The Expository Files

Luther's Blind Spot

The overall system of evangelical thought today comes to us from the work of Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin. It took much courage for these men and others to risk everything to speak out and denounce the blatant corruption of New Testament truth by the established Church hierarchy. But exposing the existing errors in the Church led to an opposite extreme.

It is easy for reactionary movements to get so caught up in their immediate goals that they lose sight of their ultimate goal. Luther said some pretty amazing and puzzling things for a man who seemed so dedicated to casting off human traditions and call for a return to the New Testament as our sole authority in matters of religion. This is because, after developing his system of justification by faith alone, that he had some difficult New Testament passages which he simply could not bring into harmony with his doctrine. So did he change his doctrine? No, instead he advised to disregard, or at least not to hold such passages in very high in value.

Many may be surprised that Luther did this, but he did. Notice his own words:

"If I had to do without one or the other-either the works or preaching of Christ-I would rather do without his works than his preaching. For the works do not help me, but His words give life, as He Himself says. Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching. The other Evangelists write much of His works and little of His preaching. Therefore, John's Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In a word, St. John's Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul's Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter's first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and that teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you never see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore, St. James' Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel in it."

-Luther, Works of Martin Luther-The Philadelphia Edition, trans. C.M. Jacobs, vol. 6: Preface to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982), pp. 439-444. As cited in Bercot, David W., Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, (Scroll Publishing, 1989). P.112.

A few observations:
Luther's scheme called for a belief in justification by faith alone. The Scriptures say that a man is "not justified by faith alone" (James 2:24). Luther says pay no attention because James is just "an epistle of straw" having "nothing of the nature of the gospel in it". So, why did our Lord inspire James to write it? Who shall we heed? The inspired writer James, or Luther the reformer?

The gospel of John has the well known passage "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever shall believe on Him should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16). That makes it Luther's favorite gosepl, which he rates "high above" the others. Matthew, Mark and Luke are much too dependant on obedience (Matthew 7:12-23, Mark 16:16. etc.) Luther says they, unlike John, emphasize the works rather than the preaching of Christ, but that simply is not so. Matthew's gospel contains way more of the preaching of Christ than does John's gospel. And John said he wrote his gospel to emphasize the signs Jesus did (John 20:30,31). Besides all that, John also shows the need to keep the commandments of Jesus (John 14:15,21, etc.). Beware when anyone encourages you to ignore Scriptures of his choice!

Most of the evangelical world take Luther's scheme of salvation by faith alone as gospel, but it isn't without removing the huge portions of the gospel that contradict it. But if we begin to do so, then it becomes mute whether faith alone saves or not, because faith does not remove nor degrade any of the Scriptures of God. That would not be an act of faith no matter who would do such a thing, whether Luther or Calvin or any of us.

By Jon W. Quinn
The Final Page
From Expository Files 6.3; March 1999