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International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 1 Number 1

March 1999

On the Doctrine of Justification

Translated by John Webster

Abstract: The doctrine of the justification of the ungodly is central to the

Christian confession. Justification is to be understood through the four
Reformation exclusive particles: Christ alone, grace alone, word alone and
faith alone. Justification addresses the relationlessness which is produced by
sin as limitless self-realization. Related in himself as Trinity, God in Christ and
Spirit continues in relation to the godless, thereby establishing a wealth of
relation which is righteous. This account of justification is illuminating both
for fundamental issues in anthropology and ethics, and for current ecumenical
controversies concerning salvation, sacraments and ministry.

At the centre of the Christian faith stands the confession of Jesus Christ: of Jesus
Christ who as truly human was and is at the same time God himself in person; of
Jesus Christ who as truly divine was and is able to be a true and therefore a truly
human person. From confession of him there arises the confession of God the creator
and the confession of the creative power of the Holy Spirit and his operations. From
him arises the confession of the triune God. But the confession of Jesus Christ itself
has a centre, a living centre without which the Christological statements of, for
example, the Apostles Creed about the only begotten Son, who was conceived by
the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified,
died and was buried, descended into hell, rose again on the third day, ascended into
heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, will come again to judge the living
and the dead have an air of being lofty archaeological specimens, before which we
may certainly bow respectfully, but which are of absolutely no existential concern to
us. The living centre which brings the confession of Jesus Christ into a dimension
that unconditionally concerns my own existence, and thus the centre of the Christian
faith, is faith in the justification of the ungodly through him who was put to death for
our trespasses and raised for our justification (Rom. 4.25).
* Evangelisch-theologisches Seminar, Liebermeisterstrae 12, D-72076 Tubingen, Germany.
Published by Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1999, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK
and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

On the Doctrine of Justification


In faith in the justification of the ungodly, the confession of Jesus Christ comes
to be a truth that illuminates human existence. That truth is eminently critical,
leading human self-understanding, and therefore the whole of human existence,
into an elemental crisis, a crisis which decides between life and death. On account
of its highly critical character, the gospel of the justification of the ungodly has
from the beginning been a cause of offence, and continues to be so even today.
Faith in the justification of the ungodly gives the confession of Jesus Christ the
character of a dangerous memory.1 To evade the danger of this memory is to
make the earnestness of the good news proclaimed in the Bible into something
innocuous, and so to trivialize its joy. And this is time and again the case both
outside and inside the Christian church. It was and remains true that the spirits
divide over the confession of the God who justifies the sinner.

In a confession, faith expresses itself and binds itself to that which it believes. In the
act of confession, faith formulates its certainties, making the claim of the most
binding force, namely the claim to truth. More precisely, at the centre of Christian
faith stands the truth that in the person of Jesus Christ the eternal God has come to
the world as a mortal human being, to share our life and death in such a way that we
obtain a share in his eternal life. The centre of the Christian proclamation is that the
history of Jesus Christ is not a private history, but that, in that history, Gods history
with the whole of humanity takes place, and that in this one, unique history there
occurs a liberating change of direction in the deadly fate of sin-dominated
humanity, a fate for which we ourselves are responsible. Out of a life marked by
death has come a life which overcomes death; out of an existence which has fallen
into the hands of the deceptive powers of corruption and which completely
deceives itself, has come a being unrestrictedly open to the future, showing that the
obvious successes of the powers of deception are a Pyrrhic victory and that the
despotic claims to power of the past are hopeless: the old has passed, behold, the
new has come (2 Cor. 5.17b). Thus God has created in our world the ministry of
reconciliation (2 Cor. 5.18), namely the dispensation of righteousness (2 Cor.
3.9), and with it has established the word of Jesus Christ which addresses all: For
our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become
the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5.21). And this took place in the history which
involves all people in itself, and which procures for each person a community of
life with God which is both glorious and blessed, so procuring for them the truth of
their own life and liberating them from their living falsehoods. A communion of
life with God which is victorious over sin and death, a liberation from the slavery of
self-wrought living falsehood, a human life which enters into its very own truth
1 J.B. Metz, Faith in History and Society. Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology
(London: Burns and Oates, 1980), pp. 88ff.
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all this is the concern of the justification of the ungodly, which brings faith in Jesus
Christ to its real point.

Time and again Western theology has accorded a very particular status to the article
of faith concerning the justification of the ungodly. Although in the Apostles
Creed it seems to be one of many truths of faith only in the third article are we
reminded of the gospel of justification by the phrase I believe... in the forgiveness
of sins nevertheless time after time it is pointed out that this truth of faith has an
especial importance and that by it all other truths of the faith must be weighed.
In particular, Augustine, and then centuries later Luther, emphasized the
incomparable significance of this truth of faith. In this, they allowed themselves to
be guided by the apostle Pauls letters to the Romans and the Galatians, for, more
than any other of the biblical witnesses, he bore testimony to the truth of the gospel
as a truth which justifies the sinner. Thus Augustine maintained that the
justification of the ungodly is an even greater work than that of creating the
heavens and the Earth and all that is in them. And that is not only because heaven
and earth will pass away whereas salvation and the justification of the elect will
endure. Much more, according to Augustine, is it intrinsically a greater work to
make righteous the ungodly than to create righteous beings.2 Likewise, Luther
indicates the superiority of Gods act of justifying the sinner over the divine work
of creation when he says of the article on justification: Nothing in this article can
be given up or compromised, even if heaven and earth and things temporal should
be destroyed. And the appended statement shows that for the Reformer this also
involved a dispute with the Roman church of his day: On this article rests all that
we teach against the pope, the devil, and the world.3
In their high esteem for the article on justification, Augustine and Luther, as we
have seen, appeal to the apostle Paul. In his apostolic proclamation and the teaching
which is inseparable from it, the gospel of the justification of the sinner through grace
alone not only has a central function but also a critical, discriminating function. Paul
lays great emphasis on the fact that the Old Testaments talk of the righteousness of
God can only be properly understood as the righteousness which makes the sinner
righteous. For God is righteous in justifying the ungodly. This, however, is revealed in
the gospel alone, and that means in the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1.18) which
proclaims the death of Jesus as saving event. Thus the gospel is no mere information
about particular facts or states of affairs. Much more is it a word of penetrating
effectiveness, an expressly creative word which itself effects that of which it speaks.
2 Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel according to St John 72.3, NPNF vol. 7 (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 331.
3 M. Luther, Smalcald Articles I, in T.G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord. The
Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), p. 292.
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On the Doctrine of Justification


In the gospel God speaks of himself in such a way that he communicates himself,
opens himself, gives himself. As such, however, the gospel is sharply to be
distinguished from Gods law, which makes demands of humanity and makes
exorbitant demands of the sinner. Thus Paul asserts But now, namely, after the
death and resurrection of Christ the righteousness of God has been manifested apart
from law (Rom. 3.21) and, indeed, in the gospel, which is the power of God for
salvation to everyone who has faith (Rom. 1.16). Thus in the same way that the gospel
excludes the law, so also faith excludes all human activity in relation to God. In
relation to God, the believer is one who does not work (Rom. 4.5). Hence the apostle
judges a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3.28). And
hence it is a matter of drawing a distinction not only within the history of humanity
as a whole but within the life-history of each particular human person between the
situation in which the law makes its demands, a situation in which it is fitting to do
something, and the situation of the gospel which is given to us, a situation in which it is
fitting to receive and to receive, not just something, but the God who comes to us and
the new life which proceeds from him, the life which renews our old existence.

The fundamental biblical statements about the justification of the ungodly are to be
found in the letters of the apostle Paul. In its explicit statements, Pauls
proclamation presents itself in a reflective form. It is not immediately accessible.
Within the New Testament there are already clear voices expressing their
difficulties with this form of the apostolic proclamation (cf. 2 Pet. 3.15f.). And to
the modern person it seems to present quite specific problems. However, this ought
not to obscure the fact that the gospel of the justification of the ungodly causes
offence to every generation. Already Paul himself writes that the word of the cross
is folly to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (1 Cor. 1.23), for in this gospel
as Nietzsche aptly diagnosed there occurs a revaluation of all antique values.4
We must therefore distinguish between the scandal which the proclamation of
justification presents to every age, and the difficulties in understanding which it
presents to the contemporary person, who, whilst not the first to experience these
difficulties, experiences them more acutely, and so may be caused to think of the
whole matter (with Goethe) as a trashy muddle... a daily burden.5 Yet whoever is
offended by the gospel of the justification of the sinner and would dismiss this
gospel as scandal and folly, must nevertheless understand what is being repudiated.
And so a bit of theological clarification is indispensable.
Even the terminology of justification strikes us as strange today. Its meaning
and function yield themselves only to patient reflection. It is advisable to make
4 F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 57.
5 J.W. von Goethe, Brief an C. von Knebel in Goethes Werke vol. IV/28 (Weimar:
Bohlau, 1903), p. 227.
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some connections with experiences which can make possible a pre-understanding

of what we are to understand by justification of the ungodly through faith alone.

To justify something, to justify oneself, to be justified these are primary lifeprocesses that occur daily. They are certainly not immediately connected with the
mystery of the Christian faith, but they mediate a pre-understanding of that which
takes place as the justification of the sinner.
We normally try to justify something when it is not understood of itself. We
justify our behaviour, our action, for example, if it is not plausible or even if it is
scandalous. Above all, we justify our failings, which we excuse by saying they
were necessary, precisely so that we do not need to exonerate ourselves for our
failings. We declare ourselves free by excusing our behaviour as necessary. Not
infrequently we even justify our own being that we are still where, at least at the
moment, we seem to be out of place. But the justification of my own being can,
however, be related in a much more basic way to the simple fact that I am and am
not. In that case, I am no longer justifying something or other; in the most
fundamental sense I justify myself. But to justify not just something or other in
ones life but ones life, ones being as a whole and, therefore, to justify oneself, is
thereby to assert that ones life has a meaning. Along with my being I justify the
meaning of my being. Meaningless being has no justification. Only apparently
meaningless being can be justified namely as, despite everything, meaningful.
Yet: meaningful before whom?
Justification always takes place before some authority or other. I justify myself
before others, before a human institution (for example, before a court of law) or before
myself. These are worldly life-processes, through which I am justified before the
world. Not unrelated to them, but transcending and relativizing them, there takes place
the justification of the human person before God. But in all cases, justification is an
event which summons me before a forum. We always exist before some such forum,
sometimes before several at once: child before parents (and vice-versa!), friend before
friend, worker before colleague or boss, patient before doctor, minister before
parliament, suspect before investigator, accused before judge, and so on. In the event
of justification, this existence before... becomes explicit. For there I experience myself
as one ordered to appear before someone. And thereby, moreover, it may also be that I
have to appear before myself. If this happens, if I justify myself before myself, then
the tribunal before which I am summoned is my conscience.
To want to justify oneself is one thing, to have to justify oneself is another. The
fact that we want to justify ourselves, our actions and our behaviour, our past life
and our right to further life in the future, is bound up with the fact that we desire
approval. Approval is essential to the human person; human personhood depends
on it. As persons, we demand approval of ourselves. According to Hegel,
personhood is defined precisely through the fact that we demand that others
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On the Doctrine of Justification


approve us.6 This is why we strive to find approval. The will to justify ourselves
springs from this fundamental anthropological need for approval.
That we must justify ourselves, that we can be required to justify ourselves,
points to a further fundamental definition of humanity: to be human means to have
to be responsible for oneself. For no one can be there only for him- or herself. We
always exist in relation to others even when we stand in relation to ourselves. As
living beings rich in every kind of relation, we exist in responsibility before others.
And precisely for this reason we can, if necessary, be summoned to responsibility.
Then we must justify ourselves.
If we have to justify ourselves, of course, we appear to be in the wrong.
Certainly, living essentially in responsibility we are usually only summoned to
responsibility when we cannot or seem not to be able to defend ourselves, that is,
when we are accused or indicted. If we can justify ourselves, we are acquitted; if we
cannot, we are accounted guilty. If we can justify ourselves, then we are shown to
be in the right and declared free; if we cannot, we are condemned.
But it can also happen that we may not be able to justify ourselves, even though we
are in the right. Before the law, this can lead to grotesque misjudgments, to say nothing
of terrorist tribunals. Subsequent events and better insights can acquit those who have
been accused and condemned, without them having to contribute anything to their own
justification. In that case, they are justified without any help of their own. Yet they are
justified because they are in the right. But can we also justify those who are not in the
right? Can we, without perverting the law, pronounce freedom to the guilty? The
gospel of the justification of the sinner affirms that it is precisely this that God has
done. What this means will first of all be set out in a rather compact and formal way,
explained in the context of our experiences and the contemporary problems of which
we are aware, and then the existential consequences will be opened up.

At the centre of the Christian faith stands the massive assertion that the one who is
rightly accused, the one who is completely in the wrong before God, and who
therefore deserves to be called a sinner or ungodly, is justified by God and so finds
approval with God. But to be approved by God is to be approved irrevocably and
definitively, without being able to do anything towards that, without being able to
justify oneself, without in any way deserving ones approval by God. One who is in
the wrong before God is incapable of any such things. Before God, no wrong can be
made right. Before God, all making right is excluded.
Over against this, the justification of the sinner takes place solely because God
is gracious to the sinner despite the sinners sin; it takes place to the exclusion of all
human merit, by grace alone. It happens solely because God loves the creature
whom he has created and affirms despite the creatures ungodliness. In the
6 cf. Person, Historisches Worterbuch der Philosophie, vol. 7, p. 311.
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justification of the ungodly, Gods affirmation of humanity occurs afresh. And this
takes place solely through the gracious judgment of God and, therefore, to the
exclusion of every mediating religious authority, solely through the effective word
of grace which is then visible in the sacraments. But the effective word of grace is
only effective where it finds trust and faith. And so sinners can do absolutely
nothing for their justification, but only entrust themselves to the word of God which
affirms them. They can only give consent to and delight in this gracious judgment.
Hence we are justified by faith alone. And all this takes place solely because Jesus
Christ was given over to death because of our sins and raised again for our
justification. The ground of justification is Christ alone.
Christ alone, by grace alone, through the word alone, in faith alone: these four
exclusive particles act as a safeguard to ensure that the truth of the gospel of the
justification of the ungodly makes itself felt unadulterated and unabridged. What
these exclusive particles mean more precisely remains to be explained. In doing
this, it is indispensable to understand from the inside what has so far only been
sketched in a very superficial way, by clarifying why and to what degree humanity
is in the wrong before God, and why this is a life-threatening situation. And,
moreover, it must be above all clarified in what ways Gods justification of the
ungodly is itself righteous, and not an act of supreme, that is, divine,
unrighteousness. Is not the very righteousness of God itself called into question
by the justification of the sinner? What does righteousness mean, when it is
predicated of God? What is Gods righteousness? And what does God at once
righteous and gracious will, when he wills the justification of the sinner?
The answer to these questions is utterly simple. God for the ungodly, the peace
of heaven for a world without peace, eternal life for those condemned to death, the
immediate presence of whole undivided being for those whose existence has been
torn apart, freedom and uprightness for those ensnared in the sins of others and
bowed down under their own sins, an open future in a glorious and blessed
communion with the life of God for those pursued by their past this, at its most
simple, is the proclamation of the justification of the sinner. But thinking what is
simple is always the most difficult of all things. Understanding the simple, not only
with the heart but also with the head, requires a certain conceptual exertion. If we
require that of ourselves, thereafter that which is simple becomes truly simple.

Neither evening nor morning star is so wonderful as righteousness. It is the greatest

of virtues (jqasi*rsg sxm

indeed a complete virtue (a$ qesg+ sekei* a). The
one who possesses it can exercise this virtue not only in relation to himself but also
in relation to others. And so the best person is not the one who exercises virtue
towards him- or herself, but towards another; for this is a difficult task.7 Aristotle
7 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1129b25-1130a8.
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On the Doctrine of Justification


gave voice to this little eulogy on righteousness long ago. And many great minds
could join with him and not only great minds, but also the so-called sound common
sense of the so-called common person would agree: a righteous person, a righteous
society has greater beauty than the evening and morning star. And we would also
readily agree with the ancient philosopher, that it is the law-abiding person who is
righteous (o< de+ mo*lilo| di*jaio|), from which Aristotle deduces that all lawful acts
are in a sense righteous acts.8 To the eulogy on righteousness as more praiseworthy
than the evening and morning star, there might be compared similar eulogies on the
The Bible, too, has some impressive words of praise for righteousness, and the
Old Testament preaches love for the law. Through law and righteousness, the
relations of life are ordered in such a way that all who are included in these
relations come to have their right, without having to take it for themselves usually
at cost to the right of others. Righteousness is that regulation of the wealth of
relations in life, guaranteeing the success of human life. Where righteousness
reigns, shalom comes into being.
Righteousness is required where persons wish to or must live together. Certainly
the most ancient philosophers also spoke of righteousness in the context of nonpersonal being. Thus, for example, Anaximander affirmed that all things coming to
be in time are in a legal dispute with those things which have not yet come to be:
they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice, which consists in
the fact that, over against those things which have not yet come into being, they have
too much being; hence, according to the assessment of time, they must return to
that from which they originated. Thus Anaximander conceived of time as the judge
in a legal dispute, in which that which is coming to be is punished with transience for
its greed. To the Greeks, for whom the just is the equal, this pleonexy, or taking-toomuch, is the essence of injustice.9 And everything which exists in time is subject to
this righteousness understood as equality. It demands complete allegiance, for it is
nothing less than the divine justice itself... Anaximanders explanation of nature is...
the first philosophical theodicy.10 Contemporary philosophy connects with these
ancient conceptions in so far as it, too, calls for a right relation to non-personal
nature. In this it indicates a problem to which theology also must return, though of
course without abandoning the insight that righteousness can only be required where
persons live together and get on with each other. But this does not mean that
righteousness does not go beyond personal communion, for it is of the essence of
righteousness to seek to extend itself.
The term righteous refers to that good order of life-relations without which
creaturely life finds no peace. The New Testament also shares this conception. By
these relations and connections which fundamentally determine life, it is thinking
above all of (1) the human persons relation to God, (2) the human persons relation
8 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1129b11f.
9 W. Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1947), p. 35.
10 W. Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers, p. 36.
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to his or her social and natural environment, and (3) the human persons self-relation.
These are fundamental relations, within which a further wealth of life-relations can
be established. For its part, however, this richness in relation, this multiplicity of liferelations, lives from the fact that God for his part remains devoted as creator to this
richness and affirms it. Then righteousness and peace reign.

The opposite to this occurs when, instead of mutually fostering each other,
fundamental life-relations begin to compete with and damage each other to the
point of mutual destruction. This happens when we activate our relation to
ourselves in such a way that it becomes ruthless self-realization. Relation to God
then becomes callously subordinate or even completely sacrificed to selfrealization. Then we come to worship idols: idols, because we employ them,
make use of them, for our own advantage, utilizing them for our purposes,
dependent on them like an addict. We can even deal with God in such a way. Then
everything divine becomes serviceable, and all the powers of heaven... are
consumed.11 Idols are never interesting for their own sake. God is interesting for
his own sake. And when God is that no longer, then begins idol-worship, which is
only an instrument of ruthless human self-realization.
And in the same way that this ruthless human self-realization perverts our
relation to God, so also it perverts our relation to our social and natural
environment. Instead of being likewise interesting for his or her own sake and
therefore an end in itself, the other person, the image of God, becomes a means to
the accomplishment of my own interests and purposes. Thou becomes It. Then even
the IIt relation12 which constitutes our relation to the natural environment is so
ruthlessly subjected that the non-human creation becomes raw material in our
hands. Nothing is any longer significant of itself. Its only significance is what we
can make with it or out of it. And in its relation to the natural environment, the
being of humanity is reduced to the being of a maker.
In this way, the wealth of relations in creaturely life is damaged, indeed
overturned, by ruthless human self-realization: righteousness is perverted into
unrighteousness, and the wealth of relations is replaced by growing relationlessness. The drive to this kind of relationlessness, which originates in the
absolutization of self-relation, is what the Bible calls sin. And since with these
connections life also dies, the Bible sees death at work wherever connections are
broken and disconnectedness increases. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6.23).
Indeed, even life is then a life marked by death: media in vita in morte sumus, in the

F. Holderlin, Dichterberuf in F. Beissner, ed., Samtliche Werke II (Stuttgart:

Kohlhammer, 1953), p. 48.
cf. M. Buber, Eclipse of God. Studies in the Relation between Religion and Philosophy
(New York: Harper, 1952), pp. 44f.
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On the Doctrine of Justification


midst of life we are in death. Such is the Bibles judgment, and also the judgment of
more than a few non-biblical voices.
However, over against the Old Testament and the many extra-biblical voices
who judge similarly, the judgment of the New Testament is that we cannot
escape from this situation of fundamental unrighteousness which we have
brought on ourselves by any deed demanded by the law. Even what Kant called
the intelligible act of a revolution in the... disposition demanded by the moral
law within cannot do this.13 Observance of the law (which in other respects is
affirmed throughout as constitutive for the establishment of righteousness)
cannot, according to Paul, effect human righteousness before God. For the law
makes demands of us, demands our works and so with our works refers us to the
world. We are to shape the world. We are to act in the world. But in relation to
God we are totally incapable of being agents. In relation to God, we are always
It is for this reason that the apostle Paul affirms that no human being will be
justified by works required by the law (Rom. 3.20). We cannot do this. But in no
way do we need to do what we cannot do. For now, as has already been stated,
Gods righteousness has been revealed, indeed, revealed in the gospel (Rom. 1.16f).
This distinction between law and gospel is of decisive significance for our
understanding of the justification of sinners, since it equally defines how the
expression Gods righteousness is to be understood.

When in old age Luther looked back on his decisive reformation discovery, he
described it as a discovery of the true meaning of biblical talk of Gods
righteousness. I hated that word righteousness of God, which, according to the
use and custom of all the teachers I had been taught to understand philosophically
regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is
righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner... Nevertheless, I beat importunately
upon Paul at that place [Rom. 1.17], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul
wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the
context of the words... There I began to understand that the righteousness of God
is... the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us through faith, as
it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live. Here I felt as if I had
been altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates... And
I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had
before hated the word righteousness of God. Thus that place in Paul was for me
the gate to paradise.14
13 I. Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 43.
14 M. Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luthers Latin Writings in Luthers
Works vol. 34 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), p. 337.
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Luthers discovery was without doubt a rediscovery of biblical truth. Very

plainly, it consists of taking seriously the place of the revelation of Gods
righteousness. Gods righteousness is not revealed in the law but in the gospel, says
Paul, and Luther repeats the point. If Gods righteousness were manifest in the law,
then God would be the righteous God who condemned and punished us for not
fulfilling the divine demands made of us. In that case, Gods righteousness would
be as the Roman jurist Ulpian formulated it in agreement with Aristotle15 the
constant and permanent will to give to each his or her due, so that the righteous
would be acquitted and the unrighteous condemned: iustitia est constans et
perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuendi. If it were revealed in the law, then, in
view of the incontestable fact that no human being is righteous before God (Rom.
3.9ff) Gods righteousness would be nothing other than Gods unwavering will to
apportion to humanity the damnation which is our due. God would then be
righteous in judging and damning the unrighteous, that is, giving them up to the
deadly relationlessness that they have brought upon themselves. For it is not God
but we ourselves who bring about hell for ourselves, a hell from which we may not
escape by ourselves.
However, the discovery that Gods righteousness is not revealed in the law
but in the gospel gives a meaning to the expression the righteousness of God
which, if not wholly different, is nevertheless quite differently oriented. For in
the gospel, the God who in the law stands over against me, alien and
demanding, comes close to me in a new way, closer than I may be to myself.
Now for the first time I realize clearly what it means to be a sinner. A sinner is
one who is closest to him- or herself, in such a way that wholesome closeness to
God or others is wrecked or instrumentalized and thereby destroyed. But if in
the gospel God comes closer to me than I may be to myself, then I am no longer
the one closest to myself. And if Gods righteousness which is revealed to me in
the gospel blesses me by coming near, indeed closer to me than I may be to
myself, then it is manifestly not the righteousness which damns the unrighteous
but that which affirms the unrighteous despite their unrighteousness and
establishes them in the face of their unrighteousness. It is the righteousness
which makes the unrighteous to be righteous; thus in the gospel there occurs the
justification of the sinner.

The righteousness of God consists, however, in the fact that it declares and
makes the unrighteous to be righteous. And it does this without the sinner having
even the slightest entitlement to it or being able to do the slightest thing towards
it. Gods justifying action is caused by the grace of God alone. But what kind of
God is it whose righteousness consists in declaring and making the unrighteous

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1366b9f.

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On the Doctrine of Justification


to be righteous? The question immediately forces itself upon us, showing that in
the article on justification God himself is at stake. Who or what is God, if God
affirms himself to be righteous in declaring and making the unrighteous to be
If it is said that God himself is righteous, then for Christian faith this means
that God affirms and fosters the wealth of relations in life, not first of all in
relation to his creation but already in his self-relation. But according to the
confession of the Christian faith, God exists in relation to himself in that he exists
as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and relates to himself in this three-fold existence
in such a way that Father, Son and Spirit reciprocally affirm each other in their
otherness. This is the decisive viewpoint from which to consider Gods
righteousness: God does not exist in splendid isolation as a solitary being, but in
God otherness is and is affirmed not the otherness of different beings, but the
otherness of distinctive modes of being or persons of the same being.
In this sense a very early rule of faith, which we call the Fides Damasi,16
explains that God is no solitarium, not a being in himself alone. Rather, he exists in
differentiation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: alius, alius, alius.17
The Father and the Son affirm each other in their mutual personal
otherness and in just this way form the most intimate community: the
trinitarian community of reciprocal otherness. Consider: in relation to the
Word who became human, the heavenly Father is other, in that he, the
eternal origin and creator of life, sent the Son into the sinners world, and
there affirmed him as his beloved Son (Mk 1.11) in the depth of transience
and death. And in relation to the Father, the Son is other in that he consented
obediently to this sending and so affirmed the Father: obedient even to death
on the cross (Phil. 2.8). The personal otherness of Father and Son implies
nothing less than the antithesis of life and death. We can scarcely think of a
more extreme form of mutual otherness. And yet, rather than turning
destructively against each person, in the power of the Holy Spirit this
otherness is creatively united into a community of mutual otherness. It is in
this way, not excluding otherness from himself but affirming it in himself,
that God accords with himself, is true to himself, precisely in the midst of
this ever greater differentiation corresponding to himself. This harmony with
Himself is the right of God... This the backbone of the event of justification...
For the righteous Lord loveth righteousness (Ps. 11.7): this is... an
ontological statement and therefore one which is... unchangeably valid. God
is just in himself.18 God corresponds to himself.19


cf. H. Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (St Loius: Herder, 1955), p. 10.
cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, First Letter to Cledonius 20f, PG 37, 180.
K. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp. 530f.
cf. E. Jungel, The Doctrine of the Trinity. Gods Being is in Becoming (Edinburgh:
Scottish Academic Press, 1976), p. 24.

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The decisive assertion of the proclamation of justification can be understood from
this presupposition: that God declares and makes the sinner righteous by grace
alone. The proclamation of justification does not as it is often expounded say
something like Gods grace is lenient. At no point at which the Bible talks of
grace or mercy is any such thing said. Gods justice serves his grace; it is the justice
of his grace. Gods grace is by definition in the right. But if God is righteous in
affirming otherness in himself and in just this way accords, corresponds, with
himself, then he is also above all righteous in that, over and above that, he affirms
the creation which is quite other than himself. Yet God cannot be compelled to
affirm his creation. He affirms it out of grace. But when he affirms the otherness of
the creation and so is gracious to it, he remains in the strictest accord with himself.
And thereby in being gracious he is completely righteous.
In this, then, God is the gracious God, this is his grace: that he does not will to
be for himself, but rather realizes ad extra the community of reciprocal otherness
which he is as the triune God, by creating a creaturely reality over against himself
and keeping steadfast faith with this his creation. The creation is therefore an act of
divine grace. And even more is the election of Israel and with Israel the election of
all people to be Gods covenant partners an act of divine grace, in which God
exercises his righteousness. In that Gods righteousness gives to the other its due,
thereby issuing in a community of mutual otherness, it comes to have the
characteristic of gift, so that the old Roman saying Let righteousness flourish,
though the Earth perish is for Christian faith quite impossible.
The point is not that when God judges the sinner he is righteous, but when he
justifies the sinner, declaring the sinner righteous by grace alone, he subtracts from
his justice and righteousness in some way, letting clemency hold sway and showing
leniency. Quite the opposite is the case. God does not need to yield His
righteousness a single inch when He is merciful. As He is merciful, He is
righteous.20 With his grace, God is in the right.
This, however, means that the judgment with which God carries out his
righteousness is an act of grace. Theology and church have fallen into the false
habit of thinking of judgment and grace as alternatives. But we must learn that it is
precisely in the act of judgment that God shows himself to be the gracious God.
Only a God without grace would let injustice take its course. God would not be
gracious if he were not the judge. For then the history of the world would be the
worlds judgment; then murderers would triumph over their victims. If there is a
justification of the sinner, it does not bypass Gods judgment but passes through its


K. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), p. 383.

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On the Doctrine of Justification


This aspect is of considerable significance, not the least because it leads to the
centre of the gospel of the justification of the sinner. At its centre, the gospel is the
word of the cross (1 Cor. 1.18). And the cross is a gallows. The cross means death
and perishing. If the gospel of Gods grace is identical with the word of the cross,
then that means that Gods righteousness makes no compromises with the
unrighteousness of this world, but in the person of Jesus Christ has condemned it to
pass away. In this way, his death is the death of the sinner. In him who knew no sin
(2 Cor. 5.21) we also are crucified (Gal. 2.19; Rom. 6.6), we also have died (Rom.
6.8) that is the one side of the New Testaments affirmation that Christ died the
sinners death for us, that is, in our place. Gods righteousness does not pass over
the sin of the world as if it were some quantite negligeable; rather, Gods
righteousness prevails against unrighteousness by judging it and condemning it to
perish in the death of Jesus Christ. The crucified vouches for the fact that
unrighteousness will be put out of the world. On the cross, its condemnation is
promulgated. And that is grace indeed.
However, this negative end to human unrighteousness and guilt is positively
directed towards a new beginning. As we have seen, Gods righteousness is the
substance of a well-ordered wealth of relations, which God does not reserve for
himself as it were in a fit of divine egoism but rather shares with his people by
choosing them as his covenant partners. The extrabiblical idea of justice has the
task of guaranteeing equality among equals.21 By contrast, Gods righteousness is
shared with those who are completely unlike him. Gods righteousness is no
metaphysical divine attribute reserved for God alone, but a communicable attribute:
God is righteous in that he makes others righteous.
What the Bible calls sin is, by contrast, as we have already clarified, the exact
opposite: namely, the drive to establish ones own right at cost to others, thereby
being the closest to oneself. We have understood righteousness to mean the
governing of the wealth of relations of those who exist with each other in such a
way that all who are included within it come to have their due, without having to
take it by force. Over against this, sinners, those who are unrighteous before God,
are characterized by the fact that they suppose themselves to have to and to be able
to take their due,22 in precisely this way breaking out of the well-ordered wealth of
21 This is true also for recent theories of justice, which fully recognize and allow for the
inequality of the social relations of individuals, but on the presupposition that in respect
of elementary fundamental freedoms, there exists an equality among citizens. Thus J.
Rawls states: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both
(a) reasonably expected to be to everyones advantage, and (b) attached to positions and
offices open to all (A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 60).
22 The fundamental human outlook in Western liberal societies has been diagnosed in not
wholly dissimilar fashion by communitarian social critics. Against a liberal
understanding of society it is objected that the members of liberal societies no longer
believe in anything other than, perhaps, justice, in the sense that they themselves have
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relations in which God has included them. Thereby we destroy the good order of
life and, with that, life itself. The sinful drive to relationlessness and
disconnectedness ends in death; sinners reap what they have sown, namely the
curse of ruthless self-relatedness which gives birth to relationlessness and finally
destroys even our relation to ourselves. If we seek to be closest to ourselves, we
will not find but lose ourselves; if we seek ruthlessly to realize ourselves, we will
forfeit ourselves (Mk 8.35). That is our fate.
It is the deepest mystery of God, that he has taken this fate of ours upon
himself. In the person of the crucified Christ he has exposed himself in our place to
deadly relationlessness, in order with his love to make a new beginning at precisely
the point at which sinful life ends. For where everything loses all relatedness, where
connections are broken off for ever, where relationlessness and disconnectedness
are complete, new relations and therefore new life can only be created by love, by
the God who is himself love. It was just this which took place when in the person of
Jesus Christ God endured in himself our relationlessness and the deadly curse of
sin, in order to establish for us the wealth of relation in his own for life (a wealth of
relation which affirms others), in order that thereby new relations, new lifeconnections may come into being among us, and that we may become justified
sinners. Thus for our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him
we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5.21).
Luther called this event a happy exchange.23 The expression is, indeed, apt;
but it should not be forgotten that he is describing an exchange of death for life. The


particular rights, for the fulfilment of which they will struggle always and everywhere.
This situation is the consequence of a liberal view of society, which renounces a
common concept of public welfare and limits the common convictions of the members
of a society to a few elementary fundamental freedoms. Thereby, according to the
communitarians, not only does the solidarity of the entire society disintegrate, but also
in a liberal society no partial communities thrive, indeed, the bonds of people to others,
to traditions and values, slacken. (Cf. M. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).) Against the liberal view, communitarian social critics set an understanding of humanity in which the individual person is
from the beginning one who exists in relations, institutions and communities, and an
understanding of social community which conceives of it as the presupposition and
good of social activity. (Cf. M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice. A Defense of Pluralism and
Equality (New York: Harper, 1983), p. 65: The signers [of the social contract] owe
[one another] mutual provision of all those things for the sake of which they have
separated themselves from mankind as a whole and joined forces in a particular
community. Amour social is one of those things. Thus the common life is
simultaneously the prerequisite of provision and one of its products.) Justice, then,
in the sense of complex equality, consists in the fact that in the different spheres of
social activity the life-prospects of the members of the society will be distributed
through socially established rules (cf. Walzer, Spheres of Justice, pp. 20ff). In this,
political participation and social engagement of the citizens in the differing spheres of
the distribution of goods and possibilities form a decisive presupposition in hindering
the dominance of a sphere of social power.
M. Luther, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, WA 7 (Weimar: Bohlau, 1897), p.
25. (Jungel refers to the German text of The Freedom of a Christian, which contains the
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On the Doctrine of Justification


new beginning which becomes reality in Jesus Christ is thus a beginning which can
only be compared with a new birth or a resurrection from the dead. Indeed, in this
beginning there really occurs a being born again, the beginning of the new life of
the one raised from the dead. For the love of God controls us, because we are
convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that
those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake
died and was raised (2 Cor. 5.14f).

We have tried to understand in what way God is at stake in the article on
justification, in what way it is determined here who or what is the God in whom
Christians believe. God is the love which selflessly stands by the ungodly. But
equally, humanity is at stake in the article on justification. Here we also determine
what human being means. The relation of God and humanity is determined as
precisely as possible in the event of justification. The function of the so-called
exclusive particles through Christ alone, by grace alone, through the word alone
and in faith alone is to accomplish just this. The truth of the article on justification
hangs on this indispensable four-fold alone.
To say alone is to exclude something else. What is to be excluded in each case
is to be sought in the horizon of human being and action. It is a very specific aspect
of the human person which is excluded in the matter of justification though we
are excluded in order that we may be included in the event of justification in the
right way. This is a process well known to us in daily experience. A person
celebrating a jubilee must be excluded in the right way from the preparations for
the jubilee celebrations, in order to be included properly in the celebration itself.
Similarly, it is for our good to be excluded in very specific ways from the event of
justification. Each of the four exclusive particles brings out one of these specific

We must insist uncompromisingly on Christ alone, solus Christus, since Jesus
Christ and he alone is the person in whose history and death the power of sin is
broken, condemned to pass away and brought to nothing. He is this person,
however, since only in him are divinity and humanity so united with one another
that they have a common history, in which the creator allows himself to be
burdened with the sin and guilt of his human creation. And since Jesus Christ is the
one in whom God and a human person, creator and his human creature, are one
words frohlicher Wechsel (happy exchange); the Latin text of Luthers work, which is
translated in Luthers Works, does not contain this phrase TR).
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person one and the same... in two natures, according to the Chalcedonian
Definition then he alone is the one who in the power of the divine love can die in
the sinners place, bearing and resolving the complete relationlessness which the
sinner has brought about. Love resolves the total relationlessness of death in that it
creates new relations and therefore new life where all connections break down and
all relations end in relationlessness. Only the one who is Gods love in person can
make the old to pass away and generate new being. Only he can die for our sins and
be raised for our justification. And so the New Testament followed by early
theology calls him the one mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2.5).
With this, all other mediators of salvation, all other mediating religious
authorities between sinful humanity and the justifying God, are excluded. This
includes not only all non-christian mediating authorities; primarily here it is a
matter of aberrations within Christianity. The so-called saints are excluded as
mediators of salvation; Mary and the church are also excluded. A formulation such
as that which states that Mary is the cause of salvation (causa salutis), indeed,
Mediatrix, is strongly to be repudiated, even when to such excessive statements it
is immediately added that this does not take away from nor add anything to the
dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator.24
All such claims to human mediation of salvation, which trespass upon Jesus
Christ, are not excluded, however, in order in some way to disparage humanity. It is
rather to our benefit not to have to effect our own salvation. For to do that we would
have to be abased to a depth which we could not endure. It is intrinsic to the
uniqueness of Jesus Christ that only he can plumb the depths of human suffering.
According to worldly judgment, this depth is only that of the debased death of a
criminal; according to spiritual judgment, however, it is the depth of that
godforsakenness in which the one who knew no sin was for our sake made to be sin.
His death is the foundation of his exclusivity. And this exclusiveness consists
precisely in a universal inclusivity, in that in his death the sin of all sinners is
condemned to pass away and brought to nothing. Thus those who believe in this
effect of the death of Jesus Christ are justified. Those who believe in this effect of
the death of Jesus Christ are certain that in Jesus Christ, God in person was present
for us in the one who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered
me and freed me from all sins.25 And since in Jesus Christ God himself was
present for us and at work in this liberating way, then to believe in him means to
believe in him alone.26 To believe in Jesus Christ is to give glory to God alone. In
the exclusive particle Jesus Christ alone we get to the bottom of what it means to
ascribe to God alone what it is in the power of God alone to do.
The other three exclusive particles have basically no other function than to set
out and secure the truth of the exclusive particle through Christ alone.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 56, 62.

M. Luther, Small Catechism II.4, in T.G. Tappert, The Book of Concord, p. 345.
cf. G. Ebeling, Dogmatik des christlichen Glaubens, vol. 3 (Tubingen: Mohr, 19822), p.
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On the Doctrine of Justification


We have to take an unyielding stand on the exclusive particle by grace alone, sola
gratia, since everything which God has bestowed upon humanity in, through and
because of Jesus Christ, is an unconditional divine gift. So it is all the more true that
the justification of the sinner is as Luther already formulated the matter in looking
at the article on creation an event which happens to the sinner solely out of his
pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on
my part.27 Grace is not to be understood as a legal relation in which the act of
grace remains external to the one acting out of grace, only having engaging
existential significance for the recipient of grace. Grace means that God has mercy
on the one to whom he is gracious. And Gods mercy takes place in his own inner
being. Gods grace moves him completely and utterly, deeply determining not only
the recipient of grace but the one who is gracious. He is gracious from the heart.
And he is gracious from the heart since Gods heart is ruled wholly by love.
But love cannot be earned. It occurs unconditionally or it is not love. When it
has mercy on sinners, Gods love does not turn to those worthy or deserving of
love, but to those who have deformed themselves, those unworthy of love, those
first made worthy of love through Gods love: The love of God does not find, but
creates, that which is pleasing to it.28 There is absolutely nothing good in the
sinner which can contribute to the event of justification.29 Even if we wish to,
sinners cannot earn the love of God. That love occurs to us through grace alone.
Just as surely as grace is not a (in this case, divine) performance, it also
excludes categorically any performance on the part of humanity (Rom. 4.4). On
both sides the concept of grace excludes the concept of performance: not only on
the part of humanity to whom grace is shown, but also on the part of the gracious
God. Once again, even on the part of God, grace should not be misunderstood as a
power which restores humanity to all possible performances. Grace cannot be
conceived on the model of performance.
Thus through the exclusive particle through grace alone all human efforts,
performances and merit are excluded. And it is to our benefit, furthering our
humanity, that prior to all efforts, performances and merit we are recipients, those
presented with ourselves. To receive, as well as to give, makes us joyful. When
grace happens, no performance is demanded, but mutual joy is made possible joy
together and joy on each side: on the side of the God who justifies and on the side
of justified humanity. The justifying God takes joy in humanity to whom he turns
with his grace. And humanity, the recipient of grace, takes joy in the God who

27 M. Luther, Small Catechism II.2 (Tappert, p. 345).

28 M. Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, thesis 28, in Luthers Works vol. 31 (Philadelphia:
Muhlenberg Press, 1957), p. 41.
29 According to the documentation in K. Lehmann, W. Pannenberg and M. Kohl, eds, The
Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? (Minneapolis: Fortress,
1986), that is nevertheless supposed to be Roman Catholic teaching.
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justifies. But joy sovereignly excludes any kind of calculation and reckoning up.
Joy excludes any idea that grace could somehow be calculated an extraordinarily
important point for a correct understanding of penance. Where grace occurs,
calculation ceases, for grace is always grace in abundance (Rom. 5.15,20; 2 Cor.

The exclusive particle through the word alone, solo verbo, is absolutely
indispensable because the justification of the ungodly which takes place in Christ
alone through grace alone is enacted through a divine judgment, through an act of
divine justice which is verbal.
The New Testament already says of the crucified that he was justified in the
Spirit (1 Tim. 3.16). By this is meant the act of the resurrection of the crucified
through the Spirit of God the Father (cf. Rom. 8.10), which occurs through the
creative word which raises the dead. Paul understands the act of resurrection by
analogy to the creative act of God
as a speech-act (Rom. 4.17). And he
characterizes the act of Jesus resurrection as an act of justification in which, along
with the crucified Christ who died in the place of the ungodly, the ungodly
themselves for whom he died are justified: he was raised for our justification (Rom.
The act of divine justice is therefore an act of the creative word of God who
calls into being that which is not (Rom. 4.17). This creative word of God which
effects both the resurrection of Jesus and our own justification Paul calls the gospel.
In it, Gods righteousness is revealed: God does not keep his righteousness to
himself, but addresses it to the sinner. In pronouncing the sinner righteous in this
way alone God makes the sinner righteous. The word which pronounces us
righteous is thus to be conceived as a highly efficacious word, a word which
summons new being. We are righteous when God pronounces us righteous. In so
far as it concerns the judgment of God the Father and therefore an act of divine
justice which is equally an eminently creative act, the event of justification is
wholly a word-event.
For the justified this means that they are justified by a word which encounters
them from outside, a word which addresses them concerning an event that takes
place without their co-operation, outside them. Sinners can no more say to
themselves that their sins are forgiven than they can do anything at all for their
justification. Certainly the event of justification which takes place in the history of
Jesus Christ needs to be brought close to the sinner we may even say, in hushed
tones, needs to be internalized by the sinner. It needs to be (to use an Augustinian
turn of phrase) interior intimo meo. But this must happen in such a way that from

From this point of view, Bonhoeffers talk of cheap grace ought also to be critically
examined not Bonhoeffers intention, but certainly his formulation of the matter.
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On the Doctrine of Justification


the inside outwards I am now oriented eccentrically, wholly oriented towards that
which is outside me, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, there to find
myself anew.
There, illic et tunc, I come to myself. There I am in the right. If there is a
Christian mysticism, then it must be a mysticism of the setting together of internal
and external, in which the God who addresses me in the act of justification comes
closer to me than I can be to myself namely to call me out of myself into
community of life with him, and that means a community of direction with him.
Unio mystica? Yes, but in the sense of a uniting of internal and external, in the
sense of a community of direction in which the world is not excluded but brought
into the picture in a new way. Along this path our senses are not set aside but
sharpened, so that we are given eyes to see with amazement and ears to hear with
astonishment. This would be a mysticism of opened eyes (for which J.B. Metz and
D. Solle have called) and of opened ears.
There, we are to emphasize, there I am righteous: extra me. But outside me in
such a way that there I really come to myself, that there is realized the most proper
truth of my life, which consists in the fact that I am entitled constantly to receive
myself anew from God, in order to be completely free precisely in such dependence
upon God. Dependence upon God and the independence of the creature are directly
proportional.31 But this also confirms that, in so far as I do not abandon myself but
fix myself on myself, I exist in contradiction to my justification and therefore
remain a sinner in need of justification. And since this is always the case, Martin
Luther said that the Christian is equally both righteous and sinner, simul iustus et
The fact that, in so far as I do not abandon myself in order to let myself be
bound up with the history of Jesus, I remain a sinner in need of justification, is true
to a greater degree when, instead of allowing myself to be transformed into
eccentric existence by the grace which reaches to my most inner life, I treat it as my
possession or as a divine capacity which is effective in me. Grace understood in this
way ceases to be Gods grace. The exclusive particle through the word alone thus
secures the right understanding of the grace of God.
On this basis, the scholastic talk of created grace (gratia creata), possessed by
the human person as a sacramentally infused grace (gratia infusa) is an almost
unsurpassably mischievous category mistake. This is also true for the Council of
Trents talk of grace and love which is poured in [human] hearts by the Holy Spirit
and remains in them.33 Let it be understood that it is not the language of the
spreading abroad of the love of God in our hearts that is problematic; that is biblical

31 cf. K. Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. An Introduction to the Idea of

Christianity (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978), p. 79.
32 cf. M. Luther, Lectures on Romans in Luthers Works, vol. 25 (St Louis: Concordia,
1972), pp. 63, 260f; Lectures on Galatians 1519 in Luthers Works, vol. 27 (St. Louis:
Concordia, 1964), pp. 229f.
33 H. Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, p. 259.
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(see, for example, Rom. 5.5). But talk of the inherence (inhaerere) of love and
grace, according to which the divine love and grace become a power which enables
humanity to perform in certain ways, is an intolerable nostrification of the love and
grace of God, which never cease to be Gods love and grace, and which show
themselves to be divine love and grace precisely in that they address us and enter
into our innermost being in such a way that they set us outside of ourselves. It is not
God who comes to himself in us as a brazen mysticism dares to claim but we
come to ourselves outside ourselves, in Christ. All true Christian mysticism can
only be the mysticism of such existential uniting.
The exclusive particle through the word alone is, consequently, indispensable
both for the divinity of God and for the external relatedness of Christian existence.
Through it, all false Christian mysticism is excluded. But also excluded is any kind
of religious mediation between God and humanity which presents a confusion of
human and divine action.
This last statement occasions a comment on the relation of word and sacrament.
In view of what we might charitably call certain complications which have been
generated recently on this point,34 it may be opportune to point out that there is no
way in which the exclusive particle through the word alone can mean to the
exclusion of the sacraments. Without saying anything of the problems which are
bound up with the expression sacrament, we have to say, by contrast, that precisely
that which God effects through the word alone, which this word promises, is
visible in Baptism and the Lords Supper. The sacraments are not activities which
are concurrent with the divine word-act, but they are sacraments only because the
divine word-act joins itself to a worldly action (eating and drinking in the case of the
Lords Supper, the use of water in the case of Baptism) in order to make itself visible
in this worldly action. It is not the water that produces these effects, but the Word of
God connected with the water, and our faith which relies on the Word of God
connected with the water. For without the Word of God the water is merely water
and no Baptism.35 Faith does not trust itself to the water but to the word of God in
the water. Thus Luther readily took up Augustines statement: Accedit verbum ad
elementum, et fit sacramentum, etiam ipsum tamquam visibile verbum,36 adding the
explanation that 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,37
or, as the Wurttemberger Confirmation Book puts it, a divine sign-word. Thus the
Lutheran confessional writings insist that the sacraments are only administered
rightly when they are administered according to the Gospel.38 In the same way,


cf. Th. Dieter, Eine erste Antwort auf neuere Kritiken an der Gemeinsamen Erklarung
zur Rechtfertigungslehre, epd-Dokumentation 1/1998, pp. 113; U. Kuhn, Identitatskrise des deutschen Protestantismus?, Materialdienst des Konfessionskundlichen
Instituts Bensheim 6/1997, pp. 101f.
M. Luther, Small Catechism IV.9, (Tappert, p. 349).
Augustine, Tractates on John 80.3, NPNF vol. 7, p. 344.
M. Luther, Large Catechism IV.18, (Tappert, p. 438).
Augsburg Confession VII.1, (Tappert, p. 32).
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On the Doctrine of Justification


indeed, preaching is only true proclamation when the gospel is preached in its
There can therefore be no sense in which maintaining the exclusive particle
through the word alone means scrapping the meaning of the sacraments. Quite the
opposite is the case: only where the justifying God is understood as the God who
acts through the word alone are the sacraments rightly understood.40
But if they are according to the Gospel, then in the sacraments there is set
before our eyes the fact that the justifying external word encounters us in our
inmost being in such a way that we do not come to be ourselves on our own, but in
Christ. In Baptism we are incorporated into the body of Christ. And in the Lords
Supper the faithful gather at the table of the Lord whose body was given for them
and whose blood was shed for them. In both cases we are called out of ourselves
through the sacrament in such a way that our existence becomes decidedly
So once again it holds true that it is for our good to be justified through the
word alone. For only the word is capable of making an event which happens outside
us reach into our inmost being, so that our inmost being is completely turned to the
outside. Only the word can mediate immediacy: the immediacy of relation to God.

The exclusive particle through faith alone, sola fide, is thus the high point of the
article on justification, since it brings out the positive value of the fact that human
persons who are in a very precise way excluded from the event of justification by
the three exclusive particles through Christ alone, through grace alone, through
the word alone, are now included in the event of our justification through a life-act
which we ourselves accomplish: as believers and only as believers we participate in
our own justification.
One could also say that it is as believers and only as believers that we are
active, at work in our justification if the expressions active and at work did not
give rise to the misunderstanding that sinners could still do or achieve something
towards their justification and so serve God with their faith. In that case, faith
would be nothing other than a human work. Yet the point of the three other
39 Augsburg Confession VII.1, (Tappert, p. 32).
40 cf. I.U. Dalferth, Bitte keine weitere Antworten dieser Art! Offener Brief an das
kumenische Forschung in Straburg, epd-Dokumentation 1/1998, p. 31:
Institut fur O
The point of solo verbo is not a restriction of the sacraments, but a pointer (which
secures the solus Christus and, with it, the solus Deus) to the fact that preaching and
sacraments do not generate faith as such, but only through the fact that God himself in
his word works in, with and under them. Faith depends wholly and exclusively on God
himself, not only some or other means or mediations of grace; it is faith in God, not
faith in preaching or sacraments; and it is faith in God, as God makes himself present in
his word through the means that he has himself appointed for that task.
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exclusive particles is to exclude all that as a possibility which is to be ruled out

absolutely. If we understand faith as a human deed and therefore as human activity,
such ways of talking are only in order when they simply state that faith is a life-act
which believers themselves undertake and in which their entire existence is
concentrated. But this life-act is quite different from a human work.
Over against works which we produce, the life-act of faith is characteristically
not produced by believers, and cannot be generated out of ourselves by ourselves.
My works are generated out of myself by myself. Faith, however, is generated by
the word with which God addresses me. Thus Paul says that faith comes from
hearing: fides ex auditu (Rom. 10.17). And thus the apostle can also even say that
faith comes to (and not somehow out of) the human person (Gal. 3.235). On this
basis the old Protestant divines designated faith as fides adventitia, faith which
We need to hold on to the fact that the act of faith is certainly completely my
own act, a fundamental act of my own existence. But this act is made possible for
me through the word which addresses me and the Spirit of God who speaks out of
this word. Or, put more simply: my faith is my share in a gift.
This becomes plain to us when we clarify what faith really means. In biblical
usage, faith is primarily and above all trust. I believe means I trust. But I can
only trust one who is trustworthy. Because of this, my trust is not really generated
out of myself by myself, but evoked by the one who is worthy of trust. I believe
you means I rely on you. But no one trusts themselves to someone notoriously
unreliable. If I rely on another person, it is because they have impressed me as a
person on whom one may rely. In this sense, my faith is not generated by me, but
by the one whom I believe or in whom I believe.
Of the many more precise definitions of the concept of faith, we now call
special attention to those which as it were with a single stroke make clear why we
are justified by grace alone.
First, we need to stress that faith is an answer to Gods word of affirmation which
God declared in the sentence of justification and with which God has pledged himself
to the ungodly. This divine word of affirmation has been taken to heart by the
ungodly and has evoked the answer of a human word of affirmation from the heart. In
so far as we say yes to our justification by God, justification reaches its goal. To our
justification, we should and can contribute nothing other than this grateful yes.
Through this yes alone, in which faith is expressed, we are justified.
With this is excluded everything which might be considered a contribution to
our own justification over and above this yes. All well-intentioned deeds, all truly
good acts are excluded, as are also human works of love a point of view to which
the Reformers deliberately gave strong emphasis.
Faith is certainly active in love, as Galatians 4.6 puts it. But faith does not
justify the ungodly by generating works of love; rather, believers produce
spontaneously and heartily works of love since in faith they are relieved of all

J.A. Quenstedt, Theologia didactico-polemica (1696) IV.viii.1, thesis 2.

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On the Doctrine of Justification


activity and transposed into a creative passivity. Such creative passivity is for our
good. In the same way that sleep transposes busy persons into a creative quiet,
enabling them on waking once again to do fruitful work, so the ceaselessly active I
rests from its works in order to receive itself afresh as a person before God. And the
I receives itself afresh from God in that it consents and delights in this creative
affirmation and for its part in a human way says yes to Gods yes.
As the human yes which comes from the heart, faith is, then, the most
concentrated expression of human existence. In the heart, the whole person is at
stake. In the heart, a decision is taken about my existence as a whole. In faith in the
God who justifies, this decision is put into effect in such a way that Gods decision
for me and about me is repeated by me. The faithful heart is not a heart in which I
decide about myself, but one in which God decides about me. (In this, faith is like
love, which also comes upon us and decides about us before we ourselves are able
to decide. When we love, we are so moved by the beloved that we can say to
ourselves, I was simply beside myself, carried away. Whether we will remain true
to the love which comes upon us and decides about us is then the decision
demanded of us.) In faith I disclose myself to be one whom God has already
discovered. In faith I discover that Gods word has already captured my heart in
order to make a new person out of me. Like Mary, faith says: fiat mihi secundum
verbum tuum (Lk. 1.38).
The yes of faith is therefore a trustful yes. With this yes we abandon ourselves
completely to God. We do well to take the word abandon (verlassen) literally:
believers abandon themselves, leaving themselves behind, or better, letting
themselves be called out of themselves. As a yes to Gods judgment which comes
from the heart, faith is the fundamental act of an expressly eccentric existence. In
faith we let ourselves be transferred to that place which is our true place, the place
where as human beings we are in our place namely with God and his
righteousness, with the God who is gracious to us and out of grace towards us has
suffered the sentence of the sinner condemned to death, in order that out of the
darkness of this death he might bring to light new, justified life. In faith we exist in
a very precise sense eccentrically, having the centre of our existence not in
ourselves but outside ourselves with God. And there, with God, we are certain of
our own salvation and also of our election.
As trust in God, justifying faith is thus certainty of salvation, certainty of
election: the certainty that we are children of God, provided with all the rights of
the children of God. Faith in justification presupposes certainty of election and
excludes ideas of reprobation. To believe in reprobation would be a selfcontradiction.42 Thus certainty of election is not a supplement which could be
distinguished from justifying faith. Certainty of election is not something added to
faith, but faith is this certainty.
The certainty of faith is nothing other than the certainty of being accorded a
right before God: the right as a child to be steadfastly together with God as Father.
42 G. Ebeling, Dogmatik des christlichen Glaubens, vol. 3, p. 235.
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The believer has the right of a son in relation to God as God has the right of a
Father in relation to him the right to a being with Him, the right to immediate
access to Him, the right to call upon Him, the right to rely upon Him, the right to
expect and to ask of Him everything that he needs. The right of sonship is the
essence of every right of man. And the promise of this right is the completion of the
justification of sinful man.43 Faith means being unshakably certain of and making
use of this right of sonship which is the essence of every human right.
In that faith is the human yes to God which comes from the heart, by which we
go out of ourselves and are free of ourselves to the point of self-forgetfulness,
human personhood is newly constituted not immediately through faith, but
through the word of God which faith follows, and so only mediately also through
faith. Since, like Mary, faith also says fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, then it can
also be said of faith: Fides facit personam, faith constitutes the person.44 This
statement does not, of course, ascribe some creative power to faith. That would be a
grotesque misunderstanding. Rather, the statement says simply quod persona sit
facta per fidem a deo.45 But in that it says that the person is constituted by God and
therefore also by the faith which relies on God, it contradicts the idea that our acts
or works constitute our personhood: opus non facit personam.46 We do not become
righteous persons because we act righteously. Justifying faith is thus the permanent
distinction of persons from their works. In faith, persons are interesting for their
own sakes, and not for the sake of their successes or failures.
In this sense we must once again emphasize that it is through faith alone that we
are justified, that we become justified and therefore new persons sola fide. Under this
aspect the exclusive particle sola fide sums up in a very elementary way the
apparently highly complex doctrine of justification, for it gives concise expression to
the fact that we cannot contribute to our justification by any human activity. The
righteousness which is received in faith cannot be maintained or enhanced by any
good work. For the justified, good works are rather to be understood in their own
right. Without any supplement, faith is the yes and amen to Gods own yes and amen
which took place in the event of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1.19f). And such a yes and amen
excludes any maintenance or enhancement through human works.
As the human yes and amen to Gods yes and amen, faith is the essence of
gratitude. To believe is to be thankful, not simply for this or that but for ones new
identity as justified sinner. Very simply and precisely, to believe means to give
thanks for oneself. Believers owe themselves to God; believers are persons who
give thanks to God for themselves. And because in faith we give thanks to God,
then it is faith alone which justifies.
One last matter. Through the external relatedness of faith, we are so closely
related to Jesus Christ that we come to participate directly in his being. We come to

K. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, p. 600.

M. Luther, Die Zirkulardisputation de veste nuptiali, WA 39/I, p. 283.
Die Zirkulardisputation de veste nuptiali, WA 39/I, p. 283.
Die Zirkulardisputation de veste nuptiali, WA 39/I, p. 283.
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On the Doctrine of Justification


share in Jesus Christ the King, through whom we now become kings and the free
lords of all things. We come to share in Jesus Christ the High Priest, so that all
believers are priests. Thus the article on justification is the basis of the common
priesthood of all believers. The gospel of the justification of sinners relies upon
priestly service. None of us can say to ourselves that Jesus Christ was given up for
our sins and raised for our justification. Nor can faith say to itself that faith alone
justifies. This must be said to us. Faith comes from hearing, from hearing alone.
Without the exclusive particle solo verbo the exclusive particle sola fide hangs in
the air, in the same way that without solus Christus, solo verbo hangs in the air. The
apostles argument is unequivocal: faith comes from the hearing of preaching, but
preaching comes from the word of Christ (Rom. 10.17).
Faith therefore depends upon there being one who proclaims the word of the
justification of the ungodly. Where this happens, priestly service takes place. Faith
is dependent upon this priestly service.
However, one of the fundamental theological insights which are bound up
with the exclusive particle through faith alone is that every believer may
undertake this priestly service not towards him- or herself, but towards every
other person. The justification of the sinner through grace alone is the basis of the
common priesthood of all believers. Wherever the priesthood of all believers is
called into question through some kind of theological constructions whether it
be an ideology of episcopal office or an ideology of apostolic succession that
cheats the faithful of their priesthood then the article on justification itself is
called into question. Agreement on the priesthood of all believers must be a
constitutive part of consensus with the Roman Catholic church on the doctrine of
In the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification put out by the
Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian
Unity, one cannot find a single word on this topic. And it is nothing short of
grotesque that at the same time that the Protestant synods are supposed to judge
whether the Joint Declaration sets out a consensus in the fundamental truths of the
doctrine of justification, at the very same time the Vatican released an instruction
on some questions concerning the involvement of the laity in the ministry of the
priesthood, which fundamentally disavowed the Protestant understanding of the
priesthood of all believers.
At the close of this explication of the article on justification we recall a remark
of Dietrich Bonhoeffers. Bonhoeffer reports a conversation with a young French
Catholic priest, in which they asked each other the question what their real purpose
in life was. The young Catholic answered the question with the statement I would
like to become a saint. That is a good Catholic answer. Bonhoeffer, who was much
impressed by this answer, nevertheless disagreed, and for his part answered I
should like to learn to have faith. Only later did he become aware of the deep
divide between the two answers. He had first to understand that learning to have
faith means completely renouncing any attempt to make something of oneself,
whether it be a saint or a converted sinner. When we have grasped that, then we
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throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own
sufferings, but those of God in the world... That, I think, is faith.47
There is indeed a deep gulf between the two answers. The distinction can
perhaps be most sharply expressed by recalling a New Testament expression,
according to which believers are already a%cioi. Thus, to say I would like to learn
faith is to be a saint. And if one wishes to be a saint, one must learn faith. For the
true saint is one who is aware that holiness does not mean sinlessness but gratitude
for the suffering of God and the justification of the sinner which results from this
passion. Out of such gratitude grows the readiness to pray afresh each day: Forgive
us our trespasses. And this prayer is the only human act in which the sinner
collaborates in justification and is co-operatively included.48

By now it should have become clear why and in what respect faith in the
justification of the ungodly is the living centre at the midst of Christian faith. It is
not that the contents of the great statements of the confession of Jesus Christ, of
God the creator and of the Holy Spirit are dead truths, which have to be awakened
to life through the article on justification. Rather, the proclamation of justification
is grounded in that fact that there is a God who is active in creation, who became a
human being in the person of Jesus Christ, lived a unique human life, for our sakes
died the death of a criminal on the cross and was raised from the dead, in order
henceforth to be at work among us through his word and his Spirit. But in the
article on justification, all these statements are given an emphatic, critical
sharpening, from which it is decided who this God really is, what it really means for
him to be active in creation, what is the significance of dying in our place and
bringing about new life in the midst of death a life which in the power of the
Spirit shares itself with our transient world in such a way that there arises a new
community of life in the form of the Christian church. The article on justification
concerns in the most focused way the truth of the relation of God and humankind,
and so the proper understanding of Gods divinity and our humanity. Martin Luther


D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM Press, 1967), pp. 201f.
Hence the appeal for the forgiveness of our sins is the best confession of sin. It calls
upon God to come closer to us than we can ever possibly be to ourselves. But if the
justifying God is closer to me than I am able to be to myself, then I am no longer the one
closest to myself, and the dreadful assertion We are each of us closest to ourselves is
falsified, and a new dimension of closeness is made possible. So it was the most foolish
thing that Peter could do to entreat the Lord who encountered him: Depart from me, for
I am a sinful man, O Lord! (Lk. 5.8). This is beginning at the wrong end of things. The
overflow of divine grace into the excess of human need and guilt instead teaches us to
pray: Lord, come here to us, for we are sinners. Where such prayer is made, there
arises in the midst of a world full of death and darkness the Christian church which lives
from and imparts new closeness.
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On the Doctrine of Justification


thus declared that the proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and
condemned and God the justifier or saviour, stating that whatever is discussed in
theology outside this subject is error and poison.49
Out of the article on justification it becomes clear that the creator is no maker,
and his creation no bungled product, but rather that the divine act of creation
presupposes a loving affirmation of that which is to be created, and that the creation
owes itself to the loving affirmation of God. Out of the article on justification it
becomes clear why and in what respect God is gracious and with his grace elects,
rejects and judges. Out of this article it becomes plain what it means to say that
Jesus Christ did not live his life for himself, but that living and dying he was and
in the power of his resurrection for the dead is for us. Out of the article on
justification is manifest what eternal life is, and why and in what respect we already
participate in the eternal life of God in faith, love and hope. And in all that it
becomes plain what Gods word, the gospel and the law are, and how gospel and
law are correctly to be distinguished.
The article on justification thus has the function, as Ernst Wolf put it, of
expressing nothing less than the entirety of the word of God which brings about
life.50 Hence, according to Gerhard Gloege, it is not that in the doctrine of
justification we are handed one doctrine alongside other doctrines, but rather we
are entrusted with the category which defines all our thinking, speaking and
acting before God . It sharpens... all statements, by straightening them and
giving them definite outline from start to finish. Hence it gives all statements
radiance, clarity and power, and has a falsifying function with respect to all
statements which deny it or talk at cross purposes to it, and thereby has a catalytic
function for the whole of theology.51
In this way, the doctrine of justification is the one and only criterion for all
theological statements. And it amounts to a hindering of consensus in the truth in
matters of the doctrine of justification, if the Roman Catholic church, whilst
recognizing a particular function and one ought certainly to add, a particularly
weighty function to the doctrine of justification, beyond that sees itself as bound
by several criteria.52 No: here it is a matter of either or, aut aut and not both
and. Or even non solum aut aut, sed etiam et et.
Without the doctrine of justification, Luther asserted, the world would be full
of death and chaotic darkness. The proclamation of resurrection decides about life
and death, about whether the light of life or the darkness of death will prevail in this
world. This character of deciding about life and death makes the article on
justification into master and prince, lord, ruler and judge over all kinds of teaching,
49 cf. M. Luther, Psalm 51 in Luthers Works vol. 12 (St Louis: Concordia, 1955), p. 311.
50 E. Wolf, Die Rechtfertigungslehre als Mitte und Grenze reformatorischer Theologie in
Peregrinatio vol. 2 (Munich: Kaiser, 1965), p. 14.
51 G. Gloege, Gnade fur die Welt. Kritik und Krise des Luthertums (Gottingen:
Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1964), pp. 26, 37ff.
52 Lutheran World Federation and Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Joint
Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification 1997, Final Proposal, no. 18.
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which guards and enhances all church teaching and lifts up our consciences before
God.53 To let oneself be, alongside that, responsible to other masters, princes, lords,
rulers and judges is to relativize the distinction between life and death. And from
such relativization it is always death that profits.
The gospel of the justification of sinners proclaims the victory of life at just the
point where death appears to triumph. In an Easter hymn, Luther put it thus:
Jesus Christ, Gods only Son
Into our place descending,
Away with all our sins hath done,
And therewith from death rending
Right and might, made him a jape,
Left him nothing but Deaths shape
His ancient sting he has lost it.
That was a wondrous strife
When Death in lifes grip wallowed:
Off victorious came Life,
Death he has quite upswallowed.
The Scripture has published that
How one death the other ate.
Thus Death is become a laughter.54


cf. M. Luther, Die Promotionsdisputation von Palladius und Tileman, WA 39/I, p. 205.
Luthers Works vol. 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), p. 257.
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