From Pastor’s Desk
After Jesus, Martin Luther remains one of the most written about people in all of history. Scholars and theologians struggle to come to grips with the great work God did through this little friar from eastern Germany.
Read Luther, writing near the end of his life (1545):
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God.
Luther hated God. He hated God because he was convinced that God demanded the impossible from him. God demanded a righteousness that he could in no way produce. He beat himself bloody in the monastery. He denied himself creature comforts and basic necessities. He prayed his prayers, he sang his psalms, and it wasn’t enough. As he said, he walked around with an ever-troubled conscience.
He went on:
Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at [Romans 1:17], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted [there]. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.
What did Luther discover?
The righteousness that God demands, he gives: in Christ.
Here Luther found that upon which the Church stands and falls, which finally eased his conscience and opened the gates of heaven to him. He held on to this for the rest of his life, as he writes in The Smalcald Articles:
I do not know how to change in the least what I have previously and constantly taught about justification. Namely, that through faith, as St. Peter says, we have a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead, yet he will not punish or remember it.
When did it happen?
Luther talks about how the Spirit made this breakthrough not while he was writing about or reading the Scriptures, but while he was meditating upon them. As you read more about Luther, it’s intriguing to wonder what he “knew” and when. Where did he stand in 1512-1513 as he prepared lectures on the Psalms (it was Psalms 31 and 71 that especially troubled him as they talked of God’s righteousness)? Perhaps it was in in 1514, 1515, or 1516 as he lectured on Hebrews and Romans. What about in 1517 as he prepared his famous theses?
What seems clear is that by early 1518, Luther fully came to grips with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith which is the hallmark of Scripture and the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
How did it happen?
It was the Word of God and always the Word of God. Luther wanted every parent to teach this to their child: “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel” (Small Catechism, The Creed, Third Article).
When Luther quit law school for monastic life he joined an order (Augustinian hermits) which emphasized reading the Bible. In fact, he probably received his own copy of the Bible as a friar. At the monastery, as Luther wrestled with God, an unnamed senior friar “strongly advised Luther to hope in God” and to have “a ‘little bit’ of faith in the absolution of sin.’” This friar pointed Luther to the Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
When Luther read Augustine, it took him back to Scripture. When Luther read Bernard of Clairveaux, it took him back to Scripture. When Luther talked to his spiritual father, John Staupitz, it took him back to Scripture. He read Scripture, and the Spirit called him by the gospel! Later Luther preached in a sermon of 1522,
I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.
Luther invented nothing. The Spirit called, gathered, and enlightened him, to use his later words.
Why did it happen?
This is the easy part. God worked it to save souls. Luther’s first, and then millions of others. God, our good and merciful Father, used Luther, as he has used so many others in history to unleash the power of the “for you.”
During the 1535 school year, Luther oversaw an academic debate and prepared some theses concerning faith and law. Included among them were the following:
But true faith says, “I certainly believe that the Son of God suffered and arose, but he did this all for me, for my sins, of that I am certain.”
For he died for the sins of the whole world. But it is most certain that I am some part of the world, therefore, it is most certain that he died also for my sins.
This is the faith which alone justifies us without law and works through the mercy of God shown in Christ.
For you. Without the “for you,” the death of Jesus is just a historical fact. But it was for you. Given for you. Shed for you. This is the righteousness of God, the righteousness made known through the Scriptures, the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.