Luther’s “Three Walls”

by Obbie T. Todd

The Protestant Reformation was, in many ways, the product of manifold political, social, and religious forces crashing together at a God-ordained moment in history. Still, in other ways, it began with a man. In his 16th century German Reformation, Martin Luther stood defiantly against an institution that had pontificated for over a millennium. Yet, in his theological and moral challenge to the Catholic Church, he did not stand alone. In 1520, while lecturing on the Psalms, Luther wrote an Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in order to gather support for his reform.

In his new biography entitled Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (2015), Scott H. Hendrix explains Luther’s aim for the address: “The goal was not to foment a German uprising against Rome but to reform the practice of religion in Christendom. Because the clergy were shirking their duty, the only recourse was an appeal to laypeople in authority who could twist arms and force change.” (90)

Luther begins his open letter by identifying the “three walls” of the Romanists: (1) their decrees erroneously stating that no temporal power has authority over them, (2) their claim that interpretation of Scripture belongs to no one except the pope, (3) and their assertion that no one is able to call a council except the pope himself. The first section of Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation is a an invective against these three walls.

1. Concerning the first “paper-wall,” Luther begins by eschewing the notion of spiritual elitism. For him, there is no “spiritual estate” for bishops, priests, and monks. According to Luther, “there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12.” Through baptism we are all consecrated to the royal priesthood of 1 Peter 2:9. In cases of baptism, Luther reminds us, anyone could baptize. (or give absolution, as Luther held penance to be the third sacrament) After all, we share one faith, and we believe in the same Gospel: “For whoever comes out the water of baptism can boast that he is already consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, though it is not seemly that everyone should exercise the office.” This office is granted by the will and command of the community, not by one’s arbitrary whim. Therefore a priest, like any other temporal authority, is an office-holder. Just as spiritual authorities are charged with the administration of the Word and sacraments, the temporal authorities are to “bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good.” In Luther’s scheme, the temporal authority is not “above” that of the spiritual and may not punish it. However, it should be left to perform its role “without hindrance.” According to Luther, such tasks should be performed objectively and without discrimination, “regardless whether it be pope, bishop or priest whom it affects; whoever is guilty, let him suffer.” The freedom, life, and property of the clergy are no more important than the laity.

2. As to the second wall, Luther takes aim at those who deem themselves “Masters” of the Holy Scriptures: “For since they think that the Holy Spirit never leaves them, be they never so unlearned and wicked, they make bold to decree whatever they will.” To this Luther questions why there is even the need for a Bible! The Pope has “usurped” the power of the Holy Spirit. Luther further opines that the Romanists have misinterpreted Matthew 18 when they contend that the pope alone holds the “keys” to the kingdom. In reality, these keys are given to the “community” of the church. According to Luther, “the keys were not ordained for doctrine or government, but only for the binding and loosing.” When the pope claims supreme hermeneutical authority for himself and codifies his own man-made religion, he singlehandedly constrains the “Spirit of liberty” in the church. For this reason Luther calls together the church in this letter: to accuse the pope before the church.

3. Thirdly, concerning the authority to call together councils, Luther reminds his readers that it was in fact not Peter who convened the Apostolic Council in Acts 15:6, but rather the Apostles and elders! Luther thus contends that it is incumbent upon the temporal authorities to bring about a “truly free council” in order to restore Scriptural faithfulness and order. Luther likens the situation to a fire breaking out; the citizens have a duty to tell others. Citing 2 Corinthians 10:8, Luther heralds the edifying purpose of the Church. He then concludes that those who pursue destruction do so by “the power of the devil and of Antichrist.” Luther sees the Roman pope as the fulfillment of eschatological texts such as Matthew 24:24 and 2 Thessalonians 2:9. In the end, Luther’s only hope is Scripture: “Therefore we must cling with firm faith to the words of God, and then the devil will cease from wonders.” Luther contends that the Romanists have made the consciences of the people “timid and stupid,” and for this reason it is time to enact the power of the temporal authority in order to aid that of the spiritual.

In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther ripped down these three walls in order to shed further light upon the abuses of the Catholic Church and to rally the support of the educated laity in the Reformation.

The Gospel (Still) Worthy of All Acceptation: Evangelism and the Hope of Reformed Theology

By Obbie Todd

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. –Romans 3:21-22

According to Jeffrey Jue, head of the Church History Department at Westminster Theological Seminary, “the doctrine of justification is arguably the defining doctrine for the Reformation.” And perhaps that’s why it still attracts so much discussion among Protestants five centuries after Martin Luther wrestled with the ‘justice of God.’ The ‘New Perspective’ on Paul, for example, is a re-examination of the ‘how’ of justification. Thus the heavy reaction against the seminal work of E.P. Sanders, as continued by James Dunn and N.T. Wright, is rooted in Jue’s keen observation: to re-write justification is to re-write Protestantism. To re-write assurance. To re-write salvation.

Unfortunately Sanders isn’t the first scholar to tinker with justification. Not by a long shot. Through the centuries, the ‘when’ of justification has also been debated. In fact, the controversies in 18th century Particular Baptist circles have ‘particular’ relevance in today’s emerging Reformed Baptist landscape. When meditating upon the sovereignty of God in salvation, the question many young Baptists should ask themselves is this: when exactly am I saved? If election (however you define it) occurs from eternity (Eph. 1:4-5), then does salvation as well? It’s a question of justification. And the way a pastor answers this question reveals the way he preaches and the way a church evangelizes. So let’s examine the heresy known as eternal justification.

Andrew Fuller, a Particular Baptist pastor in the late 18th century and founding secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, initially adhered to the doctrine of eternal justification at the beginning of his ministry. Like fellow Baptist John Gill years before him, Fuller believed in two kinds of justification: active and passive. Active justification was an act of God from eternity, declared in the divine mind. Passive justification, on the other hand, was a ratification of active justification, whereby God revealed to the human conscience that one had indeed been justified eternally. Therefore, to the Hyper-Calvinist, passive justification was what Scriptures recognized as being “justified by faith.” Fuller would eventually become disillusioned with the Hyper-Calvinist scheme of his day, recognizing the moral obligation of all sinners to believe in the Gospel for their justification, and articulating this ‘duty’ further in A Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1784).

One of the most common modern arguments against Calvinism is its lack of evangelistic emphasis. And this is perhaps due to the misperception that Reformed minds adhere to eternal justification. However, a carefully articulated doctrine of justification might provide some badly needed common ground between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. After all, the same 19th century Calvinists who denounced eternal justification were also the founding members of the Baptist Missionary Society, originally called “The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen.” While the name is atrocious, it still tells us something about Calvinists and missions: the five founding members of the first Baptist mission group (William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Samuel Pearce, John Sutcliff, and John Ryland) were all Calvinists. All believed in the urgency of missions. And all possessed a deeply biblical doctrine of justification. From the Baptist Missionary Society the modern missions movement was born.

Once Andrew Fuller carefully examined the Scriptures, he quickly discovered the true nature of salvation. Paul boasts, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17) When God issues the sentence of justification upon a sinner, He’s not simply revealing something to the believer’s mind which was already true from eternity. He’s saving them in that instant! This is the essence of sola fide. Faith is that which unites us to Christ (solus Christus). Therefore salvation occurs at a point in time, not from eternity. From Charles Spurgeon to John Piper, Baptists of the Reformed tradition hold that justification, unlike election, is “conditional”. Upon faith. Therefore justification is not from eternity, but rather from the voice of God in the Gospel declaring that he who believes is indeed saved upon faith. This is the Gospel: sinners justified – not by themselves – but by a God who sent His son to serve as our penal substitute and perfect record. And that’s ‘credited’ to us in real time, through real faith. While we were chosen before the foundation of the world, we were also saved by grace through faith – itself a gift of God. (Eph. 1:4, 2:8) New Calvinists would do well to remember that in their ministry. That’s why the Gospel must go forth. Sinners have to believe the Gospel, not simply in God’s sovereignty. It’s a free offer to all. And according to Andrew Fuller, it’s a moral imperative.

While the absence of a 2nd person invitation is the hallmark of Hyper-Calvinist homiletics, the eisegesis of eternal justification is the hallmark of Hyper-Calvinist hermeneutics. And its implications are dangerously obvious. Once salvation ceases to become about presently believing in Jesus and morphs into a frantic search to determine if one is elect, salvation turns away from the objective work of Christ to the a posteriori ‘feeling’ of being saved. There’s a difference between having faith in one’s faith and having faith in one’s Savior. And this is perhaps Fuller’s biggest problem with Hyper-Calvinism: the subjectivism now attached to salvation. A Hyper-Calvinist will naturally lean upon the evidences of his faith more than upon Christ crucified. After all, he’s not double-checking his faith to see if he is justified. He’s checking to see if he was justified. Eternal justification demands a ‘warrant of faith,’ an experience that confirms justification instead of faith itself. And once a believer finds assurance in the signs of election instead of running to Christ in faith, one’s assurance is now derived in one’s good works. Antinomianism essentially becomes Arminianism. That Christ died for sinners is the only necessary ‘warrant’ we need to find assurance of salvation. We’re justified by faith alone.

The Southern Baptist Convention recently appointed a Calvinist as President of the International Mission Board: David Platt. The hire proves once again that Calvinism never precludes evangelism. However, nor does it imply eternal justification. And perhaps this serves as an important reminder to young Reformed Baptists today: never does the inability of sinners to save themselves cancel their responsibility to reach for a Savior. And our churches desperately need preachers who plead for souls to be saved instead of waiting for them to stand up. If a Calvinist pastor cannot personally invite sinners to give their lives to Jesus, then he’s seriously misunderstood God’s sovereignty as well as the crucial doctrine of justification. Souls hinge upon it. In the end, salvation is “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Rom. 3:22)


Obbie is married to Kelly. He attended the University of Kentucky (B.A.) and SBTS (M.Div and Th.M). Obbie is Associate Pastor of Students at Zoar Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Obbie is currently a doctoral candidate in Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.