Martin Luther On Assurance -- By: Joel Beeke
RAR 7:4 (Fall 1998) p. 163
Martin Luther On Assurance
Martin Luther ushered in the Reformation, not by doctrinal criticism but by the imperative of religious experience. Overwhelmed by sin, Luther unsuccessfully tried to find assurance of faith through the church’s agencies, sacraments, and penitential system. Ultimately, he found the grace of God in Christ, through whom forgiveness of sin is complete and not dependent on human merit.
Luther’s Christ-centered approach to faith and assurance was rooted in personal experience.1 Through his experience of God’s graciousness in the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ, Luther was empowered to lead Christianity out of the tyranny of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that determined what and how one could believe. Luther presented Christianity as believing assurance of the living God, who reveals Himself and opens His heart in Christ to sinners. Luther thus became instrumental in releasing the sixteenth-century church from a systematic denial of salvation’s certainty and directed it toward the freedom of justification by gracious faith alone.
Subsequently Luther challenged the semi-Pelagian system by asserting that assurance is the birthright of every Christian, since it is the believer’s privilege to know subjectively that God is gracious to him in His Son. Luther wrote:
We must daily more and more endeavor to destroy at the root that pernicious error that man cannot know whether or
RAR 7:4 (Fall 1998) p. 164
not he is in a state of grace, by which the whole world is seduced. If we doubt God’s grace and do not believe that God is well-pleased in us for Christ’s sake, then we are denying that Christ has redeemed us—indeed, we question outright all his benefits.2
Luther had no patience for any view of assurance that returned the burden of salvation from God to man.3 Hence he grounded his doctrine of assurance in Christ and His atoning work.4 In expounding Psalm 90:17, Luther wrote:
He who prays for remission of sins and hears the absolution of Christ should be certain that truly, just as the Word declares, his sins are forgiven; and he should be assured that this is in no sense man’s work but God’s work. Whatever, therefore, is done in the church must rest on certainty.5
Faith is thus nothing less than assurance of forgiveness. Understanding Scripture and agree...
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