Luther on Justification: is it a legal declaration only?

Luther recognized justification as a forensic (legal) declaration that Christ’s righteousness counted for the believer, while in the same act, the Holy Spirit brings Christ’s presence to the heart. Hence, righteousness is both counted and experienced. Later Reformation writers separated the legal declaration from the Spirit’s transformation. They regarded justification as forensic only; Christ’s righteousness is put to the account of the believer in justification, while regeneration is a separate act of God by which He progressively transforms the heart.

Luther on Justification: declarative and experiential
In his Disputation Concerning Justification (1536), Luther wrote, “To be justified,....includes that idea, namely that we are considered righteous on account of Christ.. . . Therefore, whoever is justified is still a sinner; and yet he is considered fully and perfectly righteous by God who pardons and is merciful.” Yet, in the same work, Luther explained, “Natural motion is our motion, but this movement of justification is the work of God in us, to which our propositions refer.” Explaining what is meant by the righteousness of God being outside of us, Luther wrote, “The phrase is grammatical. To be outside of us means not to be out of our powers. Righteousness is our possession, to be sure, since it was given to us out of mercy. Nevertheless, it is foreign to us, because we have not merited it.”

"Then what does justify? Hearing the voice of the bridegroom, hearing the proclamation of faith -- when this is heard, it justifies. Why? Because it brings the Holy Spirit who justifies. From this it is sufficiently evident what the distinction is between the Law and the Gospel. The Law never brings the Holy Spirit; therefore it does not justify, because it only teaches what we ought to do. But the Gospel does bring the Holy Spirit, because it teaches what we ought to receive" (Luther's Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia, 1963), vol. 26, p. 208.)

In his lengthy comments on Galatians 2:16, contained in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, Luther wrote, “Therefore the Christ who is grasped by faith and who lives in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, on account of which God counts us righteous and grants us eternal life.”

Commenting on Galatians 2:20, Luther wrote, “But so far as justification is concerned, Christ and I must be so closely attached that He lives in me and I in Him. What a marvelous way of speaking! Because He lives in me, whatever grace, righteousness, life, peace, and salvation there is in me is all Christ’s; nevertheless, it is mine as well, by the cementing and attachment that are through faith, by which we become as one body in the Spirit. Since Christ lives in me, grace, righteousness, life, and eternal salvation must be present with Him; and the Law, sin, and death must be absent.”( Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 234, 235)

Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12-13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works. (Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament I, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 365-380, at 370-371.)

Paul Althaus writes in his The Theology of Martin Luther: “Luther uses the terms “to justify” [ justificare] and “justification” [ justificatio] in more than one sense. From the beginning, justification most often means the judgment of God with which he declares man to be righteous [justum reputare or computare]. In other places, however, this word stands for the entire event through which a man is essentially made righteous (a usage which Luther also finds in Paul, Romans 5), that is, for both the imputation of righteousness to man as well as man’s actually becoming righteous. . . . This twofold use of the word cannot be correlated with Luther’s early and later theology; he uses “justification” in both senses at the same time, sometimes even shortly after each other in the same text”.

Note: Evangelical theologians in recent times have been engaged in a healthy debate on this subject. The recent book Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, edited by Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, is very revealing with the forensic-only position being seriously questioned.22 Moreover, a group of Finnish historians have recently established that Luther saw justification as an experiential, spiritual union with Christ. Quite apart from their ecumenical interest, they have come up with an interpretation of Luther that contradicts the traditional forensic-only view.