But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are; That no flesh should glory in his presence.
1 Corinthians 1:27–29 (KJV)
Around A.D. 50 the apostle Paul completed his missionary visit to Athens. He then looked to the western horizon and began his journey to Corinth, a city of power and pride. He had confidently determined to arrive in Corinth with only one weapon in his arsenal: the word of the cross, the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2, NASB).
A short time after leaving the Corinthian church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul wrote to the factious and proud believers of Corinth, rebuking them and reminding them that the gospel leaves no room for arrogance and is diametrically opposed to the so-called “wisdom of the world.” The gospel message, its application by God’s sovereign decree, and the peculiar choice of those whom God would call by it, left no room for pride. Indeed, the gospel permitted “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Corinthians 1:29, KJV).
Another Princeton professor, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, wrote hundreds of pages confronting the errors of perfectionism and the idea that saints no longer are sinners. In his essay on “Miserable-Sinner Christianity” (article one), Warfield did a masterful job of showing how throughout Protestant history and across all denominations and confessions, the Protestant church has always held to Luther’s doctrine that the believer is at the same time sinful and justified.
In his day, such a belief was mockingly labeled, “miserable-sinner Christianity.” In his essay, Warfield observed that such Christianity was the only true Christianity! Yet such Christianity was far from being morose, despairing, and joyless. Rather, it was the only kind of Christianity that knew true and unbounding joy and freedom from despair. “Miserable-sinner Christianity” was the only kind of Christianity that faced the reality of sin in the Christian life and at the same time knew the unchanging love of God for his children. Such Christianity also produced genuine humility, as Warfield explained:
It belongs to the very essence of the type of Christianity propagated by the Reformation that the believer should feel himself continuously unworthy of the grace by which he lives… We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to him or to God through him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on his “blood and righteousness” alone that we rest.[i]
Those who have read anything of Luther’s life and theology will be familiar with his phrase, simul iustus et peccator.[i] That is, the true Christian who has trusted Christ alone for salvation is at the same time just before God and also a sinner. Perhaps the chief passage for this truth is found in Romans 7:14–20, where Paul confesses his failure to obey the law of God and to avoid that which he should not do. Yet Paul did not lose his justification before God, for he stood before the majesty of God not by his own record of obedience but by the obedience of Christ.
Luther grasped this reality and believed that a wholehearted embracing of this truth was critical to appropriating the gospel and living in the joy and freedom of the gospel.
It was September of 1524 when the great Humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, published Diatribe, which we mentioned briefly previously in this series. This was Erasmus’ first public attack on Luther’s teaching. In it, he opposed Luther’s view of free will. Erasmus believed that Christian conduct—good morals and right behavior—was the primary way by which people could please God, and he downplayed Luther’s emphasis on salvation being a matter of God’s grace, not man’s works. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston have observed that Erasmus did not even consider free will to be an especially significant issue. Instead, Erasmus believed that Luther had blown the doctrine’s importance out of proportion.[i] In other words, Erasmus accused Luther of making much ado about nothing.
Erasmus’ approach seemed humble and self-deprecating, which is often how false teaching comes across as reasonable and acceptable to the general public. But Luther found Erasmus’ attack and his trivialization of free will infuriating. In response, Luther cast off all restraint: he responded by writing his blistering work, On the Bondage of the Will, which attacked the teaching that man’s will is free with respect to salvation.
Luther’s definition of the words “repentance” and “faith” reveal a third integral aspect of his understanding of the gospel. He stood against the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of these words that undercut the free gospel of grace. Incorrect definitions of these terms would ruin the entire gospel message. In our day as well, the gospel is often lost because we have vague definitions of these terms—definitions that insert works and human effort back into the gospel. Therefore it is crucial to be clear on what repentance and faith actually mean.
The Roman practice of penance. The Church in Luther’s day had developed a system of penance in which three steps had to be accomplished for the successful penitent to merit forgiveness. First he needed contrition, a lamenting all his known sins. Next came verbal confession, where he had to list all his known sins to a confessor, humiliating himself with sorrow. The final step was satisfaction, where the priest prescribed actions for the penitent to complete in order to pay for his sins. Whatever was missed in this process was to be made up by punishment in purgatory.
In our contemporary culture we have little idea of the need to be declared righteous before a holy God, for we are dim to the majesty and holiness of God and therefore have a high estimate of ourselves. Yet Luther rightly understood these things. The majesty of God required man’s perfect obedience to the law, a perfection man could never render. To Luther, therefore, the issue of justification by faith alone was the issue of the day.
Luther saw that a sinner who simply looked to the Lord Jesus by faith alone—by trusting in Christ’s work and not personal performance or supposed righteousness—was freely pardoned, loved, forgiven, and fully accepted by God. Jesus’ perfect obedience to his own law met the righteous requirements of the law for the believer, and his death on the cross once and for all paid the debt for the believer’s sin. He realized the life and death of Christ were credited to the believer, securing for him or her a perfect righteousness, permanently freed from all wrath. Hence, there was now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The believer was fully justified, declared righteous before God.
Luther defined “law” as all of God’s commands both in the Old and New Testaments and “gospel” as all of the promises in Scripture, freely given in and through Christ, apart from our works—by sheer grace. “We should understand ‘law’ to mean nothing else than God’s word and command, in which he directs us what to do and what not to do, and demands from us our obedience and ‘work.’“[i] He then defines the gospel:
On the other hand, the gospel or the faith is a doctrine or word of God that does not require our works. It does not command us to do anything. On the contrary, it bids us merely to accept the offered grace of forgiveness of sins and eternal life and let it be given to us. It means that we do nothing; only receive, and allow ourselves to be given what has been granted to us and handed to us in the Word.[ii]
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died needlessly. Galatians 2:21, NASB
In the year 1496, a boy of around 14 years of age observed a startling sight: a prince named William of Anhalt walking the streets of Magdeburg, Germany, emaciated and begging, carrying a sack on his back like a donkey. “He had so worn himself down by fasting and vigil that he looked like a death’s-head, mere bone and skin.”[i] William had given up the realms of earthly nobility to save his own soul by suffering, self-denial, and purgation.
This was the medieval religious system, a system of self-effort and suffering to gain the halls of paradise—a system that included relics, purgatory, penance, fear, and uncertainty, without providing assurance that one had ever done enough. Years later that 14-year-old would commit himself to this system in hopes of gaining a clean conscience and assurance that he would one day be in heaven.
The young boy, of course, was Martin Luther. No matter how hard he tried to get to heaven by “monkery” or by plumbing the depths of the mystic’s surrender to God, he could never be calm before the majesty, justice, and holiness of God. The more he tried to please God, the more he hated him. Over time, however, as Luther studied the Scriptures, rediscovering the good news of the gospel freed his tormented conscience.
This timeline (of the main events and writings addressed by these posts) will help the reader more clearly understand how the details of Martin Luther’s life fit into his overarching story and that of the Reformation.
Read all the posts published to date in this extended series on the life and theology of Martin Luther, as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the birth of the Reformation.
1415 July 6
John Hus burned at the stake, c. 100 years before the Reformation
1483 November 10
Martin Luther born in Eisleben, Germany
Begins study of Law
1505 July 2
Vows to become monk after thunderstorm
1505 July 17
Enters Augustinian order to become a monk
Luther conducts his first Mass
Transferred by Staupitz to Wittenberg from Erfurt
Lectures on Psalms, Romans, and Galatians at University of Wittenburg
1517 October 31
Announces 95 Theses in Wittenberg
1518 April 26
1519 July 4–14
Debates Eck at Leipzig, Sola Scriptura is realized by Luther
Treatise on Good Works, To the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian are published
Pope Leo X issues papal bull giving Luther 60 days to recant
1521 April 16–26
Luther defends at the Diet of Worms
1521 May 4
Luther is hidden at the Wartburg castle
Luther’s German translation of the New Testament published
Peasants’ War begins. Thomas Munzer, a key leader of the Anabaptists
1525 January 21
Formal beginning of Anabaptist movement(Conrad Grebel baptizes)
Luther marries Katherine Von Bora, a nun
Marburg Colloquy (Luther & Zwingli split over the Lord’s Supper)
Luther writes Large Catechism (April) and Small Catechism (May)
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.
Despite his many concerns with the Roman Church, Luther considered a smaller yet growing theological opponent, the Anabaptists, to be more formidable. This group took the Reformation as their starting point, but then went to a radical end in hopes of regaining what they considered to be pure religion. They heartily embraced extra-biblical revelation, trusting in new revelations supposedly from God, rather than resting in the Bible and hearing God speak through the Scriptures alone.
As a result, the Anabaptists plunged themselves into religious excess and disgrace, wreaking havoc and disruption. Sadly, the papacy and the emperor associated Luther with the Anabaptists and their folly. Therefore, Luther zealously attacked the Anabaptist theology. With respect to both Rome and the Anabaptists, the chief battle was ultimately over the same issue: the doctrine of sola scriptura: Scripture alone.