How’s this for irony? I just opened a post on the Lutheran Reformation with a quote from a Roman Catholic scholar named Franz Posset. Who does that? Well, I did, because Posset nailed it (yes, I went there — the obvious Lutheran Reformation 95 Theses pun!).
Posset wrote these words in recently published book entitled, The Real Luther: A Friar at Erfurt and Wittenberg (page 7). His book dealt with some biographical questions about Luther, for example the time of his so-called “Tower Discovery,” and whether Luther actually posted the 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenberg or just mailed them to his ecclesiastical superiors (yes, people debate whether we should talk about posting or sending the theses; Posset also wonders if we should even call them theses).
After Jesus, Luther remains one of the most written about people in all of history. Scholars and theologians struggle to come to grips with the great work God did through this little friar from eastern Germany, and many come to different answers.
You can read about Luther the Marxist-Leninist, Luther the sex-starved maniac, Luther the political agitator, Luther the mystic, Luther the anti-Semitic Nazi. Oh, and you can read about Luther the professor of Old Testament who, by the grace of God, made clear to the world once more the meaning of the words, “But now a righteousness from God has been revealed” (Romans 1:17).
Listen to Luther, writing near the end of his life (1545):
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience (Luther’s Works, volume 34, pg. 336 [hereafter LW 34:336]).
Luther hated God. He hated God because he was convinced that God demanded the impossible from him. God demanded a righteousness that he could in no way produce. He beat himself bloody in the monastery. He denied himself creature comforts and basic necessities. He prayed his prayers, he sang his psalms, and it wasn’t enough. As he said, he walked around with an ever-troubled conscience.
He went on:
Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at [Romans 1:17], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted [there]. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God (LW 34:336-337).
What did Luther discover? Again, his own words: “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours” (LW 31:297). In other words, the righteousness that God demands, he gives: in Christ.
Uuras Saarnivaara offers a bunch of $64,000 theological terms for the essence of Luther’s discovery: the non-imputation of sin, the distinction between progressive and forensic justification, the Law/Gospel dichotomy, the non-imputation of sin as the whole of righteousness and not just some “insignificant beginning of righteousness” to be completed by our actions (Uuras Saarnivaara, Luther Discovers the Gospel). To put it more simply, Luther discovered that justification, God’s declaration of righteousness, is synonymous with forgiveness. When God justifies us he forgives, when he forgives, he justifies, and in the words Luther wrote in 1529, God the Holy Spirit does this daily and fully (The Small Catechism, The Creed, Third Article).
Here Luther found that upon which the Church stands and falls, which finally eased his conscience and opened the gates of heaven to him. He held on to this for the rest of his life, as he writes in The Smalcald Articles:
I do not know how to change in the least what I have previously and constantly taught about justification. Namely, that through faith, as St. Peter says, we have a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it. (SA III:XIII:1)
In the words of Martin Brecht, “Now he knew how to deal with God” (Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 227).
Where did it happen?
Here we come to one of the hotly debated Luther questions. Did Luther come to this insight in his study, during the course of a lecture on a particular passage of the Bible, in the monastery in Erfurt or Wittenberg, on the way to Rome in 1511? Or did it happen while he was sitting on the toilet?
The last isn’t a joke. Luther’s own recollections of his great discovery lend credence to the idea that the doors of heaven opened for him while he was sitting on the latrine. It’s appropriate. After all, isn’t this where men do some of their best thinking?
In his 1545 description of the event above, he talks about running through the Scriptures from memory going over other passages. At other times he talks about how the Spirit made this breakthrough not while he was writing about or reading the Scriptures, but while he was meditating upon them.
Some have, of course, mocked this and said that the Lutheran Reformation is the result of indigestion or something fouler. Heiko Oberman marshaled Luther quotes to demonstrate that if it did indeed happen while on the toilet, it was an apt place for a sinner to make such a discovery, for it is right here that we have Christ, right here where we need Christ, in the dirtiest of places, our souls. No spot is unholy for the Holy Ghost (cf. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 155).
When did it happen?
This is a less delicate question. Scholars date it all over the map. Suggestions range from 1512 to 1518.
As you read more about Luther, it’s intriguing to wonder what he “knew” and when. Where did he stand in 1512-1513 as he prepared lectures on the Psalms (it was Psalms 31 and 71 that especially troubled him as they talked of God’s righteousness)? Perhaps it was in 1513-1514 as he lectured on them. Or in 1514, 1515, or 1516 as he lectured on Hebrews and Romans. What about in 1517 as he prepared his famous theses?
What seems clear is that by early 1518, Luther fully came to grips with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith which is the hallmark of Scripture and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Read his sermon Two Kinds of Righteousness (1518/1519, LW 31:293-306) to see for yourself.
How did it happen?
As Hamlet said first, “Aye, here’s the rub!” Again, let Luther tell us how: “Therefore the Word and faith are both necessary, and without the Word there can be no faith” (LW 31:270-271).
It was the Word of God and always the Word of God. Luther wanted every parent to teach this to their child: “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel” (Small Catechism, The Creed, Third Article).
Contrary to some poorly preached (but well-intentioned) Reformation legends, Luther wasn’t unaware of the Bible until one day in 1517. Franz Posset marshals some strong evidence that Luther had been turned on to the Scriptures already as a law school undergrad at Erfurt (1501-1504) where he heard that “one ‘owes faith to the Sacred Scriptures alone’” (62-63).
When Luther quit law school for monastic life he joined an order (Augustinian hermits) which emphasized reading the Bible. In fact, he probably received his own copy of the Bible as a friar.
At the monastery, as Luther wrestled with God, an unnamed senior friar “strongly advised Luther to hope in God” and to have “a ‘little bit’ of faith in the absolution of sin’” (Posset, 92). This friar pointed Luther to the Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” and a powerful quotation from the French monk Bernard of Clairveaux: “But add to this that you also believe this: that through him [Christ] your sins are forgiven you.”
When Luther read Augustine, it took him back to Scripture. When Luther read Bernard of Clairveaux, it took him back to Scripture. When Luther talked to his spiritual father, John Staupitz, it took him back to Scripture. He read Scripture, and the Spirit called him by the gospel! Later Luther preached in a sermon of 1522,
I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything (LW 51:77).
Luther invented nothing. The Spirit called, gathered, and enlightened him, to use his later words. His colleague Philip Melanchthon wrote in a memoir of Luther:
Little by little, as he read and compared the sayings and lessons which are recorded in the Prophets and Apostles, and as he kindled his faith in daily prayer, more of the light came to him (translated by Posset, 155).
Why did it happen?
This is the easy part. God worked it to save souls. Luther’s first, and then millions of others.
God, our good and merciful Father, used Luther, as he has used so many others in history to unleash the power of the “for you.”
Go back to the Bernard quote above. It was the Latin word tibi – “to you” or “for you” – that was so powerful for Luther. During the 1535 school year, Luther oversaw an academic debate and prepared some theses concerning faith and law. Included among them were the following:
18. But true faith says, “I certainly believe that the Son of God suffered and arose, but he did this all for me, for my sins, of that I am certain.
19. “For he died for the sins of the whole world. But it is most certain that I am some part of the world, therefore, it is most certain that he died also for my sins.”
24. Accordingly, that “for me” or “for us,” if it is believed, creates that true faith and distinguishes it from all other faith, which merely hears the things done.
25. This is the faith which alone justifies us without law and works through the mercy of God shown in Christ. (LW 34:110-111)
For you. Without the “for you,” the death of Jesus is just a historical fact. But it was for you. Given for you. Shed for you. This is the righteousness of God, the righteousness made known through the Scriptures, the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.