Beware, There Exists A Deep Gulf Between The Teachings of Augustine And Luther On Justification

Excerpts from: Uuras Saarnivaara, Luther Discovers the Gospel: New Light upon Luther's Way from Medieval Catholicism to Evangelical Faith (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 14-18.

A comparison of the teachings of Augustine and Luther on justification clearly shows that they interpret this term quite differently.  Augustine means by justification the renewal or gradual transformation of man into the image of God.  Luther understands by it the forgiveness of sins, the imputation of righteousness for the sake of Christ.

Both Augustine and Luther teach that the salvation of man consists in two gifts of God, forgiveness and renewal.  Both also believe that the renewal of man is the work of the Spirit of God, received through faith.  Further, both teach that divine grace and non-imputation of sins supply or supplement what is lacking in the human righteousness of life.  Finally, both speak of repentance, humility, confession of sins, self-accusation, prayer for mercy, as divinely effected prerequisites of the initial and continual reception of grace.  At first glance it appears that the difference is one of terminology alone:
Augustine: Justification = renewal; non-imputation of sins is its supplement.
Luther: Justification = non-imputation of sins and imputation of righteousness; renewal is its fruit or the second work of God.
Modern exegesis agrees rather unanimously that Luther is correct in his interpretation of the Pauline teaching on justification and that Augustine errs in his exposition....

According to Augustine, conversion means a 'change of taste,' or a man's turning to seek his joy and happiness in God.  This he is enabled to do by the renewal of his will, which the Spirit of God alone can effect.  When the divine call creates within him the desire for such a turning to God, his first task is to confess his depravity and weakness and to pray that God would renew his heart and will.

In the usage of Luther the primary meaning of the term 'conversion' is appropriation of the forgiveness of sins.  When the Law brings man to a conviction of his sins, his great concern and burden is his guilt, because of which he is under the holy displeasure and wrath of God.  He needs to pray for forgiveness and mercy and to accept the Gospel promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ.  Having appropriated this grace, he is righteous before God, or justified, and has peace with God.  As a natural and necessary fruit of this faith he begins to live a new life of obedience to God, loving God and his fellow men as God has loved and loves him.


Augustine believes that man is justified by fulfilling the Law of God through the power which he receives from God.  Luther teaches that man must first be justified and possess by faith the perfect fulfillment of the Law accomplished by Christ.  Only then is it possible for him to endeavor to fulfill the Law in love and obedience.  Their understanding between the Law and the Gospel is, therefore, altogether different.  According to Augustine the Law drives man to Christ to seek power for the fulfillment of the Law in love and obedience.  According to Luther the Law drives man to Christ to receive from Him a perfect fulfillment already accomplished.  The fulfillment of the Law in love will follow as the fruit of faith.

Consequently the nature and character of the Christian faith and life receive a different interpretation in the two systems.


...In the Augustinian faith the presence of sin tends, however, to destroy the certainty of salvation, since sinfulness is equivalent to lack of righteousness; while in the Lutheran faith sin does not (though it never ceases to create temptations and doubts), or should not, cause doubt as to the complete and fully sufficient righteousness of Christ.


Protestant theologians have too regularly permitted the similarities between the teaching of Augustine and Luther to lead them astray.  Matter of fact is that there exists a deep gulf between the teachings of Augustine and Luther on Justification.

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To read more on this subject, may I suggest the following: 
"Why Evangelicals Struggle With Infant Baptism; The Platonic Connection"

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