Christ Alone: Reading Notes

Piotr J. Małysz

crucifixionAll good Christian theology is Christocentric in some manner. When the Reformation insisted on Christ alone (solus Christus), with this slogan it thus sought to make a stronger—exclusive—claim. But the Reformation in no way advocated a Christomonism, the reduction of all theology only to a consideration of Christ. The exclusive particle, Christ alone, was meant to make a more focused claim. Its thrust was the sufficiency, or better still, the overabundance that the believer as believer finds in the person and work of Christ. The particle has its home in the order of salvation (ordo salutis)—chiefly the doctrine of justification—and it is from this location that it brings the whole body of theology into a Christocentric focus.

The particle is not, of course, foolproof. Martin Luther—even as he drew attention to Christ, and declared that “the cross alone [!] constitutes our theology [CRUX sola est nostra theologia]” (Operationes in Psalmos, WA 5:176)—thought it wise to elucidate further the salvific role of Christ as gift, given to the believer, over against Christ’s role as example, in which he is of no more help to us than some other saint (A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels; in Luther’s Works 35). Oswald Bayer warns against the modern tendency to moralize the solus Christus and, in reality, to compromise it (Martin Luther’s Theology, 64). A notorious example of this tendency is John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke pits Jesus’ simple message as a teacher of virtue, which Locke believes he finds in the Gospels, against the ethically unproductive speculation of the New Testament epistles and, even worse, the dogmatic corruption of Jesus’ teachings in the creeds and the church’s theology. This is not the meaning of “Christ alone” that the Reformation intended.

What specific soteriological emphases did the Reformation intend, with its affirmation of solus Christus and Christ as gift? First, in his Lectures on Galatians (1531/1535; in Luther’s Works 26:122-138), Luther insists Christ, and he alone, gives faith its “form.” What is in the background here is the medieval view that faith, as a disposition, stood in need of being made concrete by the believer’s works of love. Luther denies that what constitutes faith is intellectual assent to the truth of God, still in need of taking shape through the believer’s actions. Rather, faith is formed and made concrete—it is everything it can and needs to be—only in so far as it grasps the work of Christ, and does so as if the believer had done this work him- or herself. This alone is what it means to believe. Christ, says Luther, is present in faith itself, and his work gives faith its essence, shape, and reality. In other words, faith lies not in giving credence to the improbable and confirming this posture through one’s own acts of charity. Rather, the irreducible reality of faith—safeguarded by Christ alone—is to take God at his word and trust God enough to stake one’s entire identity on the work of Christ. To believe is to declare God-in-Christ alone to be the generous giver of all that is good, righteousness and holiness included. Faith justifies alone precisely in this sense. As a believer one already is infinitely more than one could ever make of oneself.

In his polemic against Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will (1525; in Luther’s Works 33), as well in his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45; here LW 5), Luther explores a different facet of “Christ alone.” In this work Luther is concerned with the nature and work of God and with divine revelation. A central question he pursues is how one finds the God who saves. The Bondage of the Will is without a doubt a complex work which poses a number of interpretive challenges. What we need to say about it is that Luther challenges here medieval accounts of God’s transcendence which placed divine and human agencies in a strictly non-competitive relation and, as a result, either practically or conceptually privileged human initiative in relation to God. Luther worries that, in consequence, the soteriological focus is taken off Christ and the burden of assuring one’s salvation is placed on the believer. In order to bring Christ back into focus, Luther articulates what is speculatively the strongest possible doctrine of divine agency. God, by virtue of being God, cannot but work life and death and all in all. Luther wants believers, first, to pay attention to God, and God alone. With this specter of God hidden in his own majesty, whose actions are inscrutable, Luther wants to lead reason to acknowledge that God cannot ultimately be confined to a sphere of action, however fitting, carved out for him by human speculation. God is free in relation to human cogitations about the divine. Reason must despair of itself when it reaches out toward God. But when it does so, when it finds itself at God’s mercy, it is now ready to recognize, through the proclamation of the gospel, that in his freedom God is none other than the Triune God he is. As this very God, God relates to history, time, and human agency on his own terms. Thus, paradoxically, Luther’s goal in The Bondage of the Will is not to affirm some sort of inscrutable God over and above the God revealed in Christ, a God at cross-purposes with his own revelation (this is the God that reason must run up against). Luther’s goal is to affirm that in Christ alone God is who he is. Not just because he happens to show himself to us there, but because he can be none other than the Father of his Son in their mutual Spirit. “Christ alone,” as articulated in The Bondage of the Will, emphasizes God’s freedom to reveal himself in his own being as the merciful God who brings comfort to a restless and disturbed conscience. Outside of Christ there is no revelation, no peace, and hence no salvation, for outside of Christ there simply is no God (see also Luther’s Works 5:42-50).

Like Luther, Jean Calvin points to Christ as the sole source of the believer’s righteousness before God (Institutes, III, esp. xi and xv). Calvin admits believers can be said to possess righteousness, but they do so only as partakers in Christ. Christ’s righteousness is communicated to the believer by imputation. For this reason, Christ, and he alone, remains the beginning and the fulfillment of a person’s salvation. What, throughout the history of the church, has detracted from this singular focus on Christ is, according to Calvin, the early adoption of the unscriptural term “merit.” This was initially intended to distinguish between works done from, and outside of, grace. However, when this distinction is divorced from a consideration of the work of Christ, what results is the effectual sidelining of Christ’s power to save and, in the end, also his dignity. Christ is, Calvin insists to the contrary, the Christian’s sole focus. Not only does one’s righteousness come exclusively from Christ. It is in Christ alone that one must also, without self-deception, contemplate one’s election. “Those whom Christ has illumined with the knowledge of his name and has introduced into the bosom of his church, he is said to receive into his care and keeping” (Institutes, III.xxiv.6).

More recent Protestant theology has, by and large, received appreciatively the Reformation’s witness to Christ alone, seeing in it an important voice and qualification within the larger catholic tradition. However, even where this reception is affirmative, it has not been uncritical of how the Reformation articulated the content of the exclusive particle or how it delineated its scope. Karl Barth, for example, though he acknowledged Calvin’s insistence on Christ as the sole mirror of the believer’s election, famously criticized the Reformed tradition for relegating Christ to the role of an executor of the Father’s inscrutable will to save only some. Unless the eternal Son, as the man Jesus Christ the Father intends him to be, is also the electing God, electing the Father’s will to be the God of love not just for God’s self but for a created other, the biblical concept of election, Barth maintains, is compromised (see Church Dogmatics II/2 [1942]). Here Barth articulates what is still inchoate in Luther. The absolute freedom of God is only the limit of human speculation about the divine. God’s actual freedom—including the divine will—is never naked and hence inscrutable but is the act of God’s own Triune being as love.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus—God and Man (1964), by contrast, articulates the exclusivity of Christ by drawing attention to Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection is a singular divine vindication of Jesus’ human life radically open and faithful to God. As such, it shows that Jesus’ divinity lies in the very depth of his humanity. Humans admittedly are characterized by openness to their world, which entails openness to God, but no person is capable of such openness without being personalized by total dependence and trust in God. The resurrection of Jesus, as the unfolding of God’s eschatological plan for humanity and indeed all creation, makes such dependence on God—such faith—possible.

Finally, Eberhard Jüngel, in Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith (1999), draws attention to the connection between “Christ alone” and the affirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Christ alone means that there are no other lords who can save. Now, for that to be the case, it must be true that in Christ God himself suffered and underwent our death, standing in his humanity as a representative of all humanity. Without God’s substitutionary and reconciling act, Christ would be only the example of a hero subjected to an inhuman death. But he would be no savior who is the death of death on behalf of all. Christ’s exclusivity, Jüngel argues, emphasizes his divinity and thus also his inclusive dimension as the human in whom all people are included.

The Reformation’s focus, in insisting on Christ alone, was more on the subjective dimension of Christ’s work, whether this was understood strictly soteriologically or epistemologically. The Reformation emphasized the believer’s comfort, assurance and peace of conscience. By and large, contemporary Protestant theology’s reception of the solus Christus has investigated more the objective aspects of the exclusive particle, that is, the matchless and conclusive character of Christ’s work. The particle points to the proper interpretation of this work, showing it to be none other than the self-expression and action of God himself, not only in time but also as reflected in the eternity of God’s triune life. In this objective emphasis, the more recent theology has argued for continued usefulness of the particle not so much from the perspective of the subjective criterion for true assurance as from the perspective of the concrete identity and character of God.

This article first appeared in Zondervan's Common Places series.

A Brief Introduction to Reason

By Bryce P Wandrey

“Concerning free will it is taught that a human being has some measure of free will, so as to live an externally honourable life and to choose among the things reason comprehends. However, without the grace, help, and operation of the Holy Spirit a human being cannot become pleasing to God, fear or believe in God with the whole heart, or expel innate evil lusts from the heart. Instead, this happens through the Holy Spirit, who is given through the Word of God.” [1] So reads the eighteenth article of the Augsburg Confession. In these words of Melanchthon, one finds a concise statement of the Lutheran understanding of the power, and powerlessness, of human reason.

Martin Luther made a distinction between reason before the Fall, after the Fall in general, and reason in a regenerate person. “…The gift of ratio in Adam constituted the image of God prior to the fall. …Humans could know God by means of reason.”[2] As witnessed both in his Disputation Concerning Man (1536) and his Lectures on Genesis, Luther believed that ratio was the greatest and most important of God’s gifts.

The fall of Adam did not abolish this gift.  After the fall, reason continues to constitute humanity’s uniqueness in the created world, the specific difference that distinguishes humans  from animals and gives humans their peculiar position between angels and beasts. Reason enables humans to reflect and to understand, and consciously to situate present reflection historically.[3] Reason is instrumental in the development of science: for example, it enables humans to count days and years and, in general, to relate to time.  Further, reason, according to Luther, “is the soul of law and mistress of all laws.”[4] He sums all this up: “Nor did God after the fall of Adam take away this majesty of reason, but rather confirmed it.”[5] Elsewhere he adds: It is certainly true that reason is the most important and the highest in rank among all things and, in comparison with other things of this life, the best and something divine.”[6]

How then is reason impacted by Adam’s fall?  It is affected both in its self-perception and in the extent of what it can know.  In an Epiphany sermon (on Isaiah 60.1-6), Luther admits that in the realm of temporal affairs “the rational man is self sufficient:  here he needs no other light than reason’s.”[7] Within the temporal realm, reason can see that good is to be promoted and evil avoided.  The problem is that man uses it and prides himself in what it accomplishes without remembering that it is a gift that originated with God.  Since the Fall reason serves for the self-glorification of man.[8]

By itself, reason can even know of God’s existence.  This knowledge, however, is deeply ambiguous and uncertain. Luther reaffirmed the assertion of St. Paul in Romans 5.10: God is known through his works of creation. [9]  But he also stated, in The Bondage of the Will, that “God governs the external affairs of the world in such away that, if you regard and follow the judgment of human reason, you are forced to say, either that there is no God, or that God is unjust.” [10]

In general, however, Luther did affirm that humans continue to have a twofold knowledge of God.  In Lectures on Galatians (1535) Luther explains that these are 1) a general and 2) a particular knowledge.  General is that knowledge that all men have that God created heaven and earth and that he is just and shall punish the wicked.  The particular is that knowledge of what God thinks of man and what he plans to do/has done to deliver man from his sin. These things are not known naturally to man.[11] Here is the distinction between reason and faith, which Luther summarize as follows: “Apart from Christ there is nothing but sheer idolatry, an idol and a false fiction about God, whether it is called the Law of Moses or the law of the pope or the Koran of the Turk.”[12]

In matters strictly pertaining to salvation, reason remains completely blind. It does not recognize the goodness hidden underneath the offensiveness of the Cross.  It seeks salvation by means of the works of the law.  And it attempts to penetrate the hiddenness of the Divine Majesty, rather than see God revealed in Christ.  In Lectures on Galatians, Luther states: “Reason cannot think correctly about God; only faith can do so. A man thinks correctly about God when he believes God’s Word. But when he wants to measure and to believe God apart from the Word, with his own reason, he does not have the truth about God in his heart and therefore cannot think or judge correctly about Him.”[13] Reason is limited due to the fact that, without divine revelation, reason cannot tell what the good and what the evil actually are when it comes to the divine-human relationship.  So, although it can practice some autonomy and freedom, reason is still in chains within the temporal realm when it comes to discerning good and evil in relation to God.[14] While Luther gives reason, in its natural abilities, the power to reach as far as knowing God as kind and gracious, that is as far as he is willing to go.  Reason falls short on two points: first of all, although reason can attain the knowledge that God can aid man, it does not believe that he will do so; and secondly, though reason knows that God exists, it does not know who or what God is. Reason is given temporal autonomy by Luther, even called God’s most precious gift by him, until it begins to impinge upon the affairs of God. [15]

When it comes to salvation, reason is not only useless but also misleading.  Reason is bound by the limitations of this sinful world.  In being so, it shuts itself off from the Word of God and from faith in that Word. Reason views God’s plan of salvation for humanity as an absurdity and an impossibility as evidence by St Paul: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1.23). Hence Luther: “It is up to God alone to give faith contrary to nature, and ability to believe contrary to reason.  …Reason turns away from faith.”[16] Reason views faith and the salvific plan of God in this light because it is left to its own devices which results in works righteousness.  “Human nature, corrupt and blinded by the blemish of original sin, is not able to imagine or conceive of any justification above and beyond works.”[17]

The words of Christ could never be grasped by reason, but only by faith.  Even if reason knows of God’s existence, it still does not know of His will toward humanity.  Scripture must be man’s guide in the godly realm, not reason.[18] In his Disputation Concerning Man Luther writes:  “Nor is there any hope that man in this principal part can himself know what he is until he sees himself in his origin which is God” and “He can be freed and given eternal life only through the Son of God, Jesus Christ (if he believes in him)”.[19] Indeed, according to Robert Kolb, Luther’s understanding of revelation in God’s Word is primarily determinative of his theology and is one of the lasting fundamentals of his legacy:

God reveals himself in such a way that human creatures are totally dependent on his Word, which Luther contended can be found alone in Scripture (and human conveying of its message). Therefore, in what he called the ‘theology of the cross,’ he not only affirmed the atonement wrought through Christ’s death and resurrection but also the distinction between the Hidden God, inaccessible to human reason, and the Revealed God, whom faith grasps as it is created by God’s revelation of himself in Christ and in Scripture.[20]

What about reason in the regenerate? Paul Althaus observes that through hearing the Word of God reason is regenerated and is one and the same essence as the original creation of God. In consequence of a person’s regeneration, reason now allows itself to be informed by faith and held captive by God’s Word. It becomes theological and helps humanity to understand and explain Scripture.[21]

Luther’s understanding of reason is summed up nicely by Gerrish: In all his dealings with the world man’s guide is reason: the world is the Kingdom of Reason, and by his God-given understanding and wisdom man is able to subdue the earth and have dominion over the beasts of the field. In his dealings with God, however, only faith can be man’s guide, specifically, faith in ‘the Word’ or in Christ.[22]

[1]“The Augsburg Confession,” Article XVIII.1-3. The Book of Concord, (Robert Kolb and Timothy J Wengert, ed.), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

[2] Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 197.

[3] Lohse, 196-97. Cf. Luther’s view on reason as part of the image of God in Lectures on Genesis.

“This positive assessment should not be taken as Luther’s absolute judgment on reason prior to the fall though as he could also put forward the thought in The Bondage of the Will that “God is absolutely incomprehensible in omnipotence and righteousness.” Lohse, 197.

[4] Gerrish, 13.

[5] LW 34:137. [Luther’s Works (American Edition: 55 Volumes), J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed., (Minneapolis and St Louis: Augsburg Fortress and Concordia Publishing House). From now referred to as LW and volume number.]

[6] LW 34:137.

[7] Quoted by B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason:  A Study in the Theology of Luther, (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1962), 12.

[8] Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1966), 65-66.

[9] Althaus, 15.

[10] trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1957), 315.

[11] LW 26:399.

[12] LW 26:400-01.

[13] LW 26:238.

[14] “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. …He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.” LW 31:53.

[15] Gerrish, 15, 17.

[16] LW 34:160.

[17] LW 34:151.

[18] Gerrish,  17-18.

[19] LW 34:138.

[20] “Luther in an age of confessionalization,” The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, ed. By Donald K McKim, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 223.

[21] Althaus,  70-71.

[22] Gerrish, 26.