[Background and context: Melanchthon had written to Brenz on April 8, saying that he understood why Brenz, a newly married man, hadn’t written, but asking him to start corresponding again. He also sent some propositions about justification. Brenz must have commented on them in a letter not found in the collection of Melanchthon’s correspondence. In mid-May Melanchthon responded]:
I received your rather long letter, which I enjoyed very much. I beg you to write often and at length. Regarding faith, I have figured out what your problem is (1). You still hold on to that notion of Augustine’s, who gets to the point of denying that the righteousness of reason is reckoned for righteousness before God—and he thinks rightly. Next he imagines that we are counted righteous on account of that fulfillment of the Law which the Holy Spirit works in us. So you imagine that people are justified by faith, because we receive the Holy Spirit by faith, so that afterwards we can be righteous by the fulfillment of the law which the Holy Spirit works in us.
This notion places righteousness in our fulfillment, in our cleanness or perfection, even though this renewal must follow faith. But you should turn your eyes completely away from this renewal and from the law, and toward the promise and Christ, and you should think that we are righteous, that is, accepted before God, and find peace of conscience, on account of Christ, and not on account of that renewal. For this new quality itself does not suffice. Therefore we are righteous by faith alone, not because it is the root, as you write, but because it lays hold of Christ, on account of whom we are accepted, whatever this new life (2) may be like—indeed it follows necessarily, but it does not give the conscience peace.
Therefore love, which is the fulfillment of the law, does not justify, but faith alone, not because it is a certain perfection in us, but only because it lays hold of Christ. We are righteous, not on account of love, not on account of the fulfillment of the law, not on account of our new life, even though these things are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but on account of Christ; and we lay hold of this only through faith.
Augustine does not fully accord with (3) Paul’s pronouncement, even though he gets closer to it than the Scholastics. And I cite Augustine as fully agreeing with us (4) on account of the public conviction about him, even though he does not explain the righteousness of faith well enough. Believe me, dear Brenz, the controversy about the righteousness of faith is great and obscure. Nonetheless, you will understand it rightly if you totally take your eyes away from the law and Augustine’s notion about the fulfillment of the law, and fix your mind rather on the free promise, so that you think that we are righteous (that is, accepted) and find peace on account of the promise and on account of Christ. This pronouncement is true and makes Christ’s glory shine forth and wonderfully raises up [people’s] consciences. I have tried to explain it in the Apology, but it was not possible to speak in the same way there as I do now because of the calumnies of our opponents, even though I am saying the same thing essentially. (5)
When would the conscience have peace and a sure hope if it had to think that we are only counted righteous when that new life has been made perfect within us? What is this other than to be justified on the basis of the law, not the free promise? In the disputation I said this: that to attribute justification to love is to attribute justification to our work. There I have in mind the work done by the Holy Spirit in us. For faith justifies, not because it is a new work of the Holy Spirit in us, but because it lays hold of Christ, on account of whom we are accepted, not on account of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us.
If you will consider that the mind must be brought back from Augustine’s notion, you will easily understand the issue. Also, I hope to help you in some way by means of our apology, even if I speak cautiously of such things, which however cannot be understood except in the conflict of the conscience. The people indeed ought to hear the preaching of law and repentance; but meanwhile this true pronouncement of the Gospel must not be passed over. I ask you to write again, and let me know your judgment about this letter and the apology—whether this letter has satisfactorily answered your question. Farewell.
And I, dear Brenz, in order to get a better grip on this issue frequently imagine it this way: as if in my heart there is no quality that is called faith or charity, but instead of them I put Christ himself and say: this is my righteousness; He is the quality and my formal righteousness, as they call it. In this way I free myself from the perception (6) of the law and works, and even from the perception of this object, Christ (7), who is understood as a teacher or a giver; but I want Him to be my gift and teaching in Himself, so that I may have all things in Him. (8) So he says: I am the way, the truth and the life. He does not say: I give you the way, the truth and the life, as if He worked in me while being placed outside of me. He must be such things in me, remain in me, live in me, speak not through me but into me (9), 2 Cor. 5; so that we may be righteousness in Him, not in love or in gifts that follow.
(1) Lit. “I hold/grasp what exercises you/should exercise you/might exercise you”.
(2) Lit. newness.
(3) Lit., does not satisfy.
(4) Melanchthon uses a Greek word which means “one who says the same”; “with us” is my addition since it’s understood in the original.
(5) Lit. in the thing/matter itself.
(6) Latin: ab intuitu.
(7) Or in another reading, this objective Christ.
(8) “Object” means “object of thought”—Luther’s point is that he doesn’t even think of Christ as a source of teaching or of gifts, such as the gift of charity.
(9) Luther uses the Greek here.