T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » doctrine of justification

Category Archives: doctrine of justification

Remissio Peccatorum in Thomas Aquinas’ Doctrine of Justification: Did Aquinas Hold a Forensic View of Justification?

Aquinas’ use of remissio peccatorum in his Aristotelian taxonomy of justification as the “remission of sins” has led some to conclude that ultimately he argues for a forensic understanding of justification.[1] This conclusion, however, is problematic on multiple grounds. Aquinas uses the term more like we use the term when referring to the remission of cancerous cells in the body through chemotherapy.

This is partly because justification prior to the Reformation was understood as the initial healing grace that converts the human soul to God rather than something that establishes a forensic status (much like the Reformation doctrines of regeneration and conversion).  Furthermore, for Aquinas, all language about God is analogical in nature because God’s true essence is so far beyond our comprehension that language is woefully inadequate.  The combination of these two facets in Aquinas lead him to interpret biblical and theological language of divine forgiveness in ways that transcend any one-to-one linguistic human analogy (where wrongs are simply forgotten or overlooked) and find their ultimate meaning in the ontological effects of God’s eternal love in time.  Correcting this common misunderstanding of Aquinas’ use of “forgiveness” will eventually lead us to a contextual analysis of an entire group of forensic terminology used in Aquinas.


First, a forensic reading of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification does not reflect a familiarity with the historical context. Aquinas’ approach to the doctrine replicates the standard medieval subject matter, which focused on the processus iustificationis—the sequential ordering of all necessary components of the infusion of grace. The organizing principle is one of infusion. Virtually all medieval theologians took for granted that justifying grace was infused, whereas the controversies mostly surrounded the details of how best to logically divide and relate the various components of infused grace.[2] Remissio peccatorum was a standard component of justifying grace in the scholastic schema, but was not interpreted primarily or purely as forensic, as we will confirm from Aquinas’ own use of the language.[3]

Second, this view misses the sense given by Aquinas to iustitia. Although Aquinas lists legal justice as one use of iustitia, he forgoes this use entirely in favor of Aristotle’s metaphorical justice. None of the articles in this section on justification have as their focus or subject matter an extrinsic legal status that must be remedied or overlooked.[4]

Third, this reading dislodges the inward place or location given to remissio peccatorum in Aquinas’ processus iustificationis. Remissio peccatorum is the terminus of the human soul’s movement: the arrival of the soul to sin’s antipodal. This terminus of interior movement does not cause the remission of sins, but is the remission of sins by reason of interior justice being diametrical to interior sin. This interior exclusion of justice’s opposite is the negative aspect of the metaphysical state within the human soul caused by the iustitia infusa, not a forensic result within the mind or reckoning of God, which is neither the focus of the articles nor included as one of the requirements for justification.

Fourth, this interpretation conflicts with the dynamic understanding and interpretation of remissio peccatorum in Aquinas that can be seen in his varied expression when reasoning.[5] Aquinas varies his expression when discussing remission, pardon, the non-imputation of sin, and forgiveness as the taking away of sin, as the remission of guilt, and as the removal of offense within the human soul. The second article asks whether the infusion of grace is necessary for the remission of guilt, which is treated in the article as the remission of and taking away of, ontological sin. His respondeo and adversus in this question also illustrate how his reference point for the divine imputation, whereby God does not impute sin to the justified, is grounded ontologically. As Bruce D. Marshall has keenly argued, the reason divine imputation implies by its very meaning an inward reorientation of the soul is because divine imputation is never counterfactual, as in the reckoning of a guilty sinner as not guilty, but is a divine attribution of responsibility (praise or blame) to the guilty or praiseworthy agent, and thus implies a correlative merit of either reward or punishment. The interior effect implied by non-imputation is the infusion of justifying grace, which is in turn explained as the temporal effect of God’s atemporal love:

When God does not impute sin to a man, there is implied a certain effect in him to whom the sin is not imputed; for it proceeds from the Divine love, that sin is not imputed to a man by God.[6]


Now the effect of the Divine love in us which is taken away by sin, is grace, whereby man is made worthy of eternal life, from which sin shuts him out. Hence we could not conceive the remission of guilt, without the infusion of grace.[7]

The influence of the Pauline discourse on sin in the opening of his epistle to the Romans (interpreted as the pretext for the apostle’s proposed solution in justification) and of St. Augustine’s theology of culpability can be seen in how Aquinas grounds guilt (culpa) in the ontology of sin (peccatum) rather than sin’s record.[8] The debt sin incurs, for example, is a mixed bag, some of which disappears at the moment of justification by the infusion of grace, but some of which remains because not all sin disappears for the justified.

If man turns inordinately to a mutable good, without turning from God, as happens in venial sins, he incurs a debt, not of eternal but of temporal punishment. Consequently when guilt is pardoned through grace, the soul ceases to be turned away from God, through being untied to God by grace: so that at the same time, the debt of punishment is taken away, albeit a debt of some temporal punishment may yet remain.[9]

Mortal sin is said to be pardoned from the very fact that, by means of grace, the aversion of the mind from God is taken away together with the debt of punishment: and yet the material element remains, viz. the inordinate turning to a created good, for which a debt of temporal punishment is due.[10]


Now it has been said above (A. 4) that the guilt of mortal sin is pardoned through grace removing the aversion of the mind from God. Nevertheless when that which is on the part of the aversion has been taken away by grace, that which is on the part of the inordinate turning to a mutable good can remain, since this may happen to be without the other, as stated above (A. 4). Consequently, there is no reason why, after the guilt has been forgiven, the dispositions caused by preceding acts should not remain, which are called the remnants of sin. Yet they remain weakened and diminished, so as not to domineer over man, and they are after the manner of dispositions rather than of habits, like the fomes which remain after Baptism.[11]


Forgiveness is not comprehensive in justification because the infusion of grace pardons or takes away the will’s habit of aversion from God (mortal sin), but not all sin arises from aversion (i.e. venial sin). Sin and guilt are bound up together in the ontology of the disordered soul; their remission, forgiveness, or non-imputation is bound up with their coextensive removal, not merely a removal of a legal record of sinful acts extrinsic to the justified.

Similar varied expressions and reasoning appear when Aquinas elsewhere explains remissio peccatorum as the removal of offense by the infusion of grace, for the offense is understood to consist in a turned will. Aquinas’ discussion of penance’s ability to remit sin uses “taken away,” “blotted out,” “remission” and “pardon” interchangeably when arguing that sin can only be pardoned through the genuine repentance (i.e. the virtue of penance) caused by the power of infused grace which is effected through Christ’s Passion.[12] The divine pardon in Aquinas requires the soul of the offender be at peace with the offended in justification, but God’s peace with the offender is eternal and unchanging. When the latter is manifested in time as infused grace, sin and guilt are removed instantly and simultaneously. Aquinas’ respondeo in article two is worth quoting at length, as it captures well the orientation in his language of forgiveness, pardon, and remission:


It is impossible for a mortal actual sin to be pardoned without penance, if we speak of penance as a virtue. For, as sin is an offense against God, He pardons sin in the same way he pardons an offense committed against Him. Now an offense is directly opposed to grace, since one man is said to be offended with another, because he excludes him from his grace. Now, as stated in the Second Part (I-II, Q. 110, A. 1), the difference between the grace of God and the grace of man, is that the latter does not cause but presupposes true or apparent goodness in him who is graced, whereas the grace of God causes goodness in the man who is graced, because the good-will of God, which is denoted by the word grace, is the cause of all created good. Hence it is possible for a man to pardon an offense, for which he is offended with someone, without any change in the latter’s will; but it is impossible that God pardon a man for an offense, without his will being changed. Now the offense of mortal sin is due to man’s will being turned away from God, through being turned to some mutable good. Consequently, for the pardon of this offense against God, it is necessary for man’s will to be so changed as to turn to God and to renounce having turned to something else in the aforesaid manner, together with a purpose of amendment; all of which belongs to the nature of penance.[13]

God is said to be offended by virtue of his excluding the offender from grace, thus the infusion of grace by definition removes the offense. In short, “sin is taken away by grace removing the offense against God.”[14]

But how does the discussion of pardon through penance relate to justification? Aquinas’ opening articles on Penance establish in different ways that “mortal sin cannot be forgiven without true Penance, to which it belongs to renounce sin, by reason of its being against God, which is common to all mortal sins.”[15] Now as we have already seen, this renouncing is the same movement of the will caused by the infused grace of justification.[16] If the meanings of offense and sin are not identical (and my argument does not require this) their meaning is so difficult to disentangle they appear as the same substantive act of justification viewed in different anthropomorphic imagery, all amounting to a vital ontological change within the sinner’s soul by the infusion of grace, which takes its power from Christ’s passion. The pregnant silences add weight to this interpretation while making a Protestant forensic interpretation problematic, such as the absence of any questions on: (1) God’s reckoning of punishment towards Christ as the basis of forgiveness, (2) why the guilt of all future sins are not removed by justification and (3) why one’s debt of future punishment must be forgiven more than once and (4) why Aquinas would allow the removal of any particular sin after justification to be classified under the rubric of a non-technical non-Pauline sense of justification used in a broader sense if justification is the forensic acquittal which has already taken place for all sin in justification, etc. [17]

From Aquinas’ discussion above concerning Penance, we can add a fifth reason why a forensic interpretation of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification is problematic: It fails to fully calculate Aquinas’ doctrine of God, which drives him to reinterpret all theological language as anthropological accommodations aiding the understanding (forgiveness, pardon, debt, etc.) in ontological terms. The divine disposition never changes, which means whatever takes place in time—including the sinner’s justification—does not cause any change in God, only in the human person. It is impossible for God to literally be of one disposition prior to a person’s faith, then of a contrary disposition instantaneously once that person becomes just by grace: all such language in Aquinas represents the change or effect of the relationship between the temporal finite and the eternal infinite.[18] One might think Christ’s humanity could potentially offer wiggle room here, an exception in the divine Godhead since the human act of forgiveness on the part of the one forgiving need not imply a change in the human will of the offender from sin to justice, but Aquinas explicitly rejects this possibility.[19]

Sixth, and perhaps most important in confirming the above interpretations, this view of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification fails to properly synthesize Aquinas’s other definition of justification. Although Aquinas formally borrows the Aristotelian strategy of definition, he more consistently defines justification in non-forensic terms as a movement from internal sin to internal justice with no intention to switch “senses” of the word iustitia, having already forgone legal justice as the apostolic sense given to justification by Paul. This makes viewing the latter definition as his interpretation of the former natural and fitting.[20] Both definitions offer a terminus: remissio peccatorum in the first and iustitia infusa in the second. Understanding these as different ends in justification would require a strained interpretation, but understanding them as different aspects of the same end of justifying grace is logically and contextually sensitive and unproblematic. The soul’s movement in justification, by virtue of being a movement to justice, is also a movement away from non-justice. The substance of this end remains the same in either description. Although this can be referred to as a dual movement, this should not obscure Aquinas’ understanding of the movement’s singularity: the movement bears a dual relation to its respective objects because they are opposites, resulting in a dual relation of the terminus of the same.[21] In other words, the remission of sins in Aquinas should be seen much like a spiritual parallel to the remission of cancerous cells—it refers to the expulsion or termination of ontological sin and the guilt inherent therein. The definition of justification as the expulsion of sins rather than the infusion of justice in Aquinas can be seen as the result of Aquinas’ overall tendency to inherit his loci communes from the Christian Tradition while avoiding the redundancy of defining justification self-referentially by its root word—justice.

Finally, as McGrath points out, the processus iustificationis discussed by Medieval scholastic theologians was understood to refer to a distinct and irreducible package of grace in which the presence of any one of the elements logically entails the other elements and “therefore expressly includes” those correlated elements.[22] The remissio peccatorum is only the final element in a logical schema used to parse an instantaneous movement within the human soul. Thus, even if we were to mistake remissio peccatorum as merely God’s erasure of a sin record (an unperceptive reading as I have argued), any purely or primarily forensic reading of justification in Aquinas would still be a gross distortion of the substance of his doctrine, confused by lack of familiarity with the scholastic theological tradition that inspires the language of his formulations. The substance of the act of justification even upon this misreading of remissio cannot be reduced to its terminus, as this would exclude the middle term that logically comes between the infusio gratiae and this terminus.[23]

There is a purely forensic notion that can be reasoned from Aquinas’ doctrine of justification, although Aquinas does not include it in any of his articles on justification for reasons we will note below. The gift of justifying grace logically presupposes an eternal and deliberate forbearance of the penalty of mortal sin in the providence of God. As Marshall so deftly captures this in his article on the role of reckoning in Aquinas, he is worth quoting at length here:

Why does God cause this justice in the first place, the justice that actually heals the wound of sin, repairing sin’s interior damage and leaving nothing in us that merits the punishment of final separation from God? This doesn’t just happen, but is a deliberate divine action, and so presupposes a specific intention and disposition on God’s part. Essential to that disposition, it seems, is the non-imputation or non-reckoning of sins or faults. God forbears to count our sins against us, by imposing the penalty their guilt deserves, and instead restores the harmony and beauty of the creature by the utterly undeserved gift of sanctifying grace. The gift requires forbearance. God holds in check his right to punish the outrages we have committed against him, and instead treats us with patience and mercy.[24]

Marshall explores this aspect of grace under Aquinas’ rubric of “covering.” Its application is limited to the “stain” of specific acts of sin, not the sin disorder itself which causes the acts. As he further notes, the historical occurrence of such acts can no more be changed or erased than history itself can be altered or undone. It is important to note, in light of Marshall’s insight, that if the divine act of justifying regards a permutation, this act cannot be applied to facts about what happened in the past. However, the deliberate forbearance of God is related to this permutation in Aquinas as cause to effect.

Inasmuch as by the divine act whereby the guilty sinner is healed of her mortal sin wound and given the greatest good, Marshall argues that by this act God is effectively treating the unworthy sinner “as though [past acts of sin] had not been done.”[25] The divine covering as presented by Marshall is certainly the closest Aquinas’ theology of grace ever comes to affirming anything comparable to the Reformation views of justification. Marshall even argues that Aquinas’ view of grace in the divine covering approximates the view of Martin Luther because Aquinas views God as treating what is the case, as though it were not the case, but Marshall’s reason for the comparison may be misleading.[26] Technically this would be true only if we exclude the divine mercy from God’s ordering of providence, for the act of healing the cause of sinful acts presupposes them as a reason for the act: God is treating the acts of sin as though their cause needed to be expunged. Whether God punishes acts of sin in the executing of divine justice or heals their cause in the ordering of his mercy: in either case, God is not ignoring sinful acts committed as though they had never happened. Rather, God is treating them under different aspects of the divine providence. Although history cannot be changed, the divine act of justification changes what can, and at least part of the reason for the divine act lays in the very acts of sin committed. The divine act of justification stands in relation to what can be changed as the mover to the moved. This same act relates to what cannot be changed (the acts of sin committed) as a reason of movement.[27]

Thus even when we scrutinize Aquinas’ notion of covering and come to the brink of our quest to find a purely forensic notion comparable to strictly forensic Reformation renderings of sola fide, counterfactual interpretations are, in the end, only illusory. The anthropological language of God hiding his face, forgetting our sins, or covering them, all refer anthropologically to God’s will to order the acts of sin under one aspect of providence rather than another.[28] And what is more: the language of covering is wholly absent from Aquinas’ doctrine of justification proper in the Summa. It is neither one of the required elements nor a side discussion, as it belongs more properly to his doctrine of providence wherein he explores the eternal and unchanging divine wisdom in the mind of God. As I have already shown, grace is the effect of divine charity in time for Aquinas.[29] Justification therefore cannot be located in the divine providence, but only in the execution of divine providence, which Aquinas calls the divine government.

Two things pertain to providence—namely, the reason of order, which is called providence and disposition; and the execution of order, which is termed government. Of these, the first is eternal, and the second is temporal.[30]


Every aspect of history fits under God’s order of providence by which he directs all things to an end.[31] Now predestination regards the ordering of some free agents to a particular end—namely, that of eternal life. Whereas humans are said to destine something by firmly planning it in the mind, so predestination “by reason of the antecedent nature it implies, can be attributed to a thing which does not actually exist” yet, and so has not only a future orientation but is firmly in the mind of God prior to the existence of anything outside of God.[32] This is why justification places something in the justified, but predestination does not place anything in the predestined, as infusion belongs rather to the execution of divine providence ex tempore [in time], whereas the predestination of such infusion is in the mind of God ab aeterno [before time].[33]


[1] McGrath rightly points out that a forensic interpretation of justification in Aquinas is “a serious misunderstanding.” McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, 3rd Edition (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 64. On the influence of Aristotelian physics within the Dominican school of theological speculation inherited by Aquinas in his doctrine of justification, see Ibid., 63-64. On this and other misguided reasons for taking Aquinas as a “proto-Protestant” see Francis Beckwith, “Doting Thomists: Evangelicals, Thomas Aquinas, and Justification,” Evangelical Quarterly 85 no. 3 (2013): 211-227.

[2] For an informed summary of the medieval theological context, see McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 55-207. It might be added, given McGrath’ summary, that if Aquinas held a forensic doctrine, so did most Medieval theologians, as Aquinas’ understanding of justification in terms of the remission of sins was apparently ubiquitous. Aquinas cannot be singled out in this regard as unique.

[3] Bruce Marshall, “Beatus Vir: Aquinas, Romans 4, and the Role of ‘Reckoning’ in Justification” in Reading Romans With St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Mathew Levering and Michael Dauphinais (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 219-231. As Marshall points out, language that has come to be seen by post-Reformation eyes as forensic Thomas (and others) had never understood as purely forensic, but actually interpreted these notions in transformational terms. For example, “for God to forgive our sins or not to impute them is for him to keep the damage they have caused from standing,” which damage is repaired by the infusion of grace. This way of reading biblical forensic language was well established by the medieval period. Ibid., 227.

[4] We will consider later whether a purely forensic element can be found in Aquinas’s thought, however peripheral it is to his choice articles on justification in the Summa.


[5] For terminological clarity, see Marshall, “Beatus vir,” Reading Romans, 219 ff. I will be borrowing here from Marshall’s apt language which is the only source I know that captures Aquinas’ forgiveness and imputation language within a careful taxonomy of a nexus of kindred concepts such as guilt (culpa), stain (macula), sin (peccatum), evil (malum), reckoning (imputare or repatare), penalty (poena), etc. Marshall discusses, for example, how the kindred concepts such as “sin” and “guilt” by virtue of their interchangeability are practically equated in Aquinas, even though elsewhere he clarifies that each term covers a different aspect of a singular reality. He also shows how terms like “forgiveness” and “non-imputation” amount virtually to the infusion of grace as the repair of sin’s internal damage. My argument here is based on similar reasoning.

[6] ST I-II.113.2.ad.2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the Summa are taken from the English translation, Summa Theologica, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. (1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981). To be as specific as possible, I have distinguished between Aquinas’s “On the Contrary” (the sed contra, herein abbreviated as sed.), his “I answer that” (the respondeo, herein abbreviated as resp.), and his answers to objections (the adversus, herein abbreviated as ad).

[7] ST I-II.113.2. resp.

[8] On Augustine’s doctrine of culpability, see Gerald Heistand, “Augustine and the Justification Debates: Appropriating Augustine’s Doctrine of Culpability,” Trinity Journal 28 no. 1 (2007): 115-139. In Aquinas, see for example how guilt is said to be capable of being “brought back to justice,” by which he means interior justice. ST III 86.4.resp. If by “guilt” he intended a record of sins and by justice he intended to refer to an exterior forensic justice, he would be arguing here that sin’s record can be converted to a just record, which would be intelligible. How a record of sin becomes a proper constitution of the soul, however, is so difficult to see that it demonstrates the absurdity that ensues when confusing Aquinas’ language of sin, guilt, and forgiveness as forensically oriented.

[9] ST III 86.4.resp.

[10] ST III.86.4.ad.1. Italics added.

[11] ST III.86.5.resp. Italics added; Italicized “fomes” original. Here we can also see that justification does not take away all sin so as to perfect the justified, but only takes away sin’s dominance over the will, or what Aquinas calls “mortal sin.” The justice in justification therefore is pivotal but not comprehensive.

[12] ST III.86.1.resp.


[13] ST III.86.2.resp. Italics added.


[14] ST III.86.3.resp.

[15] ST III.86.3.resp.

[16] In light of Aquinas’ interpretation of forensic language, although one might still say forensic elements exists in Aquinas’ soteriology in one sense, because they are interpreted ontologically as shown one could equally say forensic elements do not exist in the same. The sinner has a debt of punishment with respect to his future prior to justification, which Aquinas allows to be removed by justification. However, even in this case the debt of punishment is still interpreted ontologically and not legally, as Aquinas locates the debt in the ontological sin of the soul rather than on a legal record, so that when the ontological sin is removed no legal debt can possibly remain.


[17] Aquinas inextricably attributes forgiveness of sins to the virtues of faith, penance, and charity. E.g. ST III.86.6.ad.1-3.

[18] “Two things pertain to providence—namely, the reason of order, which is called providence and disposition; and the execution of order, which is termed government. Of these, the first is eternal, and the second is temporal.” ST I.22.1.ad.2.

[19] He quotes the authority of Gregory of Nyssa on Christ’s pardon of the adulterous woman to justify his position: “He drew inwardly by grace, i.e. by penance, her whom He received outwardly by His mercy.” ST III.86.2.resp.

[20] My point here goes beyond McGrath’s point that elsewhere Aquinas defines justification in non-forensic terms. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 64-65. My argument is that the forensic concept of remissio peccatorum in Aquinas is ultimately interpreted primarily in non-forensic terms in such a way that both definitions refer to the same substantive act.


[21] McGrath’s labeling of this movement as a “dual motion” is not incorrect, as “motion” here is singular. However, referring to the motion as a singular motion with a dual relation better captures the type of duality involved. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 65.

[22] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 64.

[23] Perhaps this point might be better appreciated by Protestants through pointing out that likewise, inasmuch as being declared righteous per se could be on the basis of infused or forensic righteousness, if a declaration were considered the terminus apart from its logical relationship to something else (such as the reasons for the declaration), this too would be inadequate as a sufficient summary of the forensic doctrines of justification in Protestant theologies.

[24] Marshall, “Beatus vir,” 228-229.

[25] Aquinas, Lectures on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Fabian Larcher, ed. Jeremy Holmes (unpublished), §338. Quoted from In ad Rom by Marshall, “Beatus vir,” 232.

[26] Marshal, “Beatus vir,” 232. Footnote 40.


[27] “… the type of things ordered towards an end is, properly speaking, providence. For it is the chief part of prudence, to which two other parts are directed—namely, remembrance of the past, and understanding of the present; inasmuch as from the remembrance of what is past and the understanding of what is present, we gather how to provide for the future.” ST I.22.1.resp. Providence is eternal

[28] Aquinas’ reply to the objector in adverses 4 of Tertia Pars’ 88th article, quoted by Marshall, is a shorthand reply restating what Aquinas has already argued in the main article: When an act of mortal sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment for one who previously enjoyed the benefits of grace, this does not mean former acts of sin and the debt incurred by them have simply “returned.” The newly committed sins and the corresponding debt they incur and distinct from the specific acts of sin and their corresponding debt previously committed, for the latter were already “overlooked” (i.e. ordered to the divine mercy) in the first showing of grace. This first showing of grace is a temporal and therefore historical effect of God’s eternal love in time and therefore cannot be undone anymore than history can be undone: “what grace has once done, endures for ever.” ST III.88.1.ad.4. Quoted by Marshall, “Beatus Vir,” 236. Now in this context what is “covering” the stain of past sins if not the past forbearance shown by God in the first showing of grace? The function of covering here reaffirms the main logic in Aquinas’ respondeo and closely resembles the function of pardon and forgiveness in every showing of grace that removes mortal sin.

[29] The effect of eternal divine charity in time is nothing less than the effect of God’s essence on created objects, for “eternity is nothing less than God himself.” ST I.10.2.ad.3.

[30] ST I.22.1.ad.2.

[31] “The providence of God is nothing less than the type of the order of things towards an end.” ST I.22.2.resp.

[32] ST I.23.2.ad.2.

[33] Harm Goris, “Divine Foreknowledge, Providence, Predestination, and Human Freedom,” in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas, eds. Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 101. Goris notes that while Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm denied foreknowledge and foresight in God on the basis that God is timeless, Aquinas did not believe God’s timelessness excluded the use of such language by temporally situated creatures from whom there is a past, present, and future. Ibid., 103.


Thomas Aquinas on Justification :: Summa Theologica

I have herein summarized and quoted from articles 1-10 of question 113 in the prima secunda of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica: “Of the Effects of Grace.”  I have organized my summaries more in tune with how Aquinas wrote them: 1) the sed contra (some authoritative statement Aquinas usually wishes to defend), 2) the respondeo (Thomas’s way of explaining things) and 3) adversus (Thomas’s responses to various objections).  I begin, however, with IN SUM (my summary of all ten articles of question 113).  All quotations from the Summa are taken from the English Translation, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. 1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.


Some questions to ask when reading: (1) Does Aquinas use the term “remission of sins” forensically to refer to their being forgiven, or does he use this language psychologically to refer to the expelling of the sin within the heart? (2) Where does forgiveness fit into his doctrine of justification?  (3) Why does Aquinas choose to tackle the questions he does?  Can we discern a larger project driving his agenda?  (4) How does Aquinas handle the tension between grace and free will?  (5) In Aquinas, why is justification by faith rather than charity?  (6) Are there any questionable assumptions made by Aquinas’ Aristotelian anthropology that have been corrected by science (besides the obvious point that science admits of no “soul” that transcends the physical/material)?  If so, could his theology of justification be enhanced by holding on to his overall doctrine but updating where necessary?  (7) When Aquinas disagrees with objections to his position, is he ultimately disagreeing with them or finding a way to affirm the truth in their objection without it undermining his position?  In other words, what posture does Aquinas seem to take towards the objections?


Summa Theologica

IN SUM :: Justification  is the movement of a sinner from a state of interior injustice known as sin to a state of interior justice that expels such sin, caused instantaneously when the grace of God is infused and causes the sinner to accept grace by their free will and freely despise sin and turn from loving it and towards God and loving God.  The justice brought about by this grace in the interior of a human soul is such that the human intellect or reason is directed toward God to apprehend God as last end, and directs the human will to submit to the human intellect and therefore love God as last end or ultimate good.  Justification is by faith because the will only loves what it first apprehends as a fitting object of love by the intellect or reason, thus faith has a structural priority over charity (love for God) inasmuch as the intellect has a structural priority over the will.  Though justification is brought about by faith and is the sinner’s first movement toward God inasmuch as faith is the first effect of grace due to its structural priority, it more especially concerns or consists in charity because justice is especially concerned with the good, and the good is especially the object of the will, and charity is the will’s proper act (love) elevated and perfected.


ST I-II.113.1 :: The justification of the ungodly is the remission of sins.

sed contra :: The remission of sins is justification.

respondeo :: Just as making hot implies a movement towards heat, so justification implies a movement towards justice and includes a rectitude of order.  Justification as a virtue implies a making right of man’s act towards his neighbor.  Justification as legal justice implies a making right of man’s act in relation to the common good.  But justification takes its name from the rectitude of order it implies in the interior disposition of the person who is made just.  More specifically, the inferior or lower powers of the person’s soul are made subject to the superior or highest powers of the person’s soul, while the higher powers are in turn made subject to God.  Aristotle called this relationship between the higher and lower powers metaphorical justice.

Since Adam was created with original justice, his justice was simply generated, but what the Apostle Paul has in mind by “the justification of the ungodly” is the kind of justice that is brought about in a person by a movement from one contrary to another—namely, from an injustice in the interior of a person’s soul to justice in that same soul.  Since movements get their name not from their starting point (whence), but from the direction or termination of the movement (whereto), “this transmutation whereby the remission of sins from a the state of ungodliness to the state of justice borrows its name from its term whereto, and is called justification of the ungodly.”

adversus 1 :: Some might argue that sin is opposed to all virtues, not just justice.  Therefore the remission of sins in general is not the same as justification.  But I counter that all sin implies the disorder of the human mind—that is, it’s not being subject to God.  For this reason, the removal of any sin is called the justification of the ungodly.

adversus 2 :: Some might argue still as follows: everything ought to be named after what is predominate in it, as Aristotle argues (De Anima ii. text. 49).  The remission of sins is brought about chiefly by faith according to Acts xv. 9 and by charity according to Proverbs x.12).  Hence justification should be named after faith and charity rather than justice.  But I counter this argument as follows: faith and charity imply that the human mind is directed to God by the intellect (faith) and will (charity), but because justice implies a rightness of order in general the transmutation is named justification rather than charitification or faithification.

adversus 3 :: It could be said that the remission of sins is one and same with being called. A person called is afar off, and those afar off from God are so by sin.  Yet one is called prior to being justified if we go by Romans 8:30.  However, I would counter that being called refers to God’s help in exciting and moving our mind to give up sin, but God’s motion is not the remission of sins, but it’s cause.  God’s moving and exciting our mind to give up sin must be distinguished from it’s effect, which is our giving up of sin.  The former is the cause of their remission, while the latter is their remission.


ST I-II.113.2 :: The infusion of grace is required for the remission of guilt—that is, for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: An infusion of grace is required for the remission of sins, for we are justified freely by grace.

respondeo :: Sin creates an offense to God, and offenses are only removed when the person who has been offended is at peace with the soul of the person who offended.  Therefore the remission of sins implies that God must be at peace with the one who sinned.  “This peace consists in the love whereby God loves us.”  As part of the divine actuality God’s love is eternal and unchangeable, but it’s effect on human persons can be interrupted inasmuch as we fall short of it through sin.  The effect of divine love in us (that can be interrupted by sin) is grace, and it is by grace that a person is made worthy of eternal life, and by sin that a person is made unworthy of eternal life.  Hence we could not conceive of the remission of guilt apart from the infusion of grace.

adversus 1 :: Now it might be argued that persons can be moved from one contrary without being led to another if the contraries are not immediate, and the state of guilt and grace are not immediate, for there is a middle state—namely, the state of innocence where a person is in neither state.  Hence a person can be pardoned his guilt without being brought to a state of grace.  But I counter that although there is a middle state imaginable where we would neither be hated by God nor moved to a state of grace, but simply pardoned of our wrongs, such a middle state would only be conceivable in a state of innocence, for once a person sins this creates an offense, and pardoning an offense requires more than neutrality, but a special good will.  God’s special good will is called grace.  Thus, although a person before sinning may be in a state without guilt and also without grace, once sin is introduced and pardon is necessary to restore peace, the remission of guilt requires the infusion of grace.

adversus 2 :: One might argue that the remission of guilt consists in the Divine imputation whereby God does not impute our sin to us.  However, such imputation requires the divine act of God’s love which implies a certain effect of grace (as we have established in Q 110.1).  Thus, not imputing sin implies a certain effect in the person whose sins are not held against her.  In other words, the divine imputation only proceeds from the same Divine love that is grace.

adversus 3 :: One might argue that sins which are contraries allow for sins to be remitted without grace, as a person guilty of wastefulness is thereby remitted of the sin of miserliness.  However, these sins may be contrary to one another in the ways they turn from God, but they are alike inasmuch as they both turn from God, wherein their sinfulness lies.  Furthermore, without grace the guilt of sin remains even if the act of it passes away.


ST I-II.113.3 :: A movement of free-will is required for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: It is written that “every one that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to Me,” but learning implies assent to the teacher, hence no one comes to the Father (by justifying grace) without a movement of free will.

respondeo :: Justification happens when God moves a person to justice, but God always moves everything in its own manner, according to its nature and not against it.  It is human nature to have free will, thus when God moves a person to justice this cannot be without a movement of the free will.  “But he so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace, in such as are capable of being moved thus” (that is, not infants or those in a comma).

adversus 1 :: Infants are not capable of the movement of free will, nor are madmen and mentally disabled who have never had a movement of their free will.  They are an exception and are justified by the infusion of their souls through a sacrament apart from a movement of their own free will.  In the case of someone who had use of their free will but lost it through sickness or sleep, they can only be justified if they intended to make use of the sacrament of Baptism or any other sacrament before they lost the use of their free will, otherwise the sacraments will not help them obtain justifying grace.

adversus 2 :: Some might argue that Solomon was moved to wisdom in his sleep, yet the movement of the free will does not occur during sleep.  Hence the gift of sanctifying grace could also be given apart from the movement of free will.  But this is wrong on multiple levels.  In the first instance, Solomon wasn’t given the gift of wisdom during his sleep, but it was rather announced to him in his sleep based on a pervious desire, or else it was “the sleep of prophecy” wherein the will is able to move.  Secondly, the gift of wisdom perfects the intellect which precedes the will, whereas the gift of justifying grace has especially to do with ordaining a person to the good, and the good is especially the object of the will.

adversus 3 :: One might argue that grace is preserved without a movement of the will, and this preservation is by the same cause that brings grace about in the first place.  Hence it can be brought about or infused apart from a movement of the will.  However, the preservation of grace does not require a transmutation of the soul, but only a continuation of the divine influx that caused the transmutation.  The infusion of grace in justification, however, does require a transmutation of the soul and therefore a proper movement of that soul is required in order for it to be moved according to its own manner, which involves the movement of the will.


ST I-II.113.4 :: A movement of faith is required for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: It is written “Being justified therefore by faith, let us have peace with God.”

respondeo :: A movement of the free will is required for the justification of the ungodly because in justification a person’s mind/soul is moved by God by turning it to himself.  Now the first turning to God is by faith, hence a movement of faith is required for the justification of the ungodly.

adversus 1 :: Now one might argue that faith is no more required for justification than any of the other virtues, since Scripture also teaches that fear drives out sin (Ecc 1.27), charity causes the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7.47), humility causes grace (James 4.6), and mercy purges away sin (Prov 15.27).  However, the movement of faith is not perfect unless it is quickened by charity, hence the infusion of faith is always accompanied by the infusion also of charity—they are infused together.  The free will is moved to God by being subject to Him, hence the acts of fear and humility also concur.  When mercy follows justification, it counteracts sin by satisfying for it.  When mercy precedes justification it prepares for it inasmuch as the merciful obtain mercy.  Mercy can thus both precede justification and concur with other virtues towards justification inasmuch as it is included in the love of our neighbor.

adversus 2 :: One might say that knowledge of God is required for justification, and this can be obtained through natural knowledge or the gift of wisdom and therefore faith is not necessary for justification.  But natural knowledge does not turn a person to God as the object of beatitude or the cause of justification, hence such knowledge does not suffice for justification.  The gift of wisdom on the other hand presupposes faith.

adversus 3 :: Some might say that because there are many articles of faith it is unreasonable to think a person must think upon all of them when he is first justified, since such thought would require a long delay of time.  However, the Apostle says “to him that believes in Him that justifies the ungodly his faith is reputed to justice, according to the purpose of the grace of God.”  This makes it clear that faith is required in order to believe that God justifies man through the mystery of Christ.


ST I-II.113.5 :: The justification of the ungodly requires a movement of the free will concerning sin.

sed contra :: It is written “I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin.”

respondeo :: Justification of the ungodly is a certain movement whereby the human mind is moved by God from the state of sin to the state of justice, and this requires an act of the free will to regard both states.  Just as in local movement a body is related to the place it moves from as well as the place it moves to, so the human mind whilst being justified must by an act of the free will both withdraw from sin and draw near to justice.  If we understand how the will moves as Augustine did, this requires a despising of sin enough to move the will away from it, and a desire for justice enough to move the will toward it.

adversus 1 :: Now some might argue that charity is enough to take away sin, yet charity’s object is clearly not sin.  Likewise, therefore, no movement of the free will regarding sin is required.  However, one and the same virtue is responsible for the will’s movement to seek one thing and avoid it’s contrary.  Thus charity is responsible for both loving God and detesting the sin whereby the soul is separated from God.

adversus 2 :: Now scripture teaches that the one moving forward shouldn’t look back (Philippians 3.13-14), and whoever is striving after righteousness has his sins behind him.  Therefore, some conclude that this means no movement of the free will regarding sin is required for justification.  However, to return to the things behind in such a case would be to return to loving them.  The movement of the will required by justification is the opposite.  In fact, the one putting his sins behind him ought to recall his former sins to detest them, for this is the same as to flee from them.

adversus 3 :: Still some will say that expecting a half pardon from God is irreverent, and if a man considers his sins in justification it would need to be all of them, not just some.  But this doesn’t seem right, for it would require such a great effort to recall all of one’s sins and even then the sins that have been forgotten could not be forgiven.  Hence they conclude that no movement of the free will can be required for justification.  Now previous to justificationa person must detest each sin that one remembers, and from this the soul will continue this detestation to all sins in general, for it puts that person in a contrite frame of mind regarding sin such that were each sin to be recalled, they too would be detested.  This movement of the free will away from sin co-operates in one’s justification.


ST I-II.113.6 :: The remission of sins ought to be reckoned amongst the things required for justification.

sed contra ::  The end must be kept in mind when determining what is required for a thing, for the end is the chief part of everything and the remission of sins is the end of justification.

respondeo :: Four things are required for justification: 1) the infusion of grace, 2) the movement of the free will towards God by faith, 3) the movement of the free will towards sin, and 4) the remission of sins.  This all flows from what justification is—namely, a movement whereby the soul is moved by God from a state of sin to a state of justice.  In any scenario where one thing is being moved by another, three things are required: 1) the motion of the mover (in justification this would be the divine motion in the infusion of grace), 2) the movement of the moved (in justification this would be a departure from the term whence and an approach to the term whereto), and 3) the consummation of the movement, or the attainment of the end (the attainment of the end in justification is implied in the remission of sins, for in this the justification of the ungodly is completed).

adversus 1 :: One might argue that the the substance of a thing shouldn’t be called a “requirement” of that thing, and since the remission of sins is justification, it shouldn’t be considered also a “requirement” of justification.  But the only reason justification is considered to consist in “the remission of sins” is because a movement gets its name or species from its end or term, yet other things are required in order to reach the term.

adversus 2 :: Others might argue that since the infusion of grace is the same thing as the remission of sins just as the lighting of a room dispels it’s darkness, these are not two separate things, but the same.  Therefore the remission of sins shouldn’t be considered as a requirement for justification once the infusion of grace has already been listed.  But this only holds true when considering the substance of the act of infusion, for by the same act God both bestows grace and remits sin.  When considering the infusion of grace on the part of the objects, however, they differ by the difference between guilt, which is taken away, and grace, which is infused.

adversus 3 :: Still some will argue that an effect shouldn’t be enumerated together with its cause when things like this happen simultaneously.  The remission of sin is caused by the infusion of grace which moves the free will towards grace and away from sin simultaneously because it is by faith on the one hand, and contrition on the other, whereby sin if forgiven.  Therefore the remission of sins shouldn’t be enumerated and divided from its cause in this case as two different requirements for justification.  However, this argument misjudges the enumeration I have laid out, which is an enumeration not of a genus into its species, but a division of the things required for the completion of a thing.  In such enumerations, it is appropriate to have what precedes and what follows, since some of the principles and parts of a composite thing may precede, and some may follow.


ST I-II.113.7 :: The justification of the ungodly takes place in an Instant, not successively.

sed contra :: The justification of the ungodly is caused by the justifying grace of the Holy Spirit, who comes to people’s minds suddenly according to Acts 2:2: “and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty wind coming.”  The gloss on this verse notes that the Holy Spirit “knows no tardy efforts,” therefore, the justification of the ungodly is not successive, but instantaneous.

respondeo :: “The entire justification of the ungodly consists as to its origin in the infusion of grace.  For it is by grace that free-will is moved and sin is remitted.  Now the infusion of grace takes place in an instant and without succession.  The only thing keeping a form from being impressed upon a subject is that subjects not being disposed to it, but a subject predisposed already has nothing hindering from receiving a form.  We have already established that God needs no disposition to infuse grace other than the one he Himself has made—and this sufficient disposition can be gradual or sudden.  Natural agents cannot dispose a matter suddenly if the matter is resistant or has some disproportion with the power of the agent, but the stronger the agent the more speedily that agent can dispose matter for a form.  Since God’s power is infinite, it can dispose instantly anything whatsoever to its form, and much more the free will of human persons, where the movement is by nature instantaneous.  For this reason, the justification of the ungodly by God takes place in an instant.

adversus 1 :: Some might argue that since choice requires deliberation of counsel, which implies a reasoning process, this implies succession.  But this type of consideration is not the substance of justification, but a way to justification.

adversus 2 :: One might make the argument that free will’s movement requires actual consideration, but it’s impossible to consider many things actually and at once.  But I counter that nothing prevents two things being understood as one, so long as the two things considered are two sides of the same coin and are therefore somehow one, as when we understand the subject and predicate as one affirmation, or as when a person moves away from one place and towards another place at the same time all as one movement.  Thus in the justification of the ungodly a person’s free will detests sin and turns to God simultaneously in one movement.

adversus 3 :: Still some might make the case that a form that can be greater or less is received successively by its subject, as blackness and whiteness.  Grace may be greater or less, therefore, the infusion of grace is not received suddenly by its subject but successively.  But this is flawed reasoning, for the reason a form is not received instantly in the matter is not that it can inhere more or less, otherwise light would not suddenly illuminate.  The reason form inheres gradually is owing to the disposition of the matter or subject as we have seen.

adversus 4 :: It could be argued that the free will’s movement co-operates and is meritorious, hence it must proceed from grace, without which there can be no merit.  But a thing receives its form before operating by this form.  Hence grace must be infused first before the free will can move towards God and away from sin.  Hence justification cannot be all at once.  However, I counter that in the same instant a form can be acquired and begin to operate, as when fire is received it also moves upward in the same instant.

adversus 5 :: Finally, some argue that if grace be infused this implies an instant when it first dwells in the soul.  Likewise, for sin to be forgiven, there must be a last instant that man is in sin.  If it’s the same instant, opposites would be in the same instant simultaneously—inhering grace and inhering sin would be included in the same instant.  But this argument fails to see that the succession of opposites in the same subject in time are different than those that are above time.  Affections and intellectual concepts are not measured by continuous time, but by discrete time.  In these, there is a last instant in which the preceding is, and a first instant in which the subsequent is, but there need by no time in between since there is no continuity of time.  The human mind, which is justified, is, in itself, above time even though it is subject to time accidentally [inasmuch as it understands with continuity and time with respect to phantasms].  We must rather say that there is no last instant in which sin inheres, but a last time, whereas there is a first instant that grace inheres in which sin, which inhered in all previous time, no longer inheres.


ST I-II.113.8 :: The infusion of grace is naturally the first of the things required for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: The cause is naturally prior to its effect, and the infusion of grace is naturally the cause of whatever is required for the justification of the ungodly.  Therefore, it is naturally prior to it.

respondeo :: The four things required for the justification of the ungodly are all simultaneous in time rather than successive, as we have established.  But in the order of nature, one is prior to another logically.  Thus the first is the infusion of grace, the second, the free-will’s movement towards God, the third, the free will’s movement away from sin, and the fourth, the remission of sins.  This is because in every movement the motion of the mover is naturally first (this would be the infusion of grace), the disposition of the matter or the movement of the moved is second (this would be the free will’s movement towards God).  The end or term of the movement of the moved is last (this would be the free will’s movement away from sin).  Since sin is detested because it is against God, the movement towards God is prior to the movement away from sin.  The remission of sins is last inasmuch as it is caused by the end or term of the movement.

adversus 1 :: Some argue that we withdraw from evil before drawing near to the good per Psalm xxxiii.15 “turn away from evil, and do good.”  Thus the remission of sins is naturally prior to the infusion of grace.  But I counter that withdraw from a term and approach to another can be understood in more than one way.  From the perspective of the thing moved, the withdraw of a term naturally precedes the approach to a term because in the subject of movement the opposite which is put away is prior to the opposite attained by the movement.  On the part of the agent, however, it’s the other way around since the form pre-existing in the agent acts to remove the opposite form, as the sun by its light acts for the removal of darkness, and illumination is thus logically prior to the removal of darkness even though on the part of the atmosphere being freed from darkness is prior to illumination—even though both are simultaneous in time.  Since the remission of sin is about the God who justifies, the infusion of grace is considered prior to being freed from sin, but if we look at it from the perspective of the justified, being freed from sin is prior to the obtaining of justifying grace.  In other words, the whence of justification is sin; the term whereto is justice.  Grace causes both the forgiveness of sin and the obtaining of justice.

adversus 2 :: Others argue that the disposition naturally precedes the form to which it disposes and the free will’s movement disposes for the reception of grace.  Therefore, it naturally precedes the infusion of grace.  And this is true from the perspective of the moved, for the disposition of the subject precedes the reception of the form in the order of nature.  However, the disposition of the subject follows the action of the agent that disposes.  The free will’s movement, then, precedes the reception of grace in the order of nature, and follows the infusion of grace.  [NOTE: disposing grace vs. infusing grace refer to the same grace from different perspectives here—but Aquinas does not distinguish it’s effects by giving them different ends or names]

adversus 3 ::  Sill one might make the case that since sin hinders the soul from freely tending to God, and such hinderance must be removed before the soul can freely move towards God, the remission of sins and the free will’s movement against sin must be considered naturally prior to the infusion of grace.  But I counter that Aristotle has pointed out that the soul’s movements toward the speculative principles or the practical end comes first, even though in exterior movements the removal of hindrances are prior the attainment of the end.  Likewise the free-will’s movement is a movement of the soul, so in the order of nature it moves towards God as to its end prior to removing impediments of sin.


ST I-II.113.9 :: The justification of the ungodly is God’s greatest work.

sed contra :: Ps cxliv.9 says “his tender mercies are over all his works” and in a collect it is said “O God, Who dost show forth Thine all-mightiness most by pardoning and having mercy.”  And Augustine said “for a just man to be made from a sinner, is greater than to create heaven and earth.”

respondeo :: This can be seen in a number of ways.  From the perspective of the mode of action in which creation is the greater work since God creates something from nothing, or on the part of what is made, in which case the justification of the ungodly is greater since it results in eternal good and a share in the Godhead, whereas the universe’s good terminates at the good of mutable nature.  This is why Augustine says “heaven and earth shall pass away, but the justification of the ungodly shall endure.”  Keep in mind the word “great” also can be seen in more than one way.  In absolute quantity glorification is greater than the gift of grace that sanctifies the ungodly.  In proportionate quantity the gift of grace that justifies the ungodly is greater than the gift of glorification that justifies the just because the gift of justification so far exceeds the worthiness of the subject who deserves punishment instead.  Those who are glorified on the other hand, by the fact of their justification are worthy of the gift of glorification.

adversus 1 :: It might be argued that by justification we only obtain the grace of a foreigner or traveller, but glorification causes us to obtain heavenly grace and is therefore greater.  But this objection has been answered already, as this looks at the question in terms of what is made rather than mode of action, and also in absolute quantity rather than proportionate quantify.

adversus 2 :: It could also be argued with good reason that justification of the ungodly is ordained only to the good of one person, but the creation of heaven and earth benefit the universe and is therefore greater.  But this applies only if we consider both in the same genus since the good of the universe is greeter than the good of one.  The good of grace in the one justified, however, is greater than the good of nature in the whole universe.

adversus 3 :: It could be argued with good reason that to create something from nothing is greater, for when God did this there was nothing to co-operate with the agent as in justification.  Since in justification God creates something from something, and there is co-operation, but in creation God creates something from nothing, creation is a greater work than justification.  But as we have already established, this considers only the manner of acting as the criterion for being greater, not what is made.  If what is made be considered the criterion, the justification of the ungodly is greater, as we have established.


ST I-II113.10 :: Justification is not a miraculous work.

sed contra :: Miraculous works are beyond natural power, but Augustine makes clear that to be capable of faith and charity belongs to the nature of humans, but to have faith and charity belongs to the grace of the faithful. Therefore the justification if the ungodly is not miraculous.

respondeo :: Three things are usually found in miraculous works: 1) the active power is divine and the cause therefore hidden, in which case justification can be considered miraculous, 2) the form introduced to the matter is beyond natural power of that matter (as in the resurrection of the dead), in which case justification is not a miraculous work since the soul is capable of, and fit for, grace having been made in the image of God, and 3) something that departs from the usual cause and effect relationship, such as when a sick person beyond the wonted course of healing by nature or medicine is yet suddenly well, and in this matter justification is sometimes miraculous and sometimes not.  “For the common and wonted course of justification is that God moves the soul interiorly and that person is converted to God, first by an imperfect conversion, that it may afterwards become perfect; because charity begun merits increase, and when increased merits perfection, as Augustine says.”  But sometimes God moves persons to perfect justice all at once, as he did with the apostle Paul, and in which case it was accompanied by miraculous external prostrate.  Thus Paul’s conversion is celebrated in the church as miraculous.

adversus 1 :: Some might argue that miraculous works are greater than non miraculous works, and since justification is greater than even miraculous works, as Augustin makes clear, therefore justification must be a miraculous work.  But although certain miraculous works are less than the justification of the ungodly in terms of the good that is caused by the work of justification, yet certain miraculous works are beyond the wonted order of such effects, and thus have more of the nature of a miracle than justification does.

adversus 2 :: It could be argued that the movement of the will in the soul works like the inclinations in nature.  When God moves natural things against their natural inclination, it is considered a miracle.  Since the will of the ungodly is bent on evil, God’s moving it to good, as happens in justification, should be considered miraculous.  But I would counter by arguing that for a natural thing to be moved against its inclination is not necessarily a miraculous work, otherwise it would be a miracle for a stone to be thrown upwards.  It could only be a miracle if this takes place beyond the order of the natural proper cause (like using a feather to spring a heavy rock upwards in the air).  However, only God can justify the ungodly just as much as only heat could warm up cold water, so even in this regard justification of the ungodly cannot be seen as miraculous.

adversus 3 :: One might say that justice is a gift from God just like wisdom is, and it is miraculous for someone to obtain wisdom suddenly without study.  Therefore, it is also miraculous for God to justify the ungodly.  Wisdom is attained naturally through talent and study, so it is miraculous when this is attained apart from such order.  But a person does not naturally acquire justifying grace by his own action ever, so these two works cannot be compared as if they were exactly the same.

Brothers, Let us Embrace Heresy!

I am through critiquing Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  Now I am going to draw some implications from our post series that will conclude something that in the prima facie will certainly seem quite absurd … namely, that we should embrace heresy.  How would I ever come to such a conclusion?  Well … the short of it is this.  The Reformed Traditions (at least in our day) have set up Luther as having recovered the gospel in his understanding of sola fide, and anything that contradicts sola fide is considered heresy to many protestants.  The problem is, sola fide must be defined historically according to what the major Reformers actually taught in their doctrine of sola fide.  As we have seen in our series on Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration / justification by baptism / sacramental mediation, Luther’s sola fide should be rejected.   

In short, if orthodoxy if defined by the Reformers, then I’d rather be a heretic (given Luther’s soteriology).     

Luther’s arguments reveal something potentially shocking about his understanding of grace, salvation and faith which have important implications for how we understand the reformation slogan sola fide (justification by faith alone) which has been accredited to Luther.  Although it is far from the scope of this paper to present Luther’s doctrine of justification, a fair summary of it can be given.  Luther supposedly believed that justification was a forensic declaration  in which a sinner is declared to be righteous on the formal basis of an alien righteousness through the instrumentality of faith.   

The part of sola fide which needs to be re-examined in Luther’s theology is the concept of instrumentality.  Many Reformed traditions held faith to be the sole instrumental cause of justification.  That is, one is justified by faith alone—only faith and nothing else.  Luther is mistakenly thought to be the champion of this sola fide doctrine which is thought to be wholly disjunctive with any “Roman Catholic” view of sacramental mediation of saving grace.  

For example, in a relatively recent treatment (2001) of doctrine throughout church history, John D. Hannah misrepresents Luther as believing in sola fide in such a way as to rule out sacramental mediation of saving grace.[1]  His misunderstanding is rooted in a misinterpretation of Luther’s phraseology of baptism as God’s Word.  Since Luther denies that water all by itself saves, but rather asserts salvation through the Word which is attached to the water and faith which receives it, Hannah concludes that Luther did not believe in the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism.  “The sacraments, then, have a subjective function as a witness to faith in God’s generosity; they do not have an objective function of being the actual means of acquiring God’s grace.”[2]  However, as we have seen, a quick overview of Luther’s teaching in the catechism reveals that when Luther emphasizes God’s Word in baptism, he does not have in mind the gospel per say, and faith which receives the gospel before baptism.  Rather, he has in mind water baptism as God’s promise of salvation (God’s Word of promise) and faith in that promise.  Although this is clear from what we have already observed, the following quote from The Babylonian Captivity makes this connection in Luther’s mind more obvious.

Thus you see how rich a Christian is, that is, one who has been baptized! Even if he would, he could not lose his salvation, however much he sinned, unless he refused to believe.  For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone.  All other sins, so long as the faith in God’s promise made in baptism returns or remains, are immediately blotted out through that same faith, or rather through the truth of God, because he cannot deny himself if you confess him and faithfully cling to him in his promise.  But as for contrition, confession of sins, and satisfaction, along with all those carefully devised exercises of man: if you rely on them and neglect this truth of God, they will suddenly fail you and leave you more wretched than before.  For whatever is done without faith in God’s truth is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit.[3] [emphasis mine]    

The “truth of God” in this passage is God’s promise to save through baptism.  “Unbelief” is unbelief in this promise.  Perseverance is maintained only for those who “faithfully cling to him in his promise” [emphasis mine].  Hannah seems to be completely unaware of Luther’s basic paradigm for baptism as water comprehended in God’s Word.  It is hard to understand, if Hannah has read Luther on baptism, how he could possibly miss Luther’s constant emphasis on baptism as the cause of all saving grace, and therefore the cause of justification.[4]  Although Luther did not believe that baptism could save unless faith is present, with faith present (whether before or after baptism), the sacraments are “‘effective in the sense that they certainly and effectively impart grace where faith is unmistakably present.”[5]     

We know that wherever there is a divine promise, there faith is required, and that these two are so necessary to each other that neither can be effective apart from the other.  For it is not possible to believe unless there is a promise, and the promise is not established unless it is believed.  But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments. … Thus Christ says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned”[6] [Mark 16:16, emphasis mine]. 

When Luther says “it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added,”[7] he is often misinterpreted (as with Hannah) as teaching a pure sola fide which rules out baptism as efficacious for salvation.  This is a typical case of Reformed bias reading into Luther’s theology what is not actually there.  The Reformed tradition will have to look elsewhere for a pure sola fide champion hero in the Reformation.  Luther’s view of justification in the context of his theology of baptism can only be viewed as heretical in many Reformed traditions today.  Likewise, the modern Reformed traditions which hold to a sola fide absent of sacramental mediation were considered heretical to Luther,[8] and he considered faith in baptism as salvific as part of saving faith.[9] 

Hannah is also guilty of not reckoning with Luther’s distinction between baptism as a work of God and not a work of human effort, which leads him to conclude that Luther could not have seen baptism as being an instrumental cause of the forgiveness of sins and of the removal of moral inability: “For Luther, water baptism does not cleanse the guilt and inability inherited through original sin.. … Thus, any notion of causative cooperation, even a gracious cooperation, is impossible because humankind has no merit to commend itself to God.”[10]  Luther, however, as we have seen, did not see baptism as man’s work, but God’s work.  Therefore, he did not see baptism as human merit commending itself to God, but as an act which “brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.”[11]  In these two areas, Hannah reveals his bias by misrepresenting Luther.  

As should be blindingly unambiguous from reading Luther’s arguments for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism, Luther believed in a sacramental mediation of all saving grace, and therefore the grace of justification would also be mediated by the sacrament of baptism.  Luther not only allowed for “works” (baptism) to be an instrumental cause in saving grace, he demanded it with a passion, indicting anyone who opposed him as opposing God’s Word.  Since the slogans of the Reformation are usually attributed to Luther, this has implications for how we understand the doctrine of sola fide in its historical sense.  Is there really a singular “Reformed” position on the doctrine of sola fide?  Do we understand it as the sola fide of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or some other Reformer or Reformed Tradition?  This study also has implications for the ect debate over sola fide.  Are those evangelicals who signed the ect documents compromising sola fide because Rome believes in a sacramental mediation of saving grace?  Are those who remain “faithful” to the Reformation the ones who rule out sacramental mediation or demand for sacramental mediation?  It seems that if we are going to define the Reformation by Luther’s doctrine of sola fide, the latter would be the case.[12]

Although the conclusions I have drawn may seem provocative and controversial, they simply flow from a study of Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  Reformed traditions have invested so much energy making Luther their Reformation hero, their ranks who defend sola fide can hardly stand to read Luther for what he actually taught about baptism, and the implications it has for his doctrine of justification.  Instead, they paint him with a biased brush for the sake of ecclesiological and theological expediency.  Luther’s views of baptism and his argumentation for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism demonstrate a lack of hermeneutical discernment in Luther as well as a lack of logical discernment.  While we can credit Luther with many good things, such as his emphasis on faith, repentance, and piety in an age of ritualistic notions of the sacraments that did not include sincere inner spirituality,[13] we should be very careful about defining orthodoxy and heresy based on the so-called “Reformed position.”  If Luther’s position on justification is the orthodox view known as sola fide, then Reformation orthodoxy must be rejected and heresy must be embraced.[14]       



[1] John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 227-229.   

[2] Ibid., 229.  In the same vein, Hannah represents Luther has having a view in which “the symbol has no efficacy.” Ibid.  Lohse tries to correct this false interpretation of Luther’s “sign” language (pardon the pun).  “When Luther at times used the word ‘sign,’ particularly in his doctrine of the Supper, that use may not be construed in Zwinglian terms.  Luther never intended the term to be merely ‘symbolic.'” Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.           

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, 60. 

[4] “Luther thus places baptism in the center of the Christian life.  His understanding of baptism exactly expresses his doctrine of justification.  Through the sacrament of baptism we are ‘sacramentally’ or ‘because of the sacrament,’ made completely pure and innocent in God’s gracious judgment, that is, we are ‘children of grace and justified persons’. … His doctrine of baptism is basically nothing else than his doctrine of justification in concrete form.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 356.  

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, 67.  

[6] Ibid., 67. 

[7] Ibid., 66. 

[8] Lohse recognizes that Luther accused the Anabaptists, for example, of “works-righteousness and even idolatry.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 305. 

[9] Faith in the Word of God in the context of Luther’s theology of baptism means faith in baptism. “This is why Christ immediately adds, ‘He who does not believe will be condemned’ even though he is baptized, for it is not baptism, but faith in baptism, that saves.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 364.  

[10] Hannah, Our Legacy, 227.   

[11] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[12] Leonardo De Chirico, however, understands the ECT project to be guilty of a lack of systemic awareness for upholding agreement over justification by faith on the one hand, and baptismal regeneration on the other.  Leonardo De Chirico, “Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: A Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogue,” Evangelical Review of Theology 27 no. 4 (2003): 346. 

[13] Luther’s doctrine of baptism must be seen as reactionary to prevalent medieval notions of ex opere operato which “tended to ritualize and desiccate baptism.  In essence this Latin formula meant that the sacraments infused grace simply form the use of them, apart from any act of the soul. … Second, in the development of the medieval sacramental system, baptism tended to be associated only with the beginning of life, its chief role being to wash away the guilt of original sin.”  Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 25. 

[14] Another important feature to Luther’s arguments for infant baptism, which I did not have time to focus on, but which is probably almost as important is this: Luther held an extremely high view of tradition.  Althaus points out the fact that although church tradition “is certainly not Luther’s last word on the subject…it is certainly his first.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 359.  In Althaus’ estimation, Luther had a “high evaluation of the universal tradition of the church,” and used similar argumentation on other occasions.  Ibid, 363.

Was Martin Luther Even a Christian? A Critique of His Defense of Infant Baptism

Some might say … based on his defense of infant baptism, that Luther didn’t really believe in the gospel.  

In a previous post where I summarized Luther’s doctrine of baptism, I gave a summary of each of his arguments for infant baptism as presented in the Large Catechism.  This post will take a close look at Luther’s logic for defending infant baptism.  If you have not been following the post series so far, it is important to at least realize this: Luther was a virtual Roman Catholic when it comes to the saving efficacy of the sacraments.  Luther did not believe in the same sola fide that D.A. Carson, R.C. Sproul, and many other modern Reformed evangelicals consider to be fundamental to the gospel.  By R.C. Sproul’s standards, Luther should be considered a non-Christian for not believing in his version of sola fide.  This is an inconvenient truth, for Sproul and many others with his position actually believe they are the modern champions of Luther’s doctrine of justification.  But get this: Luther assumes that baptism saves, period.  As we have seen, he attempts to avoid the accusation of believing in salvation by works by retorting that Baptism is the work of God, and therefore not salvation by works (so argues Luther).  Now we will critique his attempt to establish the validity of infant baptism.  This post will be especially pertinent for baptists. 

Luther’s Defense of Infant Baptism as Involving Logical Fallacies[1] 

                 The Historical Fallacy

Luther’s first argument for infant baptism (based on the fact that infants who are baptized later demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit) commits the historical fallacy known as post hoc, propter hoc (“the mistaken idea that if event B happened after event A, it happened because of event A,”[2]).  His proposal begs an important question: Are the fruits of the Spirit caused by their baptism?  Luther assumes his doctrine of baptismal regeneration to prove his doctrine of infant baptism, but the former, as we have noted, has not been demonstrated on sound principles of interpretation.[3]  His logic could be summarized like this: Since the only way you can possibly receive the Holy Spirit is through baptism (Luther’s assumption), if an infant who is baptized is later shown to bear the fruits of the Spirit, we can safely conclude that their baptism “worked,” and that God blesses infant baptism according to the promise.  Luther assumes the very causal relationship between baptism and salvation which his critics would not be willing to grant.  Surely those critics who opposed Luther on infant baptism were not ready to concede that God saved infants through baptism.  Here we see the very same assumption we have previously observed Luther take for granted in his other arguments against those who deny baptismal regeneration. 

The second argument Luther makes in favor of infant baptism begs the same causal relationship as his first argument.  Luther basically applies the same logic to particular people, namely, the entire history of the church—particularly the early church fathers.  They were baptized in infancy, and we know that God gave them His Holy Spirit.[4]  Therefore, Luther concludes that God has endorsed infant baptism in church history.  His further argument is that God would be in conflict with himself if he were giving the Holy Spirit to people who were baptized as infants if indeed the practice displeased Him.  With this line of argument, Luther continues to assume the causal relationship between infant baptism and the salvation of the church.  I might use this same logic to prove that God obviously blesses sin, since all Christians have sinned by practicing infant baptism and yet God has given them the Holy Spirit.  It may have been (and indeed, I would argue was) in spite of their practice of infant baptism that God gave these men the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, how would Luther ever be able to demonstrate that anyone who bore the fruits of the Spirit after infancy received the Holy Spirit at their baptism and not some time after their baptism?  Luther seems to be wholly unaware that his arguments will only work for those who share his assumptions about the sacramental limitation of saving grace in baptism.

Begging the Question 

When Luther starts arguing that baptism is valid whether or not faith is present in the one being baptized, it is more difficult to follow his reasoning but easy to see that it is flawed.  When Luther declares that a lack of faith does not “invalidate” baptism because “when the Word accompanies the water, Baptism is valid,” he is continuing to beg the same question he has been begging in every argument we have examined so far.[5]  His further argument that “Baptism does not become invalid even if it is wrongly received or used, for it is bound not to our faith but to the Word,” simply means this: Since God promised to save through baptism without exception, we must assume he saves through baptism without exception.  Again, this begs the important question.  That “we know that God does not lie,”[6] is not enough to prove his case, for only if we assume God promised salvation through baptism could we consider God a liar if baptism did not save an infant.    

Ambiguity and Equivocation 

However, when Luther expands on this idea through illustration, his argument is further complicated by ambiguity.  First, Luther does not make clear whether he is speaking of “validity” from the vantage point of the one who administers the baptism, or from the vantage point of those who receive the baptism.  The illustration of the deceitful Jew who tricks a minister into baptizing him fails to draw the distinction between validity from the vantage point of the dishonest Jew and validity from the vantage point of the administer of his baptism.  The latter would be blameless in the matter.  As far as the rules by which the sacraments are supposed to be administered, he has administered validly.  However, the deceitful Jew has not experienced a valid baptism, because he was not only being baptized for the wrong motives, but without any faith in Christ whatsoever. 

The major problem with Luther’s argument for the “validity” of baptism without faith, therefore, could be described as either ambiguity or as committing the fallacy of equivocation (equivocating the on the term “validity”).  Luther’s illustration is supposed to ground his argument that the sacrament is valid without distinction, but his illustration only proves that baptism can still be administered validly even when it is not received validly.  Because of this, his claim that infant baptism is valid, is either too ambiguous to be proven, or if we assume he means “valid” in an unqualified sense, his illustrations do not help to prove the kind of validity necessary to make a case against his opponents. 

Fallacy of False Analogy 

There is another flaw with the illustrative part of Luther’s defense.  Proving that the baptism can be validly administered to an adult who claims to have faith in Christ but does not (the Jew in Luther’s illustration), is incapable of proving the validity of administering baptism to an adult who does not claim to have faith, much less an infant who cannot even claim to have faith.  If Luther’s illustration cannot prove his claim that baptism should be administered whether or not the recipient has faith, much less is it able to prove the validity of infant baptism.  His argument simply has no particular relevance to infant baptism, in which case the infant is not even claiming to have faith.  Yet this is what Luther is supposed to be proving—that infant baptism is valid because baptism in general remains valid even when “wrongly received or used.”[7]  There is not enough legitimate parallel in Luther’s illustration to carry any weight towards defending infant baptism.  

When Luther attempts to compare the Anabaptist position (that baptism is only valid if faith is present in the recipient) to the position that Christ is only Lord when people believe him to be so, he argues against a straw man.  The differences between these two positions should be painfully obvious, and they consequently nullify Luther’s argument.  Luther’s argument assumes that if his opponents hold that the recipient of baptism must have faith in order for baptism to be valid, we must also grant that things other than baptism are only valid or genuine if someone has faith in them.  Luther is embarrassingly sloppy at this point.  To say that faith is a necessary ingredient for a baptism to be valid (from the perspective of the recipient) is very different than holding that faith is a necessary ingredient for anything to be genuine or valid.  Luther, therefore, although claiming simply to press the logic of his opponents to its absurd conclusion, is in fact pressing the position of his opponents beyond what their position logically demands.  Thus, Luther is guilty of caricaturizing his opponent’s position.  We might return the fallacy by using the same logic against Luther, and so argue that his position (that baptism is valid even without faith) requires him to hold that the whole Christian life might be lived validly apart from any true faith.

Incoherency Within Luther’s Own Position 

An important point to notice about Luther’s defense of infant baptism is the tension which results from his separation of faith from the moment baptism is administered.  On the one hand Luther holds that baptism is not efficacious unless it is “received by faith,” but on the other hand he holds infant baptism to be “valid” even when the infant does not have faith before, during, or years after the baptism.  The necessary inference which must be drawn, then, is that baptism is not always immediately efficacious.  Although, as we have already seen, Luther admonishes his readers to believe (“if you did not believe before [when you were baptized], then believe afterward and confess”[8]), this does not resolve the tension between his holding to the efficacy of baptism on the one hand, and delayed effects of baptism on the other.  We might call this doctrine delayed efficacy, and it is a definite tension which goes unresolved in The Large Catechism.  If Luther holds out this possibility—that faith need not be present at the moment of baptism or even years after—then Luther would be wrong to say that baptism is efficacious in the normal sense of sacramental efficacy.  It would have been more logically clean for Luther to hold that infants receive faith through the baptism rather than holding out the possibility of infant baptism with a delayed efficacy.   

Another tension which is never resolved in Luther’s framework involves his warning about separating faith from baptism.  First of all, Luther himself is guilty of separating faith from baptism with his doctrine of delayed efficacy.  Secondly, his admonishment to others not to separate the two is out of place in his paradigm.  This second problem follows from the fact that real faith cannot exist apart from the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, who, in Luther’s paradigm, is received only through baptism.  In other words, if faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not received until baptism, then it does not make sense to admonish anyone to “receive” their baptism in faith.  It would make more sense to admonish them to receive their faith in faith, but this does not comport well logically either.

Furthermore, if faith must come through baptism (unless God is a liar who promised the Holy Spirit in baptism, with all his gifts)—that is, if faith cannot not be a result of baptism—what need is there to warn people not to separate faith from baptism?  Given Luther’s paradigm, there is no possible danger of separating faith from baptism, because faith is effectively produced in baptism by God himself.[9]  Yet Luther insists on not administering baptism when faith is not present: “Baptism helps no one and is to be administered to no one unless he believes for himself.  No one who does not personally believe is to be baptized.”[10]  Luther’s admonishments not to separate faith from baptism, then, are not fitting for two reasons: 1) He himself temporally separates the two from one another in infant baptism and 2) his view of efficacy makes such a separation impossible.  For these reasons, it is a logical headache to follow Luther in his incoherent attempt to justify infant baptism apart from faith.[11] 


[1] Luther was forced to use logic, because he admitted that there were no direct commands in the New Testament to baptize infants.  He thought that since the great commission was a simple command to baptize without any mention of faith as a condition, infant baptism was implicated in the command.  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 303.  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 361.

[2] Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 133.

[3] Karl Barth believed that “Luther’s defense of infant baptism is sustainable once the presuppositions of his wider theology of baptism are admitted.”  Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther, 4.  This is precisely because Luther’s defense everywhere assumes his paradigm and begs the key questions.  

[4] It seems that Lohse misses this crucial part of Luther’s argument at this point.  Lohse summarizes this argument like this: “God would not have allowed something improper to be in force for so long.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 303.  However, Luther’s argument was not simply that infant baptism had always been practiced, but that unless God was giving his Holy Spirit through those baptisms, there would be no church.  “…in short, all this time down to the present day no man on earth could have been a Christian.”  Luther, The Book of Concord, 441.  If baptism is the only way God gives his Holy Spirit, and the church members were all baptized in infancy not as adults—the Holy Sprit had to have been given through their baptism or else there would be no church.  Althaus first gives a similar summarization as Lohse, but sees Luther as giving two arguments instead of one.  The second argument he summarizes like this: “It also must be said that if infant baptism were false and contrary to God’s will, then there would have been no true baptism and thus also no church for more than a thousand years.  For without baptism there is no church.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 360.  Luther, however, never voices any such argument in the Catechism, but only speaks in terms of the Holy Spirit’s being present in the church.  Perhaps Althaus is aware of a passage that would shed more light on what Luther meant in the Large Catechism.  Otherwise it seems to be reading into the Luther’s argument.    

[5] Lohse rightly recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism.  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 302. 

[6] Luther, The Book of Concord, 444. 

[7] Ibid., 443. 

[8] Ibid., 443. 

[9] “Yet even if they could establish that children are without faith when they are baptized it would make no difference to me … for faith doesn’t exist for the sake of baptism, but baptism for the sake of faith.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 40, Church and Ministry II, 240-41.    

[10] Althaus quoting Luther, The Theology of Martin Luther, 364. 

[11] Althaus says in regard to the problem of making faith necessary and still seeing infant baptism as valid, “Luther’s thoughts about this are not always constant but are in a process of development.”  Ibid., 364.

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, a critique, part 2

Luther’s Limiting of Saving Grace to Baptism as Presumptuous

One of the ways Luther attempts to acquit himself from teaching salvation by human works, as we have seen, is to claim that baptism is not merely an act done by men, but is ultimately God’s act.  He answers the accuser like this: “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation.  Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s…”[1]  Luther actually turned this accusation around by accusing those who claimed that salvation was by faith apart from baptism to actually be the ones who are trusting in human works instead of the work of God (baptism).[2]  This reveals a great deal about the way Luther drew his dividing lines between human works and God’s gift of salvation.  That salvation is “not of works” does not, for Luther, rule out the possibility of salvation being by works in any sense, but only rules out works done apart from the divine and supernatural empowering of God.  Since Luther limited God’s supernatural saving grace to the sacrament of baptism,[3] trusting in anything but God’s salvific work through baptism—including faith in Christ—is to be guilty of trusting in human works.[4]

Although there is in fact a great deal of truth in Luther’s words of defense, he assumes without argumentation that God’s saving work of grace is limited to the sacraments.  It is true that even our “good works” (such as obediently[5] submitting to Christ’s command to be baptized) are done by the power of God’s grace, and are thus ultimately God’s work.  It is the Arminian mentality which divides certain parts of our obedience from God’s grace.  Anything good we do at all—whether acts of the will, such as coming to Christ, or our bodily actions of obedience to God’s commandments—it is all by the power of God’s saving grace.[6]  Luther is correct in assuming that grace is not to be conceived in opposing distinction to all works, but rather to anything done apart from the power of God’s grace.  Therefore, that salvation is by grace and not of works does not necessarily mean that salvation and grace do not include works done by the power of the grace of God.[7] 

Thus, Luther’s mistake is not in his dividing lines between works done in the power of God’s grace (which Luther would say are ultimately God’s works) and works done apart from God’s work of grace (which are mere human works which profit nothing).  Rather, Luther’s mistake is in his limiting God’s saving grace to the sacrament of baptism, and as we have seen, this limitation is based on a particular interpretation of Mark 16:16 which Luther fails to demonstrate and which rests finally on an overly simplistic hermeneutic which does not take into account the totality of biblical teaching.  As with his hermeneutic, Luther does not argue that whatever God effects he effects through the sacraments, he merely asserts it. 

Furthermore, the logic Luther uses here to clear himself from the charge of teaching works salvation ought also to prevent him from accusing his opponents of teaching a works-based salvation.  So long as his opponents hold that faith itself is God’s work, he can no more charge them with believing in works salvation than he can himself.  I can hear Luther’s opponents now, retorting back to Luther: “If those works which God does are not human works, and we hold that faith is a work which God does in us, then you cannot suspect or charge us with any belief in salvation by works just because we hold that faith comes apart from water baptism.”  When Luther limits salvific grace to the sacrament of baptism and therefore accuses anyone who thinks a man can be saved apart from water baptism as guilty of trusting in human works (works done apart from the grace of God), he fails to reckon with his own logic.  If his opponents do not assert that faith is a human work done apart from God’s work, Luther would have to consequently withdraw his accusation based on his own principles.[8]  His attempt to justify himself and yet condemn his opponents is based on an uncharitable double standard.  


[1] Luther, The Book of Concord, 441. 

[2] See footnote 15.     

[3] See paragraph 3 in “Baptism as God’s Word Comprehended in Water.”

[4] See footnote 15. 

[5] I say “obediently” because it is possible to submit oneself for baptism without faith, and such an act would not be true obedience (Heb 11:6). 

[6] I say “saving” grace to distinguish from what is called “common grace,” which does not include the granting of true obedience. 

[7] In fact, I would even go beyond Luther and claim that when the Apostle Paul speaks of “not having a righteousness of my own,” (Phil 3:9) this does not by itself prove that the righteousness in which he wishes to be found on the last day is outside himself (an alien righteousness) or does not include good deeds done by the power of God’s grace.  That God’s gift of righteousness is “not of our own” does not necessarily mean it does not consist within us or our good works any more than Paul’s denial that it was him who “labored even more than all of them,” but rather, “the grace of God with me,” means that this grace did not include human labor (1 Cor 15:10, cf. Rom 2:4-16).  

[8] Luther also granted that faith was a work of God: “For faith is a work of God, not of man, as Paul teaches.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, ed. Abdel Ross Wentz, gen ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 62.   

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, a critique, part 1

Review: In our last post we looked at Luther’s doctrine of Baptism as systematically presented in his Large Catechism.  We noted that for Luther, baptism is “water comprehended in God’s Word.”  By “God’s Word,” Luther has two very specific aspects of God’s Word in mind: 1) God’s commandment to perform baptism in the great commission, and 2) God’s promise to save those who are baptized.  Thus, for Luther, baptism is comprehensive in that it comprehends all of salvation—nothing less than God himself, along with all his gifts.  Baptism mediates all spiritual blessings.  Therefore, without it, no one can be a Christian.  Baptism does not merely symbolize salvation, it effects that which it symbolizes.  Luther counters the accusation that his gospel is works based by arguing that baptism is God’s work, not a mere human work.  He also accuses those who trust in faith alone apart from baptism as sufficient for salvation to be therefore trusting in something other than God’s work–human works.  Thus, for Luther, to trust in faith alone as sufficient for salvation (apart from the sacramental mediation of grace through baptism) is to trust in a false gospel of human works.  If you find this shocking in light of Luther’s famed reputation in Reformed circles as the one who defended sola fide, welcome to the enlightening world of theological research. 

We will now proceed to critique Luther’s view of baptism.  The critique must be broken down into three sections.  First I will show that Luther’s hermeneutic is unproven and therefore vulnerable.  Second, I will attempt to argue that Luther’s limiting of saving grace to the mediation of baptism is guilty of presumption.  Third, I will show that Luther engages in some logical fallacies when arguing for the rightness of infant baptism.   

A Critique of Luther’s Paradigm and Argumentation

Some of Luther’s arguments are valid.  For example, if Luther’s argument against those who say baptism is “of no use,” is interpreted to be directed at “some left-wing radicals in the sixteenth century” who argued against practice of baptism altogether, his argument is simple but sound: “What God institutes and commands cannot be useless.”[1]  However, it is the burden of this series of posts to show weaknesses in his argumentation, both in his hermeneutics and his logic.  Therefore, we will only be focusing on those arguments which fit this purpose.   

Luther’s Basic Paradigm as Foundationally Flawed by a Wooden Hermeneutic

Luther’s paradigm of baptism as water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation) is based on the hermeneutical assumption that the promise in Mark 16:16 is to be taken at face value to teach that baptism is the instrumental cause of salvation.  Luther’s argument for baptismal regeneration, therefore, is very similar to his argument for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, where Luther also applies a wooden hermeneutic to Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper, “This is my body” (Mt 26:26).  While this kind of interpretation often worked in Luther’s favor, in the case of his view of baptism (and I would argue, the Lord’s Supper) this hermeneutic led him into grave error.  Nowhere is this assumption more clear than in the following quote:

In the second place, since we now know what Baptism is and how it is to be regarded, we must also learn for what purpose it was instituted, that is, what benefits, gifts, and effects it brings.  Nor can we understand this better than from the words of Christ quoted above, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”  To put it most simply, the power, effect benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.  No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to “be saved.”[2] [emphasis mine]

It could be argued that Mark 16:16 demands a different interpretation on the basis of the sound hermeneutical principle to interpret the implicit in the light of the explicit.  This principle, along with the fact that as the narrative continues in Acts, the Holy Spirit is given completely apart from any water baptism, is enough to cast reasonable doubt on Luther’s prima facie interpretation of Mark 16:16.[3]  Furthermore, how is this passage in the gospel narrative of Mark to be squared with other gospel narratives and more didactic genre’s which seem to lay out the simple way of salvation without reference to baptism?[4]  Moreover, such a simplistic interpretation of Mark 16:16 seems to violently set itself against Paul’s mentality to the Corinthians: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. … For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor 1:17).  Any view of baptismal regeneration will have to see Paul’s comments here as a false dichotomy which, at best, confuses his readers about the relation of baptism to the gospel and to salvation. 

My point here is not necessarily to argue for a specific alternative interpretation of Mark 16:16 so much as it is to show that Luther never deals with the difficulties of his literal interpretation, nor does he argue for this interpretation.  Rather, he simply assumes this interpretation based on an overly simplified hermeneutic.  Most of his paradigm and argumentation from this point on, unfortunately, is based on this unchecked interpretation of Mark 16:16.  This places the rest of Luther’s teaching in The Large Catechism on a vulnerable foundation.      

While Luther’s assumption of a particular interpretation of Mark 16:16 can be seen as a lack of hermeneutical discernment, it can also be considered as a logical fallacy.  After this point in the catechism, Luther everywhere assumes his particular interpretation of this passage to argue against any view which does not see baptism as salvific.  In doing so, Luther commits the fallacy of question begging,[5] assuming what he has set out to prove.

Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. … But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand [the promise of salvation in baptism].  Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. … Now these people are so foolish as to separate faith from the object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. … We have here the words, ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved.’  To what do they refer but to Baptism, that is, the water comprehended in God’s ordinance?[6] 

Here Luther accuses those who say that faith saves apart from water baptism as being guilty of separating faith from its object of belief.  How does this argument work in Luther’s mind?  If baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word, and this means that it is water comprehended in God’s promise of salvation, then faith in God’s Word includes believing God’s promise of salvation through baptism.  Thus, for Luther, a faith which does not include faith in God’s promise of salvation in baptism is not saving faith.  Faith must include faith in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”). 

Basically, Luther’s logic could be summarized like this: Since God promises to save through baptism, anyone who separates saving faith from belief in this promise has stripped faith of its content.  As should be obvious, this entire argument is begging the million dollar question, for Luther’s opponents obviously do not agree with his assumption that God has promised salvation through baptism.  Luther’s argument begins by assuming what he has set out to prove—that baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation in baptism).  If God has not promised salvation through baptism, then to deny baptism of salvific power would not involve separating the water from God’s Word.  In fact, as many would want to argue (myself included), to add such a meaning to baptism is to distort the totality of biblical teaching about salvation and thus shroud God’s Word of promise.

Luther’s ill conceived paradigm of baptism as “water comprehended in God’s Word” accounts for all the radical things he teaches about baptism in the catechism.  When Luther says God’s commandment and promise are “added to” the water, he means the same thing as when he says baptism is water “comprehended” in God’s Word.  Likewise, when Luther says that God’s Word is “attached” to the sacrament, he has both the command to baptize and the promise of salvation in mind: “For the nucleus in the water is God’s Word or commandment and God’s name.”[7]  It is also on the basis of God’s Word being “attached” to the sacrament that Luther makes his claim that baptismal water is not just water, but divine water.

It is nothing else than a divine water, not that the water in itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it….This shows that it is not simple, ordinary water, for ordinary water could not have such an effect.[8] 

Hence it is well described as a divine, blessed, fruitful, and gracious water, for through the Word Baptism receives the power to became the “washing of regeneration,” as St. Paul calls it in Titus 3:5.[9] 

It is on the basis of God’s command and promise that water becomes a divine sacrament. 

From the Word it derives its nature as a sacrament.… This means that when the Word is added to the element or the natural substance, it becomes a sacrament, that is, a holy, divine thing and sign.[10]   

When Luther says that baptism “contains and conveys all the fullness of God,”[11] he is best understood as meaning that through it we receive God’s work of salvation which includes nothing less than God himself—the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit gives inner renewal (regeneration), the granting of faith in Christ, and the granting of repentance, which Luther speaks of in terms of being delivered from the bondage of sin.  This gift is nothing less than eternal life in the kingdom of God.  Given this paradigm, it is difficult to think of anything which is not comprehended in some way by Luther’s doctrine of baptism. 

To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.… To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever.[12] 

He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Sprit with his gifts.  [It is] priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men.[13]

Any and all spiritual blessings whatsoever which are able to be experienced in this life are received immediately through water baptism, which blessings secure those eternal blessings which are still to come.  To be baptized, then, is to do nothing less than receive God and inherit the world with Christ.  In fact, “even the traditional description of baptism as a ‘means of grace’ is a less than felicitous phrase because it suggests the presence of something other than God himself.”[14]  It is no wonder that when Luther was in the midst of spiritual assaults (whatever those were about), instead of claiming the alien righteousness of Christ for himself, he “relied on baptism.”[15]   This is not the poster boy Luther of Reformed Orthodoxy’s rhetorical propaganda, but it is the real Luther.

In our next post, we will see that in addition to Luther’s vulnerable hermeneutic, his sacramental limitation of grace is guilty of presumption.



[1] Luther, Book of Concord, 437.

[2] Ibid., 439.

[3] See esp. Acts 8:14-17, Acts 10:44-48.

[4] See esp. Acts 10:43, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22, 10:9-13, Eph 2:8-9. 

[5] Or by Carson’s categories, we might call it the fallacy of mere emotional appeal.  D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books House Co., 1996), 106-07.  Luther’s appeal (“these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that…”) is similar to the example Carson gives of Prof. Smith.  “Sometimes a mild case of emotional abuse occurs when one writer responds to another with some such phrasing as this: ‘Astonishingly, Prof. Smith fails to take into account the fact that. . . .'” 

[6] Luther, The Book of Concord, 440.  Luther has intentionally prepared his readers to be ready for this argument by  emphasizing the necessity of not separating the water from the Word.  “I therefore admonish you again that these two, the Word and the water, must by no means be separated from each other.” Luther, The Book of Concord, 439.     

[7] Ibid., 438. 

[8] Ibid., 438-39.

[9] Ibid., 440.

[10] Ibid., 438. 

[11] Ibid., 438. 

[12] Ibid., 439. 

[13] Ibid., 442. 

[14] Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 31.

[15] Ibid., 24. 

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, the Large Catechism

The Large Catechism

 Our study begins with The Large Catechism for at least three reasons: 1) it is Luther’s explicitly systematic approach to the doctrine of baptism, 2) its brevity makes it more fitting for this short post series because it enables a more detailed treatment, and 3) The Large Catechism was written well after the initial controversy of the Reformation and thus can be representative of the “older” Luther.[1]  One cannot begin to understand where to start a critique of Luther’s arguments for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism unless one first comprehends his basic framework for understanding the nature of baptism—namely, that baptism is “water comprehended in God’s Word and commandment.”[2]  Once Luther argues for this definition of baptism in The Large Catechism, he bases most (if not all) of his varied polemical argumentation squarely on this foundation.  He uses this view of baptism against non-salvific views of baptism, against those who deny the validity of infant baptism, against those who would require faith before baptism, and against those who would desire a rebaptism under any circumstance.  Therefore, it is crucial to understand Luther’s teaching on the nature of baptism in order to appreciate and evaluate his polemical argumentation. 

Baptism as God’s Word Comprehended in Water

 Luther begins his treatment of baptism in The Large Catechism by giving a strong statement about the importance of having a good grasp on the two sacraments: “because without these no one can be Christian.”[3]  His treatment is intended to be systematic, including all things necessary to know concerning baptism.[4]  As we might expect from Luther, his teaching begins by quoting in full the two verses on which the rest of his teaching in the catechism is virtually a commentary—namely, Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16.[5]  These two verses contain God’s commandment as well as God’s promise, both of which demonstrate the opposite of the teaching of certain “sects” who were teaching that since baptism is an external thing, it is “of no use.”[6]  Since the Lord has both commanded it (“go and baptize,” Mt 28:19) and has promised to save us through it (“whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” Mk 16:16), baptism is water “comprehended in God’s Word and commandment and sanctified by them.”[7]  That baptism is to be performed “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” means that “to be baptized…is to be baptized not by men but by God himself.  Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.”[8]  Thus baptism is to be distinguished from human works and achievements to which we tend to attach “greater importance.”[9] 

The fact that God’s Word (the promise of salvation) is attached to baptism is sufficient (in Luther’s mind) to defeat the skeptics who say, “How can a handful of water help the soul?” (i.e. anyone who would deny baptismal regeneration).[10]  Here Luther spends most of his catechismal energy.  Not only are those who claim that baptism is merely an external sign having no spiritual effect “so foolish as to separate faith from the object [Gods Word] to which faith is attached and bound,” but Luther argues that they miss the point that God’s grace has been limited to being distributed only through the external sacraments.  “Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the sense and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation.  In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.”[11]  Therefore, faith alone will not do, because although “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the salutary, divine water profitably,”[12] faith apart from the actual administration of the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a faith which is mustered up apart from the power of God’s grace and severed from God’s Word—and thus it is a human work.[13]  Such faith is just as shaky ground for salvation as any other human work.[14] 

The Comprehensiveness and Permanency of Baptism 

Since baptism includes nothing less than all of salvation and God himself, Luther concludes that in the teaching about baptism, “every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life.”  Luther considers all sanctification and repentance as nothing more than a “walking in Baptism,”[15] and “a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever continued.”[16]  Thus, when we find ourselves spiritually weak, having fallen into sin, or having pangs of conscience, we simply need to “draw strength and comfort from” our baptism, and “retort, ‘But I am baptized!'”[17]  “When this amendment of life does not take place but the old man is given free reign and continually grows stronger, Baptism is not being used but resisted.”[18]  With this logic, Luther is ready to concede that penance is sufficiently entailed in baptism and forever rid the need of separating these two as separate sacraments.[19]  

Justification for Infant Baptism[20] 

Luther’s teaching that through baptism we receive “perfect holiness and salvation”[21] raises a question in his catechism about infant baptism which leads him into a lengthy defense of it.  The question is whether “children” [and by this he means infants[22]] also believe, and is it right to baptize them?”[23]  Luther’s first line of argument is from the effects of baptism as seen in those who were baptized as infants.  Since only through baptism can one receive God’s Spirit and new life, when those who were baptized as infants live a life that attests “that they have the Holy Sprit,” they prove that God was pleased to bless their baptism and that infant baptism is pleasing to Him.[24] 

The next defense is an argument from church history.  Since infant baptism has been practiced and received by even all the early church fathers and through the ages and God has gifted these men and the church through the ages with the Holy Spirit, therefore God obviously is pleased with the practice, “for he can never be in conflict with himself, support lies and wickedness, or give his grace and Spirit for such ends. … For no one can take from us or overthrow this article, ‘I believe one holy Christian church, the communion of saints,’ etc.”[25] 

The nature of validity is Luther’s next argument for infant baptism.  He argues that the “validity” of baptism does not depend on faith because its validity depends only on God’s Word, and God does not lie.[26]  “When the Word accompanies the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be lacking.  For my faith does not constitute Baptism but receives it.”[27]  Even if baptism is “wrongly received or used,”[28] this would not make it invalid.  Luther illustrates this with a hypothetical case in which a Jew who does not really believe in Christ pretends that he wished to become a Christian and allows himself to baptized by the church.  Would the baptism then be “invalid”?  Obviously not, Luther thinks.  If we admit that the way one receives a sacrament has the power to nullify its validity, we would have to say that those who take the Lords Supper unworthily do not receive the “real” sacrament.[29]  Luther attempts to press the logic of the dissenters into absurdity: “Likewise I might argue, ‘If I have no faith, then Christ is nothing.’  Or again, ‘If I am not obedient, then father, mother and magistrates are nothing.'”[30]  Finally, the reformer attempts to reverse the objection that lack of faith makes a sacrament “invalid,” based on the “saying” that “Misuse does not destroy the substance, but confirms its existence.”[31]  While arguing that the validity of baptism does not depend on faith, he revealingly urges his readers, “Therefore, I say, if you did not believe before [when you were baptized], then believe afterward and confess, ‘The Baptism indeed was right, but unfortunately I did not receive it rightly.'”[32]  To urge the importance of faith for all who are baptized is necessary, but to hold that the validity of baptism depends on faith is, to Luther’s sensibilities, quite absurd.    

Baptism as Symbolic 

Although baptism is not merely symbolic for Luther, it does signify the very grace it imparts to the faithful recipient.  That is, it signifies nothing less than death to sin, and the resurrection of the new man, “both of which actions must continue in us our whole life long.”[33]  Baptism, therefore, both signifies and conveys salvation to the recipient who receives baptism in faith—regardless of whether this receiving in faith takes place at the actual administration of baptism or later in life.

In our next post we will critique Luther’s view of Baptism.


[1] Trigg argues that most studies done on Luther focus more on the younger Luther at the expense of the older Luther, and that this is especially true with regard to his view on Baptism.  Jonathan D. Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (New York, New York: E.J. Brill, 1994), 9.  Although Trigg specifically mentions a neglect of Luther’s theology of baptism after 1530, we might safely assume that if Luther’s catechism was never revised, and no further data demonstrates a significant change in his view, his teaching in the Large Catechism thus represents fairly the view which he held until the day of his death.  However, because we are dealing with the late Luther, we will not be engaging his arguments for infant baptism which include arguments concerning the faith of sponsors.  According to Althaus, this was an argument which Luther eventually quit using anyway.  Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1966), 364.     

[2] Martin Luther, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 438.  By “comprehended,” Luther means something like, “seen from the vantage point of,” or “empowered by.”   

[3] Ibid., 436.   

[4] “In order that it may be readily understood, we shall treat it in a systematic way and confine ourselves to that which is necessary for us to know.”  Ibid, 436.  

[5] The command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).  The promise: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who had disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mk 16:16). 

[6] Ibid., 437.  It is not completely clear whether Luther has in mind sects who teach that baptism is of no use for salvation, or of no use whatsoever.  Since he later argues against the former, I am inclined to think this is who he has in mind here.  The editor leaves the following footnote: “This was an argument used by some left-wing radicals in the sixteenth century.”  But this does not tell us which radicals he had in mind. 

[7] Ibid., 438.  As we will see later, this basic paradigm accounts for all the radical things Luther says about baptismal water, the utter reliability of baptism even if the recipient has no faith, the efficacy of baptism, and baptism as conveying more than just grace, but God himself.   

[8] Ibid., 437.  Herein also is Luther’s response to those who accuse him of believing in salvation by works.  “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation.  Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s…”  Ibid., 441. 

[9] Ibid., 438. 

[10] Ibid., 438.  Here Luther more clearly does not have in mind those who say that baptism is “of no use,” whatsoever, but anyone who would deny baptism to be a work which literally saves the soul.  That is, since God has commanded baptism and promised salvation through it (Mk 16:16), that is enough to silence any critic who would ridicule the notion of baptismal regeneration.  “Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. … But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand [the promise of salvation in baptism].  Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it.” [emphasis mine]  Ibid., 440.   

[11] Ibid., 440.  Later, I will refer to this in terms of a sacramental limitation of saving grace. 

[12] Ibid., 440.  “God’s works [such as baptism], however, are salutary and necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith, for without faith they could not be grasped.  Just by allowing the water to be poured over you, you do not receive Baptism in such a manner that it does you any good.  But it becomes beneficial to you if you accept it as God’s command and ordinance, so that, baptized in the name of God, you may receive in the water the promised salvation.  This the hand cannot do, nor the body, but the heart must believe it. … Actually, we insist on faith alone as so necessary that without it nothing can be received or enjoyed.”  Ibid., 441.  

[13] Tranvik argues that Luther saw pre-baptism faith as a human work, not the work of God, and thus he considered anyone who believed faith came before baptism to be in the same heretical camp with Rome, trusting in human works and denying the gospel.  “Therefore, one dare not base his baptism on his faith.  For who can be sure if he really believes?  The Enthusiasts’ stress on subjectivity, like the late medieval view of penance and monasticism, troubles Luther because it put the question of salvation back into the hands of a frail and doubting humanity. … From Luther’s perspective, the dispute with the Enthusiasts is not merely about the nature of material things and whether or not they can be mediums of the divine.  Rather, the gospel itself is at stake.  … In his conflict with enthusiasm, Luther suspects that faith itself is being idolized, the very faith that is subject to the vagaries of human moods and emotions.  Faith simply cannot bear that burden and remain salvific.  Again, as was the case with Rome, Luther believes the enthusiasts are shrouding the life-giving promise.  God must move from the external to the internal.  To reverse the order is to make faith a work and set up a pernicious ordo salutis based on law.  What Luther did was expose the essential nomism of the Enthusiasts.” Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 32-33.  “And he most sharply rejects the attempt to determine whether or not an adult believes, particularly in the form in which it was practices by the Baptists.”  Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365.  Luther considered the Anabaptists to be sects of the devil.  “Here we come to a question by which the devil confuses the world through his sects, the question of infant Baptism.”  Luther, The Book of Concord, 442.           

[14] “I say the same thing about the baptized one who receives or grounds his baptism on his faith.  For he is not sure of his own faith….Neither the baptizer nor the baptized can maintain his position, for both are uncertain of their faith, or at least are in constant peril and anxiety. … For the verse does not say, ‘Whoever knows that he believes, or, if you know that anyone believes,’ but it says, ‘Whoever believes.’ Who has it, has it.  One must believe, but we neither should nor can know it for certain.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 40, Church and Ministry II, ed. Conrad Bergendoff, gen ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 240-41. 

[15] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445.      

[16] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[17] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[18] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[19] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[20] Although Luther did argue elsewhere that “Children must believe for themselves and must believe at the time of baptism,” he does not make this argument in the Large Catechism.  Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365.  Althaus’ summary, however, is helpful to understand Luther’s argument that infant baptism does not depend on faith but on the Word of promise: “Children are to be baptized not because it can be proved they believe, but because infant baptism is scriptural and the will of God. … He is certain that children believe because infant baptism is right and valid—and for no other reason.”  Ibid, 365. 

[21] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[22] In the beginning of the next paragraph he uses the word “infant” as a synonym: “But if you wish to answer, then say: That the Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ is sufficiently proved from his own work.”  Ibid., 442. 

[23] Ibid., 442. 

[24] Ibid., 442.  “Now, if God did not accept the Baptism of infants, he would not have given any of them the Holy Spirit nor any part of him: in short, all this time down to the present day no man on earth could have been a Christian.”  Ibid., 442-43.    

[25] Ibid., 443. 

[26] “I myself, and all who are baptized, must say before God: ‘I cannot build on the fact that I believe and many people are praying for me.  On this I build, that it is thy Word and command.’  We bring the child with the purpose and hope that he may believe, and we pray God to grant him faith.  But we do not baptize him on that account, but solely on the command of God.  Why?  Because we know that God does not lie.”  Ibid., 443-44.  

[27] Ibid., 443.  Although Lohse says that “Luther gave centrality to the duality of ‘promise’ (promissio) and ‘faith’ (fides),” he actually gave more prominence to promise and command, since he held that baptism depended only on these, and therefore is “valid” though faith “be lacking.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.    

[28] Luther, The Book of Concord, 443. 

[29] Ibid., 443.  “Similarly, those who partake unworthily of the Lord’s Supper receive the true sacrament even though they do not believe.”   

[30] Ibid., 444. 

[31] Ibid., 444. 

[32] Ibid., 443. 

[33] Ibid., 445.

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, intro

The next several posts will be about Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  The point is to critique his doctrine and show that by the standards of many of today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy, Luther didn’t really believe the gospel.  This is because Luther didn’t really believe in sola fide, which many of today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy think is the essence of the gospel.  Of course, I think Luther believed the gospel.  But that’s because my understanding of the gospel is more basic than notions of the gospel that developed during the polemics of the Reformation. 

Although teachers from Reformed traditions tend to venerate Luther as the great reformer who rescued the church from a sacramental understanding of salvation to an understanding of salvation by faith alone apart from any external “works,” [as understood by today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy] this caricature could not be further from the truth.  On the one hand, Luther scratched five of the seven sacraments off the sacred list.  On the other hand, when it came to a sacramental paradigm, Luther was virtually Roman Catholic.[1]  Of course, as one might expect, in his polemics against Rome he emphasized the need for faith.  Nevertheless, as we will see, in his polemics against certain protestant sects, Luther both denied the need for faith during the administration of baptism and boasted in the efficacy of the sacrament as conferring nothing less than the fullness of salvation.  While in different polemical contexts, Luther’s teaching on baptism had radically different emphases, his basic understanding of baptism never underwent a substantial change.[2] 

This blog series is an attempt to survey the great reformer’s most basic teaching concerning baptism in The Large Catechism in order to orient the reader to his basic sacramental paradigm for baptism, demonstrate that this framework of thought for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism in The Large Catechism is foundationally dependent upon an unproven hermeneutical judgment and that Luther’s defense of it is entangled in a number of logical fallacies.  In the conclusive post, I will make a brief suggestion concerning what significance Luther’s view of baptism bears on the interpretation of the Reformation slogan attributed to him—sola fide.       

[1] Lohse makes the judgment that although Luther “with his emphasis on the strict correlation of baptism and faith…gave new accent to traditional baptismal theology…on the whole [he] did not attack it.”  Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1999), 303.  Lohse also recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism.  Ibid, 302.  

 [2] Mark D. Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 24.

T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts, pt. 2

Before I make any remarks about my mixed feeling at T4G (a conference which is by now old news to most bloggers), I want to express a few words of gratitude.

I stand on the shoulders of men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Mark Dever, and John Piper especially. These men have been examples to me over the years of Christ-centered ministry, preaching, and teaching. Their teachings are invaluable to me. It would be a difficult task to attempt to measure the impact of their faithful ministries on my own life, let alone the hundreds of thousands. I’m agnostic about where I would be today if it weren’t for these men (certainly not at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY). These men have fed my mind and heart with the things of God for many years. I don’t want to become arrogantly ungrateful by biting these hands that have been feeding me without good reason. Nevertheless, it is also these men who have taught me discernment and frankness in the midst of controversy and disagreement. They model for me how to raise issues to those who you respect when you may disagree with them. These men speak out when they have genuine concerns about trends, practices, beliefs, or attitudes in evangelicalism they see as “not so edifying.” Following their example then, I also have developed some concerns over the years that won’t go away, and out of the concerns of my heart, my mind churns, my mouth speaks, my fingers type, and my blog post’s.

Together for the Gospel or Together for Calvinism?

In my last post, I talked about how deeply Mark Dever’s point about not confusing the gospel with non-essentials resonated with me personally. When I first became a Calvinist, I became acclimated to the Reformed flavor of preaching and teaching. I have been a member at churches that regularly bashed other Christian churches on a normal basis from the pulpit as a matter of habit. After attending for a while, I was infected myself and began to think of our Reformed communities as something like the only true remnant of uncompromised and reverent Christianity that took the Bible seriously. Everyone else was entertainment based, man-centered, and unbiblical; influenced either by liberalism or the world. Young Reformed types that come from Southern have a reputation for splitting churches over Calvinism. This is a fact. In disbelief I have listened to devastated church members tell me about how painful it was to see their once tight knit community divorce themselves from fellowship. It can be a whole lot like a family feud: ugly, painful, leaving scars, bitterness and disillusionment.

This is why I said in my last post that I think Dever’s words were most significant. It’s because the context I come from tends to major on the minors and allow non-gospel issues to be great points of contention, even to find their identity in the Reformed tradition rather than in the gospel. Once our affections become more exercised over our particular church’s or denomination’s traditions (yes, that includes Reformed teaching about Calvinism, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, the Regulative Principle, Church Membership, Tongues, Preaching Style [expositional preaching vs. topical, etc.], Worship Style [is drama ok? are multi-site churches ok? short sermons? alter calls? etc.], views about women in ministry [egalitarian vs. complementarian]—and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on—than over the gospel, our hearts are out of whack. Though many of these things can effect the nuances we add to the gospel, they cannot be confused with the gospel itself. Though important, they are not the dividing lines between those who believe the gospel and those who don’t.

Unfortunately, I thought T4G revealed a blind spot in this area. Though the banner of the conference is “Together for the Gospel,” John MacArthur’s message was all about total inability (i.e. Calvinism). Now, I would have been more comfortable if his message demonstrated sensitivity to this distinction. Perhaps his message could have been introduced something like this: “I strongly believe that the doctrine of total inability is a strong safeguard for the gospel. Therefore, although we have come together for this core belief, and although I love my brothers and sisters who do not believe in total inability, and recognize them as co-equals together in the gospel, I would nevertheless like to spend my time commending this doctrine because I think it helps protect our basic beliefs in the gospel.” But rather than anything even approaching this sort of sensitivity, I was disappointed to hear just the opposite. As he was waxing eloquent on total inability, he compared it to other “false gospels” as if he understood the doctrine of total inability to be the “true gospel.” To make matters worse, Mark Dever of all people (just before his message about not referring to non-gospel doctrines as “the gospel”), commends MacArthur’s message, referring to it as an wonderful exposition of “the gospel.” Surely I wasn’t the only one who noticed this apparent inconsistency.

I found Mohler’s message on substitutionary atonement, for example, more appropriate for the theme of the conference. Or take R.C.’s message about the theme of cursing—this is also at the heart of our gospel (Christ became a curse for us). Not everybody at T4G was, by my sensitivities, off key with respect to the common cause.

In a context when 1) Seminary students are splitting churches over Calvinism, 2) recent rumors spread about the SBC possibly splitting over Armenian vs. Calvinism issues just before the Calvinism debate between Mohler and Paige Patterson (who wisely spent much time in that debate demonstrating their unity in spite of their differences), 3) close friends of mine are finding it sadly curious that I would go to a church that wasn’t “on board” with all the stuff we are learning in seminary, 4) Pastors are finding their churches identity more in Calvinism than the gospel (speaking from my own experience here), the T4G seemed to me to be perpetuating this unfortunate confusion between Calvinism and the Gospel. Note: I’m not saying that John MacArthur would say he didn’t think Norman Geisler was a Christian, but it’s safe to say that he thinks Norman Geisler, in some sense, has a “false gospel.” I wonder how a guy like John Wesley would have felt if he were to enthusiastically volunteer his support of a “Together for the Gospel” conference, only to find the preachers more interested in propagating the younger ministers with Calvinism.

At another point during the conference, I was walking by the booths set up along the side of the bookstore. As I stumbled upon a booth with an eager man representing the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, I began to question him whether his organization was for all evangelicals. “Certainly,” he replied with great enthusiasm. But as I questioned further, he seemed to get a little tongue tied. “So …” I asked casually, ” … does your organization try to reach, encourage, and include Arminian churches also, or is this more for Reformed types?” My question seemed to catch the man off guard. He replied something like, “Well … you don’t have to agree with us about every point of doctrine to support our organization or give money to it.” (notice this does not really answer my question) As I looked at the back of the promotion magazine, I noticed that all the names of the council members I recognized were Reformed. I read one of the articles of faith that represented the alliance. It’s doctrinal statement exalted the Reformation and bashed the present day church at large for being worldly and having everything wrong. It summed up all these things like this: “The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable.” I wondered whether such an alliance was something like an “Alliance of the Confessing Reformed” moreso than an inclusive alliance of all those who confess the common gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (whether or not they are “Reformed”).

Relevant Truth: We should never call any church that believes the gospel “shallow” in its theology, unless we wish to imply that the gospel, which they hold to and teach, is itself shallow.

Unfortunate Casualties in the “Truth War”

There also seemed to be an agenda at the conference to stamp a WARNING label on what is known as The Emerging Church. What I have to say here will be briefer than what has come before.

Several attempts have been made to distinguish between different streams of the Emerging Church, so as the distinguish the Reformed and conservative types (like Mark Driscol, Darren Patrick, and others) from those who are apparently (and I stress ‘apparently’ because even Driscol, who is friends with Doug Paggit, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and all the big wig names [with the exception of Rob Bell], isn’t sure what their official stance is on certain controversial doctrines) taking liberal stances on issues thought to set the boundaries for historic Christianity. The former are called “Emerging,” and the latter “Emergent.” Nevertheless, some evangelicals who are eager to warn Christians of the liberal streams of this movement have not taken care to protect the faithful gospel ministry of the conservative gospel-centered streams of this movement. Harsh things are said about the “Emerging” movement. They are still lumping them all together under the label without taking note of the features of this complex movement. At T4G, if my memory fails me not, Dr. Mohler quoted one of the authors who supposedly represents the “Emergent” crowd (the apparently liberal crowd) on their teaching about the atonement. Steve Chalk, I think, was his name. Chalk apparently called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, “divine child abuse.” After quoting this author, Mohler, if I’m not mistaking, made a comment about how this is the kind of theology coming from the “Emerging” church, and that the “Emerging church” was a threat to the very central tenants of the Christian gospel.

When John Piper invited Mark Driscol to speak at his Desiring God conference a few years ago, Piper testified to receiving harsh criticism over it. It attracted hostility and spawned a bit of controversy. After Mohler’s comments, those not up on the debates and distinctions would have left the T4G conference with the impression that the Emerging Church was basically liberal theology on the comeback. Since, however, faithful gospel ministers also labor under the Emerging tag, such comments will be sure to perpetuate the hostility against their ministries that is due to precisely the kind of stereotype comments about how the “Emerging Church” is bad news.

I think we should not only point out bad theology, but also, in light of a T4G banner, to go out of our way to protect from malignment our faithful brothers in Christ who labor for the same gospel we do—and perhaps are laboring harder than us (given the growth spurts of the movement).

Thoughts not limited to but of a similar nature as these caused me to leave T4G wondering whether our “Gospel” is too exclusive; whether we Reformed types are further isolating ourselves from non-Reformed gospel-believing evangelicals (whether intentionally or unintentionally). I left wishing evangelicalism wasn’t so polarized, and wishing our T4G conference did not, in addition to its strongly edifying potential, consciously or unconsciously contribute to the polarization effect between different “camps” of evangelicalism. I left with mixed feelings.

T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts

Prescript: I really didn’t want to post about T4G until I had plenty of time to go back and quote from the actual words spoken at the conference. Because of major time restraints, I’ve decided to just post based on my memory instead. I have taken the liberty to paraphrase and loose quote, but if my account is off, feel free to let me know.

Helpful in Many Ways

The Celebrity Mystique – Never has a conference held so many of my own hero’s who have shaped me as I have listened to their messages and/or interviews and/or lectures: John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul. My own convictions have been shaped more by these men than by all my college and seminary professors over the years. T4G was intended to draw a large crowd by it’s “celebrity” impact. Mark Dever joked about this at the beginning of the conference. He said they knew they could draw a large crowd this way even though they disagree with the whole “celebrity” mentality. (I won’t take the time to speculate on what he means by that)

Dr. Mohler brought the heat by defending substitutionary atonement against certain recent attacks. His message was probably more fitting for a classroom lecture than a conference message (based on the responses I heard from some friends of mine who were not able to follow him, and based on C.J.’s comments afterward during the panel discussion). Nevertheless, I was able to follow and enjoy his critiques of modern attacks against this doctrine. His defense was timely and wholly appropriate to the theme of the conference, for Paul considered it among those things which are “of first importance” in the passing on of apostolic gospel proclamation, along with the resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-4ff).

John MacArthur basically walked us through the proof texts for a doctrine of “total inability.” I’m an 8 point Calvinist, so I nodded my head a great deal of the time, but this was nothing new.

Thabiti Anyabwile (pronounced by my own phonetic conventions as: thuh.bee.tee ahn.yah.bwee.leh). He challenged us to think of the whole category of “race” as both unhelpful and unbiblical. His definition for “race,” however, seemed to be one that most people do not at all intend by the use of the term. As he was speaking, I looked in my back-of-the-Bible concordance to see if the word “race” was used in the Bible. Sure enough, it occurs in the Bible several times. I thought it was unfortunate, since the Bible is our final and ultimate authority, that Thabiti did not address this apparent tension with his call for us to think of the category of “race” as unbiblical. Have the translators got it wrong all these years?

Dictionary.com shows that the most common definition for “race” is this: a group of persons related by common descent or heredity. According to the same source, the most common understanding of “heredity” is the following: the transmission of genetic characters from parents to offspring. These genetic differences might be as superficial as skin and hair color, as bothersome as unattractive physical traits, or as serious as trends of certain health problems.

Although one might quibble with the way Thabiti defined “race,” I heartily agreed with the spirit of the message. “Blacks” and “Whites” are not different species with biological categories of their own. There are more commonalities (“like me’s”) between all races within the humanity than there are differences. Or, if you like, we are all one race: the human race. I can walk into a group of people from India or Africa or wherever and still say, “Sinner, like me.” “Needs Christ, like me.” “Bear’s God’s image, like me.” “Human, like me.” We all descend from Adam.

Within the human race, there are ethnic cultures which defy any of the superficial “race” categories. Therefore, I agree with Thabiti that the category of ethnicity, which is a more fluid idea, is more helpful than “race,” for most people. I used to hate being told that I was “trying to be black,” just because all my closest friends were black and because I was immersed in the thug-hip-hop culture (baggy pants, Ebonics with slang words for everything, twisted caps, etc.). I was no more trying to be black than I was trying to be purple. It wasn’t about skin color. It was about culture. Thabiti has done us all a favor by helping us see that the category of ethnicity goes deeper, by reminding us that humans are more like each other than we are different from each other (we all bear God’s image), and finally, by reminding us that racism can show up in subtle ways (like where you sit and who you decide to talk to in a room full of people). His admonition for us to go out of our way to show unity across cultures was edifying and enriching to the atmosphere of T4G.

Note: I thought it was one of the more ironically humorous moments when just after Thabiti’s message about why “race” is not a helpful category, we sang a hymn that went something like this: “Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race….” I wish I could’ve seen Thabiti’s face and lips during that hymn (did he sing along?). lol!

John Piper gave a vintage message about how our ministry should be radical and sacrificial. He based this message on the passage in Hebrews, which he basically said was like the punch line of the whole book: “So, let us go out to [Jesus] outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb 13:13). The panel discussion following his message brought out a pleasant surprise (for me anyway). When asked what this radical sacrifice looks like for pastors who “aren’t going anywhere” (as C.J. put it) because of long-term commitments to their churches, Piper talked about normal day to day stuff. He didn’t talk about being sawed in half or being beaten to death in some Muslim country. He talked about enduring mistreatment as a pastor, suffering yourself to be confrontational with your kids, and other related areas of common obedience. This was unusually helpful for me. When I hear Piper preach, I often get the sense that he has something much greater in mind by “sacrifice” and “suffering” than the day-to-day stuff I experience. Sometimes I walk away from hearing Piper speak with a sense that I haven’t even begun to suffer or sacrifice the way he calls for in his messages. But after his clarification of what his exhortation “looks like” for a normal pastor, my eyes began to twinkle. Maybe I understand him after all.

I actually thought Mark Dever’s message was most significant. He encouraged us to make a distinction between the gospel on the one hand, and what we think are the implications of the gospel on the other. Much of his comments regarding this distinction encouraged us to be more gracious to our brothers and sisters in Christ who might have different opinions than we do on things not related directly to the gospel itself. Although he realized that some would criticize him as though he were trying to be reductionistic, he rightfully grounded his distinction as a way to actually protect the gospel. This distinction has the potential to overcome divisiveness in the church by fostering unity among all Christians who believe a common gospel. It’s easy to get caught up in our differing opinions about what we think the implications of the gospel are. Dever’s message was refreshing because of it’s potential for greater unity among Christians who believe in the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection and messiahship/lordship of Jesus Christ and yet, unfortunately, differ on almost everything else. Skizmatics are the worst of heretics, as Augustine liked to say.

Postscript: In this post, I have discussed only some of the ways in which T4G was very helpful. In my next post, I will share the grounds for some mixed feelings I experienced at the conference.

%d bloggers like this: