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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Luther’s Errors on Justification

By:   Robert J. Siscoe
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5600381Pope Francis and Lutheran "Bishops" (Male and Female) Commemorate Luther's Revolt in Sweden

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant revolt and the planned “commemoration” of the event by the Modernists in Rome, it serves as an opportune time to review Luther’s errors and heresies on justification, as well as the immediate fruits that they produced (Mt. 7:20).  We will see that Luther’s teaching on justification by faith alone (sola fide) is not simply “faith without works,” as some imagine, but is instead rooted in an entirely different notion of faith, which is believed to justify and save man without requiring obedience to the moral law. We will also see that his errors were rooted in a disdain for the holy justice of God and His moral Law, combined with a consequent distortion of Divine mercy – very similar to the errors infecting many high ranking prelates today.


At the outset, it is important to note that when Protestants use the terms faith, grace and justification, they mean something entirely different than Catholics. This is important to keep in mind if you ever find yourself in an argument with a Protestant.

Before delving into the errors, and in order to purify our minds, we will begin by considering the true notion of faith, grace and justification, as taught by God through His Church.

True Concept of Faith and Justification

The supernatural act of faith is an intellectual assent to the truths revealed by God and infallibly proposed for belief by the Church.
The act of faith is a simple nondiscursive act,[1] rooted in the speculative intellect,[2] by which we believe all that God has revealed “not on account of the intrinsic truth perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, the Revealer, who can neither deceive nor be deceived."[3] This act of faith in and of itself does not justify man, but rather disposes him for justification.  The soul is brought into a state of justification (i.e., friendship with God) through an infusion of sanctifying grace and supernatural charity into the soul, which produces a true spiritual rebirth (a metaphysical change in the soul) and makes man a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), an adopted child of God (Eph. 1:5), and an heir of heaven (Romans 8:17).

This state of justification is preserved by obedience to the moral law (Mr. 19:17), lost by the commission of a single mortal sin (Heb. 10:26), and regained by repentance and confession (1 John 1:9; John 20:21-23). A person who dies with the supernatural life of grace in their soul is saved; he who dies without it is lost. Hence, it is sanctifying grace that both justifies and saves man, and not “faith alone” - even when the word faith is properly understood.

The role of good works is not to bring a person into the state of justification, but to further justify and further sanctify one who is already in the state of grace,[4] as we read in the Apocalypse: “he that is just, let him be justified still: and he that is holy, let him be sanctified still” (Apoc 22:11-12).[5] Justification, in this secondary sense (i.e., confirming our life more perfectly to the Will of God by following the promptings of the Holy Ghost), is what the Bible refers to when it says “by works a man is justified” (James 2:24). This is the Catholic teaching on faith, justification, and salvation in a nutshell.

Salvation by Fiduciary
“Faith Alone”

Luther’s errors concerning salvation are founded on an entirely different understanding of the words faith, justification, and grace. The act of faith, according to Luther, is not an intellectual assent to the truths revealed by God, but rather “trust in divine mercy,” combined with a firm conviction that one has received God’s favor and will be saved. This notion of faith is not rooted in the intellect (believing what God has revealed), but in the will (trusting in Christ), and is more properly a species of the theological virtue of hope, rather than of faith.  The great Thomist, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, wrote:

Most Protestants hold that faith is in the will, consistent with their erroneous definition of faith as substantial trust in divine mercy for the remission of one’s sins. Trust, however, is reducible to hope, which is indeed in the will.[6]

Justification: Merely “Declared Righteousness”

According to Luther, the justified soul is not made just, nor are his sins truly washed way.  Luther taught that the act of justification consist of an extrinsic imputation of the justice of Christ, by which the “believer” is only declared just by God (i.e., “declared righteousness”), rather than an intrinsic infusion of grace into the human soul and a true washing away of sin, by which one is truly made just.

The famous example he used to explain his novel doctrine of justification was a dunghill covered in snow. The justified soul, like the dunghill, remains in a state of sin, and is merely covered over by the justice of Christ.  Being covered over by the justice of Christ, the believer is declared righteous (not made righteous).

Luther’s Errors Concerning Grace

Along with his erroneous understanding of faith and justification, Luther had an equally erroneous understanding of “grace.”
Since he denied that the soul was interiorly transformed and regenerated by the Holy Ghost, he rejected the doctrine that grace is a "permanent, supernatural quality of the soul,"[7] and instead held that it was simply “the favor of God,” [8] or the good will of God toward man.  In other words, Luther believed that grace was merely a disposition of God toward man (mercy), rather than supernatural life that is infused into the soul of man, which transforms him from within.

In short, Luther’s doctrine of justification and salvation goes like this: man makes an act of “faith” (places his trust in the merits of Christ); the justice of Christ is imputed to him and covers over his sinfulness, without actually changing him within; God then looks upon the “believer” favorably (i.e., grace), and he is assured of his salvation - regardless of what sins he commits in the future.

Against these false doctrines of Luther, the Council of Trent taught:

If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ … to the exclusion of grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost (Romans 5:5) and remains in them, or that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema. (Session VI, Canon 11).

Total Depravity

Luther’s errors concerning justification and grace were based on his belief that man’s nature was so thoroughly corrupted by Original Sin that it is incapable of being regenerated and sanctified. This is seen in the following citation:

The nature of man is so corrupted that it can never be regenerated and sin will remain in the soul, even of the just, forever. God's all powerful grace does not cleanse from sin. The Almighty does not regard the sins of men. He covers them over with the merits of Christ and does not impute them to the sinner whose faith in the sufferings of the Redeemer is made manifest.[9]

Luther’s doctrine of total depravity is more clearly shown in the following citation:

"Conceived in sorrow and corruption, the child sins even in his mother’s womb, when, even as a mere fetus, an impure mass of matter, before it becomes a human creature, it commits iniquity and incurs damnation. As he grows, the innate element of corruption develops. Man has said to sin 'Thou art my father' and every act he performs is an offense against God; to the worms, 'you are my brothers', and he crawls like them in mire and corruption. He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit, a dunghill and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions. Sin is his nature; he cannot help committing it. Man may do his best to be good, still his every action is unavoidably bad; he commits a sin as often as he draws a breath"[10]

Concomitant with his doctrine of total depravity was his denial of free will, and the consequent belief that man is not morally responsible for his acts. After all, if, like an animal, man does not possess the ability to make a free and rational choice, how could God hold him morally responsible for his acts?  According to Luther, he did not:

It is either God or the devil that rules; man has no freedom of choice and is absolutely devoid of responsibility for his acts. Having lost free will, man cannot observe the precepts of the Decalogue; he cannot master his passions; he must sin as long as he lives. … the conclusion is simply this: that those who are to be saved are to be saved without any regard to their good works[11]

Because Luther maintained that the justified man remains so intrinsically corrupt that he lacks free will, he not only denied the necessity of obeying God by performing good works (Mt. 25:31-46; James 2:24), but also taught that obedience to the moral law was not required for salvation. Neither positive precepts (doing good) nor negative precepts (avoiding evil) were obligatory. All that is required for salvation, he claimed, is that you trust in Christ.  In his own words:

God only obliges you to believe and to confess. In all other things He leaves you free, Lord and master to do whatever you will without any danger to your conscience; on the contrary, it is certain that, as far as He is concerned, it makes no difference whether you leave your wife, flee from your lord, or are unfaithful to every obligation. What is it to Him if you do or do not do such things?[12]

Distortion of God’s Mercy

Consistent with his other errors, Luther had an entirely false understanding of God’s mercy, which he believed man would received even if he did not abandoning his sins. Luther taught that sin does not separate man from God, no matter how grievous it is and how often it is committed.

He wrote: “During this life we have to sin. It is sufficient that, by the mercy of God, we know the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Sin will not separate us from Him, even though we were to commit a thousand murders and a thousand adulteries per day.”[13] (…) “The husband may drive away his wife; God cares not.”[14] Speaking of the moral law, he said: “let the Christian understand that it matters not whether he keeps it or not; yea, he may do what is forbidden and leave undone what is commanded, for neither is a sin."[15]

We can see how contrary the teaching of Luther is to that of Christ, who said: “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the Commandments,” and to the inspired teaching of St. John the Apostle, who said: “He who saith that he knoweth him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”(1 John 2:4).

Have You Been Saved?

Although most Protestants don’t realize it, the idea that a person will is saved by performing the singular act of “accepting Jesus as their personal savior” is founded on Luther’s heretical theology of imputed righteousness and a denial of free will. The false doctrine of “once saved always saved” is based on Luther’s error that Christ’s merits cover over the sinful soul (like snow covering a dunghill), and will remain even if they “commit a thousand murders and a thousand adulteries per day.”  If one simply makes an “act of faith” (places their trust in Christ), they are told that all their sins – past present and future –will be covered over with the righteousness of Christ, and that, consequently, they are assured of entering immediately into the beatific vision when they die.  This is where we get the Protestant practice of “altar calls” and repeating the “sinner’s prayer” - neither of which are found in the Bible, or anywhere else for the first 1500 years of Christianity.

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Luther’s Disdain for God’s Law

As we have seen, Luther’s false gospel separated trust in Christ’s merits from the necessity of believing all His teachings (e.g., “If Thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments”) and obeying His moral law. Luther despised the justice of God and anything that would seek to impose God’s moral law on man. He even claimed that man’s conscience, which reproaches him for violating the divine law, was “the voice of the devil.”  Commenting on this aspect of Luther’s teaching, Monsignor Patrick O’Hare wrote:

Luther endeavored with all his power to draw a distinction between Christ and His promulgation of the law. He wanted to have it appear that the Saviour of men should be recognized for His quality of mercy and not for His justice. … All his special pleading in this direction could not, however, still the behests of conscience which ever and always bears witness to the law and testifies to its binding force. Man, Luther admitted, bears within his heart this voice, which reproaches him with a badly spent life and which threatens him with God's judgment; but, he calls this “the voice the voice of the devil, who tries to cheat man,” and “who comes under the appearance of Christ and transforms himself into an angel of light to frighten us with the Law”’[16].[17]

In order to counteract “the voice of the devil,” Luther famously declared that man should "be a sinner, and sin boldly (esto peccator et pecca fortiter)”,[18] and even "boast of his sinfulness thus taking a weapon out of the devils hand."[19] The perverted mind of Luther further reasoned that if one were to find himself vexed by the devil, he should “commit some sin out of hatred and spite for the Devil so that we may not give him an opportunity to disturb our consciences with trifles. The whole Decalogue” continued Luther, “should be erased from our eyes and our souls, from us who are so persecuted and molested by the Devil.”[20]

What Luther did not understand, or refused to accept, is that, by the coming of Christ, only the ceremonial[21] and judicial[22] aspects of the Old Law ceased.[23] The moral aspects remain in force[24] and constitute part of what St. Paul calls “the Law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21).  Our conscience bears witness to this moral law, which is stamped upon the heart of man and therefore will always remain part of man’s rational nature (Romans 2:14).

Luther’s Vice of Impurity

The errors and warped reasoning of Luther, and the false gospel that he invented and preached, were likely his way of dealing with the vice of impurity that he was deeply entangled in, and which he openly discussed. We can see this in the following citation, in which Luther cries out

I burn with a thousand flames in my unsubdued flesh: I feel myself carried on with a rage towards women that approaches madness. I, who ought to be fervent in spirit, am only fervent in impurity.[25]

In 1521, several months after being excommunicated, he wrote the following to his disciple, Phillip Melanchton:

I find myself here insensate and hardened, established in idleness. Oh, woe! Praying little, and ceasing to moan for the Church of God, because my untamed flesh burns in great flames. In short, I, who should have the fervor of the spirit, have the fervor of the flesh, of licentiousness.[26]

Luther’s Hatred of God

St. Thomas observes that one of the effects of lust is “hatred of God by reason of His forbidding the desired pleasure.”[27] Both the Law of God and His Justice produce this hatred, since the Law forbids what they desire, and His justice threatens to punish it. We can discern evidence of Luther’s hatred for God and His justice in the earlier citation, in which he declared that man’s conscience – which is nothing but the voice of the Eternal law of God written in our heart - was “the voice of the devil,” and that the written moral Law – the Decalogue – “should be erased from our eyes and our souls.”

Both the natural law and the written law come directly from God. The purpose of the written moral Law is to add clarity to the natural law that is stamped upon our hearts. The written Law was also given, as St. Thomas explains, to correct deviations of the natural law, which, due to Original Sin, had become “perverted in the hearts of some men… so that they esteemed those things good which are naturally evil.”[28]

Since the written moral law is clear, certain, and more precise than the natural law, Luther showed more disdain for it than he did for the internal moral law (which is more easily distorted and silenced). Whereas St. Paul said “I am delighted with the law of God” (Rom. 7:22), and St. John said the “commandments are not heavy” (1. John 5:3), Luther taught that the Ten Commandments “were impossible of fulfillment and incited not love, but hatred of God."[29]

Luther directed his attack on God’s written Law toward Moses, the instrument God used to deliver it to man. In a perfect example of shooting the messenger, Luther wrote:

If Moses should attempt to intimidate you with his [!] stupid Ten Commandments, tell him right out: chase yourself to the Jews; to the gallows with Moses![30]

Monsignor O’Hare elaborates further on Luther’s hatred for Moses:

Luther had scant respect for him whom God selected to proclaim His will to the peoples and the nations from Sion's Mount. This mouth-piece of God became the special subject of his untiring and ceaseless abuse and vituperation. He not only acknowledges his opposition to Moses, but he urges it with all the vehemence he is master of. He went so far in his antagonism that he proclaimed the Law-giver a most dangerous man and the embodiment of everything that can torment the soul. His hatred of the Prophet was so deep-rooted that on one occasion he cried out: “To the gallows with Moses”. (…) His advice to all who bothered themselves with the Law-giver was to “chase that stammering and stuttering Moses,” as he called him, “with his law to the Jews and not allow his terrible threats to intimidate them.” “Moses must ever be looked upon,” he says, “with suspicion, even as upon a heretic, excommunicated, damned, worse than the Pope and the Devil.” (Comment in Gal.) The scurrilous language applied to God's messenger reaches its depths of infamy when he says further: ‘”I will not have Moses with his law, for he is the enemy of the Lord Christ”.[31]

We can see that, just as St. Thomas taught, Luther’s vice of lust resulted in a hatred for God (for His Law and justice). He directed the hatred toward the proximate voice of the law – namely, the conscience (“the voice of the devil”), and toward Moses, God’s messenger, whom he declared to be “worse than the devil”. But later in life, Luther admitted the obvious – namely, that he was really harboring a hatred for God and His justice. He wrote:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. … I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. … the justice of God had filled me with hate.[32]

By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

The bad fruits of Luther’s heresies quickly spread throughout Germany. Luther experienced them in his own spiritual life and witnessed them in the lives of his followers. "The gospel today” wrote Luther, “finds adherents who are convinced that it is nothing but a doctrine that serves to fill their bellies and give free reign to all their impulses"[33] With fallen human nature as it is, what else should be expected when people are led to believe that they are not responsible for their actions, and that their salvation is not dependent upon obedience to God?  Speaking of his own spiritual life, Luther wrote:

I confess, and many others could undoubtedly make an equal confession, that I am now more negligent than I was under the Pope: and there is now nowhere such an amount of earnestness under the Gospel, as was formerly seen among monks and priests.[34]

In his book, Luther and the Lutherans, the Austrian historian, Heinrich Seuse Denifle, discusses the bad fruits of Luther’s false gospel at length.  “Not once merely” wrote Denifle,” but often he [Luther] says that his Lutherans were seven times worse than before. ‘There was indeed one devil driven out of us, but now seven of them more wicked have gone into us’ (Luther, Erl. 36, 411.)”[35]

Referring to his new doctrine of justification by faith alone, Denifle quotes Luther as admitting, “the world by this teaching becomes only the worse, the longer it exists … As one sees, the people are more avaricious, less merciful, more immodest, bolder and worse than before under the Papacy … Avarice, usury, immodesty, gluttony, cursing, lying, cheating are abroad in all their might ... everyone now complains that the gospel [i.e., Luther’s “gospel”] causes much unrest, bickering and disordered conduct … the more it is preached, the worse they become and the weaker our faith is.[36]

Luther’s complaints were echoed by other early “reformers” such as the former Franciscan, Henry Von Kettenbach, who, as early as 1525, wrote: “Many people now act as if all sins and wickedness were permitted, as if there were no hell, no devil, no God, and they are more evil than they have ever been, and still wish to be good Evangelicals.”[37] Another fallen Franciscan, Eberlin Von Gtinzburg, said the “Evangelicals” of his day had become “doubly worse than the Papists, yes, worse than Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom.”[38]

The conditions had become so bad that Luther expressed doubts whether he would have begun preaching his new gospel had he foreseen the results: “Yes, who would have wanted to begin preaching,” wrote Luther, “had we known beforehand that so much misfortune, factiousness, scandal, calumny, ingratitude and wickedness were to follow. But now that we are in it, we have to pay for it.”[39]

Eleven years after his excommunication, Luther wrote the following about the state of Germany:

We Germans sin and are the servants of sin; we live in carnal lusts … We wish to do what we like and that which does the devil a service, and we wish to be free to do only just what we want. Few are they who remember the true problem of how they may be free from sin. They are well content to have been rid of the Pope, officials, and from other laws, but they do not think on how they may serve Christ” (…) should one now depict Germany, he would have to paint her as a sow.[40]

If this weren’t bad enough, Luther admitted that those who embraced his new “gospel” began to despise the Word of God, and ceased to fear, honor, and love God Himself:

I would not be astonished if God should open the gates and windows of hell, and snow or rain down devils, or rain down on our heads fire and brimstone, or bury us in a fiery abyss as he did Sodom and Gomorrah. … They were a thousand times less culpable than Germany, for they had not received the word of God (…) Since the downfall of Popery and the cessation's of ex-communications and spiritual penalties the people have learned to despise the word of God. … they have ceased to fear and honor God. I would wish, if it were possible, to leave these men without a preacher or pastor and let them live like swine. There is no longer any fear or love of God among them. After throwing off the yoke of the Pope, everyone wishes to live as he pleases.[41]


Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone” is not only contrary to reason and the teaching of Scripture, but it produces nothing but rotten fruits, as Luther himself admitted. But we will close with perhaps the most interesting admission of all from “The Great Reformer,” in which he reveals what he truly believed about his doctrine of justification. He wrote:

There is no religion in the world that teaches this doctrine of justification: I myself, even though I teach it publicly, have a great difficulty believing it privately.[42]

And this is the man whose “Reformation” the Modernists in Rome plan to commemorate later this year? God help us!

[1] R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Theological Virtues I On Faith (St. Louis & London: B. Herder Book Co., 1965) p. 80
[2] Ibid. p 269
[3] Vatican I, Sess. iii., cap 3. 
[4] ST I-II, q. 100 a. 12
[5] Apoc. 22:11-12; also see: Romans 2:13, James 1:22, Mt. 7:21, 24, John 13:17.
[6] Ibid. p 268
[7] See: Original Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) article on Sanctifying Grace, 
[8] “I take grace in the proper sense of the favor of God – not a quality of the soul.” (Martin Luther, LW 32:227)
[9] JG Walch XHL 1480; Patrick O’Hare, The Facts About Luther (New York, Fredrick Pustet, Inc,  1916), p. 106
[10] Wittenberg III.518; The Facts About Luther (Ibid.) p. 105
[11] The Facts About Luther (Ibid.) pp. 274-275
[12] Werke, Weimar ed., XII, pp. 131 ff.;  Fr. Leonel Franca, S.J., The Church, the Reformation, and Civilization, 3rd ed. (Rio de Janeiro, Editora Civilizacão Brasileira, 1934)  p. 446
[13] Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken, 2, p. 37; The Church, the Reformation, and Civilization, (Ibid.) p. 439
[14] Wittenberg. V, 123, The Facts About Luther (Ibid.) p. 333
[15] Wittenberg, XI. 447; Ibid. p. 120
[16] Wittenberg V, 321, 321B. 
[17] The Facts About Luther (Ibid.) pp. 117-118.
[18] Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken, II, p. 37;  quoted The Church, the Reformation, and Civilization, (Ibid.) p. 439
[19] Whittenberg V.281 B; also see: LW 35, p. 165’
[20] Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken, Ed. DeWette [Berlin, 1825-1828];  quoted in The Church, the Reformation, and Civilization (Ibid.) pp. 199-200
[21] Cf. Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 8:13; ST q. 103, a. 3
[22] “For the priesthood being translated, it is necessary that a translation also be made of the law” (Heb. 7:12). Cf. ST I-II, q. 104, a. 3
[23] ST I-II q. 104, a. 3; q. 107, a. 2. ad 1
[24] Mt. 19:17
[25] Table Talk, M.J. Spalding, D.D., The History of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and Switzerland, Vol. I (Baltimore: John Murpy & Co., 1860) p. 463
[26] Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken, II, p. 22; The Church, the Reformation, and Civilization, (Ibid.) p. 198.
[27] ST II-II q. 153, a. 5 
[28] ST I-II, q. 94, a. 5, ad. 1
[29] The Facts About Luther, (Ibid.) p. 114
[30] Witenberg ad. 5, 1573; LW 35:159
[31] The Facts About Luther, (Ibid.) p.120.
[32] Preface of the first edition of Luther’s collected writings (1545), translated by R. Bainton, Here I Stand. A Life of Martin Luther (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951) p. 48.
[33] Werke, XXXII,
[34] JG Walch, v. XI, 1311; WA 36, p. 469
[35] Heinrich Denifle, Luther and Lutherdom, translated by Raymond Volz, Vol I, Part I, (Torn Press, Somerset, O, 1917) pp. 24.
[36] Heinrich Denifle, Luther and Lutherdom, translated by Raymond Volz, Vol I, Part I, (Torn Press, Somerset, O, 1917) pp. 24-25.
[37] N. Paulus, in Kaspar Schatzgeyer (1898) p. 56, Note, 1; Ibid. p. 26
[38] A. Riggenbach, Joh. Eberlin v. Gunzburg (1874) p. 242; Ibid. p. 26
[39] Erl. 50, 74 [EA, vol. 50, p. 74] cited in Luther and Lutherdom, p. 26; LW 24, p 357-358.
[40] EA. vol. 48, p. 389; EA vol. 8, p. 294; Ibid. pp. 24-25.
[41] Paul Maclachlan, The Bible: It Use and Abuse (London, Charles Dolman, 1851), p. 241
[42] Werke, XXV, p. 330; The Church, the Reformation, and Civilization (Ibid.) p. 158.

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