by Charles Fry /
A BRIEF LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER, Part 3
Luther and the Gospel: Peace with God
The entire time that Luther sought to please God through his own actions, he was conscious of the fact that he actually hated the righteousness and justice of God, for they require perfect obedience to the Law of God. He knew that even his best performance could never measure up—despite fasting, sacrificing, trying to fully surrender to God (the mystic way), and confessing his sins to Staupitz for up to six hours at a time.
Luther said of this time in his life, “I was myself driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”[i]
As he studied the Scriptures at Wittenberg, however, Luther increasingly clung to “the dear Paul,” as he put it, for in the apostle’s letters Luther began to hear a new and sweet sound: the message of grace. The message of a Savior who had obeyed the Law perfectly on man’s behalf and died on the cross, bearing the complete penalty for sin.
Luther began to see that the righteousness God required from him was freely given through faith alone. Two verses from Romans 1 were the key passage that caused the doors of paradise to open for Luther: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (Romans 1: 16-17, NASB).
At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’“ Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open. An entirely new side of the Scriptures opened itself to me… and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the loathing with which before I had hated the term, “the righteousness of God.” Thus, that verse in Paul was for me truly the gate of paradise.[ii]
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.[iii]
Scholars differ as to exactly when Martin Luther came to trust Christ alone for salvation. According to one view, Luther gained a clear understanding of God’s grace as early as 1516, roughly a year before he would nail his celebrated 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church.[iv] One piece of evidence for this date comes from a letter Luther wrote that year to a friar named Spenlein, urging the monk to despair of his own righteousness and to trust Christ alone, thus finding all of his righteousness in the Savior.
Although Luther did appear to have some clarity on the gospel in 1516, his 95 Theses, written a year later, are actually not clear at all on the doctrine of justification. In fact, they still seem quite Roman Catholic. One ought not to consult that document to be edified in the riches of grace. In 1518, however, Luther presented The Heidelberg Disputation,[v] a major work and one much clearer on the gospel. Nevertheless, some scholars believe it was even later that Luther came to true faith in Christ.
While it seems we cannot know for certain when Luther actually became a Christian, two things are plain. First, Luther’s understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the gospel of grace did not occur in an instant, but was gradual. Secondly, Luther surely did come to trust Christ alone for salvation. Indeed, for the rest of his life, he would remain faithful to the gospel of God. Armed with assurance of his own righteousness before God, the one whose conscience once trembled at a leaf was now able to stand against the powers of the world, exemplifying the second part of Proverbs 28:1 (NASB), “The righteous are as bold as a lion.”
Part 5 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
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.
[i] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand; A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1950, 1977, 2010), 41.
[ii] James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986, 2003), 134.
[iii] Bainton, 48.
[iv] There is some scholarly discussion as to whether Luther actually nailed the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. The most contemporary accounts do not mention the door. There is only one mention of Luther nailing the theses to the door, and this account (by Melanchthon) was written many years after 1517. However, for the sake of familiarity, I have kept the traditional account in these posts. I am indebted to Dr. Timothy Dost, church history professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, for this observation. Class notes, Reformation History, Spring, 2015.
[v] This important work will be discussed in more detail later in this series.