“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Ro 1:16–17: NASB)
Luther hated the very idea of the ‘justice of God’. Because more than all of us he understood what it means. If God is to be just over us, woe to us! That was exactly what he felt day and night. The terror consumed him. God had given him eyes to see what most in his day failed to see having a form of godliness, for they seemed to think God as a relic to admire. Pope Leo X was said to be a man who was far more interested in the beautification of the city of Rome than the beatification of the church of Christ. It was during this time the project of Saint Peter’s Basilica was started. The main funding for the early stages of building came from the sale of indulgences which involved multiple levels of corruption from the Papacy to the clergy. The time for reformation was ripe. Everyone knew the church was in dire condition. The Popes and the clergy were as corrupt as ever have been. Those priests who wanted to be faithful to their calling found it extremely difficult.
To be concise, let me mention two attempts at reformation. In the late1400s Isabella of Castile took strong measures at reforming Catholicism long before Luther’s protest by nailing, later publishing his 95 theses on October 31, 1517 (10/31? Halloween? Well two historians, Dr. Shawn Wright and David Pucket encouraged us to celebrate Protestant reformation on the day of Halloween. I sure will dress like a Monk on Halloween…wait…never mind). The second reformation attempt came from the humanist movement (not to be confused with the humanism of our day) led by a prominent humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus’ and the humanist’s agenda was to return to the study of scripture in the original languages and to classic writings. Now with the juxtaposition of the invention of the printing press, this project has become a reality. The greatest achievement of Erasmus, was the publication of the Greek New Testament from exiting manuscripts. This work would become instrumental to the reformers in the future and to those of us who are eager to read the bible in the original languages. Until now the church read from the Latin Vulgate translation, which does shade light as to why the Catholic Church prohibited all other translation except the Latin Vulgate (as evidenced in the council of Trent a council gathered to condemn the reformation). The Catholic Church burned Wycliffe’s bones for translating the Latin Vulgate to the common English language long after he was dead (some one commented: ‘the best way to die for Christ!)
However overall, both Isabella and Erasmus wanted to reform the church’s practices and morals while Luther and the other reformers wanted to reform the Church’s doctrines. Sound doctrine produces life, corrupt doctrine produces corrupt behavior (1Tim 1:10; 4:6, 11-16; 6:3-4; Titus.1:9; 2:1, 10). (This call is still relevant. Have you heard the cliché “we need life, not doctrine?” The church’s neglect of doctrine and at times ridiculing it, shows that we are in need of several ‘Luthers’ everywhere)
Luther on the contrary, was a self-disciplined man who repeatedly punished his own body, as recommended by the great monastic teachers of the early church, in order to attain righteousness. This meant no amount of confession of sins was enough for Luther. There was nothing that could wipe his sins away. As soon as he repented of one, he was reminded of another. His spiritual adviser and to whom Luther used to confess his sins, was one unfortunate priest in my estimation. He had to listen to his confessions and had to counsel him more than twice a day sometimes. His Spiritual adviser thought it would help Luther if he was exposed to great teachers of mysticism of the medieval church who accentuate on the love of God. The rest would fall in place, so he thought. Eventually, however, Luther concluded this too would not help him. First of all God as a loving father was something he could not relate with, for his own biological father beaten him until he bled. Moreover, Luther found out that he really did not love God, he hated God. He was absolutely right. We don’t love God, until we are captured by the Love of God, as displayed supremely on the cross of Christ (this is exactly what John said in 1 John 4:8-10). His spiritual advisory yet did a bold and unthinkable thing. Luther at this point was not in a position to teach and become a pastor to others. That was exactly what his confessor advised him to be. Reluctantly Luther took this new position to teach the bible as a theology professor and pastor to his students at the new university of Wittenberg. He received his doctorate in theology in 1512. As the standard of the day, he knew the whole book of Psalm by heart. In 1513 he started teaching and lecturing the Psalms. At this time God began to reform the reformer’s heart! He discovered that the suffering of the Psalmist speaking in the first person was foreshadowing the sufferings of Christ. This was the beginning of the recovery of Christianity from the slumbering of the dark ages to what it was in the New Testament.
Interestingly, a similar work of God was happening in the heart of another radically different reformer, with different temperament and training than Luther. I referred him on my last post. His name was Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss pastor, biblical scholar and a national patriot (military man unlike Luther). He also reached a similar conclusion after teaching the bible book by book. At this time in Christianity (as it is now becoming increasingly) preaching was not based on a book of the bible. Preachers used to preach whatever! In contrast both of these men, continue to repeatedly teach books of the bible (not a verse, a mere topic, or an idea from the bible…but walk their hearers through the book of the bible showing their congregation the glory of the gospel in scripture). Therefore now parallel reformation was breaking on two locations like a wild fire. Soon independent reformations are growing on two different soils, with several flavors like Lutheranism, Reformed, Anabaptist, etc..
To conclude the story, while teaching theology, in the midst of all these, Luther had to yet grapple with the ‘justice of God’ and the two contradictory terms ‘the good news and the justice of God’ in a radically different way- now that he begins to read scripture in light of Christ and his completed mission on the cross. He begins to discover that the righteousness that was revealed in the gospel was neither the punitive justice of God (as it is in the very next verse Rom. 1:18), nor this righteousness his own. God’s righteousness is God’s gift to those sinners who live by faith. It is not given because they are righteous or meet his righteous demands but because God wish to give it out of sheer grace. This means Luther does not have to contend with God’s punitive justice. This was the discovery of the reformation.
As a result of this discovery, Luther tells us how he felt, “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakingly sweet by virtue of a great love.” (Source: “The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez”)
Here is the prayer of Luther dying well.
© 2015, Samson Tilahun. All rights reserved.