Back to Top

Martin Luther

‘The righteous will live by faith.’

I have chosen Martin Luther as a significant person in the life of the Christian church; I find him compelling and intriguing. I don’t agree with all that he taught; in fact, I find some of it objectionable. Nonetheless, his spiritual struggles and his wrestling with the scriptures have captivated me.

His achievements are significant. He changed the course of history, even though this was not his intention. It came about, unexpectedly, because of his determination to find a form of Christian faith that he could live with integrity.

Revolutions sometimes begin in small ways.

Martin Luther began his adult life in a very orthodox way. He entered the monastery and became a monk, in fact, a very good and fastidious monk.

His father had hoped he would become a lawyer. However, something happened to the young Martin that derailed parental expectations. It was an experience of dread; a thunderstorm so terrorized him that he vowed to St Anne, the mother of Mary, that if she delivered him safely, he would repay her intervention by becoming a monk.

Terror and dread played a significant role in Luther’s life. Such experiences stirred him to think in fresh ways. His ability to speak to others about their experiences of terror and dread, and enthrall them, was one reason the Reformation prospered.

He addressed people using imagery and metaphor, the language of the heart. He spoke with passion.

Luther was on a quest to discover a way of relating to God that would bring peace to his soul. The dominant image of God at the time was of a Judge, one who scrutinized every action and motive, who weighed up an individual’s actions against very high, perhaps unattainable standards. Such a picture of God, we should note, inflamed the inherent existential anxiety of being human.

Initially, Luther believed he could attain God’s lofty standards by disciplined, sustained effort, and he threw himself into every prescribed religious observance, especially confession.

Medieval theology held that any sin could be forgiven as long as it was confessed. Luther took this insight literally and spent extended periods of time in the confessional. He listed every sin, large, ordinary, and trivial that he could recall. Then, he worried that in recollecting his sins he had unwittingly committed another sin. His confessor, Johann von Staupitz, so it is told, became quite exasperated one day. He had listened to Luther confess for 6 hours, ‘For goodness sake, Martin, go and do something worth confessing!’

I think Luther may have been a difficult person to live with! His passion and drive led him to extremes; yet looked at in another way, it was this willingness to push beyond the limits that facilitated the emergence of a new paradigm of faith.

Despite all these spiritual labours, Martin did not find spiritual solace. A good son of the church, he found the treasures of the church to be inadequate.

In his appointed role of scholar and theologian, Luther turned to the Scriptures in the hope of locating something of more value. He studied the Psalms and, in his lectures, did something novel. He gave his students copies of the text with wide margins on which to write notes.

This was unusual because the standard practice was to present the text with approved commentaries attached; a lens through which to interpret the scriptures was always provided. Luther took the lens away, enabling his students to approach the text afresh. ‘Look at the text...’

A contemporary Scripture scholar I admire, John Dominic Crossan, once said, ‘there’s just one essential rule in bible study - read the text!’ It is surprising how often religious people claim to know the meaning of texts without carefully reading them. To put this in another way - in claiming to speak the truth of a text, they actually describe the shape of the lens through which they view it.

One of the qualities that made Luther great was his ability to push aside the lens and see the text with fresh eyes.

Following his work on the Psalms, Luther turned his attention to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Here, he discovered a radical new insight:

In Romans 1: 16 & 17 he read, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, Jew, and Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” ’

Luther perceived something entirely new in this text, which was utterly at odds with the authorized view of the medieval church - humans can, and must, raise themselves up in order to meet divine standards. Luther, however, saw that God reached down to humanity, imputing to them, us, his own righteousness as a gift of sheer grace; such a gift could only be received by faith, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’

At that moment of recognition, Luther experienced a deep sense of release from dread. The burden of his many unsuccessful efforts to please God, so much effort with so little benefit, it all fell away.

Sinner that he was, he knew himself accepted by the free gift of God’s grace. He was ‘simul iustus et peccator,' simultaneously justified and sinner.

Later, Luther wrote, ‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God. I hated this righteous God who punished sinners. I was angry with God… Nonetheless, I beat importunately upon Paul, meditating day and night. I began to understand that the righteousness of God is a gift, and that we are justified when we receive it in faith. At that moment, I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself.’

Herein lay the genesis of the fundamental distinction that Luther drew between faith and works. In a way, this became a new lens through which he read the scripture.

There is a hint of a dilemma here. Having dispensed with one lens, Luther discovered another. That is liberating. However, over time it became the required lens. A new tyranny was replacing an old. For example, Luther labelled the book of James, ‘That epistle of straw.’ James 2:17 asserts that ‘faith without works is dead.’ Luther could not tolerate such divergence from his newly acquired insights.

There is something else of importance to note here. Luther gave priority to his conscience and his reading of the scriptures over the teaching and dogma of the church. Intended or not, the Reformation changed the nature of spiritual authority, shifting it from the church to the individual. This was a major paradigm shift in human and social development. We are still working through its consequences today.

I find Luther’s personal journey compelling, but his lasting legacy is his theology. In it, we see a new discernment of the utter importance of grace, of God’s dynamic movement towards every person, regardless of their worthiness.

Thanks to Luther, we discern abundant generosity in God. It is ceaselessly welcoming, justifying, including, forgiving and transforming. Such grace cannot be stopped. It cannot be limited or channeled to suit our purposes.

The righteous, the just, those with a large vision for life, all will live by faith. Amen