The years leading up to October 31, 1517 were essential to understanding Martin Luther’s motivation and the purpose of the Reformation. In 1513, as a new professor at the University of Wittenberg, Luther lectured on the Psalms. He then lectured on St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Galatians from 1515 to 1517. While Luther studied and taught the Scriptures he wrestled mightily with the established teachings of the church concerning grace and faith.
Later in life, in 1545, Luther described the joy that came in the discovery that had been waiting for him in the Word: “I had already for years read and taught the Holy Scriptures both privately and publicly. I knew most of the Scriptures by heart and, furthermore, had eaten the first fruits of knowledge of, and faith in, Christ, namely, that we are justified not by works, but by faith in Christ.” The prevailing teaching of the Church was “infused grace,” or the grace God puts in the sinner so that he might become righteous.
This bothered Luther because it meant that the Christian life and faith was thus heavily focused upon obedience and behavior; it was a “gradual healing process” in which the sinner “starts to become” righteous as “God creates a new will in man so that he begins to fulfill the Law.” In other words, they held that Christ and the grace of God make salvation a possibility for the believer. At the final judgment God will decide if the Christian has used and done justice to God’s gift of grace. This left Luther—and all believers—wondering if he had done enough to please God.
“This bothered Luther because it meant that the Christian life and faith was thus heavily focused upon obedience and behavior…“
Luther struggled with the biblical phrase “the righteousness of God.” He wrote, “Nevertheless, in spite of the ardor of my heart I was hindered
by the unique word in the first chapter (of Romans): ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it.’ I hated the word ‘righteousness of God,’ because in accordance with the usage and custom of the doctors I had been taught to understand it philosophically as meaning, as they put it, the formal or active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unjust. As a monk I led an irreproachable life. Nevertheless I felt that I was a sinner before God. My conscience was restless, and I could not depend on God being propitiated by my satisfactions. Not only did I not love, but I actually hated the righteous God who punishes sinners…Thus a furious battle raged within my perplexed conscience, but meanwhile I was knocking at the door of this particular Pauline passage, earnestly seeking to know the mind of the great apostle. Day and night I tried to meditate upon the significance of these words: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: The righteous shall live by faith.’”
In 1517, then, the Word of God finally was heard by Luther clearly: “Then finally God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is a gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely faith, and that sentence: The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel, is passive, indicating that the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise. In the same moment the face of the whole of Scripture became apparent to me. My mind ran through the Scriptures, as far as I was able to recollect them, seeking analogies in other phrases, such as the work of God, by which He makes us strong, the wisdom of God, by which He makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. Just as intensely as I had now hated the expression ‘the righteousness of God,’ I now lovingly praised this most pleasant word. This passage from Paul became to me the very gate to Paradise.”
Luther’s breakthrough was that God justifies the sinner not by giving him the ability to become righteous but by crediting the holiness, obedience, and goodness of Christ to him as righteousness. “Justification is not a change in man but the gracious declaration of God by which He pronounces righteous the sinner who in himself is not righteous.”
As we leave the October celebration of the Reformation behind, we move forward into November with thankful hearts. We are thankful for the Gospel that changes us—our hearts, our mind and our habits. This Gospel changes us so that we can act out our thankfulness in meaningful ways. Look in this newsletter for some opportunities to act out your thankfulness!
Joy in the journey,
Pastor Jeff Shearier
Adapted from an article by Paul Doelinger on the LCMS Facebook page.