by Charles Fry /
Here in the second post in this series, we pause to look ahead, summarizing the content yet to come.
When Lightning Struck: A Brief Life of Martin Luther (Posts 3-8)
These posts will present a brief biography of Luther. To understand Luther’s beliefs, it is important to know the context in which he lived and the religion he knew from first-hand experience. Accordingly, these posts focus on Luther’s life in relationship to the gospel and the religion of merit that was pervasive in his day. Because of this focus, many events of Luther’s life are omitted, such as his marriage to Katherine and their six children (one of whom died as an infant and another who died in her teens). While these events are important to study, for the sake of brevity and focus, such aspects of Luther’s story are not found in this narrative.
Timeline (Post 9)
A simplified timeline will be presented of the main events and writings of Luther’s life as discussed in these posts. This will help the reader more clearly understand how the details of Luther’s life fit into his overarching story and that of the Reformation.
Luther’s Understanding of the Gospel: Five Crucial Insights (Posts 10-16)
Key to Luther’s thought is a proper distinction between the Law and the gospel. In our day this distinction is typically trivialized, psychologized, blurred, or extinguished altogether. Thus the gospel is lost. Yet to Luther, distinguishing between the two allowed one to face God and his Word in all its infinite holiness and, therefore, to be genuinely contrite, resting in the finished work of Christ. This clarification leads one to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which Luther understood as being the core of the gospel.
Justification by faith alone is the biblical truth that a person is declared spotless and righteous by God himself through reliance on Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness and salvation. In being justified, all our sins are freely pardoned and we are clothed in the perfect obedience of Christ. Justification was the end of all that Luther taught. Along with the Law/gospel distinction and justification by faith alone, these posts also discuss other essential issues related to the gospel, such as Luther’s teaching on repentance and faith, the will of man, and the reality of sin in the believer’s life.
Two Outworkings of the True Gospel (Posts 17-20)
These posts will discuss the way in which Martin Luther’s understanding of the gospel exalts God and humbles man. While this material may be the least familiar to many readers, Luther’s teaching on this subject was remarkably helpful and should be treasured. Luther’s zeal to connect the gospel with the glory of God was second to none.
Posts 17-20 will also consider Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, where we see him contrasting the Roman theology of glory with the Bible’s theology of the cross. Luther’s classic work, The Freedom of the Christian, will also be examined, along with a few other select writings. Here Luther notes that the only person able to produce genuine fruit for the glory of God is the person who rests in the finished work of Christ. Luther longed for the Church to produce fruit for the glory of God. However, he simply wanted good works to be in their proper place—completely apart from one’s standing before God (which is based on Christ’s work alone), a happy result of being freely declared righteous by God.
Why Christ’s Church Still Needs Luther (Posts 21-22)
This final series of posts will seek to summarize the message of this entire series and apply it to our lives in the twenty-first century. I personally consider these the most important posts in the series.
In his preface to The Complete Sermons on Martin Luther, Eugene F.A. Klug observes,
Many excellent biographies of (Luther’s) life have appeared through the years; but the definitive statement of his theological impact and production has yet to be written, and probably never will, whether by friend or foe. The field is simply too vast, even though Luther was and remained very clear and uncomplicated in every utterance and situation.[i]
I agree with Klug. Luther’s life, theology, and impact are so enormous that in the process of writing on him or his theology, one is overwhelmed at the start. Who is adequate for such a task? Yet I find myself also agreeing with Klug when he says that Luther is “clear and uncomplicated.” The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the unifying thread throughout his works and sermons. Indeed, Luther himself described faith in Christ as his entire theology: “For the one doctrine which I have supremely at heart, is that of faith in Christ, from whom, through whom, and unto whom all my theological thinking flows back and forth day and night.”[ii]
Thus, we can have reasonable assurance that we are interpreting Martin Luther correctly, for he did have this one unifying theme to his work—and what a glorious, life-giving theme it is.
On a Friday afternoon outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago, our Savior—one hundred percent God, one hundred percent man—hung on a cross. As others have noted, had we been there and been close enough to that awful event, we would have heard the sound of flies. Blood would have fallen on our hands as we touched splintered wood. We would have heard dry, anguished gasps escape from our Lord’s swollen throat as his life came to an end. We would have seen Christ buried. And three days later, we would have seen an empty tomb. Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins is an objective fact of history which remains, for all times and cultures, an unchanged comfort for guilty consciences.
Either Jesus’ death for all our sins is enough or it is not. If Christ is enough (and he is), then it is folly to trust our own works or to try to add one atom of righteousness to Christ’s work. There is no middle ground, no mixture of his work plus our work. There is only pure and unchanging grace for the child of God, where Christ alone is the anchor of our souls (Hebrews 6:19-20 NASB). If we do not believe that Christ is enough, then our faith crumbles to nothing.
Martin Luther found the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to be more than enough. As Luther clung to Christ alone, the world was turned upside down. May the whole world, like Luther, know and trust the gospel of God, and in trusting, find true rest.
Part 2 of a 22-part 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] The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 7 volumes, Eugene F.A. Klug (ed.), Eugene F.A. Klug, Erwin W. Koehlinger, James Lanning, Everette W. Meier, Dorothy Schoknecht, and Allen Schuldheiss, translators (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), vol. 5, 11.
[ii] A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Based on Lectures Delivered by Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg in the year 1531 and First Published in 1535, Philip S. Watson (ed.), A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575 (Logos Bible Software), 16.