Luther and Galatians: Justification as Participation in the Life of God

Luther’s interest in drawing theology from the biblical texts climaxes in his emphasis on the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. He polemically sets his readings in contrast to the “papist” and “scholastic” misinterpretations which focused on infused righteousness merited by good works. While situating Luther against his opponents, some scholars have (over)emphasized the forensic nature of his doctrine of justification vis-à-vis a more participatory perspective, such as one promoted by the Finnish School. Stephen Chester has recently challenged this merely forensic focus by showing how Luther’s Galatians commentary brings together justification and participation through a christologically oriented structure (NTS 2009). Though he provides a helpful elucidation of Luther’s exegesis, Chester notes that he is unable to adjudicate the wider claims about theosis arising from the Finnish School. This essay will extend the investigation of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians and will consider the question of how his discussion of justification relates to a doctrine of theosis. Ultimately, the interconnection between justification and theosis is found in the hope of participating in the life of God. In distinction to the primary focus on the means to experiencing justification, by faith or by works, interpreters of Luther (and of Paul) have given much less notice to the purpose of justification, which is new life. For example, when commenting on Gal 2.16, Luther writes: “We say, faith apprehends Jesus Christ. Christian faith is not an inactive quality in the heart. If it is true faith it will surely take Christ for its object. Christ, apprehended by faith and dwelling in the heart, constitutes Christian righteousness, for which God gives eternal life.” Justification, then, is not merely a forensic status but also God’s creation of life out of death, as the believer participates in the life of God in Christ. As a result, we see a conceptual congruence between Luther’s doctrine of justification and the promise of theosis (even if some aspects of the Finnish School are overstated) in that both doctrines focus on participation in the life of God. Luther’s exegesis, therefore, provides a model for renewed investigation of Paul’s letters regarding the justification-life association as well as fodder for contemporary ecumenical discussions.