Reflections on Luther

We are coming to the end of this 500th centenary year of Luther's action in 1517 in Wittenberg marking the formal start of the 16th century Reformation. But how, in a few words, can Luther's fundamental contribution be summarized? Carl Truman, the Lutheran Scholar, writes fairly enough:

"Luther has been a polarizing figure from the moment he nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church. For many ordinary people in his own day, he was a hero, a figure of near mythical proportions … For his Catholic contemporaries he was at best an arrogant upstart, at worst a sex-crazed lecher."

That vicious charge of being "sex crazed" was because Luther taught that current Church practice of forbidding clergy to marry was wrong. However, there was also some crudeness in Luther's writings. And Truman along with many others know of the weaknesses of Luther (how his attitude, for example, towards the Jews was not right and so useful centuries later for evil Nazi propaganda). Nevertheless, they would say that the world owes an amazing debt to Martin Luther. And that was at least for his being a catalyst for what became a continent-wide rediscovery of the Bible and of the doctrine of "justification by faith".

The Bible

For Luther the Bible became supremely important. Yes, he had a place for Church tradition, but that tradition had to be subordinate to Scripture. For Luther the Bible was Queen:

"this Queen must rule and everyone must obey, and be subject to her. The pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, an angel from heaven – these should not be masters, judges, or arbiters but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of Scripture."

So Luther wanted the German people to have a Bible in their own language. Accordingly, in a relatively short space of time he translated into German Erasmus' new Greek New Testament and saw it published in 1522. The translation of the Old Testament (a team effort) he saw published in 1534. All this had a seminal effect on shaping German language, but more importantly on shaping German people's faith. And Luther taught them to read the Bible like any other book, taking the common-sense meaning of the words and not looking for hidden and allegorical meanings as so many had been doing. Luther said there is only one meaning of the text which was not to be read into the text:

"The Holy Spirit is the simplest writer and adviser in heaven and on earth. That is why his words could have no more than the one simplest meaning which we call the written one, or the literal meaning of the tongue."

We are, therefore, to "pay attention to the expression of Holy Scripture and abide by the words of the Holy Spirit." When there are difficulties in understanding a passage of the Bible you are to let other passages throw light on what is hard to understand. So Luther's commentary on Genesis contains references to other books of the Bible. With regard to creation itself, the New Testament, indeed, supports the Genesis' claim that God created the world and it was no accident. John's Gospel, for example, often read in Carol Services, says (John 1.1-3):

"in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made"

And "the Word" is the second person of the divine Trinity, God the Son, Jesus Christ. Similarly, Hebrews 11.3 says:

"By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible."

Luther said:

"Scripture, therefore, is its own light. It is a grand thing when Scripture interprets itself."

Of course, for Luther the supreme authority of the Bible came about because it is the book about Jesus Christ and contains the gospel for those …

"… preaching about Christ, Son of God and of David, true God and man, who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us the sin, death, and hell of all men who believe in him. Thus the gospel can be either a brief or a lengthy message; one person can write of it briefly, another at length. He writes of it at length, who writes about many words and works of Christ, as do the four Evangelists. He writes of it briefly, however, who does not tell of Christ's works, but indicates briefly how by his death and resurrection he has overcome sin, death, and hell for those who believe in him, as do St Peter and St Paul."

The doctrine of Justification by Faith

If the Bible was one great plank of the 16th century Reformation, the doctrine of "justification by faith" was the other great plank. Luther tells us how he came to understand what this meant, when referring to his own spiritual state by 1519:

"however irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself before God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience, nor could I be confident that I had pleased him with my satisfaction. I did not love, nay, rather I hated, this righteous God who punished sinners, and if not with tacit blasphemy, certainly with huge murmurings I was angry with God, saying; 'As though it really were not enough that miserable sinners should be eternally damned with original sin and [then] have all kinds of calamities laid upon them by the law of the Ten Commandments."

Luther had an assured faith in the utter holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings – not just in the wrong things they did, but how that human pride and self-absorption could be part of what was considered good. So how could Luther ever please and satisfy God? He tells us that the problem words for him were Paul's words in Romans 1.17:

"the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous [or just] shall live by faith'."

But then he writes:

"At last, God being merciful … I began to understand the justice of God as that by which the righteous man lives by the gift of God, namely, by faith; and this sentence 'the justice of God is revealed in the gospel' to be that passive justice with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: 'The just lives by faith'. This straightway made me feel as though reborn and as though I had entered through open gates into Paradise itself."

Luther came to see that, yes, his good works, including and even his confession of sin, would not be good enough to satisfy an all holy and righteous God. But the good news or the "gospel" was that God promised forgiveness for his sins. This was not on the basis of Luther's good works and confession, but on the basis of Jesus Christ's good works. These were perfect and on the Cross of Calvary by his death were offered up for Luther and the whole world that first Good Friday. So Luther could now trust (however inadequately) in Christ and God's promise of forgiveness and be absolutely assured. For he was now sharing in Christ's perfect righteousness which was reckoned as his through that faith union.

So what about good works? They were possible and necessary as evidence of genuine faith in Christ, but only because of the Holy Spirit received by God's grace through that faith in Christ. However, Luther remained adamant regarding two things: one, that you cannot love God as you ought with your natural powers apart from God's grace; and, two, this side of heaven even with God's grace and strength you are not able to perform works of perfect righteousness that earn merit. Yes, they please God but do not justify you. So you still need to shelter under Christ's righteousness and receive forgiveness. The great Anglican theologian and reformer of the Elizabethan period, Richard Hooker, explains these nuances as follows. He distinguished righteousness (or goodness) with regard to, one, justification (as you become a believer), two, sanctification (as you continue as a believer) and, three, glorification (life in heaven):

"There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come; and there is a justifying and sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent; that whereby here we are justified is perfect [because Christ's] but not inherent; that whereby we are sanctified, inherent but not perfect."

Post Script

Luther was a remarkable man. So read more about him. There is an easy-read introduction to him in chapter 2 of Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame. For Luther's fundamental theology read Luther's The Bondage of the Will in the edition of, and with an introduction by, J.I.Packer and O.R.Johnston.

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