Luther and the gospel

A dynamic chronicle of Luther's discovery of the gospel and its immediate outcome

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

On October 31,1517 Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Chapel to challenge some of the teachings of the Catholic Church. With that, the Protestant Reformation was born.

That is, it became visible. The truth is, however, that its birth pangs had already been born, in relative silence and for some time in the soul of Martin Luther himself.

The journey to the castle was marked by a series of spiritual struggles within the man. He wanted to please God whatever the cost and worked to be found worthy on the day of judgment. By acts of penitence, he tried to achieve reconciliation with God. Yet, he did not find peace of soul. Even his scholastic Bible study gave him no rest.

In 1507 Luther was consecrated into the Roman Catholic priesthood. Nine years later, he became a doctor of theology and professor at Wittenberg and took the solemn vow: "I swear to defend the gospel truth with all my might." He kept this vow till the end of his life.

It was from the Bible that Luther sought and received light and insight, although the light came only gradually over the years in a series of discoveries. Called to teach theology, Luther began an exegetical study of some books in the Old Testament and then of the New Testament. His major concern was to find God's will and feed His flock in Wittenberg.

It soon became clear to him that salvation could not be earned by penitence or by doing good. He saw God as a stern judge who demanded impossibilities from him. In the works of Augustine he read that God had preordained only a small number for eternal salvation. The rest, he learned, were doomed by God's predestinating decree. Luther feared that he belonged to the doomed. As his search for a true knowledge of God progressed, he began to look more to Scripture and less to the church fathers.

Luther realized that the theology of his church had in effect disrupted the principle of Sola Scriptura as it accepted the church and the Pope as the final interpreters of the Bible. He saw that if any extra-biblical authority has the final word about God's Word, then the Bible can no longer be seen as self-explanatory. Luther also perceived that the spirit of the apostolic church and the simplicity of the gospel had been distorted through years of traditional teaching. The gospel had been lost in an increasingly complicated system of merits, good works, sacraments, and penances so that during the Middle Ages the church was teaching that out side it there could be no salvation. He saw that the priesthood itself could not bestow the sacramental grace of salvation, as if the ecclesiastical hierarchy had acquired a monopoly on divine grace. He saw that the personal certainty of salvation had been lost.

Luther's crisis of conscience

Luther himself struggled to find personal assurance of salvation, even as he resisted the authoritarian claims of his ecclesiastical superiors. He saw a fundamental difference between the need for Christian freedom of con science and the dictatorial behavior of the church hierarchy.

When Luther started to study the Psalms in preparation for his lectures, his primary interest was not theoretical but practical. He was searching for an experiential theology, for a saving knowledge of God. His attitude was to seek God's truth rather than to defend tradition.

One of his main stumbling blocks was that he was not able to understand the meaning of the biblical term "the righteousness of God." His Latin Bible had the phrase justitia Dei. The term "justitia" was the common word for retributive justice or punishment, as the scholastic theologians taught. In other words, in understanding the word that way, he ended up viewing God as a stern judge.

Because Luther understood the "righteousness of God" as His punishing righteousness, he was unable to ex plain why David could pray in Psalm 31:1 "Deliver me in your righteousness," and in 143:1, "O Lord, listen to my cry in your righteousness." The word "righteousness" thundered in Luther's ears only as God's wrath and everlasting punishment.

Thus Luther wrestled with the wrath of God, and it burned as a consuming fire in his conscience. At last he turned to the New Testament for comfort. Romans 1:16 arrested him: "The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of every one who believes." Salvation! Luther was thrilled. Was this the essence, the secret he had been searching for? He read on: "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed ..." (verse 17). Luther couldn't understand. Was the apostle telling him that even the gospel is a revelation of God's justice? How could Paul call the gospel "justice"? Was this another manifestation of the law? If it was, then the gospel also condemned the sinner. Was "justice" not the treatment God gives to each one according to what one deserves? Luther groaned, "Who can love an angry and condemning God?" As Jacob, he wrestled with God. He studied. He tried to understand the expression "the righteousness of God" but no one opened the door for him.

Luther discovers the gospel

A Bible lay open in his little study as he was preparing his class lectures. The question in his mind was, How could Paul call the gospel itself the "righteousness of God"?

Luther read again the text in relation to its context. He came to Romans 3:21: "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known..." Suddenly his vision cleared. By the grace of God he saw what Paul meant: the righteousness was not some thing God required humans to offer to Him, but something God offered to humans who believed the gospel it was a marvelous expression of the grace of God! God offers the personal righteousness of Christ as His divine gift to the believer now! That is the salvation of the gospel. God justifies the repentant human being through the righteousness of Christ. This means that the gospel does not demand work or sinless perfection from us, but offers to us the gracious gift of His own work and perfect righteousness. By His grace He justifies us and announces us righteous.

When Luther understood this truth, his conscience was freed from the weight of guilt and he became a free person. Now the Psalms tasted good. Later, Luther described his discovery this way: "It seemed to me as if I had been born again and was entering into paradise through newly opened doors. All at once, the Bible began to speak in quite a different way to me. The very phrase, 'righteousness of God,' which I had hated before, was the one that I now loved the best of all. That is how that passage of Paul's became for me the gateway to paradise. At once the whole Scripture showed me another face." 1 For Luther, God's promise that "the just shall live by faith" provided the salvation he was seeking. Paul was quoting the promise from Habakkuk (2:4), but he gave it a new emphasis on how a person becomes just or righteous, when he explained: "He shall gain life who is justified through faith" (Rom. 1:17, NEB), or, "Anyone who is upright through faith will live" (NJB).

What was new about Luther's discovery was that he identified God's righteousness and Christ's righteousness as one and saw that this divine righteousness is received by faith already now! This last point is the teaching of Jesus, when He declared in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God [that day]" (Luke 18:14). This is how all the faithful stand the test of God's final judgment. Luther explained, "That is the long and the short of it: He who believes in the man called Jesus Christ, God's only Son, has eternal life as He himself says (John 3:16), 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that who soever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' "2

Some Luther scholars assert that Luther was the first since Paul to recover the original purity of the gospel of the New Testament. What made Luther the Reformer of the Christian church was the fact that his gospel message was anchored in a sound exegesis of the Bible.Only thus could it have had the lasting value it has for the whole church. The "Gates of Paradise" were opened to Luther, because "the keys of the kingdom" were handed to him once he grasped the central passage of Romans: "He who is righteous by faith, shall live."

We are saved now and in the judgment by our faith in Christ and in His free gift of righteousness. This caused Luther to write his famous book in 1520, The Freedom of the Christian, dedicated to Pope Leo X.

Now all anxiety in seeking to be come acceptable to God had ended. Later Ellen White would repeat this assurance in her impressive declaration, "We may enjoy the favor of God. We are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us, but about what God thinks of Christ, our Substitute. Ye are accepted in the Beloved."3

Luther's grasp of the gospel

Luther came to clearer insights as he studied more carefully Paul's letters to the Romans and Galatians. These two letters became the two-edged sword of the Protestant Reformation in its battle against the proposing of a system of works-righteousness. Luther used the polemical passages of Paul (Rom. 3:22- 26, 28; Gal. 2:21; 3:10; 5:4) directed against the merit system of Pharisaic Judaism in his battle against the merit-seeking theology and piety of the medieval church.

In Romans 3:24 Paul stressed the nature of God's mercy twice when he said "freely by his grace!" This became the hallmark of the Protestant Reformation: "Sola Gratia!" But the grace of God was no longer interpreted as the metaphysical fluid of sacramental grace. It was understood again in its pristine apostolic sense of the "unmerited favor of God." Rejecting the de-personalized concept of grace put forward by scholastic theologians, Luther joyfully proclaimed the believer's personal acceptance by God.

In Romans 3:28, Paul summed up justification in his historic statement, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." Luther translated Paul's emphasis on justification by faith "without works of law" in the German language by the additional word "alone": "allein durch den Glauben," "by faith alone." This was a correct translation and interpretation of Paul's polemic against righteousness-works. Luther's brief formula for justification "by faith alone" became part of the banner of the entire Protestant Reformation: "Sola Fide."

Thus, the Reformation summed up the Protestant faith in three short cries that sounded against the teaching of the church of that day: Sola Scriptura Sola Gratia Sola--Fide!

Luther, in the meantime, advanced his understanding on justification substantially. With the help of Augustine he discovered that God's righteousness is a divine free gift. But he still thought of the gift merely in terms of an indwelling Christ and a gradually increasing righteousness in the believer. This meant that the believer was always partly righteous and partly sinful. At this point, for Luther justification was seen to be made inwardly righteous.

Further clarification for Luther

Later, in his commentary on Galatians (1535) Luther reached his mature concept of justification: it is the forensic or legal imputation of Christ's righteousness to the repentant believer. Now he taught the complete justification of sinners in the forgiveness of their sins. Now his emphasis was on the Christ for us, who died for our sins, and no longer on grace as something infused in the believer. The "alien righteousness" of Christ now became the essence of justification and the basis for the certainty of personal salvation, because it is not a partial but a complete righteousness. We are saved by an alien righteousness, not by our own righteousness! In 1528 Luther said in one of his sermons, "As Adam brought damnation upon us by an alien [to us] sin, so Christ has saved us by an alien righteousness.... Our testimony and confession is: Not through yourself but through Christ will you be saved. These two you must distinguish from one another, yourself and Christ. You did not come down from heaven, you were not born of Mary, but you were made out of dirt. Therefore Christ's doing is different from yours."4 Luther also gave "faith" back its apostolic meaning. Instead of the popular notion that "faith" was an intellectual assent that had to be supplemented by "works," or human behavior of some kind, Luther pro claimed that faith meant a person's act of commitment to God and His Word. Faith saves, not because it is the meritorious act of a person, but because it apprehends and embraces Christ. He is our Saviour, Forgiver, Justifier, and Fulfiller of the law. God accepts believers and reckons them righteous solely on account of Christ and His merits. The believer is justified in Christ! Such faith did not need to be supplemented by works, be cause such faith worked from the start!

Luther coined a profound phrase, one that has often been misunderstood: the believer in Christ is simul justus et peccator, "at the same time just and sinful." He meant to say: in Christ the believer is fully justified, while he remains in himself, that is, in his inherent sinful nature (not: character), fully sinful! He therefore could say with Paul: "We our selves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved" (Rom. 8:23,24). Saving faith thus should prevent believers from ever feeling holy in themselves!

Luther, however, certainly did not suggest that a sanctified life is irrelevant or unnecessary. He fully acknowledged that justification is effective in producing sanctification, but he insisted that such good works of the Spirit are not a component part of justification itself. It is justification that creates the new human, not the new human who creates justification.

It is here that we must confront the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as defined by the Council of Trent in 1546. Trent taught that one's justification must be accomplished by one's own efforts in cooperation with God, and therefore one can never have the comforting assurance that one has been accepted by God. Here is the crux of the matter, as far as Luther was concerned.

Luther as a witness of Christ and the Bible

Luther felt it was basic for others to share the joy and assurance of redemption. He was a scholar of theology in order to be the most effective evangelist; one who would teach the grace of God and draw people to Christ. He believed that the Bible had to be preached for the gospel to become gospel for his fellow human beings. The written and oral Word are both needed.

When the leaders of Luther's church rejected his discovery of the gospel of free grace and threatened him with excommunication in the bull, Exsurge Domine of 1520, he was shocked. On December 10, 1520, he publicly burned the papal bull, together with a copy of the Canon Law, which gave the Pope his powers.

When his friends tried to keep Luther from going to the city of Worms to defend his message before the emperor, because they feared for his life, he replied without hesitation: "Even though there should be as many devils in Worms as shingles on the roof, I would still enter."5

The question has justly been asked: How could Luther have been so absolutely convinced that he was right and the whole church wrong? He wrote to a friend, "We cannot attain to the under standing of the Scripture either by study or by the intellect. Your first duty is to begin by prayer. Entreat the Lord to grant you, of His great mercy, the true under standing of His word. There is no other interpreter of the word of God than the Author of this word, as He Himself has said, 'They shall be all taught of God.' Hope for nothing from your own labors, from your own understanding: trust solely in God, and in the influence of His Spirit." 6

For true reformation to occur, Luther believed implicitly in the victorious power of Scripture, rather than in ecclesiastical pressure, coercion, or legislation. He wrote, "I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word, other wise I did nothing.... I did nothing, the Word did everything."7

Luther excelled in his preaching and teaching. He exalted preaching to a new significance and gave it a primacy over the sacraments. He insisted that the seven sacraments of the church could not save, only faith in the preached Word of God saves. He preached during the week and three times on Sundays, starting at five in the morning.

For Luther, preaching was primarily expounding the Word of God. He systematically went through entire books of the Bible, first from the Old Testament, then from the New, always applying the biblical characters in connection with his own experience. By way of example, here is a part of his exposition of Jonah. "How could anyone imagine that a man could be three days and three nights in the belly of the fish without light, without food, absolutely alone, and come out alive? Who would not take this for a fairy tale if it were not in Scripture? But God is even in hell. 'Jonah prayed unto the Lord from the belly of the whale.' I do not believe he could compose such a fine psalm while he was down there, but this shows what he was thinking. He was not expect ing salvation. He thought he must die, yet he prayed, 'I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord.' This shows that we must always pray to God. If you can just cry, your agony is over. Hell is not hell any more if you can cry to God. But no one can believe how hard this is. We can understand wailing, trembling, sighing, doubting, but to cry out, this is what we cannot do. Conscience, sin, and the wrath of God are about our necks. Nature cannot cry out. When Jonah reached the point that he could cry, he had won. Cry unto the Lord in your anguish, and it will be milder. Just cry and nothing else. He does not ask about your merit. Rea son does not understand this, and always wants to bring in something to placate God. But there just is nothing to bring. Reason does not believe that all that is needed to quiet God's anger is a cry."8

Luther's understanding of the gospel came through a responsible exegesis of Scripture, which gave him a new and liberating experience as a Christian believer. With immense courage, he lifted up Christ above all others. Luther's devotion to the everlasting gospel has been described this way: "He hid behind the Man of Calvary, seeking only to present Jesus as the sinner's Redeemer."9 In this respect, Luther was a true Elijah, and a forerunner of the universal revival and reformation to come into being through the apocalyptic proclamation of the Three Angels of Revelation 14.

1. Luther's Works. Concordia Publishing House, vol. 54:105.

2. Quoted in H.A. Oberman, Luther. Man Between God and the Devil. Doubleday, ET 1992, 153.

3. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 2:32, 33.

4. Quoted in B. Hagglund, The Background of Luther's Doctrine of Justification in Late Medieval Theology. Facet Books 18. Fortress Press, 1971, 33.

5. Quoted in E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times. Concordia Pub. House, 1950,499.

6. In E.G. White, The Great Controversy, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 132.

7. Quoted in L. Pinomaa, Faith Victorious. Fortress Press, 1959, 102.

8. Quoted in R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand. A Life of Martin Luther. A Mentor Book, MQ 544. The New Am. Lib., 1964, 279,280.

9. White, The Great Controversy, 152.


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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

November 2000

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