In the late 1880s, the church historian Philip Schaff (1819–1893) noted that the “Reformation was a republication of primitive Christianity, and the inauguration of modern Christianity. This makes it, next to the Apostolic age, the most important and interesting portion of church history.”1 And central to the Reformation in its beginnings is its pathfinder, namely, Martin Luther (1483–1546). One might well ask why Luther, in particular, is seen as the central figure of the Reformation when there are other good choices available — Huldreich Zwingli, for example, or John Calvin. It was Luther’ rediscovery of a central doctrine of the New Testament, justification by faith alone, that sparked the Reformation. Although this doctrine had not been totally lost in the Middle Ages — French pre-Reformer Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455–1536) was preaching it before Luther — it was Luther’s experience that gripped the hearts and minds of a generation. Luther rightly viewed the obscurity into which this key doctrine had fallen in the Middle Ages as having had detrimental effects on the health of the church of his day. For Luther, justification by faith alone is “the principal doctrine of Christianity” and its opposite — the idea that one can be approved by God on the basis of one’s faith and good works — is the “fundamental principle” of the world and the devil.2 “Whoever departs from the article of justification,” Luther plainly said, “does not know God.”3 And as he concluded more than 20 years after this experience of rediscovering the truth of justification by faith alone: “if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands, if it falls, the church falls.”4
‘Walled around with the terror and horror of sudden death’: Luther’s early experience
There were various voices raised in protest at the spiritual darkness caused by the loss of the doctrine of justification by faith alone — John Wycliffe (c.1330-1384) and the Lollards, for example, or Jan Hus (d.1415) and the Hussites — but a lasting Reformation did not occur until Martin Luther was raised up as a pathfinder of reform in the second decade of the 16th century.
Luther was born in Saxony in 1483, the eldest son of a fairly successful businessman, Hans Luther, who was the owner of several mine shafts and copper smelts. Hans wanted a better life for his son than he had. So he sent him, when he was of age, to Erfurt University, where Martin graduated with a M.A. in 1505. His father encouraged him to go on to get a master’s degree in law, but on July 2, 1505, Martin had an experience that changed the entire course of not only his own personal story, but also the history of the Church. He had been home for the summer and was returning to Erfurt on foot, when, about half a mile from the city gates of Erfurt a storm broke. In the words of John M. Todd:
Thunder clouds had built up, and suddenly the lightning flashed, a bolt striking right beside Martin who was knocked to the ground, though unhurt, in terror he shouted out: “Beloved St Anne! I will become a monk.” St. Anne was the patron saint of miners; Martin had heard prayers to her throughout his childhood perhaps more than to any other saint. …In later years he described himself at the moment when the lightning struck as “walled around with the terror and horror of sudden death.”5
Twelve days later, on July 17, 1505, Luther knocked at the gate of the Augustinian order in Erfurt and asked to be accepted into their monastic ranks. When he later told his father Hans of his decision, his father was quite angry that his son was not continuing with his studies.
He asked Martin, “Do you not know that it is commanded to honour father and mother?” Luther’s response was that his terror in the thunderstorm and St. Anne’s saving him from death had led him to become a monk. “I hope it was not the devil!” his father replied.6
‘I would stand on my head for joy’: Luther’s search for a gracious God
And so Luther became a monk, a member of the Order of Augustinian Eremites, one of the strictest monastic orders in Europe. He entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt to find spiritual peace and salvation. But for nearly 10 years genuine peace eluded Luther. He feared God might have predestined him to destruction. He often imagined Christ sitting in judgement over him at the Last Day. In fact, at Wittenberg, where Luther was now studying, there was a stone carving of Christ as Judge with two swords coming out of his mouth. Because of its terrible severity, Luther could not bear to look at this image, and would hurry past it on his way to daily prayer shielding his eyes with his hand.
To find peace with God, Luther zealously confessed every sin he could think of. He would confess every day, sometimes up to six hours a day. Luther had been taught that the moment the priest whispered in the confessional “I now absolve thee,” all of his sins were forgiven. But Luther was never certain that he had been fully forgiven. Always present was the fear: Have I confessed every sin? Then came a discovery even more distressing to Luther—there are sins which people commit that are not even known to them. But how could these be confessed if they were not known? Luther re-doubled his efforts and threw himself into all-night vigils, great bouts of fasting — all to find forgiveness and peace with God. As he once said:
I was indeed a pious monk and kept the rules of my order so strictly that I can say: If ever a monk gained heaven through monkery, it should have been I. All my monastic brethren who knew me will testify to this. I would have martyred myself to death with fasting, praying, reading, and other good works had I remained a monk much longer.7
Luther sought to find peace with God through such works, but he was troubled
by an overpowering fear of God’s judgement:
…My conscience could never achieve certainty but was always in doubt and said: “You have not done this correctly. You were not contrite enough. You omitted this in your confession.” Therefore the longer I tried to heal my uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more uncertain, weak, and troubled I continually made it.8
In plainer language Luther later stated: “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.”9
‘A passive righteousness’: Luther’s discovery of a merciful God
By 1514, Luther obtained a doctorate and had been installed as professor of biblical theology at the relatively young University of Wittenberg. During that year, the academic year 1514–1515,10 he was teaching a course on the Psalms. In his lectures and studies he came to Psalm 71, and was struck by the psalmist’s cry in verse two, “Deliver me in your righteousness, and cause me to escape.” Now, for Luther, the righteousness of God spoke of God’s awesome holiness and his judgment of sinners, not deliverance. Mystified by the psalmist’s language, Luther decided to study what the Scriptures have to say about this phrase, “the righteousness of God.” He was led, in God’s providence, to Romans 1:16–17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” Here is Luther’s testimony:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I turned to… the following words: “In it [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 the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live through a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God which is revealed by the gospel, is a passive righteousness with which the 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.11
Now what was Luther’s discovery? Namely this: The righteousness of God mentioned in Romans 1:16–17 is not an attribute of God, but that righteousness, namely the righteousness of Christ that he achieved in totally fulfilling the law of God, which God imputes to the person who puts his or her trust (fiducia) in Christ. And it is on this basis of this imputed righteousness that God declares such a person to be righteous. In other words, the decisive discovery of the Reformation was “Christ our righteousness.”12 Prior to this experience Luther knew that he could never obtain the righteousness that God demanded in his law, and that one day he would be bound to face the withering wrath of God. By this experience, though, Luther realized that salvation was not at all a matter of his attaining the perfect standard of righteousness which God demanded, but simply, by faith, relying upon Christ’s righteousness. Christ alone among men and women has never sinned; he alone has lived a life of perfect righteousness, and he alone has perfectly fulfilled the law and its righteous demands.13
What makes this discovery so powerful is that 500 years later, in a very different world culturally, politically, and technologically, we find ourselves needing the same saving grace, for we, like, Luther, are sinners in need of a merciful God.
1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Repr. Eerdmans Publishing, 1980), VII, Preface.
2 Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1988), 4.
3 Cited R. C. Sproul, “Introduction” to Francis Turretin, Justification, trans. George Musgrave Giger and ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (P&R Publishing, 2004), viii.
4 Cited Philip H. Eveson, The Great Exchange: Justification by faith alone in the light of recent thought (Day One Publications, 1996), 174.
5 John M. Todd, Luther. A Life (Hamish Hamilton, 1982), 25–26.
6 Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation. A narrative history related by contemporary observers and participants (Repr. Baker Book House, 1978), 24.
7 Hillerbrand, Reformation, 24.
8 Cited Westerholm, Israel’s Law and Church’s Faith, 7.
9 Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (Doubleday, 1992), 315.
10 There are some scholars who date this discovery a few years later.
11 Cited Todd, Luther, 77–78.
12 Alan Torrance, “Justification” in Adrian Hastings, The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford University Press, 2000), 363.
13 See, for instance, 2 Corinthians 5:21.