Martin Luther on Sanctification -- By: Elmer L. Towns

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 126:502 (Apr 1969)
Article: Martin Luther on Sanctification
Author: Elmer L. Towns


Martin Luther on Sanctification

Elmer L. Towns

[Elmer L. Towns, Associate Professor, Christian Education, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.]

Martin Luther is well known for preaching justification by faith apart from works. This doctrine became the cornerstone for the reformation. During Luther’s day he was accused of antinomianism. Erasmus charged, “Lutherans seek two things only—wealth and wives—censum et uxorem…to them the gospel meant the right to live as they please.”1 John Wesley accused Luther of distorting the doctrine of sanctification, if Luther had any doctrine of sanctification at all. “Who hath wrote more ably than Martin Luther on justification by faith alone?” Wesley then asked, “And who was more ignorant of the doctrine of sanctification, or more confused in his conception of it?” He then advises us, if we would be thoroughly convinced of Luther’s “total ignorance with regard to sanctification” to read “without prejudice” his Commentary on Galatians.2

This misunderstanding of Luther’s concept of sanctification might have arisen because he uses Paul’s first-century message of grace as opposed to works to attack legalistic salvation found in the sixteenth-century church. Because of Luther’s emphasis on grace and liberty, many might accuse him of a weak concept of sanctification or an antinomian basis for the Christian Life.

Actually, Luther’s concept of sanctification is difficult to understand without looking at his doctrine of justification. Both doctrines for Luther are grounded in the Person of God. “But the fact is, that for Luther, justification and sanctification, although distinguishable in theory, are quite inseparable in factors.”3 Luther goes on to state, “Justification and

sanctification are related like cause and effect and from the presence of the effect we may conclude that the cause is at work.”4

For Luther, justification means that man possesses “a righteousness not his own, a iustitia externa et aliena, a righteousness not of works, but of faith.”5 The believer must apprehend Jesus Christ by faith and as Jesus Christ dwells in the life, so true Christian righteousness dwells in the believer for righteousness and gives him eternal life. “Christ apprehended by faith, and dwelling in the heart, is the true Christian righteousness, for the which God counteth us righteous...

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