Within the period of the Reformation in Europe, the church seemed to have exploded from the inside out. Reformers saw themselves as protesting the corruption of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the Reformation’s greatest leaders, one that stands out as being on the front lines of this protest, was Martin Luther. The proposed starting date of the Reformation is even when he published his “95 Theses” about the Catholic Church’s doctrine. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Luther himself said that what set him apart from the other reformers is that he went to the theological root of the church’s corruption, the perversion of the doctrine of redemption and grace. The key foundations of Luther’s reform for the church were: scripture alone and justification by faith alone. For the Protestant, or actually, Lutheran, Reformation in Germany and Switzerland, Luther’s idea of justification by faith alone was the origin.
At the center of the Christian faith is the doctrine of salvation. Humans are sinful, broken, and finite, and therefore separated from a Holy God. They can enter into a relationship with the living God only through the sinless sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but this was often dangerously overlooked by the church. Increasing attention to questions about salvation arose around the beginning of the sixteenth century, partly because of the “dawn of individual consciousness” (McGrath) that the rise of humanism brought about. The term “justification” came to mean “entering into a right relationship with God” or “being made righteous in the sight of God” in the Middle Ages. This all was basically seen as dealing with what a person had to do to be saved, but there was much confusion around this crucial topic for many years for several reasons: the church had made no authoritative declaration on the matter for over a thousand years to its people without easy access to scripture, it was a topic of debate among medieval theologians so there were a multitude of opinions floating around, and the Church did not really deal with or evaluate any of these opinions.
Luther claimed that the church had missed the point of the gospel of salvation. He had not always stood by his same conclusion of what that actually was, however. After college and studying as a monk, Luther taught as the chair of Biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg, giving lectures on several books of the Bible for about eight years. Even in his earliest lectures on the Psalms, attention to a doctrine of justification is seen, but it is clearly an early and fundamentally different view than the one that he used to fuel the reformation with. Originally, and similar to the church’s view at the time, he believed that the precondition for justification by God was some work that the sinner would have to perform. Later, seeing that as impossible for anyone to achieve, partly through studying the writings of St. Augustine, he came to believe in the definition of the “righteousness of God” as God’s equality in judging all people the same for either salvation from hell, or condemnation if they met a basic, but different precondition. The precondition called upon the grace of God, as Luther discovered and taught as a teacher of theology, but it meant that the human, the sinner, had to take the initiative by calling on God once they recognize their own need for grace, and because of God’s righteousness He is obligated to justify them. However, as Luther lived his life, this understanding of salvation brought less and less comfort and foundation to his life. He saw the increasing faultiness of this salvation in actually being reachable as he looked at his own life as a legally perfect monk. Alister E. McGrath, author of Reformation Thought- An Introduction, puts it this way: “Luther seems to have begun to appreciate the insights of Augustine at this point, arguing that humanity was so trapped in its sinfulness that it could not extricate itself except through special divine intervention.” At some point near 1515, scholars generally agree, Luther’s theology on justification had a complete turnaround. Simply put, he believed: Repentance is the result of grace and not the precondition, and there is justification by faith alone. He gained a completely new understanding on the “righteousness of God”, too, that it is a righteousness that God freely gives to the sinner, so “God himself meets the precondition” (McGrath) for a human to be in a right relationship with Him.
Luther himself describes how he came to these seemingly radical beliefs in a preface to his Latin writings about his break with the church, but in order to understand his description of his personal experience, we need a deeper look into his theology.
Justification by Faith Alone
“The reason why some people do not understand why faith alone justifies is that they do not know what faith is.”
Luther says that faith is not to be based purely in the historical facts of Christ’s life, but in what they mean for someone personally: that he was born, lived, died for the justification of sin, and was resurrected, and through this salvation is accomplished for each human being. He compared this faith to a person not just seeing a boat and believing that it works and functions like a boat does, but actually stepping into the boat and letting it take them across the sea. So basically, a person must trust in the promises of God and of who God says He is, and that He will forever keep those promises at all times. He also believed that faith unites the believer with Christ, as in a marriage where everything is mutually shared. He wrote, “Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The human soul is full of sin, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them. Sin, death and damnation will then be Christ’s; and grace, life and salvation will be the believer’s.” Also, all this considered, faith is not a precondition for justification, but God provides all that is needed for that justification and the sinner only needs to receive it through faith, which is a gift of God itself. One’s repentance and faith is not strong or adequate because of the intensity or worthiness of it, but because of the strength and promises of who the faith is in and the grace comes from Him.
So, it could be said that he describes his own moment of salvation in this passage of the preface to one of his writings:
This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, I saw the whole face of Scripture in a new light…And now, where I had once hated the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’, I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of phrases, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise to me.
The “passage in Paul” he talks about is the verse Romans 1:17, of which he quotes, “the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written, the righteous person shall live by faith”. The key phrases in the passage above from Luther’s writing that signal for this to be his moment of salvation and change in theology are “born again”, “open gates”, and “paradise”. Because Luther believed that through faith in Christ, he was given life because Christ has life, by saying he felt “born again” he could be describing the moment he received new life. The feeling of “open gates” into “paradise” is most likely meaning that he could freely, without any effort, enter into salvation from condemnation, or Heaven, God’s kingdom, because God had freely opened the gates for him and all people through Christ by giving them His righteousness, as mentioned in Romans 1:17. So when he talks about all of these as happening in a moment, he is most likely describing his initial moment of faith. The fact that he included this extremely personal antidote in one of his writings could be so that his readers saw his honest appreciation for the “stepping into the boat” faith.
Also brought up by this passage of writing is that what he saw as the truth that he believed in for salvation was drastically different from what he had known before, and what many other people had believed. He mentions, “For I hated that phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’, which I had been taught to understand as the righteousness by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners. “ and yet, “From that moment, I saw the whole face of Scripture in a new light”. This reminds us of the fact that it was this radical belief that drove the enormous movement of the reformation inside the church in the sixteenth century. Luther’s first clash with the Catholic Church’s approach to the theology of salvation was against the use of the collection of indulgences in Jüterbog for the building of St. Peter’s chapel. The message was preached in episcopal territories that if the people payed money for St. Peter’s indulgence that they would be forgiven of their sins and therefore gain salvation. Part of the money went to the bishops and the rest to the building of St. Peter’s. Luther wrote a letter to an archbishop in Germany about this corruption.
To read this letter and more about Luther’s life:
This was around the same time that he posted his famous “95 Theses” as a matter of reform for the church’s ways and theology, not a direct contradicting attack.
There were several leaders in the church in Germany, his home country, that did agree with him, but outweighing those was the opposition he eventually faced from Rome. However, it was also politics within the Empire (of which Germany was a part) that inspired Rome’s denunciation of Luther, having to do with the complications of the election of a new Holy Roman Emperor. Trials were held to try to get him to recant his claims against the Pope’s indulgences, but he would not. A bull of excommunication by Pope Leo X was eventually passed against him, labeling him a heretic and making him liable to the death penalty in the Empire, but he was never officially prosecuted.
To read the bull of excommunication: http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo10/l10exdom.htm
The bull itself met stronger opposition than Rome’s towards Luther, from Luther’s grateful followers, to church officials in his home of Germany, to the University of Wittenburg students forcing an executor to flee the city. Luther alone is most definitely not responsible for driving the entire outcome of the Protestant Reformation, but his propositions for reformation definitely got the attention of the Roman Church and the Empire. What started with the radical transformation of one man’s belief of the doctrine of justification, grew and transformed, with the aid of other theologians and important figures at the time, the long-lasting social, political, and religious ways of the Catholic Church from Germany to the Empire.
“Martin Luther.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
Papal Encyclicals Online. Exsurge Domine. Web. <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo10/l10exdom.htm>.
Tracy, James D. Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006.
McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought, An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 1988. Print.
Kehn Anita. Jesus Calms the Strom. 2010. Photograph. Blogspot: A Quiet Light http://anitakehn.blogspot.com/2010/07/o-ye-of-little-faith.html