February 2017 – I was reminded recently how reading a good book can only take you so far in understanding the past. It takes being immersed in the places and culture of the times to get a real grasp on history. This was brought home to me while traveling in Germany with a group of journalists who were invited to visit key locations in the life of Martin Luther. I came away not only with a better understanding of how he recaptured the doctrine of justification by faith during the Reformation, but how easily it can be forgotten in our day.
The law and sin
Martin Luther was the product of a loving but strict Catholic family who wanted more for him than the rugged life his father had as a peasant coal miner. Hans and Margaret Luther sent Martin to live in Eisenach near relatives and prepare for a career in law. For several years, he was immersed in Latin, grammar, rhetoric, and the humanities. The intellectual stimulation he received there was not the only thing that made an impact on him.
There were the simple beauty and social graces he saw in the families who would provide a home for him away from his mother and father. A greater appreciation for music and the life of religious service was instilled in him by John Braun, the vicar of St. Mary’s Church there in Eisenach. It was through this friendship that Luther first began to consider a life devoted to his beloved Catholic Church. But the times were also marked by spiritual darkness brought about by religious superstition, a dependence on the favor of the saints, and the preeminence of church tradition. These made an enormous impact on Luther and were to provide the backdrop for the deep spiritual struggle that lay ahead.
As an 18-year-old student at the great medieval university in Erfurt, the calling Martin Luther felt to religious service was intensified. Finally, and with much disapproval from his father, Luther left the study of law and fled to a nearby monastery where he took the vows of an Augustinian monk.
However, instead of following the prescribed path of studying church doctrine and philosophy as his superiors preferred, he was consumed with a desire to know the Scriptures themselves and committed large portions to memory. It was in the Bible that he became acutely aware of the righteousness that God requires along with a heightened awareness of his own sin. Instead of finding peace through daily religious service as a monk, he was drowning in despair. Little did he know he was now in a position to be truly helped.
Life in Christ
The vicar of the monastery, Johann von Staupitz, encouraged Luther to look away from himself and look instead upon the finished work of Christ on the cross for his forgiveness. Philosophy taught him to try harder. Christ in the Gospels taught him to believe and trust. This was the turning point for Martin Luther and would shape all that he would teach in the university at Wittenberg. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, all but forgotten for some 800 years, had been rediscovered by Luther and would be declared to the world. To him, this doctrine served as the key to the whole Bible. The Word of God had won the day in Luther’s heart, but it was zeal for its application in life that propelled him forward as the central figure of the Protestant Reformation.
Having seen the city of Rome firsthand, he was devastated at the apathy and immorality that was rampant among the priests. By this time, Luther already had a deep distrust of the pope and church councils and had denied the doctrine of papal infallibility. Luther became furious that the poor were being used to line the pockets of the pope and church leaders through the sale of indulgences which could purportedly buy forgiveness from punishments imposed by the church and those awaiting them in purgatory. All those years of preparation and spiritual struggle had prepared Luther now to be a voice for the common man against these abuses.
Luther’s intent was not to undermine the Catholic Church but rather to bring clarity to its doctrines. He was always thoroughly Catholic, but it was Rome who was the heretic. To this end, Martin Luther issued an open invitation for any and all to debate 95 propositions surrounding the issues of penance and indulgences. On October 31, 1517, he posted these alongside other public notices on the door of All Saints’ Church (the Castle Church) in Wittenberg for all to see. History shows us that this act ignited the fires of the Protestant Reformation that eventually spread throughout Europe. There were many other leaders of the Reformation – among them Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, and Tyndale – who brought great clarity to a host of doctrines, but it was Martin Luther and his reaffirmation of justification by faith that has had the greatest impact in church history.
A foreign righteousness
I had the privilege of being in Wittenberg on October 31 as thousands of people flooded the streets to celebrate Reformation Day. The morning began as I attended an English speaking service at the Castle Church, where Martin Luther’s remains are preserved in a stone encasement below the elevated pulpit. The experience that morning was unforgettable. I took communion in the very church where Martin Luther preached and on whose doors the 95 Theses hung. I sang loudly as the massive pipe organ accompanied the choir singing the battle hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Through every part of the liturgy, I was overcome with gratitude to God for what had happened here in 1517 and how I was a beneficiary of the light of the gospel illuminated once again through Luther’s courage. And yet, to me there was a hollowness among all the festivity. There was no mention of the one single doctrine that defined Luther and that forever defines the gospel – justification by faith. (See below.)
The age-old question “How can sinful man be made right with God?” was at the heart of Martin Luther’s struggle as an Augustinian monk in Erfurt. The answer for him and for us is the same. It must be a foreign righteousness that God supplies to us through faith and apart from any work. It’s a righteousness based on the law-keeping of Christ and credited to our account through faith. That’s what Luther rediscovered while meditating on Romans 1:17, “the just shall live by faith.”
The great corrective of the Reformation was that justification and renewal (or regeneration) are two distinct acts – not one. Justification describes our outward relationship to God’s law. It is a judgment of God with respect to us, while regeneration is an act of God within us. John Murray wrote, “The distinction is like that of [a] surgeon and the act of a judge. The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us. That is not what a judge does – he gives a verdict regarding our judicial status.”
Murray continues, “The purity of the gospel is bound up with the recognition of this distinction. If justification is confused with regeneration or sanctification, then the door is opened for the perversion of the gospel at its center.” We can see now why Luther was in despair. Under the teaching of Rome, he could never be counted just (or righteous) before God as long as his works had anything to do with it. Without this understanding, we don’t have the gospel and we certainly don’t have the Reformation.
Since faith in the righteousness of Christ applied to our account is the foundation of our hope as Christians, we can be certain that Satan will attack at this point.
First of all, we must resist the temptation to think that God accepts us when we’re good and rejects us when we’re bad. However, this truth doesn’t give license to sin, but it does mean that, as believers, our relationship to God as His children is not secured by our behavior, but by Christ’s redemptive work. The confidence that He has made us His own and has justified us freely by His grace should fuel our prayers, our praise, and our service. The more we understand this, the more joyful we will be on a daily basis.
Secondly, we must not allow the truth of justification by faith to be replaced or deemphasized in our churches and denominations. To assume that people can’t tolerate sound theological teaching is simply false. The same is true of our singing. Even a casual reading of the Psalms reveals how often the works of God are mentioned as a basis for praise. On this side of the cross, we have far greater reasons to declare God’s greatest work through song than King David ever did.
As a matter of fact, apart from pointing people to the finished work of Christ on the cross and the various aspects of God’s plan of redemption, we really have very little to say to them. The fruit of missions, service, and brotherly love will all be enhanced when there is a grasp of the unspeakable love God has demonstrated by justifying sinners through the death and resurrection of Christ.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation gives us all an opportunity to reflect on the grace of God that was given at such a crucial time in history. He brought the light of the gospel out of a time of darkness, superstition, and man-made traditions, all through an ordinary German preacher who would rather stand on the Scriptures than human wisdom.
May God grant us the grace, as He granted Luther, to place our hope in Christ and to risk everything in proclaiming His truth to the world.
At the Reformation Day service at All Saints’ Church, in some ways, I felt I was attending a grand celebration where the honored guest was forgotten.
Even as the town of Wittenberg prepares for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the core doctrine that inspired the landmark Protestant event has been deemphasized and practically lost. An illustration of that can be seen in The Gates of Freedom, part of the World Reformation Exhibition where visitors are shown different ways of perceiving the Reformation. They will come across gates dedicated to Youth, Spirituality, Globalization/One World, Culture, Ecumenism, and Religion: Justice, Peace, and Care for Creation.
While there may be merits in celebrating some of these, they hardly summarize the historical reality of the Reformation, nor do they advance its original intent. It occurred to me that if we’re not careful, we too can fall prey to forgetfulness when it comes to this important truth. Unfortunately, it is notable that the church in the West is following a similar pattern, championing good causes, but too often missing the true gospel.
Visit ligonier.org for a selection of printed, online, and video resources about the Protestant Reformation including The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen J. Nichols.
Learn more at German National Tourist Board germany.travel