Martin Luther: The True Modern Pharisee

The sola fide, or “faith alone” gospel, teaches that all that is required of Christians to enter into and remain in a salvific relationship with God is faith. This gospel as we know it originated not with Christ but in 16th-century Germany, nearly 1500 years after Christ’s death. Since its invention, this gospel has spread to infect every continent on earth and is now touted by the vast majority of professing Christians in the United States1. Though popular, this ideology is far from biblical and represents a grave and heretical rejection of what the Bible teaches. The inventor of the lethal sola fide gospel, German reformer Martin Luther, not only violated inspired Scripture by modifying God’s Word with his own, but also found it necessary to undermine God’s holy Law and even reject several New Testament books to support his beliefs. The result: a heretical and flimsy gospel with little to no true biblical support, created by a man who lived to regret his antinomianism the closer he drew to his last days on earth.

Bolstered by the power of Germany’s princes, Gutenberg’s printing press, and the skill of crafty speech, Luther was able to intoxicate the western world with the dangerous idea that faith alone was all that was truly necessary to be saved. As a former monk in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had come to believe that the Bible taught a works-based salvation – that people must earn their way to heaven through meritorious acts or obedience to God’s Law. Bound by this faulty understanding – and the conviction that nothing other than perfection would be acceptable before a Holy God, Luther created what he believed to be the solution: a view of Christ as not only our atoning sacrifice for sin but also our perfect Law-keeper, or “merit-maid” before God. Therefore, by putting faith in Christ, a person not only receives the blessing of forgiveness but also the works necessary to earn their way to heaven. This then became the only essential in Luther’s system of salvation. In a letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote,

“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your faith in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. This life is not a place where righteousness can exist. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery a thousand times each day.”

In his treatise, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther expresses similar sentiments,

“The Christian or baptized man cannot, even if he would lose his soul by any sins however great unless he refuses to believe; for no sins whatever can condemn him, but unbelief alone.”

As would be expected, this faith-alone view of salvation also affected Luther’s hermeneutic. The Bible was to be split into two parts or messages: one gospel, the other law. In his mind, Gospel represented any portion of Scripture that speaks to what God does for us through Christ. The other, Law, are those portions which speak to what we must, but cannot do, and consequently are condemned for2. According to Luther then, our obligation to obey the Law, was something outside, or opposed to, the idea of the Gospel. The Law served the Gospel (in bringing people to see their own sin), but the Gospel could never serve the Law3

For Luther, this included not only initial justification but after a person became a Christian as well. Faith alone would remain the only essential. The Law was viewed as neither binding nor applicable to Christians,

“[The Law of Moses] is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel…Moses has nothing to do with us [New Testament saints]. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses…Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service…Exodus 20:1…Makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us…We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the NT and the natural law…not one little period of Moses pertains to us.”

(Luther’s Works 35:164-166)

“This shall serve you as a true rule, that whenever the Scriptures order and command good works, you must so understand it that the Scriptures forbid good works. If you should not sin against the gospel, then be on your guard against good works; avoid them as one avoids a pest.”

(A Treatise on Good Works, 1520)

As such, what the Reformers referred to as the third use of the law, Luther viewed as a threat.

In the words of James Payton Jr.,

“Indeed, it would not be too much to state that Luther detected a threat to justification by faith alone behind every blade of grass and under every rock in the landscape…It is worth noting though, that it introduced a particular limitation in the way he allowed that believers should be directed as they sought to live before God.  Luther considered it a corruption of the Christian message to teach that the law directs believers in this regard. Luther allowed for two uses of the law but repudiated the third.  The first use of the law was its general one to structure society and declare what must be done if society is to continue to flourish; this was the law as it related human beings to each other. The second use of the law was to condemn sinners and bring them to an awareness of their sin before God; this was the law as it related human beings to God. Luther repudiated what came to be called the third use of the law, which some (alleged) showed believers how God wants them to live for Him. Luther bristled at this notion. He had learned by brutal experience that the law offered no comfort to human beings and only drove them to despair before God. To reintroduce the law as a guideline for Christian living must eventually lead, according to Luther, to a reversion to works-righteousness.”4

Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings

Therefore, to discuss obedience to God’s Law – or anything else for that matter, as also essential to salvation, was in Luther’s eyes neither the gospel nor a proper understanding of the Scriptures. This included even the Scripture itself. Those portions that disagreed with his personal interpretation, he sought to modify or remove. For example, Luther added the word “alone” to his German translation of Romans 3:28 (“we maintain that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law”), though the original text does not contain the word.5 Ironically, the only place in the Bible that the words “faith” and “alone” occur together is in the negative, directly refuting the idea Luther was attempting to promote by vandalizing the text.

24 “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:24

In response to criticism of this addition, Luther said,

“You tell me what a great fuss the Papists are making because the word ‘alone’ in not in the text of Paul…say right out to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so,’…I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text”.

As a result of this verse and many others within the book of James, Luther referred to the book as, “the epistle of straw”6, and attempted to remove it from the New Testament. Similar to the 2nd century heretic Marcion7, Luther sought to reject and destroy all New Testament books that could not be reconciled with his personal interpretation and gospel message8. In addition to James, this included the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. In regard to the epistle of James, Luther wrote,

“Let us banish this epistle from the university, for it is worthless. It has no syllable about Christ, not even naming him except once at the beginning. I think it was written by some Jew who had heard of the Christians but not joined them… The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove.”

In response to Luther’s heretical practices, Paul Rainbow writes

“[These facts] ought to unsettle any for whom sola fide has become a shibboleth. It is reason enough to re-examine the biblical grounds.”

While evidence exists that Luther may have begun to reconsider some of his views in his latter years, the damage was already done. The sola fide gospel had become the entrenched mindset of many within the western world and was beginning to bear its ugly fruit.  Which leads to what may prove to be his most ironic connection to the sola fide gospel, the terms evangelical and antinomian9. Though both terms were coined by Luther to distinguish respectively between orthodox Christians and those he considered heretics, the fruit of his soteriological system had inevitably made them one and the same. To be evangelical in America today, is to be antinomian. Once more from Paul Rainbow,

“With regard to [the sola fide gospel’s] effects in history, the doctrine is dangerous. Since the [time of Luther], it has proven powerless to check repeated outbreaks of antinomianism in churches… resulting in large fringes of congregants today imbued with the heresy that without mortifying sins they can nevertheless rest assured of reaching heaven. One prominent Lutheran theologian has dubbed antinomianism ‘the heresy of the [evangelical] American church.’”10

The fruit of Luther’s theology was, of course, a Christianity filled with debauchery. Luther later became so disillusioned by what his lax gospel had produced that he wrote, “since the downfall of…cessations of excommunications and spiritual penalties, the people have learned to despise the word of God. They no longer care for the churches; they have ceased to fear and honor God. After throwing off the yoke of the pope, everyone wishes to live as he pleases. They say, ‘we will spend the day like Lutherans.’ Drunkenness has come upon us like a deluge. If God had not closed my eyes, and if I had foreseen these scandals, I would never have begun to teach the gospel.” In a rare moment of humility, Luther seems to have realized and lamented the lawlessness that flourishes as a result of his gospel.

The faith-alone gospel is one created by a human mind, made possible only by modifying and denying Scripture, propped up on the wicked idea God’s holy Law is somehow lacking or even abusive. It promotes the idea that the fundamental issue in Creation is the Creator’s unfair expectations, rather than human sin and corruption. It is one that does not have biblical origins, as the true gospel undoubtedly should. Sola fide is certainly not the gospel that our Lord preached in His time here on earth. Unfortunately, despite its colossal pitfalls and heretical origins, it remains the cornerstone of the largest Christian denomination in the United States. Even this gospel’s inventor and primary champion, Martin Luther, saw its gaping cracks. Perhaps it is time for the modern world to face those fatal flaws and return to the biblical gospel as it was taught by our Lord Jesus Christ, not a cynical German monk.

Galatians 3 – Did Christ suffer the punishment for our sins?

For all those who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the law and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith”. But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them”. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:10-14

Before we begin to analyze Galatians 3:10-14, let’s first consider the logical outcome of the assertion that Christ suffered the punishment for our sins. In Ezekiel 18, God responds to His people’s belief that the sons of sinful men would be punished for their fathers’ sins. He says this in verse 4: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die”. He continues, beginning in verse 20: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous
shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
Through these words, God strongly condemns as illegal the idea that one person could ever be punished for the sins of another. Are we to believe that though such unrighteous punishment was illegal under His law, He (who magnifies His word even above His own name, according to Psa 138:2) punished His perfect son for an unfathomable degree of sins which He did not commit? If that were the case, it would mean that God had broken His own law and therefore had sinned. Since we know that this cannot be true, we can rightfully conclude that whatever Galatians 3:10-14 is teaching, it is not that Christ took the punishment for our sins. What then are these verses teaching?

Throughout scripture, the only persons hanged on trees were those who had forfeited their ability to atone for their sins by their refusal to obey God’s laws. This included not only those in pagan nations, but also those formerly in the covenant community. Anyone refusing to follow God’s precepts or prescriptions – i.e., the apostate, were considered the “cursed”, those eligible for hanging. Perhaps the best example of this is Judas, who hangs himself on a tree after betraying Christ and is called “The Son of Perdition” in Scripture (the Greek word ἀπωλείας, translated “perdition” literally means “curse”). Other examples include the multiple pagan kings who were killed by Joshua at God’s command (Jos 8:29, Jos 10:26). In contrast, hanging is never prescribed where atonement is possible. In cases where the sin is capital in nature and requires death, the prescription is limited to stoning. Take for example the Israelite Achan: though he stole from Jericho after God explicitly prohibited His people from doing such a thing, he nonetheless was eligible for forgiveness from God. Hence the reason he is told to “give glory to God” before receiving his punishment. Achan was a condemned man, but not a cursed one: God was still willing to forgive him once justice had been served (Jos 7:19-26). For those in covenant with God, atonement for sin is possible through faithful obedience to serve justice as the law requires (Pro 16:6). This is a privilege unique to the people of God, one that was inaccessible to those who placed themselves under the curse through their disobedience and rebellion.

This understanding of the function of hanging sheds light on what Paul is communicating in Galatians 3:10-14. The Jews to whom he wrote understood that according to the law, a curse would abide on anyone who declared themselves apostate by their refusal to obey God’s precepts (Deu 27:26, Jer 11:3-4). In essence, they would deserve to be hanged. Yet this is the very thing Paul is encouraging the Galatians to do. Paul calls for the cancellation of the Old Covenant clean laws of circumcision (Gen 17:10-14, Lev 12:3), sacrifice (e.g. Lev 1:1-4), ceremonial separation (e.g. Lev 11:39, Lev 12:1-5, Lev 13:43-56), and observance of seasons and holidays (Gal 4:10) in favor of their new covenant faith-based applications. How then are we to make sense of this? How can such new applications replace the old without invoking the curse upon all who are guilty? The answer, according to Paul, is found in how Christ died. In being hanged on a tree He fulfilled this technicality of the law. He became the “curse” promised to those who disregarded any portion of God’s prescribed Old Covenant applications. In doing so, Jesus ensured that the application of Old Covenant clean laws could be changed without legal violation. God ordained Christ’s death down to the specific mechanism of execution in order to fulfill His law (a law concerned with every “jot and tittle”, Mat 5:18). Theoretically, Christ could have been executed in any number of ways: He could have been stoned, stabbed, drowned, shot with arrows, etc. But if He had died in any other way, His death would not have addressed this small (but essential) portion of the law: the curse levied against those who failed to obey the Old Covenant clean laws in accordance with their original applications. We may not think much of the specific manner of Christ’s death, but Paul shows us that how He died is extremely important, as it allowed for new applications to legally be given to the Old Covenant laws.

Given this understanding of Paul’s message in Galatians 3:10-14, we can see that penal substitution is not a part of the picture he is painting. Rather, he is illustrating an additional significant aspect of the crucifixion, an aspect integral to the Christian faith. Without the fulfillment of this technicality, no applications to God’s law could be changed. To do so would invoke violence upon oneself, to place oneself irrevocably in the path of God’s covenant curse.

Romans 1:5 – Is the command to have faith the only one we must obey?

“[Jesus Christ] through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,”

Romans 1:5

As Paul begins his address to the Roman Christians in Romans 1, he identifies his objective in writing to them, one which the remainder of the book of Romans is intended to accomplish. Paul states that he was set apart by Christ and granted his apostleship in order to “…bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name…” (v5). Paul’s words in this verse are often misconstrued either 1) as a direction to the Roman Christians to obey only a single command: the command to put faith in Christ or 2) as a statement Paul makes to communicate that the faith of these Christians (if genuine) will result in their obedience. These misconceptions – that cause the reader to entirely miss what Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) intends to communicate – are a result of failing to consider the context of the verse or the aim of the book of Romans. Ultimately, misunderstanding Romans 1:5 in either of the above ways leads to a gospel that is inconsistent and unbiblical, and therefore heretical and damning.

In Romans 1:18, Paul writes that “…the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” If Paul is teaching in this letter that faith is the sole condition for salvation, then this would be a perfect opportunity to warn the Roman church that God’s wrath is revealed against all unbelief of men and subsequently encourage them to be strong in their faith so as to avoid that wrath and ensure their salvation. But instead, he chooses to specifically name over a dozen separate things that can only be identified as acts of disobedience to God’s law, including idolatry, homosexuality, covetousness, malice, gossip, slander, and disobedience to authority. If Paul’s view of what constitutes obedience is limited to putting faith in Christ, then not only is it a waste of breath to delve into a list of specific sins as he does, but it is also incredibly inconsistent of him to claim that individuals practicing such sins will be condemned for their disobedience. Not only would this claim be inconsistent with other statements made in Romans 1, but also when compared to the rest of the book of Romans (Rom 2:2-11, 23-24; Rom 3:3-8; Rom 3:31, Rom 6:1-4; Rom 6:12-23; Rom 8:3-17, Rom 12:9-21, Rom 13, Rom 16:19, Rom 16:26) and the New Testament overall (Eph 4:11; Mat 5:19; Mat 18:18-20; Joh 3:36; 2Jo 1:6).

It is clear from Romans 1 that Paul is claiming anyone who practices sin will be punished accordingly (v24, 27, 28, 32). He claims in verse 32 that God’s “righteous decree” inflicts punishment and death not only upon those who practice sin but also those who approve of it. This is an outright lie, and a blasphemous one at that, if God did in fact require only faith from His people. As an apostolic church father with authority over his brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul would be guilty of abusing his power (a power granted to him by Christ) to hold the Christians under his purview to standards beyond what God requires, especially upon threat of eternal condemnation. Surely Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is guilty of neither inconsistency nor abuse. It is clearly important to him that the Roman Christians practice obedience to God’s law in their lives through their righteous behavior and abstinence from sin, lest they also face condemnation. By claiming that God will condemn both those practicing and those approving of sin, Paul identifies obedience to the law as an additional condition for salvation.

That Paul is calling for both faith and obedience as conditions for salvation is further proven by the mere fact that he is writing this letter to Christians who already had faith and who he clearly already considered saved individuals because of their covenant relationship with God. In verses 6-7 of Romans 1 he states that he intends “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all nations including you who are [already] called to belong to Jesus Christ…loved by God and called to be saints.” Paul says to them “your faith is proclaimed in all the world…I long to see you that…we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith both yours and mine.” As a final clue, we see that in verse 13 he refers to the congregation as “brothers” which he surely would not do unless he considered them to be among those who had already put faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. If Paul is attempting to encourage people to simply obey a single command to put faith in Christ, why would he waste a letter on those who had already done exactly that? The answer is simple: he knew that these Christians had received grace by faith in Jesus Christ and wanted to ensure that they maintain the salvation they had already gained by being obedient to God’s commands. In verse 5, he states this intention: to “bring about the obedience of faith”, or the obedience of those who already possessed faith.

How can the majority of Christians have the wrong gospel?

In the landscape of modern Christianity, Evangelicalism is one of the largest denominations in the world, representing an estimated 30-50% of the more than 2.14 billion professing Christians in the world.1 Various estimates suggest that around 40% of the United States’ professing Christian population is Evangelical, making Evangelicalism the largest denomination in the country by a long shot.2 Many mistakenly interpret Evangelical Christianity’s popularity among the masses as an indication of its legitimacy, drawing the conclusion that if so many would subscribe to a certain belief system, then that belief system must be bona fide. After all, how could so many independent minds believe in a common false doctrine? Many in the same camp will go so far as to suggest the theological beliefs of smaller denominations or groups must be wrong (or at least partially wrong) given their much smaller comparative size. This bandwagon mentality is a form of a common logical fallacy known as ad populum, in which a claim is supported as true on the grounds that many think it is true. In fact, this particular fallacy is what is known as a material fallacy, meaning that it is always illogical, regardless of the specific circumstances or application.3 Popularity, therefore, is not adequate evidence to substantiate claims and prove the truth (e.g., over 3 million people in the United States believe that the Earth is flat according to recent polls, are we to believe that as well4The Changing Religious Composition of the U.S., Pew Research Center?) As millions of mothers across the country might ask: Would you jump off a bridge just because all your friends were doing it? Simply put, might does not necessarily make right. Only a fool accepts something as truth simply because it’s the popular thing to do.

Modern Evangelicalism has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 when Martin Luther, a single man, published a document entitled 95 Thesesin which he disputed the teachings of the very powerful and widespread Catholic Church. Only later did his teachings gain traction and balloon into the massive global religion that we now call Protestantism. At its inception, the Reformation was a small minority of individuals that boldly chose to go against the grain of popular belief. But applying our logical fallacy of ad populum to these facts, we find that if the popular school of thought at the time was Catholicism, then the Reformation (and therefore Protestantism) was heretical from the very start. But if Protestantism is now the undisputed majority in the modern United States, it has become valid because of its popularity. So what was once heretical and false suddenly becomes legitimate simply because it gained enough followers? If biblical truth is in fact determined by majority rule, then whatever is in vogue at the moment can be accepted as what God truly desires. Clearly, this is an absurd strategy for determining truth. Biblical truth has always been determined by God, not by men. So instead of jumping on the bandwagon, let’s throw out the material fallacy of ad populum for a moment and consider the biblical evidence.

The pattern of salvation we see in the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New, contradicts the idea of the majority holding the truth. Since the fall in Genesis, those in the Bible who embrace sound doctrine and are thereby approved by God have always been a very small minority. For example, Noah’s family, the only righteous human family spared from the flood in Genesis, represented merely eight people out of an estimated 4 billion, or 0.0000002% of the global population at the time. Similarly, Abraham’s family of 25 stood alone among 2.8 million, making them 0.00089% of the population. Even the nation of Israel made up about 0.074% of the world in its day. And the early church, established on earth by Christ himself, constituted about 0.002% of all those earth at the time.* From Genesis to the New Testament, those considered sanctified and righteous in the eyes of God are always a remnant, never the majority. As is said of Israel in the book of Isaiah: “For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return.” (Isa 10:22). This prophetic statement, originally foreseeing that only a righteous minority of the generally wicked nation of Israel would be saved, is later applied in a new context by Paul in the book of Romans, who uses it as justification for the small number of Jews converting to Christ in his day:

27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” (Romans 9:27-28)

The idea then that majority rule can serve to determine or indicate truth is contradictory not only to the pattern of salvation we see in biblical history but also to the future we are promised in biblical prophecy. This can be seen in Christ’s words regarding the kingdom of heaven to come in Matthew 7 and Luke 13:

21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

23 “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, 24 ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:23-24)

Clearly, Christ is teaching that only a small number of those who attempt to enter heaven will be able to do so, and most will instead find themselves condemned to hell. Only a remnant of Christians (those who call Him “Lord, Lord”) will be saved, and the criterion for their salvation will not be their alignment with popular opinion but rather their faithful obedience to God’s law (see again Mat 7:21; cf. Heb 4:4-11; Rom 2:13; 13:8-14; Mat 5:18-19; 19:16-17; Luk 10:25-28; 1Co 7:19).

Christ does not teach us that we should determine truth by popularity or majority rule. Since Noah’s time, the majority has been home to the wicked and unfaithful who are destined for condemnation. He instead teaches us that we should identify and align with the objective truth (Joh 18:37-38). The truth, according to Christ and Scripture, is this: legitimate disciples will always be despised and persecuted by those who represent the majority in the Christian Faith (Joh 15:18-25; 2Ti 3:14). In the last days, the faithful’s numbers will dwindle as the world becomes increasingly sinful until those who have endured are surrounded on all sides by wickedness (Mat 24:21-23; 2Pe 3:1-10; 2Ti 3:1-7; Rev 20:7-10). Given this teaching from our Lord, we should expect that the number of legitimate Christians in existence today would be decreasing as the lawlessness and wickedness of our world increases.

How, then, should we distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate, the true Christians from the false? Neither majority nor minority should be the determining delineation. If the answer were to be determined based on the biblical record (see above), the win would go to the minority. However, what makes them the minority(versus the fact that they are the minority) is the place to look. And when queried, the answer that repeatedly comes back is one thing: obedience. The true followers of God have always been those willing to submit to and obey God’s laws. That is the consistent and dominant pattern witnessed throughout redemptive history. The true followers of God are known (or identified) by faithful obedience (1Jo 3:7-10; Rev 17:14, 19:8b).

What then can we conclude? Not all of the 2 billion people who profess to be Christians today are legitimate followers of Christ (as evidenced by their disobedience – the consequence of their belief in such obedience as unnecessary to salvation). Rather that number is much smaller, a minority – identified by their obedience to God’s law – the attribute that has distinguished the legitimate from the illegitimate throughout redemptive history.

The final question for those who seek comfort in numbers, desire to determine biblical truth via the court of public opinion, and delude themselves into thinking that “might makes right”: Will you jump off the bridge simply because all your friends are?