Martin Luther Is My Homeboy: The Legacy of Luther (Part 2)

Timothy George states very well that “Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone” (Theology of the Reformers, 62). The most significant element of Luther’s legacy is his rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This doctrine, Luther believed, was the hinge on which the whole Reformation turned. The theology was rooted in Luther’s doctrine of Scripture, and this doctrine of justification would be key to his later theological and ethical reforms.

Luther lived in a time when the Church was theologically a mess, and we’ve seen that. It is not as though this period in history had no truth. There were good Catholics who held tightly to various theological truths, and we owe much thanks to God for their preserving His doctrines. Even on the doctrine of Justification there were select individuals who seemed to understand it more Biblically than perhaps the whole church did (men like Anselm of Canterbury, and Bernard of Clairvaux). But it was Luther who largely recovered this doctrine for the church today.

The Church had urged Luther to assuage his guilt by performing the usual practices of piety: flagellations, fasts, endless prayers, hours of confession and penance, and a pilgrimage to Rome. But the burning awareness of his own sinfulness left Luther in terror of God. His awareness of his own sin and of God’s great holiness could not be reconciled by whatever works he performed. And then, as Luther himself wrote, “The door of paradise was opened” when he read Romans 1:17. The phrase in that verse which most troubled him, read “The Justice of God.” Luther says he understood the “justice of God” to mean God’s just judgment of the unjust. And this, of course, was troubling to him, for he knew he was unjust. But what also troubled Luther was that Paul seems so overjoyed by this statement about the “justice of God.” Read from verse 15 to verse 17. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes and in this gospel is contained the truth that the justice of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written “the just shall live by faith.” So Paul has a very high view of that expression “the justice of God.” Luther’s own study of this passage eventually brought him to understand the gospel and it develops along three major points: (1) The Author of Justification; (2) The Nature of Justification; and (3) The State of the Recipient of Justification.

First, The Author of Justification. Luther’s view of Justification had an entirely “Theocentric” focus to it. So Luther’s view of justification had God at the very center of it. The church had previously been the central figure in Roman Catholic theology of justiciation. Luther saw it very differently according to Scripture. At the very heart of Luther’s view of Justification was his belief that it was God’s right to judge humanity.

Second, The Nature of Justification. We could look at this passage and find out what exactly the nature of justification is like. Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed “from faith for faith.” In Romans 4:1-12 we see it spelled out even more specifically,  for we see here that Abraham was not justified on account of his circumcision but on account of what? His Faith. Luther had been trained to believe that being made right with God was a matter of religious zeal and obedience. But as he came to see the gospel more clearly he saw these attempts as “trying to placate God with sins.” Luther meant that all our best works are still tainted with evil motives, and natural sinfulness. He adds, “If faith is not without all, even the smallest works, it does not justify; indeed it is not even faith.” Justification must be by faith alone it if it is to be real. He said so poetically when he wrote:

With thee counts nothing but thy grace to cover all our failing. The best life cannot win the race, good works are unavailing. Before thee no one glory can, and so must tremble every man, and live by thy grace only.

So finally, the State of the Recipient of Justification. In Luther’s own words we get this description of what a man is like when he is justified before God:

We are in truth and totally sinners, with regard to ourselves and our first birth. Contrariwise, insofar as Christ has been given for us, we are holy and just totally. Hence from different aspects we are said to be just and sinners at one and the same time.

In the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church they declared man to be “partly” a sinner, and upon baptism, “partly” just. There is a striking difference here.  In the one, man is not totally without some sort of merit to bring before God, nor is he totally secure in his salvation being only partly righteous. What man does adds to his righteous standing before God. What’s wrong with that view? It robs God of His glory, for starters. Second it denies the testimony of Scripture, that we are saved totally by grace (Eph. 2: 8-10).

Luther shook the foundations of the church with this teaching, and he would alter the views of not a few theological and ethical points because of this grace-based emphasis. Yet the biggest and most important, from Luther’s perspective, transformation was in himself. Luther had spent years wracked with guilt and fear before God. In the true gospel of Jesus Christ he found that he was made right with God totally by believing in what Christ accomplished for him. You see for all his great legacy, if this theology hadn’t changed Luther it would never have changed the world. Real theology must first affect us, and justification by faith alone forever changed Luther. I hope it has changed you too.


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