By Neil Earle
Martin Luther (1483-1546) along with John Calvin (1509-1564) is considered one of the Magisterial Reformers. This scholarly title alludes to Luther’s lasting influence, his dynamism, his personal complexities and the dark shadow cast by his obvious brilliance.
This article highlights Luther the way his closest friend saw him, a teacher possessed of a cheerful ability to not only proclaim Gospel grace and hope but to do it with a gusto and enthusiasm that perhaps only a son of North Germany could express. Luther’s happy enunciation of reconciliation between the Sinless One and sinners is most pronounced, it seems, in his justly famous Commentary on Galatians. It’s a document more people outside the Christian church should read for the powerful insight it offers into how God accepts those feeling lost and rejected. Hans Hillerbrand writes: “Above all, Luther was an expositor of Scripture, and his commentaries on biblical books show him at his best” (The Protestant Reformation, page 87). Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians in 1535 shows Master Martin’s skill at presenting His God as being on the side of the sinner.
Luther the Professor begins with analysis. He observes that there are different kinds of righteousness. There is political or judicial righteousness, which is well-known from the court systems. There is ceremonial righteousness deriving from religious customs or traditions humans have concocted. There is the day-to-day form of teaching obedience which parents must daily inculcate to their children. There is even the righteousness expressed in the Old Testament Law of Moses, a Law, says Luther, containing many valuable things but now interpreted by Christians through the principle of faith. This last becomes Luther’s dialogue subject. He calls it “this most excellent righteousness…which God imputes to us through Christ without works.” As Luther well knew, the Apostle Paul alluded to this principle, the first century apostle proclaiming his ultimate hope to be found “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:9).
It will be Luther’s exquisite delight to explain this in personal detail from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. And he does this with force and passion and excellent German prose. This righteousness of faith which God imputes into repentant sinners by faith “is neither political nor ceremonial nor legal nor work-righteousness but is quite the opposite; it is a merely passive righteousness, while all the others listed above, are active.”
But isn’t being active a good thing? Not in this matter of initial reconciliation with God, Luther insists. Our salvation begins and ends in Christ. When we have offended against our Creator it is unlikely that our damaged psyches will know how to take the first steps in reconciliation. It is impossible for a worldly-minded sinner to please God (Romans 8:8). The gulf is too large. God Himself has to bridge it by a miracle of divine implantation of the Holy Spirit which conveys faith. Luther goes on:
“For here we work nothing, render nothing to God; we only receive and permit someone else to work in us, namely, God. Therefore it is appropriate to call the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness ‘passive.’ This is a righteousness hidden in a mystery, which the world does not understand…Therefore it must always be taught and continually exercised. And anyone who does not grasp nor take hold of it in afflictions and terrors of conscience cannot stand. For there is no comfort of conscience so solid and certain as this passive righteousness.”
Luther himself had lived this excruciating dilemma of conscience. As an Augustinian monk he tried to live by every strict code of his order. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt, with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God” (Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, pages 87-88). It was not till he saw clearly revealed in Scripture that God has to place this divine righteousness inside us by faith that he was fully delivered from a guilty conscience. “In other words this is the righteousness of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, which we do not perform but receive, which we do not have but accept, when God the Father grants it to us through Jesus Christ.”
This is so eloquent. Luther explains how the poor sinner, confronted by a righteous God, groans within himself: “Oh, how damnably I have lived! If only I could live longer! Then I would amend my life.” Satan aggravates and increases these thoughts in us, says Luther and even the Law has a part in this. “For although the law is the best of all things in the world, it still cannot bring peace to a terrified conscience but makes it even sadder and drives it to despair. For by the law sin becomes exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13).”
It’s as if sinners are caught in a terrible vise. There is only one way out. “I do not seek active righteousness,” says Luther, “I ought to have it and perform it; but I declare that even if I did have it and perform it, I cannot trust in it…Thus I put myself beyond all active righteousness, all righteousness of my own or of the divine law, and I embrace only that passive righteousness which is the grace, mercy, and the forgiveness of sins.”
This, says Luther, is something we can only obtain “through free imputation and indescribable gift of God.” He uses a clear analogy to explain this process:
“As the earth itself does not produce rain and is unable to acquire it by its own strength, worship, and power but receives it only by a heavenly gift from above, so this heavenly righteousness is given to us by God without our work or merit. As much as the dry earth of itself is able to accomplish in obtaining the right and blessed rain, that much can we men accomplish by our own strength and works to obtain that divine, heavenly, and eternal righteousness…Without any merit or work of our own, we must first be justified by Christian righteousness, which has nothing to do with the righteousness of the law or with earthly and active righteousness.”
Earthly righteousness – keeping within the speed limit, obeying the laws of parent and of the land – these are necessary on the human plane, says Luther. This is of the earth, earthy. But the righteousness that clears our conscience and reconciles us to God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. “We do not have it of ourselves; we receive it from heaven. We do not perform it; we accept it by faith, through which we ascend beyond all laws and works.”
This teaching of Luther can be powerful encouragement to people who think they have committed the unpardonable sin or stumbling sinners who wonder how God can ever forgive them “this time.” The good news of Martin Luther is that God imputes a forgiveness we could never work up for ourselves in a hundred lifetimes. His next paragraph rushes on flooded with Gospel hope and encouragement and in clear manly prose that common folk could grasp:
“Then do we do nothing and work nothing in order to obtain this righteousness? I reply: Nothing at all. For this righteousness means to do nothing, to hear nothing, and to know nothing about the law or about works but to know and believe only this: that Christ has gone to the Father and is now invisible; that He sits at the right hand of the Father, not as a Judge but as one who has been made for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption from God (1 Corinthians 1:30); in short, that He is our High Priest, interceding for us and reigning over us and in us through grace…When I have this righteousness within me…I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises…”
That last sentence clears up one of the great slurs against Luther, that he taught “cheap grace,” that he did not believe in a Christian doing good works. This is not true. Luther’s essential argument was that we are not saved by good works but called to do good works. Good works, he insisted, will naturally flow from the Spirit of God placed within us, with the credit going all again to God.
Luther is not finished yet. With the skill of a great dramatist, he shows how good the good news really is in a style of vigorous prose that some scholars claim virtually “reinvented” the German language:
“Although I am a sinner according to the law, judged by the righteousness of the law, nevertheless I do not despair. I do not die, because Christ lives who is my righteousness and my eternal and heavenly life. In that righteousness and life I have no sin, conscience, and death. I am indeed a sinner according to the present life and its righteousness, as a son of Adam where the law accuses me, death reigns and devours me. But above this life I have another righteousness, another life, which is Christ, the Son of God, who does not know sin and death but is righteousness and eternal life.”
What is inspiring about these and other such passages is how Luther the sometime deadly opponent of Jews and peasants and even other Christian Reformers could write so sweetly and delicately about this subject of justification. It is obvious that for all his faults, and they were many, he had a firm grasp on the essentials of the faith, on how our salvation begins and ends in Christ (Hebrews 12:2). Here he is writing in dramatic dialogue fashion about how we cannot allow the dictates of the law to shake our Christian security, a confidence based on what God has done:
“Law, you want to ascend into the realm of conscience and rule there. You want to denounce its sins and take away the joy of my heart, which I have through faith in Christ. You want to plunge me into despair, in order that I may perish. You are exceeding your jurisdiction. Stay within your limits, and exercise your dominion over the flesh. You shall not reach my conscience. For I am baptized, and through the gospel I have been called to a fellowship of righteousness and eternal life, to the kingdom of Christ, in which my conscience is at peace, where there is no law but only the forgiveness of sins, peace, quiet, happiness, salvation, and eternal life. Do not disturb me in these matters.”
Secular historians sometimes argue that the great Protestant Reformation was caused by princes eager to rob the church lands, or by a social shift from feudalism to capitalism, or the growing power of the cities or German nationalism versus Italian domination. All these factors may have played a part, of course, but the real trigger for the Reformation was Martin Luther’s clear and dramatic hammering out of the doctrine of justification by faith when it was in danger of being buried under rituals and tradition. The common people heard this message and responded to it—gladly! Let’s end with this last quote from Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: “In my conscience not the law will reign, that hard tyrant and cruel disciplinarian, but Christ, the Son of God, the King of peace and righteousness, the sweet Savior and Mediator. He will preserve my conscience happy and peaceful in the sound and pure doctrine of the gospel and in the knowledge of this passive righteousness.”
This is Gospel hope, real and vividly sketched by a miner’s son from Saxony, the great Martin Luther.