In the past we’ve looked at the origins of the TULIP acronym, whether Bunyan really said the “Run, John, run” poem, and Luther’s quote about the importance of defending the smallest truth at the very point at which the Devil is attacking.
So what about the phrase attributed to Luther than justificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae—”justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.”
From what I’ve been able to find, the first use of this exact phrase was by Lutheran theologian Balthasar Meisner who said that it was a “proverb of Luther” (Anthropôlogia sacra disputation 24, [Wittenberg: Johannes Gormannus, 1615]). [Source: Arthur Carl Piepkorn / Jack Preus]
In 1618 Reformed theologian Johann Heinrich Alsted wrote articulus iustificationis dicitur articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (in Theologia scholastica didacta [Hanover, 1618], p. 711)— “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the church stands or falls.” [Source: Alister McGrath]
We don’t have record of Luther using the exact phrase, but very close: quia isto articulo stante stat Ecclesia, ruente ruit Ecclesia—“Because if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.” (WA 40/3.352.3) [Source: Alister McGrath]
Luther certainly expressed the same thought in numerous ways, but this is the closest I’ve seen to the famous quote.
(Thanks to Carl Trueman for the translations.)