Who Was Martin Luther? Part 11

Rev. Donavon Riley

Throughout the course of his early lectures, Martin Luther found that even though he had been taught as a young monk that there was a vast, uncrossable chasm between sinners and a righteous God, that is not what he discovered in Scripture. Instead, especially in the pages of the Old Testament, Luther discovered sinful men and women pursued and saved by a God of faithful, lovingkindness; a God slow to judge and quick to forgive sinners; and a Savior God who led sinners down into darkest hell so He could carry them up into heavenly glory.

Martin was delighted to learn (and teach his students) that one does not become a theologian by knowing God's mind and will, or by reading many theology books, but by "living, no, rather dying and being damned." That, he discovered, is what makes a theologian.

This revelation was, as one Luther scholar writes, "like a pinch of yeast that gradually worked its way into his thoughts, his being, and his entire life."

It is impossible to get to know Martin Luther unless one accepts that he embraced, in totality, what Scripture teaches about God's righteousness: that God is righteous when He gives sinners His righteousness through Jesus Christ. God crosses the divide between Himself and sinners (a divide that sinners, not God, establish), and through Jesus' bloody suffering and death, takes our sin on Himself and gives us His righteousness instead.

The reason this was so important for Luther, is that he also discovered in the Bible this truth: people cannot do anything other than love themselves. The first, middle, and last thing sinners only ever care about is themselves. Even when we are focused on being righteous our focus is on ourselves. We only worry about becoming righteous because we fear death and hell. Left to ourselves, without the threat of judgment and hell, we sinners will run amok through creation.

That is why, for Luther, he taught his students that people who imagine they can love God above all things and do what the Law commands as God Himself intends, are "plainly insane" "fools" and "pig theologians."

There is no movement from sin to righteousness for Luther, not from us to God anyway. The whole movement of righteousness is from God to sinners through Christ Jesus. All a sinner, the Old Adam, contributes to his salvation, Luther said, is "sin and resistance."

Everything human beings do is selfish, and everything God does in Christ Jesus is selfless. The scales of justice are then completely unbalanced because God has His thumb on the scale. Righteousness is always a one-sided action, from God to us.

This was a revolution for Luther that captured his entire imagination for the rest of his life, and it eventually resulted in his excommunication and a death sentence hung on him.

Next time, we will look more at this teaching about sin and righteousness that led to Martin Luther's excommunication.

Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota. He is also the online content manager for Higher Things.

Created: November 8th, 2016