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date: 29 April 2017

Martin Luther on Grace

Summary and Keywords

Grace is an essential element of Christian theological reflection. Primarily, the divine attribute or trait labeled “grace” refers to God’s disposition and activity in regard to the Creation in general and toward human beings in particular. From the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, Scripture bears witness to the fact that God creates things “good” and gives good things. God’s grace is especially manifest in the divine promises and other gifts described in the Bible and realized over time. At the same time, the Scriptures show that human beings—made in the image of God—have a history of devaluing, forgetting, and even abusing those things that God has graciously given. Part of Christianity’s doctrinal development, therefore, consists of attempts to describe the scope and sequence of God’s gracious regard and activity on behalf of a humanity prone to sin and rebellion.

In light of such creaturely “original sin” and ongoing rebellion, Scripture testifies that the Creator remains gracious—that God yet desires to be in relationship with human beings despite their sin. Theological considerations of grace share a basic assumption that although God is not obligated to think, feel, and act for the benefit of sinful humans, God does so nevertheless. While God’s wrath results in severe consequences for sin, God’s grace results in gifts that overcome sin and its consequences. The full extent of God’s gracious giving is in the giving of the divine self in Jesus Christ, the divine Logos made flesh, who is “full of grace and truth” and from whose “fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).

Martin Luther’s theology can be fundamentally construed as the development of his thought regarding the nature of grace, the nature of God’s favor and blessing bestowed upon undeserving human beings. The many dimensions of Luther’s biblical teaching and theological reflection have, in the background a desire to understand God’s grace most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. As such, Luther’s concepts of the righteousness of God, justification by faith, the bound will, the distinction of law and gospel, the new obedience, the “happy exchange,” and many related concepts are, at heart, attempts to describe what it is to have a God of grace.

Most interpreters have rightly understood that in Luther’s view, to have a gracious God means to have a God who does not require human beings to fulfill a set of prerequisites in order to receive God’s gift in Christ or to reciprocate God’s giving in order to continue receiving Christ and his benefits. For Luther, to have a God of grace means to believe and trust that through Jesus Christ, God has already met all prerequisites and fulfilled all reciprocations. On this point, Luther found himself breaking new ground (or recovering lost ground) in the understanding of divine grace. Luther “broke” with those theological forebears who taught that divine grace was, in one way or another, partly dependent on human willing and doing. For Luther, God graciously wills and works “all in all.” Nevertheless, when Luther’s many descriptions of what it is to “have a gracious God” are analyzed, a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the One giving the gift and the ones receiving it begins to reveal itself. For Luther, faith—that gracious means through which God graciously bestows the righteousness of Christ—creates a dynamic rather than static experience of possessing and being possessed of a God of grace. Indeed, scrutinizing Luther’s writings for descriptions of the experientia of sola gratia continues to be a promising direction for future Luther research.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Christ, donum, gospel, justification, merit, promise, righteousness, sola gratia, grace

Late Medieval Theology and the Early Luther on Grace

Luther’s earliest conceptions of grace were shaped by a number of communal movements, including the Brethren of the Common Life, the Devotio Moderna, late Renaissance humanism, late medieval Nominalism, and 14th-century German mysticism, as well as individual figures such as Johannes Tauler, Wessell Gansfort, Gabriel Biel, William of Occam, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Augustine of Hippo. Occam and Biel were the strongest early intellectual influences while Luther was a student in Erfurt. However, Luther’s conceptual understanding of grace began its most consequential evolution as a result of his intense readings of Augustine, which he likely began in Erfurt in 1509 and continued during his early years as a professor in Wittenberg.

Luther entered the Augustinian friary at Erfurt a mere ten years after Biel’s death. Biel’s adaptations of Occam’s adaptations of the teachings of Thomas Aquinas were imparted to Luther by his professors at Erfurt. It is from these “Scholastic” or “the Nominalists” teachers that Luther learned about the various Thomistic distinctions of grace (curative, elevating, operating, cooperating, prevenient, subsequent, and more) and merit (congruent and condign).1 It is also from these teachers that Luther learned the specifics of the notion that in order to continue receiving God’s grace, one needs “to do what is within oneself” (facere quod in se est).2

The young Luther learned, understood, and communicated the “grace-infused” system well. Throughout his career, he could still be found explaining the late medieval theological approach while also refuting it. For instance, responding to a friend’s question regarding the proper interpretation of John 15:5 (“Apart from me you can do nothing”), Luther wrote:

To begin with, I think you know the two distinctions … of our teachers which were taught about this passage. … When it is said, “You can do nothing without me,” it means in this context that without the “specific influence” [of grace] we can do nothing perfectly. Of course on the basis of the “general influence” [of nature] we can indeed do something which as a “beginning action” is good. This means that on the basis of the “general influence” we can prepare ourselves by our own strength for receiving grace (or the “specific influence”) so that we may do something meritorious; we cannot, however, do something meritorious in itself by this “[general] influence” and by our own strength. This is the way this passage has been understood and explained so far. However, Christ totally rejects the “general influence.” …, Christ declares simply and without distinction that without the “specific” (as they call it) “influence”—or the grace of God—nothing can be done that in the eyes of God is not worthy of fire.3

By 1520, in contradiction to his earliest theological influences, Luther had come to understand that all grace was prevenient—that where divine grace is concerned, nothing hinged on human doing “in the presence of God” (coram Deo).

A great deal can be learned about what Luther learned about grace from the Nominalists by analyzing his statements against them. In the months before the publication of The Ninety-five Theses, Luther wrote ninety-seven theses in preparation for a disputation that amounted to an attack on late medieval theology. Thirty-one of these ninety-seven theses explicitly state whom they oppose, whether “the Scholastics,” “philosophers,” or “common opinion” in general, or Biel, Occam, and/or other mid-to-late medieval theologians, such as Duns Scotus and Pierre d’Ailly, in particular. This Disputation against Scholastic Theology revolved around Thesis 50: “Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This is in opposition to the Scholastics.”4

The theses demonstrate that by fall of 1517, Luther had broken almost completely with his era’s overarching theological tradition regarding grace. In addition, they reveal “via negativa” the things that Luther learned from specific Nominalist thinkers. Many theses from the disputation highlight some of what Luther learned from his teachers concerning grace—and which teachers and teachings he now rejected:

  1. 54. For an act to be meritorious, either the presence of grace is sufficient, or its presence means nothing. This in opposition to Gabriel [Biel].

  2. 55. The grace of God is never present in such a way that it is inactive, but it is a living, active, and operative spirit; nor can it happen that through the absolute power of God an act of friendship may be present without the presence of the grace of God. This in opposition to Gabriel.

  3. 56. It is not true that God can accept man without his justifying grace. This in opposition to Occam.

  4. 57. It is dangerous to say that the law commands that an act of obeying the commandment be done in the grace of God. This in opposition to the Cardinal [d’Ailly] and Gabriel.

  5. 58. From this it would follow that “to have the grace of God” is actually a new demand going beyond the law.

  6. 59. It would also follow that fulfilling the law can take place without the grace of God.

  7. 60. Likewise it follows that the grace of God would be more hateful than the law itself.

  8. 61. It does not follow that the law should be complied with and fulfilled in the grace of God. This in opposition to Gabriel …

  9. 89. Grace as a mediator is necessary to reconcile the law with the will.

  10. 90. The grace of God is given for the purpose of directing the will, lest it err even in loving God. In opposition to Gabriel.5

Overall, as part of his strategy to outline an understanding of grace not dependent upon Aristotle, Luther’s ninety-seven theses make thirteen claims “in opposition to Gabriel,” five claims “in opposition” to the Scholastics, and only two “in opposition” to Occam. These numbers do not necessarily indicate that Biel bore the brunt of Luther’s antipathy toward Scholastic theology, but they do indicate that in that decisive autumn of 1517, Luther believed that Biel’s ideas about grace deserved open contradiction.6

The Disputation against Scholastic Theology is revealing in one more way, namely, in regard to Luther’s preference for Augustine. Luther specifically defended Augustine in Theses 1 and 12. At this point in his career, Luther had plumbed Augustine’s writings and had become deeply influenced by the bishop’s doctrines of sin and grace. Judging simply by the number of references in his lectures and other writings of this period, Luther was particularly impressed and convinced by the ideas presented in Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter. Augustine offered Luther a point of departure from the Scholastics while allowing Luther to remain rooted in the Latin Christian tradition nevertheless. Moreover, Augustine led Luther to consider the testimony of Scripture and of the Apostle Paul in particular, unfiltered by Biel, Occam, Aquinas, or Aristotle. Indeed, during this period, Luther saw Augustine as Paul’s “most trustworthy interpreter.”7 Although he would continue to hold Augustine in the highest regard, Luther also later acknowledged that “even he is not satisfactory everywhere,” including in regard to the notion of imputed righteousness.8

Grace and the Righteousness of God

Signs of Luther’s affinity for Augustine and his teachings on sin and grace are already discernible in his “Lectures on the Psalms,” begun in 1513. In fact, Luther interpreted Psalm 1:6 as a verse “that contains the most extraordinary praise of Augustine” for, among other things, “he did not set up his own righteousness nor justify himself or attribute anything to himself.”9 Luther cited Augustine repeatedly in the Psalms lectures, including in support of his observation under Psalm 18:9 that “God gives grace to the humble.”

Although Luther does not systematize grace (or, for that matter, Augustine) in the Psalms lectures, he does now and then appear to stumble upon statements that hint at formulations that would become central to his later understanding. Consider, for example, another comment entered under his work on the first Psalm: “the grace and righteousness of God are all the more rich in us … when we judge that we have less righteousness. The more we condemn, confound, and curse ourselves, the more richly the grace of God flows into us.”10 Luther’s Augustine-inspired Psalms interpretations highlight two notions about grace held over from his formative years: (1) that humility (over against more active good works) was in a sense a prerequisite for the reception of grace and (2) that grace was a kind of substance that “flowed” into humble sinners of the right disposition—an “infused grace,” as it were. As Luther’s investigations of the Bible continued, these notions would be amended.

Beginning in the summer of 1515, Luther began to lecture on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here, Luther encountered the apostle in depth, progressing through Paul’s theological magnum opus via twice-weekly lectures. A study of Luther’s textual clarifications (glossa) and commentary (scholia) demonstrate that the professor was not yet at the point of making the righteousness of God a central theme or, for that matter, expanding and clarifying a doctrine of grace. Nevertheless, there is movement toward the developed position regarding grace that Luther would express more clearly a few years later. In 1515, he could at least emphasize that the righteousness of God did something, and he could invoke Augustine in support of such claims. This is most apparent in the commentary for the key passage, Romans 1:17:

For the righteousness of God is the cause of salvation. And here again, by the righteousness of God we must not understand the righteousness by which He is righteous in Himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteous by God. This happens through faith in the Gospel. Therefore blessed Augustine writes in chapter 11 of On the Spirit and the Letter: “It is called the righteousness of God because by imparting it He makes righteous people …”11

The passage demonstrates that Luther had begun to understand righteousness as a gift of God (donum Dei) bestowed—that is, passively received—“through faith.” The passage suggests that Luther had already shifted from understanding faith as the reciprocating response of the believer to understanding that faith was itself a manifestation of divine grace.

As Luther moved through Romans, he did not so much treat grace as a specific subject but instead elaborated on Paul’s descriptions of God’s gracious activity on behalf of rebellious sinners. Occasionally, Luther landed upon an observation that rings familiar in light of later Lutheran formulas while still mainly taking his cues from Augustine. For instance, in his commentary on Romans 3:21, where Paul begins to proclaim the righteousness of faith apart from the Law, Luther again cited a lengthy passage from Augustine, a passage that concludes with an observation that hints at a law/grace distinction: “The Law is given, therefore, in order that grace may be sought …”12 On the other hand, Luther missed Paul’s clearest identification of grace in this chapter. That is, although Luther offered ample commentary for Romans 3:21, 23, 25, and 26, there is no record of a comment for Romans 3:24 (“they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption of Christ Jesus”).

Nevertheless, there is an important clarification in Luther’s commentary on Paul’s reference to “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one Man” (Romans 5:15)—a clarification that Luther would maintain throughout his career. Here, he first acknowledged that the apostle pairs grace and gift “as if they were different.” Luther clarified, however, that “‘the grace of God’ and ‘the gift’ are the same thing, namely, the very righteousness which is given to us through Christ.” At the same time, he appeared to identify the grace/gift of righteousness as having two parts: First, there is the grace of God “by which he justifies us” with Christ and his merits as the originating point; second, there is the gift, “namely, that which Christ pours out from his father upon those who believe in him.”13 Luther’s commentary on Romans 5:15 is brief and underdeveloped, suggesting that the full implications were as yet unrealized. However, centuries later, his interpreters would discover new applications for this grace/gift “dialectic.”

During the period of Luther’s Romans study of 1515–1516, it is possible that although his lecture preparations had led him to write that God’s grace encompassed the gift of righteousness through faith, he may not yet have understood the idea as a core theological orientation or biblical hermeneutic. Furthermore, his experiences of a gracious God were apparently fleeting. In an oft-cited reminiscence written one year before his death, Luther recalled that during these years he was “angry with God,” that he understood the gospel as something by which God threatened “us with his righteousness and wrath,” and that he therefore “raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”14 Nevertheless, the fact that Luther could lecture forthrightly concerning God’s grace “poured out” upon believers suggests that he did not constantly experience the symptoms of a troubled conscience during these years. Luther’s appreciation for his superior, Johannes Staupitz, as a “messenger from heaven” is but one indication that he at least occasionally experienced God’s love and mercy to be close at hand.15

By his own telling, however, Luther’s despair drove his intellectual search.16 This search continued to bear fruit in the wake of the publication of the Ninety-five Theses (1517).17 In April 1518, at Heidelberg, he presented twenty-eight theological articles for disputation. In Theses 16–18, he clarified that anyone “who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is within him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.” Instead, one is “prepared to receive the grace of Christ” when one humbly despairs of having the ability to merit grace.18 However, even humility regarding one’s ability is the work of God. In a revealing passage from Luther’s “proof” to Thesis 16, he explained that “the law makes us aware of sin so that, having recognized our sin, we may seek and receive grace … The law humbles, grace exalts. The law effects fear and wrath, grace effects hope and mercy.” Knowledge of sin produces humility and “through humility grace is acquired.” In this way, God “makes a person a sinner so that he may make him righteous.”19 Understood this way, even “original sin is a gift”—as Luther suggested in his commentary on Romans 5:15.20

Luther’s explanation of Thesis 16 represents an early rendition of what would become the overarching evangelical distinction, namely, law and grace, also known as law and gospel. Theses 26–27 represent another rendition of the law/gospel distinction:

  1. 26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

  2. 27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work and our work an accomplished work, and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

The understanding that grace “works” outside of the Law through faith so that truly good works are wrought as a result of divine grace indicate that by spring, 1518, Luther was operating under a reoriented understanding of grace. This reoriented understanding is sufficiently summarized in Heidelberg’s final theological thesis: “The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it …”21

Distinguishing “Grace upon Grace”

In November 1519, Luther received an official condemnation written by certain faculty at the University of Louvain. He responded the following year. One of the Louvain professors, Jacob Latomus, responded to Luther. In June 1521, while he was in “protective custody” at the Wartburg, Luther responded with Against Latomus. Here, Luther was primarily concerned with the question of sin after baptism. Contra Latomus, he contended that real, original sin remains after baptism, even though baptism marks God’s full acceptance of the sinner. In support of this contention, Luther revisited the grace/gift theme. First, he explained that in contrast with Latomus, he understood grace “in the proper sense,” namely, as “the favor of God—not a quality of the soul.” Next, Luther clarified that grace correlates with the overall good will and favor with which God regards sinners on account of Christ, while “gift” correlates with the righteousness of faith in Christ that works to remedy sin and its effects. Tracking grace and gift in this lengthy section of Against Latomus has its challenges, but one statement in particular seems to offer the best summary of Luther’s central point: “We therefore have two goods of the gospel against the two evils of the law: the gift on account of sin, and grace on account of wrath.”22

In much the same way that Luther treated other dialectical conceptions, he here distinguishes but does not separate grace and gift: “A righteous and faithful man doubtless has both grace and gift.” And yet grace and gift are to be discerned as follows:

Grace makes him wholly pleasing so that his person is wholly accepted, and there is no place for wrath in him anymore, but the gift heals from sin and from all his corruption of body and soul … Everything is forgiven through grace, but as yet not everything is healed through the gift. The gift has been infused, the leaven has been added to the mixture. It works so as to purge away the sin for which a person has already been forgiven, and to drive out the evil guest for whose expulsion permission has been given.23

Citing Romans 5:15 (again), Luther declared that the gift is the righteousness of faith, “the inward good”—imputed and infused—“which purges the sin to which it is opposed … The grace of God, on the other hand, is an outward good, God’s favor, the opposite of wrath.”24 Luther’s formulations in Against Latomus indicate that he had come to understand grace as God’s plenary and all-encompassing beneficial regard for sinners, with the net result that all who are in Christ are wholly and always exempt from divine wrath. Gift, on the other hand, was the manifestation of grace, the righteousness of faith given to sinners on the ground, in real time.

A year later, in the “September Testament” (1522), Luther provided a preface to the Book of Romans in which he once again advanced the grace/gift distinction. Here, Luther expressed many of the same ideas found in Against Latomus, but with notable variations. Again with reference to Romans 5:15, he stated:

Between grace and gift there is this difference. Grace actually means God’s favor, or the good will which in himself he bears toward us, by which he is disposed to give us Christ and to pour into us the Holy Spirit with his gifts. This is clear from chapter 5[:15], where St. Paul speaks of “the grace and gift in Christ,” etc. The gifts and the Spirit increase in us every day, but they are not yet perfect since there remain in us the evil desires and sins that war against the Spirit … Nevertheless grace does so much that we are accounted completely righteous before God. For his grace is not divided or parceled out, as are the gifts, but takes us completely into favor for the sake of Christ our Intercessor and Mediator. And because of this, the gifts are begun in us.”25

In Against Latomus, “gift” appeared simply to connote the righteousness of faith. In his 1522 Romans preface, Luther clarifies that “gift” includes Christ himself and the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. Furthermore, these gifts are poured “into us,” “parceled out,” and “begun in us.” The fact that these words are essentially unrevised in the Romans preface prepared for the 1546 printing of his New Testament suggest that Luther did not change his mind about the grace/gift distinction. Indeed, as late as 1544, he would cite Romans 5:15, proclaiming that “grace forgives sins, brings comfort and peace to the conscience, and establishes mortals in the kingdom of divine mercy.” On the other hand, “the gift … is the Holy Spirit working in mortals to renew thoughts, minds, hearts, comfort, strength, and life.”26

As an exegete and teacher of Holy Scripture, Luther sought to understand how a biblical word, phrase, verse, or chapter fit with his developing theology. Luther admitted as much: When he learned that God’s righteousness was given to rather than earned by sinners, Luther “ran through the Scriptures from memory,” understanding all of God’s Word in a new light.27 This can be seen in his treatment of Romans 5:15 and Paul’s mention of grace and gift. It can also be seen in his exegesis of John 1:17 and the phrase “grace upon grace.” Luther would have been taught that the verse served as biblical warrant for the Scholastic strategy of differentiating grace into subtypes—“Divisions of Grace,” as Aquinas called them. As has been shown, Luther was not beyond making distinctions, especially when the biblical text implies a distinction. Therefore, he elaborated “grace upon grace” as follows:

John speaks of two types of grace. Christ’s grace is the unfathomable well and chief fountain of all grace; he called this “Christ’s fullness.” And ours is that grace which we draw from Christ, which He distributes among us and which He gives us for His mercy’s sake to render us pleasing and agreeable to God. Thus St. John diverts us from any reliance on self and from any confidence in our own work and merit, and he directs us to the mercy of Christ and to the love of God.

Luther’s description of the second grace is similar to his description of “gift” in the grace/gift distinction described earlier. Indeed, when compared with Aquinas and his late medieval descendants, Luther appears less concerned with carefully defining and systematizing grace’s various qualifications and distinctions and more concerned with sounding a single note: No matter how one describes it, God’s grace is not for sale or for trade: “No, God does not barter His rich and boundless grace for your grimy, lousy cowl … or for other works, no matter how attractively they may gleam and glisten.” For Luther, the divine–human economy is entirely reducible: “This is ‘grace upon grace’: that the Father takes delight in us for Christ’s sake, and that through Christ we receive the Holy Spirit and are justified.”28 In addition, Luther viewed these two graces as overlapping, rather than sequential: At the same time that the Father is graciously disposed to humans on account of Christ, the gift and gifts of the Holy Spirit are given and received.

One additional distinction in the development of Luther’s understanding of grace should here be noted, namely, his discernment of “the light of grace.” As noted previously, the early Luther wrote and taught under the influence of Augustine. In a 1515 commentary on Romans 8, he took a cue from Augustine’s anti-Pelagian work, On Nature and Grace. In this passage, Luther distinguished between “light of nature” and the “light of grace” in order to argue that sinful human nature, outside of grace, constituted “a terrible curving in on itself.” By the light of grace, a person prefers God and all that is of God. By the light of nature, a person sets the self in place of God, becoming “the greatest idol” and even making “God into an idol and the truth of God into a lie.” Therefore, the wisdom of nature—which Luther correlates with human “reason and sense”—“is not a light, but … can much better be called a darkness.”29

Ten years later, Luther would employ the distinction of lights in a new context: his arguments on behalf of the bound will. In the well-known, penultimate section of On the Bondage of the Will, Luther described grace as a means of divine revelation regarding the question: Why do the ungodly flourish? The answer to this question is inscrutable when viewed in the light of nature, which, according to Luther, cannot fathom heaven or hell or how to attain the one and avoid the other. On the one hand, the light of grace—which Luther here also calls “the light of the Gospel”—teaches “that although the ungodly flourish in their bodies, they lose their souls.” Grace, in other words, reveals “that there is a life after this life and whatever has not been punished and rewarded here will be punished and rewarded there.” Yet, Luther acknowledged that the light of grace cannot by itself answer this question: If all are bound to sin and incapable of choosing God, why would God save only some but damn others? The answer to this question lies in the “light of glory,” in the hereafter, when the light of grace—which he here also calls “the light of the Word and of faith”—“comes to an end, and reality itself and the Divine Majesty are revealed in their own light.”30 In other words, for Luther, the light of grace is penultimate, temporary, existing only for the meantime, in between the “lights” of nature and glory. Grace is for the here and now, existing for the sake of fitting the faithful for the eschatological glory to come.

There is one last distinction to elaborate, however.

“To Have a God of Grace” in Light of Law and Gospel

By the time of the Commentary on Galatians (published in 1535), Luther’s distinction of law and gospel—or, properly, law and grace—was well developed and increasingly urged:

But we who, by the grace of God, accept the doctrine of justification know for certain that we are justified solely by faith in Christ. Therefore, we do not confuse the law and grace, or faith and works; but we separate them as far as possible. Let everyone who is concerned for godliness observe this distinction of law and grace diligently.31

Still sharper words can be found elsewhere in the commentary:

Who would ever believe that these things could be mixed up so easily? There is no one so stupid that he does not recognize how definite this distinction between Law and grace is. Both the facts and the words require this distinction, for everyone understands that these words “Law” and “grace” are different in both name and fact. Therefore it is a monstrosity when this distinction stands there so clearly, for the papists and the fanatics to fall into the satanic perversity of confusing the Law and grace and of changing Christ into Moses. This is why I often say that so far as the words are concerned, this doctrine of faith is very easy, and everyone can easily understand the distinction between the Law and grace; but so far as practice, life, and application are concerned, it is the most difficult thing there is.32

Although Luther utilized the term “Law and Gospel” more frequently than “Law and Grace,” the two are essentially synonymous. On one occasion, he recommended another synonym: “threat and promise.”33 Whichever words are used to denote the two elements, Luther famously insisted that the ability to discern law and grace/gospel was the chief prerequisite for any theologian, that “whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.”34 The matter of “Distinguishing Law and Gospel” is treated at greater length elsewhere in this volume. It is enough to say here that, the law/gospel distinction provides a useful context for understanding Luther’s many reflections concerning what it means to have a “God of grace.”

Luther was not above linking the grace of God to good behavior. For instance, in a 1528 series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, he repeatedly explained to his hearers: “If you do this … you will have a gracious God.”35 Rhetorically, Luther was elaborating upon the “reward clause” of Exodus 20:6 in which God promises to show steadfast love to “the thousandth generation” of those who keep the commandments. Such a law–grace quid pro quo was unusual for Luther. Law and grace constituted the two-edged sword of God’s Word. Although both represented the verbum Dei, the legal requirement and the gracious gift were not to be confused. To have a God of grace over and against a God of law amounted to one thing: faith in Christ. “I am neither to know nor believe that I have a gracious God” by performing good works; instead, the Bible teaches him that “I must believe and know that God is gracious to me through Jesus Christ before I can do works that please God.”36

The phrase “to have a gracious God” (and its variations) appears frequently in Luther’s writings. Such frequent usage matches in part the characterization of Luther as a man in search of a gracious God.37 As a result, he learned how to distinguish the God who was angry on account of sin from the God who loved and bestowed favor on account of Christ. Although the distinction is found throughout Luther’s works, it is in the commentaries on Jesus’s final admonitions to his disciples that one finds the greatest concentration of Luther’s description of what it is to have—and not to have—a gracious God. In his understanding, “the aim of this whole sermon [in John 14-17] is to make the disciples certain of the Father’s love for them and to move them, in turn, to love the Lord Christ.” In order to accomplish this, each disciple would need to be impressed with “the knowledge that he has a gracious God …”38

Such certainty is accomplished primarily by the “beautiful and comforting promises” that Christ gives in these last words, for “from them we are to know—if we hold to his Word—that we have a good and gracious God in heaven and that Christ … will be with us and protect us mightily.”39 An evil conscience or a heart filled with false hope and doubt will always be “harassed by the devil, constantly disquieted and uneasy.” Such a “heart cannot say that it has a gracious God.” Therefore, when Christ says, “‘My peace I give to you … not as the world gives.’ … It is as though he were saying: ‘I know of no greater treasure to leave you than that you may fare well. For no one has peace unless he enjoys well-being.’”40 In light of Luther’s own struggles with despair, it is possible to detect something autobiographical in these reflections. He experienced both having and not having a God of grace.

The term “the means of grace” is nearly nonexistent in Luther’s writings. On the other hand, Luther abundantly identifies the various means by which sinners may know they have a gracious God. Certainly there is the preached Word of God and baptism, but also that Christ “gives me his body to eat and his blood to drink so that I shall not and cannot doubt that I have a gracious God.”41 Whatever the means—whether the Lord’s Supper, or baptism, or confession and absolution—grace itself is the ultimate source of knowing that one has a God of grace: “This grace truly produces peace of heart until finally a man is healed from his corruption and feels he has a gracious God.”42 In the end, the matter can be boiled down to the gift of faith: If someone “does not steadfastly believe that he has a gracious God, then he actually does not have a gracious God. As he believes, so he has:”43 “For the one who through faith is sure in his heart that he has a gracious God—a God who is not angry even though wrath is deserved—that one will go and do everything joyfully. Moreover, such a person can live in the same way before all people, loving and doing good to all, even if they are not worthy of love.”44

The history of the interpretation of Luther can be viewed in part as an attempt to parse out his understanding of the effect of God’s grace upon sinners: how Christ and his benefits are communicated and what happens to those who receive Christ and his benefits. Luther’s frequent use of the phrase “to have a gracious God” signals those places where he moves from abstract or general reflection upon the nature of God’s grace to more concrete considerations of how grace is reflected in the understanding and experience of actual sinners on the receiving end of grace. Intra-Lutheran discussions concerning divine election and human freedom, infused and imputed righteousness, sanctification and cooperation, various theories of atonement, the communication of attributes, and the possibility of theosis—each of these discussions and perhaps others will benefit from a more thorough investigation of Luther’s plentiful reflections informed by this unique phrase: “to have a gracious God.”

For the sake of inspiring such investigations, this section concludes with a look at what Luther’s conception of grace looks like. In 1529, the studio of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Wittenberg’s famed artist and Luther’s neighbor, produced a work presently known in English as “Law and Grace.” Completed in the same year that Luther’s Catechisms were published, Cranach’s Gesetz und Gnade (“Law and Grace”) illustrates the distinction of law and gospel (see Figure 1).

Martin Luther on GraceClick to view larger

Figure 1. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Gesetz und Gnade, 1529, tempera on lime.

By permission of Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany.

This painting measures almost three feet wide and four feet high and served as the prototype for many similar works. It is divided into two parts by a tall, narrow tree that splits the middle. On the left, one sees a man running headlong into the flames of hell, compelled there by a skeleton (death) and the devil, all of which is shown happening under the auspices of the Law (with Moses and the prophets).

Contrasting with the scene on the left is the scene on the right. Here one sees another man in a posture of receiving. Next to him is John the Baptist, who points at the crucified Christ. A mix of blood and water pours from the side of the crucified one and onto the man, baptizing him. The Holy Spirit, shown as a dove, is given in this baptism. Below the crucified Christ is an open sarcophagus next to which lie death and the devil, crushed and defeated.45 The implication is straightforward: This is what it is to have a God of grace.

Review of the Literature

Scholars who write about Luther’s core theological themes—be it justification by faith, two kingdoms, or theology of the cross, to name just three—are in one way or another also writing about Luther’s understanding of grace. Luther’s theological writings are almost solely preoccupied with the communication—the giving and receiving—of Jesus Christ to mortals apart from human merit. In his view, Jesus Christ is grace and grace is Jesus Christ. In this way, all of Luther’s works are in some sense about grace, and all interpretations of Luther are in some sense about grace. To “review the literature” concerning Luther on grace, broadly understood, would require covering a great deal of scholarly territory. Therefore, this discussion is mainly concerned with scholarship that directly discusses the subjects and themes addressed in the article.

In the middle of the last century, there was strong interest in unearthing the sources that preceded Luther and the rise of evangelical theology. Three works stand out: The Harvest of Late Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism and The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought, both by Heiko Oberman,46 and Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology by Denis Janz. Each of these works explores the development of Luther’s theology in light of his Scholastic/Nominalist forebears. Oberman’s work emphasizes Occam via Biel, while the book by Janz makes the argument that Luther’s inherited Nominalism represented an incomplete understanding of Aquinas.

The legend of the “tower experience,” or a single “aha” moment—a legend that Luther himself helped create—was long ago undone by scholarly investigations of his lectures, disputations, tracts, and correspondence from 1512 to 1519. Two works that carefully track Luther’s development through this “breakthrough” period are Oberman’s Dawn of the Reformation, as well as The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, by Berndt Hamm.47

In addition, see Hamm’s article “Naher Zorn und Nahe Gnade: Luthers frühe Klosterjahre als Beginn seiner reformatorischen Neuorientierung” for an elaboration of late medieval notions of nahe Gnade (“proximal grace” or, better, “grace close-at-hand”) and how such notions were received and experienced by Luther in the Augustinian context. See also Hamm’s article “Martin Luther’s Revolutionary Theology of Pure Gift without Reciprocation” for insight into the development of Luther’s understanding of a question that continues to challenge and divide interpreters: Do believers cooperate with God and, if so, to what extent?48

The “rediscovery” of the Heidelberg disputation and theologia crucis has, over the past forty years, offered a new hermeneutic for interpreting Luther. However, beyond Theses 20–24, which specifically employ the terminology of cross theology, one discovers that the Heidelberg disputation is chiefly concerned with a more faithful understanding of how grace “works.” Although many books and articles have been written to summarize the disputation, or to develop certain aspects, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, by Walter von Loewenich’s remains the best, most scholarly thesis-by-thesis treatment. Another thesis-by-thesis treatment is On Being a Theologian of the Cross, by Gerhard Forde. Forde does a fine job of highlighting Luther’s understanding of grace in light of the cross of Christ.49

The essays and responses in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther offer a solid overview of the recent contribution of the “Finnish School.” Beginning with the work of Tuomo Mannermaa and continuing with his students, “the Finns” continue to challenge the “German-dominated” interpretation of Luther. At the heart of this challenge lies the concern with the ultimate effect of grace upon sinners. This concern can be expressed in this question: Do Luther’s writings teach that the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit of Christ makes sinners into “little Christs,” literally and ontologically? The two chapters by Simo Peura in Union with Christ handle many of the themes around grace, including the distinction between grace as divine favor and grace as divine gift.50

Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, by Oswald Bayer, represents a robust treatment of Luther’s theology in light of modern concerns.51 Bayer employs promissio as the key term for understanding Luther; the astute reader, however, will discover that for Bayer, “promise” is essentially a more focused synonym for “grace.” His reflection on the “Three Lights” (nature, grace, and glory) in Luther’s Bondage of the Will is quite useful.

Further Reading

Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

Forde, Gerhard. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. “Martin Luther’s Revolutionary Theology of Pure Gift without Reciprocation.” Lutheran Quarterly 29 (2015): 125–161.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. “Naher Zorn und Nahe Gnade: Luthers frühe Klosterjahre als Beginn seiner reformatorischen Neuorientierung.” In Luther und das Monastische Erbe. Edited by Christoph Bultmann, Volker Leppin, and Andreas Lindner, 111–151. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Translated by Martin J. Lohrmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

Janz, Denis. Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Loewenich, Walther von. Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Translated by Herbert Bouman. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976.Find this resource:

Lopes Pereira, Jairzinho. Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.Find this resource:

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.Find this resource:

Oberman, Heiko. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1992. This is a reprint of the 1986 edition.Find this resource:

Oberman, Heiko. The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000. This is a reprint of the 1983 third edition.Find this resource:

Peura, Simo. “Christ as Favor and Gift: The Challenge of Luther’s Understanding of Justification.” In Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 42–69. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.Find this resource:

Peura, Simo. “What God Gives Man Receives: Luther on Salvation.” In Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 76–95. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.Find this resource:

Stjerna, Kirsi. “Grace Only? Or All Is Grace?” Dialog 54.3 (2015): 260–268.Find this resource:

Turnbull, Stephan. “Grace and Gift in Luther and Paul.” Word & World 24.3 (2004): 305–314.Find this resource:

Weimer, Christoph. “Luther and Cranach on Justification in Word and Image.” In The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Edited by Timothy J. Wengert, 292–309. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) In “The Treatise on Grace” in the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas laid out the various “Divisions of Grace”: free and sanctifying grace, operating and cooperating grace, prevenient and subsequent grace, and more. In addition, Aquinas evaluated whether and how the various kinds of grace can be merited. See especially Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2.1.111 and 2.1.114.

(2.) As to the question of whether or not late medieval nominalists—especially Biel—accurately represented Aquinas, see Denis Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983). Janz considers the various viewpoints on this question, including especially those of Roman Catholic Luther scholars, such as Joseph Lortz, Otto Pesch, and Harry McSorley. These scholars confirm Luther’s perception that the anthropology of Occam and Biel was semi-Pelagian and, so, a departure from the teaching tradition of the Roman Church.

(3.) “To George Spalatin,” April 13, 1520, LW 48:157–158; WA BR 2:80–81, with slight adjustments for the sake of clarity. Luther would often cite and describe the Scholastic system and its terms for the purpose of creating a foil for his own teaching, including in The Bondage of the Will of 1525 (see LW 33:267–269) and the Commentary on Galatians published in 1535 (see LW 26:124).

(4.) LW 31:12; WA 1:226.

(5.) The entire “Disputation against Scholastic Theology” is in LW 31:9–16; WA 1:224–228. The word “grace” has here been rendered in italics in order to highlight its centrality and the frequency with which it appears.

(6.) Twenty-three years later, Luther boiled down his Scholastic and Nominalist predecessors even further—and impugned their methods and motives in the same stroke: “Scholastic theology agrees on this point, that man can merit grace de congruo by his purely natural powers, and all the schoolmen taught at least this: ‘Do what lies in your strength’ [Fac, quod est in te]! Occam, though he was superior to all the others in mental acumen and refuted all the rest of the positions, nevertheless expressly said and wrote that it is not found in scripture that the Holy Spirit is necessary to do good works. These men had talent and leisure and grew old as they lectured, but they had no understanding at all of Christ because they despised the Bible and because nobody read the Bible for the sake of meditation but only for the sake of knowledge, as one would read a historical writing.” LW 54:391–392; WA TR 4:679–680.

(7.) LW 31:38.

(8.) LW 27:219. On the difference regarding imputed righteousness, see LW 54:10.

(9.) “Lectures on the Psalms,” LW 10:12; WA 3:26–27.

(10.) WA 552:36. Translation in Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, ed. and trans. Roy A. Harrisville, 55–56 (Minneapolis: Fortress: 1999).

(11.) LW 25:151.

(12.) LW 25:243.

(13.) LW 25:305–306.

(14.) LW 34:336. This 1545 reminiscence falls in the middle of Luther’s description of his theological “breakthrough,” inspired by Romans 1:17. However, Luther gave 1519 as the year of this experience, some four years after his 1515 commentary on Romans 1:17 quoted in the text. Even more curious: in the same 1545 memory, Luther claims that it was after the 1519 revelation that he read On the Spirit and the Letter, where he found that Augustine “interpreted God’s righteousness in a similar way, as the righteousness with which God clothes us when he justifies us.” For the entire 1545 reminiscence, see LW 34:327–338. For a full discussion of the problem of putting a date on Luther’s “breakthrough,” see Lohse, Luther’s Theology, 85–94.

(15.) LW 48:65. Luther’s temptations to despair of God’s grace—which he called tentationes in Latin, Anfechtungen in German—were apparently a regular experience for him during these years. Although Luther explained that these periods of spiritual distress were common “before the light of the Gospel” dawned on him, the bouts with doubt would continue even after the evangelical faith had taken hold. For example, during such a time of spiritual struggle, likely around 1527, his pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, came to console him, saying, “No doubt God is thinking, ‘What more can I do with this man. I have given him so many excellent gifts, and yet he still despairs of my grace!’” (LW 54:15).

(16.) In addition to the 1545 reminiscence quoted earlier, a 1538 Table Talk records Luther’s description of the “Anfechtungen” he experienced during his early period: “That expression ‘righteousness of God’ was like a thunderbolt in my heart. … I thought at once that this righteousness was an avenging anger, namely, the wrath of God. I hated Paul with all my heart when I read that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. [Rom. 1:16, 17]. Only afterward, when I saw the words that follow—namely, that it’s written that the righteous shall live through faith [Rom. 1:17]—and in addition consulted Augustine, was I cheered. When I learned that the righteousness of God is his mercy, and that he makes us righteous through it, a remedy was offered to me in my affliction” (LW 54:308). An alternative rendition of this account has Luther explaining that Paul’s words about righteousness terrified him initially but that the words “became more pleasing” when he (Luther) came to his new understanding. According to this same account, Luther’s new understanding came as he “pondered” Paul in a room in the tower of his residence (LW 54:193).

(17.) While the terms “grace” and “graces” are used at several points in the Ninety-five Theses, Luther employed the terms mainly as synonyms for “gift” or “gifts.” See Theses 34, 62, 67, 68, 77, and 78 in LW 31:25–32.

(18.) LW 31:40.

(19.) LW 31:50.

(20.) LW 25:306.

(21.) LW 31:41.

(22.) LW 32:227–228.

(23.) LW 32:229. Italics have been added in order to highlight the two terms being distinguished.

(24.) LW 32:227.

(25.) LW 35:369–370. Compare with Luther’s commentary on Psalm 51:2, “These are the two parts of justification. The first is grace revealed through Christ, that through Christ we have a gracious God, so that sin can no longer accuse us, but our conscience has found peace through trust in the mercy of God. The second part is the conferring of the Holy Spirit with His gifts, who enlightens us against the defilements of spirit and flesh (2 Cor. 7:1).” LW 12:331.

(26.) WA 21:458. Author’s translation.

(27.) LW 34:337.

(28.) LW 22:135–136, 138.

(29.) LW 25:345–346.

(30.) LW 33:291–292.

(31.) LW 26:152.

(32.) LW 26:143–144, with adjustments to the original translation.

(33.) LW 20:243.

(34.) LW 26:115.

(35.) LW 51:137, 146, 148, 149, 153, 155, 158, 160.

(36.) LW 24:218. These words are part of Luther’s reflection on John 15:5 and what it means to abide in Christ.

(37.) In a 1527 letter to Melanchthon, Luther wrote, “I seek and thirst for no one other than a gracious God [propitium Deum].” WABr 4: 272.

(38.) LW 24:132.

(39.) LW 24:134.

(40.) LW 24:177. Here, Luther shows the he knew his Hebrew well, explaining that “the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ means nothing other than well-being.”

(41.) LW 51:99.

(42.) LW 32:227.

(43.) LW 51:59. See also LW 30:8.

(44.) LW 51:283.

(45.) Lucas Cranach the Elder, Gesetz und Gnade, 1529, tempera on lime. By permission of Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany.

(46.) Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), and The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992). Harvest is a reprint of the 1983 third edition, and Dawn is a reprint of the 1986 edition.

(47.) Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, trans. Martin J. Lohrmann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

(48.) Berndt Hamm, “Naher Zorn und Nahe Gnade: Luthers frühe Klosterjahre als Beginn seiner reformatorischen Neuorientierung,” in Luther und das Monastische Erbe, eds. Christoph Bultmann, Volker Leppin, and Andreas Lindner, 111–151 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2007); and Hamm, “Martin Luther’s Revolutionary Theology of Pure Gift without Reciprocation,” Lutheran Quarterly 29 (2015): 125–161.

(49.) Walter von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, trans. Herbert Bouman (Minneapolis: Augsburg: 1976); and Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).

(50.) Simo Peura, “Christ as Favor and Gift: The Challenge of Luther’s Understanding of Justification,” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 42–69 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998); and Peura, “What God Gives Man Receives: Luther on Salvation,” in ibid., 76–95.

(51.) Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas Trapp (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).