Proto-Puritan William Tyndale (7)

Tyndale and Luther on Justification

His Theology of Justification Compared

We've considered William Tyndale’s doctrine of justification; now we'll compare him with Augustine and Luther. Particularly, we’ll view Luther’s prologue to Romans alongside Tyndale, since the latter depended much on the former for the flow and content of the preface. Next time, we will consider his Tyndale’s covenant theology, which played a vital role in his theology of justification.

As seen in our last post, Tyndale affirmed justification as the remission of sins through the blood of Christ and received by faith alone. Such involved a sinner being made righteous immediately—not progressively—through the Spirit’s renovative work on the heart, in which faith is the believer’s righteousness continually perfected through the ongoing cleansing by Christ’s blood.

As mentioned earlier, Tyndale’s Wycliffite connections brought him under the influence of Augustine’s theology of grace and justification. As Alistair McGrath argues, justification for Augustine “is fundamentally concerned with `being made righteous’” as an inherent process graciously initiated by God. A renewal or real change in being, not just status, takes place as the Holy Spirit transforms a sinner to saint as a new creation beginning and making progress to final perfection. The process of justification by faith working in love (not faith alone) commences at conversion and continues throughout life. Fallen man’s inability to do good demands the Spirit’s gracious operation to begin justification, and such finds its foundation in God’s predestinating grace (Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2005).

We hear the voice of Augustine clearly in Tyndale, though the latter clearly emphasized justification by faith alone, and not as a process but something immediate. Man’s fallen state necessitated the gracious work of the Spirit to transform the heart and work faith in it. McGrath rightly observes parallels between Augustine and Tyndale, but oddly claims that the Augustinian “emphasis upon the renewing and transforming work of the Holy Spirit within humans” in Tyndale “is quite distinct from Luther's emphasis upon faith.” Tyndale strongly emphasized justification by faith alone—and Luther, in his less mature convictions, did not deny justification as something inward and transformational. This leads me to believe that McGrath and Ralph Werrell (The Roots of William Tyndale’s Theology, 2013), who approves of such assessment, see too much distance between Luther and Tyndale with Augustine as a key factor in the analysis.

It is to Tyndale’s dependence upon and departure from Luther we will now turn, particularly by way of their prefaces to Romans.

Let’s begin with Luther’s position on justification, expressed in his 1519 sermon Two Kinds of Righteousness. Luther claims there that we are justified by faith alone through a righteousness “alien” to ourselves, that of Christ, which concerns his life, works, suffering, and death. In short, “he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.” This righteousness is “instilled” in us, not imputed, and is not received “all at once” but “makes progress” as we drive away “the old Adam more and more” while receiving the new Adam, Christ, more fully.

Likewise, this righteousness “begins” inwardly by faith, as an “infinite righteousness” that “swallows up” all sin (in forgiveness) and grants us the “same righteousness” of Christ (though not fully) all “in a moment.” In other words, while the alien righteousness of Christ is instilled progressively, justification occurs immediately by faith. Thus, the beginning of Christ’s alien righteousness inwardly suffices to be declared infinitely righteous before God.

The lack of the forensic language of imputation and the presence of an instilled and progressive alien righteousness out of which our proper righteousness arises—yet has nothing to do with justification—may leave us perplexed. Still, Luther believed that to be united to Christ is to be declared forgiven and righteous through him totally. In this way, Luther seems to be moving toward a doctrine of imputation, even if the language is not clearly there.

Luther’s 1520 tract, The Freedom of a Christian, speaks of one who by faith has “sins remitted” and is “justified by the merits” of “Christ alone.” Likewise, as he did in his 1519 sermon, he evokes the image of Christ as a bridegroom to whom the “believing soul” is united and so possesses “all his good things” with sins “swallowed up” in him in whom the believer receives
“a righteousness which she may claim as her own.” While this may resonate with the language of imputation, there exists no evidence in the tract that Luther has moved beyond an alien-yet-instilled righteousness of Christ. In fact, he continues to speak of being justified “inwardly, and according to the Spirit.”

So, when we come to Luther’s 1522 preface to Romans, do we now find the language of imputation? Not clearly, as Luther still speaks of being “made righteous apart from all his works by faith alone” with good works (our proper righteousness) proving that one “is already inwardly just in the sight of God.” Again, Luther affirms immediate justification by speaking of one “already just” as he does in the next paragraph, “a person becomes just without works but doesn't remain without works once he has become just” (emphasis mine). A unique focus for Luther in this preface concerns the claim that God “reckons” faith “as justice for the sake of Christ our mediator.” God “gives” such faith, and through it a believer “becomes sinless and eager for God’s commands.” It appears that the use of “reckons” here is not imputation language; rather, Luther seems to see faith “as” our “justice” or righteousness, in that it unites with Christ who is our alien righteousness and becomes inwardly ours by that faith.

Let’s use this as a starting point for comparing Luther and Tyndale, whose preface (along with his other New Testament ones), just a few years after Luther, shows considerable dependence in terms of flow and content. As seen in the last post and in line with his Romans preface, Tyndale uses “reckon” to focus on faith being our righteousness in the sense of union with Christ who remits our sin and makes us perfectly righteous in the sight of God. For Luther, it lays hold of Christ whose alien righteousness (in addition to his forgiveness) becomes ours by that faith. For Tyndale, it lays hold of Christ whose blood is applied by the Holy Spirit to overcome our sin and make us perfectly righteous.

In their prefaces, we see the following agreement between them:

  1. Faith is a gift wrought by the Spirit and founded on God’s eternal predestination to such.
  2. Faith changes us inwardly and makes us new creations as the children of God.
  3. Faith lays hold of Christ and drives out the old Adam.
  4. Justification occurs immediately by faith alone apart from works.
  5. Sin remains in the justified believer, but not in the sense of standing before God.
  6. Christ is the foundation of our justification.
  7. Faith is “reckoned” as our righteousness though in terms of our union with Christ.
  8. Good works necessarily flow from faith as the evidence of justification. 

The main difference exists in that Tyndale more properly sees faith as our righteousness, while Luther more properly views the righteousness of Christ as that which justifies. In this way, I cannot agree with the substantial difference Werrell affirms between the two on justifying faith (“The Theology of William Tyndale,” PhD diss, University of Hull, 2001). Instead, Tyndale seems merely to expand on what Luther says about such in his preface.

Also, Werrell (The Blood of Christ in the Theology of William Tyndale, 2015) wants us to believe that the blood of Christ, while more ardently stressed in Tyndale, was not a focus of Luther, which seems incongruous with Luther’s own words:

They must, however, be justified through faith in Christ, who has merited this for us by his blood and has become for us a mercy seat . . .in the presence of God, who forgives us all our previous sins.

Christ’s blood was clearly a vital point for Luther, who viewed the remission of sin through the blood as part of our justification.

To be sure, Tyndale was not a Lutheran, and he differed with Luther in theological emphases. Likewise, Luther seems closer to the doctrine of imputation here than Tyndale. Still, for both, we are made righteous by Christ alone through faith alone as it unites us to him. Luther’s primary focus was on the alien righteousness of Christ making us righteous, while Tyndale’s was on the forgiveness of sins doing the same. In the process, they both showed dependence on Augustine’s concept of justification as being made inwardly righteous while departing from him on seeing justification as immediate.

Again—and this cannot be emphasized enough—both men wrote in the early stages of the Reformation. So, when we read them, we are times left wondering what they are saying in relation to justification in connection with regeneration and sanctification. Such concepts begged clarification. However, I would contend, they are both moving (Luther in a more pronounced manner) toward the theology of justification as an “act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q33). In this way, the similarities between them trump their differences.

Previous Posts:
  1. Life in England
  2. Life in Exile
  3. His Translation Work
  4. His Writings
  5. His Theology of the Word
  6. His Theology of Justification Considered

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is an OPC minister and serves as the Director of Research and Dean of Students at the Greystone Theological Institute. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. In connection with his Bunyan studies, he has written an allegory of his own, one for children: Nutonius of Acornshire.

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Bob McKelvey