The End of the Human: Relocating Sanctification in Luther’s Thought

[1] Sanctification bedevils Lutherans, and no other topic has proved as persistently vexatious. Beginning with the first Antinomian Controversy of the 1520s and continuing to this very day, contestants in this intrafamilial feud have staked out sometimes radically opposed positions while invoking the same Luther as their authority. Rehearsing the principal arguments and their gradations would occupy more time than this format permits, but even cursory familiarity with them suggests intractability so long as we continue to worry the same well-worn bones. If we hope to engage sanctification as a theological locus (and as a matter of practical theology), an alternative approach may prove fruitful.

[2] Luther provides such an alternative in the midst of his championing of justification and his apparently self-contradictory and inconsistent handling of sanctification. A surprisingly unified theology of sanctification coalesces from his apparently divergent statements when viewed through the lens of his underlying theological anthropology in connection with his teleology. Put another way, Luther’s theology of sanctification is rooted in his answer to the compound question: What is the human creature? And what is its end?

[3] There is probably no better place to begin searching for an answer to this question than the 1536 Disputation Concerning Man.1 Argued on January 14 of that year, it occupies the middle place in a constellation of three promotional disputations beginning in September of 1535 with the Theses Concerning Faith and Law and concluding in October of 1536 with The Disputation Concerning Justification.2 In all three disputations, Romans 3:28, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” plays a critical, if not central, role.

[4] Employing this Pauline dictum, Luther states in Thesis 32 of the Disputation Concerning Man, “Paul in Romans 3[:28], ‘We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works,’ briefly sums up the definition of man, saying, ‘Man is justified by faith.’”3 Taken by itself, this thesis places Luther’s theological anthropology under the doctrine of justification. According to Oswald Bayer, through “Hominem iustificari fide: Luther uses these three Latin words to formulate what is quintessential when describing the human being.”4 Quintessential maybe, but not teleological unless the end of the human creature is to be justified and nothing more.

[5] Within this same disputation, however, Luther does hint at his teleology. In Theses 13 & 14, Luther argues that “philosophy does not know . . . the final cause [of the human creature], [14] Because it posits no other final cause than the peace of this life . . .”5 That final cause, for Luther, is beyond this life. Per Thesis 35, “. . . man in this life is the simple material of God for the form of his future life,” and, per Thesis 38, “So is man in this life for his future form, when the image of God has been remolded and perfected.”6 Is this future life nothing more than the state of being justified? Such seems unlikely given the presence of the word “perfected,” which could hardly apply to this life so long as Luther claims the human to be simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner).

[6] Still, justification is held to be the chief article of the faith, and by some, in practice, the sole article. This identification, in popular usage, of justification as the chief article is more a consequence of jingoistic slogans than it is of a broad and careful reading of Luther. Turning to the 1532-1533 sermons on 1 Corinthians (published as a commentary in 1534), we find Luther undercutting the preachers of slogans.

Paul stakes everything on the basic factor with which he began, namely, that Christ arose from the dead. This is the chief article of the Christian doctrine. No one who at all claims to be a Christian or a preacher of the Gospel may deny that.”7

Following Paul, Luther asserts that the denial of Christ’s resurrection necessarily means the denial of the resurrection of the dead. Should one deny that, “he must deny in a lump the Gospel and everything that is proclaimed of Christ and of God. For all of this is linked together like a chain, and if one article of faith stands, they all stand.” 8

[7] In his preface to these sermons, Luther goes even further, making the doctrine of the resurrection (and here he means the resurrection of the dead and not that of Christ alone) absolutely central to Christian faith, hope, and practice:

For after all, that is the goal of our faith in Christ, of Baptism, of sermon, and of Sacrament, that we hope for a new life, that we come to Christ, that we rule eternally with Him, delivered from sin, devil, death, and every evil . . . . For what would it amount to if we had received nothing better from Him than this wretched life and if we relied on Him in vain and suffered all that devil and world can inflict on us, and if He proved a liar with His great promises to us?9

Luther then makes explicit that it is not this life but rather the eschatological future for which we long, quoting St. Paul: “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”10

[8] Lest anyone assume that this is some new development in Luther’s thinking, references to a future holiness visited upon the human creature upon the Last Day are found in his two sacramental treatises of 1519. This future is described as “everlasting life, pure, sinless, and guiltless” in The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism,11 and, in The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, he writes that “Christ completely destroys sin in us and makes us like himself, at the Last Day.”12 Also, a more oblique reference is found in his 1521 Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,13 and an implicit reference is found as early as his [1515-1516] Lectures on Romans.14

[9] To be fair, Luther is not rejecting justification in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection. In the same set of sermons, he fuses the doctrines of justification and of resurrection, arguing that “. . . St. Paul describes and defines his Gospel, namely, as a proclamation from which we learn that Christ died for our sin and that He rose again . . . . There you have everything in a nutshell, and yet it is stated clearly.”15 Thus, “[St. Paul] impresses these two points everywhere as the chief article and the epitome of the Gospel, by which we become Christians and are saved, . . .”16

[10] This state of eternal blessedness is not an afterthought. It is properly teleological in that, as final cause, it has been the intent of God, the author of both the efficient and final cause, according to The Disputation on Man, from the very beginning. In the spring of 1535, less than a year before the preparation of The Disputation Concerning Man, Luther began lecturing on Genesis. Here, in an undisputed section of his Lectures on Genesis (1535), Luther presents this teleological dimension of his theological anthropology while commenting on the creation of the human creature.

Moses, therefore, indicates to those who are spiritually minded that we were created for a better life in the future than this physical life would have been, even if our nature had remained unimpaired. Therefore the scholars put it well: “Even if Adam had not fallen through his sin, still, after the appointed number of saints had been attained, God would have translated them from this animal life to the spiritual life” . . . . But at a predetermined time, after the number of saints had become full, these physical activities would have come to an end; and Adam, together with his descendants, would have been translated to the eternal and spiritual life.17

[11] This passage demonstrates Luther’s understanding of the beginning and end (telos) of the human creature. Luther believed that, in the beginning, the human was created as physical creature and endowed with a physical life. The telos of the human creature, according to Luther, is to become a spiritual creature, not to remain as it was when created. In this claim, Luther aligns himself with Peter Lombard (c. 1100-1160) and, by extension, Augustine.18 This telos is the final cause of the human creature, and, as such, is defined solely by the creator of humanity. The translation from “this animal life to the spiritual life” was, is, and always will be beyond the capacity of humanity to accomplish of its own power. A divine act is required.

[12] When speaking of this spiritual life (spiritualem vitam), Luther does not use the term “sanctification.” Nevertheless, the saints (sanctorum) are the ones to be translated, and the spiritual life is described as eternal (aeternam). The context, therefore, suggests that state of perfect (i.e., teleological) sanctification reserved for the eschaton.

[13] It cannot be overemphasized that Luther holds the telos of the human to be “the eternal and spiritual life” irrespective of the Fall. Luther’s prelapsarian human possessed a superior condition to that of the postlapsarian human, enjoying, in its Edenic state, superior intellect, physical prowess, and beauty among other attributes.19 The difference between the prelapsarian creature and the postlapsarian creature, for Luther, is one of degree not of order, being the superiority of one physical creature to another physical creature. Human existence was, regardless of the Fall, a physical existence, translation being necessary to realize the final cause of the human, that teleological state of holiness and blessedness with God.

[14] Strictly speaking, this is not the doctrine of the resurrection. In the absence of death, which Luther understood as a consequence of the Fall,20 there is no resurrection, but there is still translation (the term Luther used). Properly understood, resurrection is subsumed under translation, and should be understood as the translation of the dead. Pressing the case, the difference between resurrection and translation should be conceived of as accidental because death is a consequence of the Fall which Luther, following Lombard and Augustine, considered a contingency. Therefore, resurrection is the proper response to death, but resurrection is not an eternal necessity because the fall is not an eternal necessity. Translation is the divine response neither to death nor to the Fall because translation from the physical existence to the spiritual existence has always been God’s plan. Translation is God’s mechanism for reification of the final cause of the human creature. Translation cannot even be said to be “response” because the physical existence of the human creature is not something, in and of itself, that needs to be fixed. God created the human as a physical creature and intended the human to be a physical creature for a time. God’s intent does not require God’s response. It is the fallen condition of the physical existence which requires response.

[15] By the same token, justification, like resurrection, is a matter of contingency. Luther is clear that we are sinful in nature and sinners in thought, word, and deed, but this sinfulness and consequent sinning is connected to the loss of the similitude and the image of God. A divine response is required because God never intended the loss of the similitude and the image nor did God intend the sinfulness and the sinning. In response, Christ dies for our sins, and the merit of that grace is apprehended by faith. Justification, then, is the proper response to the Fall and its consequence, sin, but it cannot be said that justification is an eternal necessity for our entering into the perfected human condition because the Fall is a contingent situation. Justification, therefore, cannot be considered the proper end of humanity.

[16] The proper end of humanity, the joy and blessedness of perfect sanctification in some future spiritual life, is secured by the promises of Christ in response to the Fall. Thus, these promises, for Luther, take on a thoroughly eschatological cast. As such, the promises of Christ point us, principally, to teleological sanctification and only subordinately to justification. To tease this out thoroughly, justification is chronologically prior to sanctification, but sanctification is teleologically prior to justification. As such, sanctification is, for Luther, the ultimate concern while justification is the penultimate concern.

[17] Such a claim clearly runs afoul of conventional wisdom on the matter of justification and sanctification. No matter how much Philippists and other advocates of strong-on-sanctification positions might have protested in favor of works or the law or holiness, they maintained the centrality of justification, pointing to Luther’s sermons and writings, but Luther’s forceful statements advancing justification by grace through faith and decrying its antithesis, works-righteousness, tend to overshadow the centrality of teleological sanctification in his theological matrix. Mere forcefulness does not equal ultimacy. The contingent situation of humanity made, for Luther, the penultimate pressing concern because sin, the consequence of the Fall, created an existential crisis.

[18] For Luther the human creature is not what God intended it to be, and may never be that unless God intervenes. The forgiveness of sin in Christ does not restore the human creature to its Edenic state, but it does open the future that was, arguably, closed by the Fall (or, at least, God’s immediate response to the fall).21 Unless God, through the merits of Christ, reconciles humanity to God, humanity flounders and dies, never realizing the final cause for which it was created. The existential crisis demands emphasis upon the remediation of the fallen and sinful human creature, and this remediation Luther articulates as the doctrine of justification. Though teleological sanctification remains, in Luther, the end (telos) of the human creature, that end cannot be fully contemplated so long as the immediate problem remains unresolved. Thus, sanctification is properly construed as the end of justification, for justification serves no purpose if teleological sanctification remains impossible.

[19] This focus upon teleological sanctification might be dismissed as irrelevant to the conversation of sanctification in this life, but doing so assumes there is no relationship between this life and the teleological state. Luther, without collapsing his own thought into a realized eschatology, construed sanctification in the teleological state as inextricably connected with life in the here and now, as seen in his 1518 Defense and Explanation of All the Articles:

This life, therefore, is not godliness (frümkeytt) but the process of becoming godly (frum werden), not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.22

The relationship was further explicated eleven years later in his Large Catechism:

Meanwhile, because holiness has begun and is growing daily, we await the time when our flesh will be put to death, will be buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously and arise to complete and perfect holiness in a new, eternal life. Now, however, we remain only halfway pure and holy. The Holy Spirit must always work in us through the Word, granting us daily forgiveness until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness. In that life there will be only perfectly pure and holy people, full of integrity and righteousness, completely freed from sin, death, and all misfortune, living in new, immortal, and glorified bodies.23

If Luther’s theology of sanctification does, indeed, root in his teleology, then we should think of the sanctified life here and now as prolepsis of that perfect holiness that marks the eternal spiritual life of the teleological state. Thus, the refraining from evil and the doing of the good, though imperfect here and now, is a prefigurement of the perfect yet to come.

[20] Without question, Luther spares no invective for those who claim sanctification for themselves, but these critiques are directed toward what he considers sham sanctity. To marshal these critiques as evidence that Luther rejected the notion of sanctification is an act of equivocation. At the same time, an argument that depicts sanctified living as mere thanksgiving for justification already received is theologically impoverished. Mindfulness of the teleological dimension of Luther’s theological anthropology offers an alternative approach in which the eschatological promise of holiness, having teleological priority, informs our lives in the present, not by pushing, but by drawing us to the beatific future.


1 Citations retain the linguistic idiom of their respective authors and/or translators.

2 These disputations coincide with an emerging controversy involving Melanchthon’s publication of the 1535 edition of the Loci communes followed by Konrad Cordatus’ accusing Melanchthon of synergism in 1536.

3 Martin Luther, “The Disputation Concerning Man” (1536), in Career of the Reformer IV, vol. 34 of Luther’s Works, American Edition (55 vols.; eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg and Fortress Press, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-86), 139. Hereafter, the American Edition is referred to as LW and volume number.

4 Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 157.

5 LW 34:138: “13. For philosophy does not know the efficient cause for certain, nor likewise the final cause, 14. Because it posits no other final cause than the peace of this life, and does not know that the efficient cause is God the creator.”

6 LW 34:139.

7 LW 28:94: “Paul stakes everything on the basic factor with which he began, namely, that Christ arose from the dead. This is the chief article of the Christian doctrine. No one who at all claims to be a Christian or a preacher of the Gospel may deny that. With this he wants to confront them and force them to the conclusion that their denial of the resurrection of the dead denies even more definitely that Christ rose from the dead; for if the former is not true, the latter must be fabricated also. And since every Christian must believe and confess that Christ has risen from the dead, it is easy to persuade him to accept also the resurrection of the dead; or he must deny in a lump the Gospel and everything that is proclaimed of Christ and of God. For all of this is linked together like a chain, and if one article of faith stands, they all stand. Therefore Paul also makes all things interdependent here, and he always deduces one thing from the other.”

8 Ibid.

9 LW 28:60-61.

10 LW 28:61.

11 LW 35:32-33: “A baptized person is therefore sacramentally altogether pure and guiltless. This means nothing else than that he has the sign of God; that is to say, he has the baptism by which it is shown that his sins are all to be dead, and that he too is to die in grace and at the Last Day is to rise again to everlasting life, pure, sinless, and guiltless. With respect to the sacrament, then, it is true that he is without sin and guilt. Yet because all is not yet completed and he still lives in sinful flesh, he is not without sin. But although not pure in all things, he has begun to grow into purity and innocence.”

12 LW 35:59: “So deep and complete is the fellowship of Christ and all the saints with us. Thus our sins assail him, while his righteousness protects us. For the union makes all things common, until at last Christ completely destroys sin in us and makes us like himself, at the Last Day. Likewise by the same love we are to be united with our neighbors, we in them and they in us.”

13 LW 32:24: “This life, therefore, is not godliness [frümkeytt] but the process of becoming godly [frum werden], not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

14 LW 25:312: “But we must note that it is not necessary for all men to be found immediately in this state of perfection, as soon as they have been baptized into a death of this kind. For they are baptized ‘into death,’ that is, toward death, which is to say, they have begun to live in such a way that they are pursuing this kind of death and reach out toward this their goal. For although they are baptized unto eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, yet they do not all at once possess this goal fully, but they have begun to act in such a way that they may attain to it—for Baptism was established to direct us toward death and through this death to life—therefore it is necessary that we come to it in the order which has been prescribed.”

15 LW 28:82.

16 Ibid.

15 LW 1:56; Luther’s Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe 42:42.21-28: “Mose igitur spiritualibus significat nos ad excellentiorem vitam esse conditos, quam haec corporalis esset futura in natura etiam integra. Bene autem dicunt Doctores: Si Adam non esset lapsus per peccatum, tum finito certo numero Sanctorum ab animali vita ad spiritualem vitam Deum translaturum fuisse . . . . Cessassent autem ista corporalia praefinito tempore post impletum numerum Sanctorum, et Adam cum posteritate sua esset translatus ad aeternam et spiritualem vitam.”

18(Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2008), 88.

19 LW 1:62: “Therefore the image of God, according to which Adam was created, was something far more distinguished and excellent, since obviously no leprosy of sin adhered either to his reason or to his will. Both his inner and his outer sensations were all of the purest kind. His intellect was the clearest, his memory was the best, and his will was the most straightforward—all in the most beautiful tranquility of mind, without any fear of death and without any anxiety. To these inner qualities carne also those most beautiful and superb qualities of body and of all the limbs, qualities in which he surpassed all the remaining living creatures. I am fully convinced that before Adam’s sin his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was stronger than the lions and the bears, whose strength is very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies. Both the loveliness and the quality of the fruits he used as food were also far superior to what they are now.”

20 LW 1:62.

21 LW 1:226; LW 1:229.

22 LW 32:24.

23 Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” trans. James Schaaf, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 438.

Matthew Riegel

Matthew Riegel is the Bishop of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.