The basis of salvation is faith, as explained by St. Paul, speaking of the Covenant with Abraham, wherein “the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not through Abraham, nor through his seed, or through the law, but through righteousness of faith.” (Rom 4:13) The author reenforces this concept in the sixth chapter, explaining that death and sin have no dominion over the resurrection, which offers freedom from sin by declaration of faith. The root of Paul's argument is clear in chapter eight, where he asserts “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” (Rom 8:3)
Foreshadowing Calvin, whose work follows quickly at Luther's heels, Luther makes the logical leap to the conclusion that no amount of merit may distinguish one human from another in the eyes of God, and bases this decision on the philosophical observation that no human is born without sin, and that no sinful human can sway the will of God. Paraphrasing St. Paul, Luther summarizes this new interpretation:
"Because the flesh is not yet slain, we still are sinners; but because we believe and have a beginning of the Spirit, God is so favorable and gracious that He will not count the sin against us or judge us for it, but will deal with us according to our faith in Christ, until sin is slain."
Luther refers to Paul's epistle to the Romans as the “purest gospel,” by his own account, because, as he states, “This epistle is really the chiefest part of the New Testament...” and it contains “most richly the things that a Christian ought to know...”
A number of factors might have supported Luther's opinion. First, this epistle is the first of Paul's books printed in the Bible. Second, it is addressed to an audience in what was the most powerful city existing in Paul's time. Third, if Paul's (and Luther's) interpretation of the circumcision question are to be trusted, specifically that one need not be circumcised (that is, to be outwardly Jew) in order to do good works or share in God's covenant, then, by their understanding, the arrival and teachings of Jesus were then to be understood as a gift to all mankind, Jews and Gentiles alike. Luther's extrapolation, then, is that both the laws of the Jews, and of the Romans, and essentially all laws everywhere, were of less importance with regard to salvation than the recognition of God's new covenant. As Luther quotes St, Paul, “...and faith does not come, save only through God's word...” This is the “purest gospel,” from Luther's point of view, because nothing else in the Bible mattered if the faithful did not graspcomprehend this single thought.
This view is similar to those of Luther and Paul, in the sense that the iniquity of the human condition is rationalized as the impetus for self examination, and in this context, the contemplation of the imperfect self reflects the pure nature of God. Luther and Paul each made use of the law, be it Jewish or Roman, served only effectively as a constant reminder of the state of righteousness which man can not possibly obtain. To summarize, the law reminds man that he is fallible and imperfect, and it is through this realization that the nature of God is revealed. In essence, Luther and Calvin are examining two sides of what may be metaphorically viewed as the same coin.
Calvin expressly states in the fourteenth chapter of the third book: “Man can contribute nothing to his own righteousness.” Calvin expands on this in the twenty-first chapter, explaining God “does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others.” Calvin refers to Romans in this line, mentioning Paul's conclusion that “God, of his mere pleasure, preserves whom he will.” This is effectively the basis of what becomes the Doctrine of Predestination, and is distinctly different from Luther's vision of man's role in his own salvation.
He labors on the distinction that the law merely governed the body, or the creature. The path to salvation, by his account, was primarily cerebral. The laws of the Romans, and equally so, of the Jews, were merely guidelines for living with one another, and were, indeed evidence of Man's inability to be confined to them, because man himself is held to be sinful and imperfect by nature. Faith alone, then, becomes the only measurable quality of a person, as opposed to a rigidity of behavior, with respect to their potential to be divinely favored. This is the faith Paul speaks of in chapter ten, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the lord shall be saved.” (Rom 10:13)
Within 800 years of this writing, the church had convened to solve myriad crises of faith, to decide a credible canon of scripture, to prop up a broken empire, to respond to foreign invasions, and to appoint an emperor. As an institution responding to the needs of confused (however concerned) Christians in pursuit of salvation, St. Paul held the church had little sway in the grand scheme of things. Faith alone that God would deliver if trusted, in Paul's terms, was the core of what was expected of humans. Trust, and all the rest was simply fidelity.
Martin Luther's “tower experience” was a “personal and theological breakthrough” which set at ease Luther's concern about being unable to “make himself just- and worthy of salvation.” Luther appears to have been a deeply faithful Christian servant and scholar, however, by his own judgment he consistently fell short of feeling like anything he could do or say would entitle him to God's favor. His reading of Paul during this period of contemplation offers him a simple explanation for his inability to accept the doctrine of merit.
Calvin's view of the “radical sinfulness of human nature” was proof that “all people were deserving of eternal damnation...” and “only divine grace could intervene to prevent the 'natural' course of events.” The upside of this, in Calvin's words, is that “...our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God. The miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward.”
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