent you an e-mail Bill. Hope you got it.

  15. William says:

    We are losing the battle for the hearts and souls of people because of all the dogma as to who is right ans who is wrong! Lets keep it simple!
    Christianity in its purest form, is nothing more than seeing Jesus.
    Christian service, inits purest form, is nothing more then imitating Him who we see.
    To see His Majesty and ti imitate Him, that is the sum of Christianity!

    Which small thing can you do today to help more people know Christ?


  16. William,

    I truly empathize with the spirit of your comment. I am afraid Christianity failed to “keep it simple” from its beginnings when it defined Christianity in terms of Greek philosophical ideas designed to arbitrate between differing philosophical traditions within the Christian movement that were trying to grasp how to believe in one God while believing simultaneously in Jesus (a human) and the Holy Spirit as also God yet somehow distinct from the God Jesus prayed to as “Father” (the rigorous debate over the terms “essence” and “persons” etc.). It failed further to keep things simple when it defined Christianity in terms of a Chalcedonian creed (with a philosophically specified formula) designed to arbitrate differing philosophical notions about the idea of Jesus being God and human. It seems that from the beginning Christianity was fraught with all sorts of divisive philosophical debates. It sounds like what you are saying is compatible with the opinion that Christianity started off on the wrong foot and needs to redefined in a way that is detached from such notions as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Chalcedonian formula, etc. This tradition of complex theological and philosophical dogma has continued in the development of Western Christianity, just look at the fragmentation of Protestantism for example at the outset of the Reformation, where all sorts of doctrines were debated and a new “church” was created every time one group took a different stance on some doctrinal question than another.

    Your thoughts?


  17. Sun says:

    Hi. “For the sake of Christ” in Luther actually means forensic righteousness.
    Hence, a changed heart is actually the result of that, because of what Christ did in becoming sin for us. The Romans Commentary is an early work, where Luther began to see the light of justification. Calvin and Luther would agree, however, that only “perfect righteousness” justifies. Our changed hearts are not that until heaven. Hence, justification by faith, is forensic first, outside ourselves and then effective inwardly by faith alone. Luther would concur.

  18. Sun,

    To convince me of any interpretation of Luther, you will appreciate that claims about what he *meant* by what he *said* cannot be resolved without a critical analysis of his views of sacramental grace–and especially his doctrine of baptism and hostility toward the anabaptists. His polemics against anabaptists are very illuminating and relevant to the question of what he would think about evangelical views of faith and justification.

    I am not easily convinced that Luther had the same notions of “forensic” justification that most evangelicals today have while (without having actually studied Luther’s own writings) claiming figureheads like Luther as their own. When it comes to historical analysis of theology, broad sweeping interpretive moves are easier made than well defended using extensive quotations from the primary sources.

    Thoughts about Luther’s polemic against the anabaptists?


  19. Thanks for this information! I need more of this to firmly preach what I believe. I know and I am convinced that Faith without works, is Dead. If Luther meant which ever kind of faith could attract one to perform works, then Luther would be still holding the catholic point of view. The problem comes with interpreting the whole scripture from a certain point of view. If all scripture is inspired, how do I start tearing out what I have not understood? It is like making the whole mystery of revelation reduced to my own understanding.
    May the Good Lord keep illuminating us

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