Who Was Martin Luther? Part 12

Rev. Donavon Riley

During his lectures on the Psalms and Romans, the Righteousness of God had finally gotten hold of Luther—and it wouldn't let him loose. Like two sheepdogs, God's righteousness in Christ, freely given in the preaching of the Gospel, pursued and herded Martin Luther day and night. It was all he could focus on. The old wineskins of Medieval theology, which taught righteousness is what we achieve in ourselves in pursuit of godly obedience burst at the seams from the new wine of Christ's righteousness, for that righteousness is completely outside sinners, bestowed only by God's declaration of the sinner as righteous for Christ's sake.

Even though Luther didn't know it at the time, he had become God's instrument—bulldozing anything that obstructed God's Jesus-way of salvation. No more would Christian hope and love be considered the primary signs of Christian life. Instead, grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone distinguished true Christians from the pretenders.

Now, when Luther said "grace alone" and "faith alone" he meant "Christ alone." For him, there could be no talk of grace or faith apart from talk about Jesus crucified for sinners. To talk about grace and faith apart from Jesus, to locate grace and faith inside the individual Christian, was simply old Adam's attempt to get to God (to be God in God's place) and become righteous in himself. Old Adam wants to save himself, believing in the power of his own belief, and he imagines he can become his own savior with just enough effort, enough knowledge, enough obedience to the God's commands.

Luther finally saw how faith in one's ability to believe and obey was nothing more than a denial of Jesus' suffering and death for the sin of the world, and a sure path to torment for troubled souls. His focus was now wholly on Christ crucified for sinners. Christ sacrificed on Calvary was God's gift of salvation and Christ's faithfulness to His Father's will and to each individual sinner for whom he suffered and died, was the comfort and certainty he'd always yearned for. And, as it turned out, so had many people who heard his lectures and sermons, or read his early theses. That is, many people except Roman Catholic bishops, like Albrecht of Mainz, and others in positions of authority in Saxony and at Rome.

But, despite some grumbling and attempts to tame him early on, Luther pushed his students and others to focus on Christ instead of themselves. As he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1516, "Therefore, my sweet brother, learn Christ and Him crucified' despairing of yourself, learn to pray to him, saying, 'You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, but I am your sin; you have taken on yourself what you were not and have given me what I was not.' Beware of aspiring to such purity that you no longer wish to appear t yourself, or to be, a sinner."

Luther's dogged attention to the Gospel, of Jesus alone being the sinner's righteousness, won him many supporters and allies, but also began to attract critics and opponents.

Next time, we will look at what happened when Luther's teaching collided with Johann Tetzel, and the explosion that resulted in Luther's eventual excommunication.

If you'd like to learn more about Martin Luther, check out: The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge Companions to Religion).

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: December 8th, 2016