Lesson 5: The Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

Holy SpiritThis is one of the best statements of Luther’s signature theological principle, justification by grace through faith alone. Implications of the doctrine have permeated every other explanation in the Small Catechism. At this place, we get the full effect.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen. What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church, He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day, He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.

The third article seems the appropriate place to explicate the meaning of justification by grace, because the doctrine of the Holy Spirit describes how God comes to us. Luther thinks every instance mentioned, the church, communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body and life everlasting, is a gift from God.

From his point of view these are gifts that demand nothing in return. Luther carries grace further than any other theologian. Although he discovered God’s grace while preparing lectures on the Psalms and Romans, and although he uses the same language as St. Paul; he is the first to add “alone” to justification by grace through faith. Every aspect of our salvation is due to God’s mercy. God deserves the credit for all.

Here, as in his interpretation of the second article, he begins presenting this as something done “for me.” But about halfway through he opens it up to all people. He speaks of the Holy Spirit calling me and gathering the Church, but enlightening, sanctifying, keeping, forgiving, and raising up all of us together.

It is worth noting a few peculiarities in Luther’s use of these traditional terms. He makes a point to emphasize that we do not come to this through our own reason. The enlightenment comes entirely from God. So too, this is not your normal sanctification. In his theology, sanctification is not growing in holiness. It depends on God forgiving us day after day.  All believers are saints only because God blesses them. There is no possibility of a treasury of merit.

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