Who Was Martin Luther? Part 15

Rev. Donavon Riley

By 1517, Luther was turning late medieval theology on its head. As students and guests at his dinner table trickled out from Wittenberg and took home with them what they'd learned, Luther's teaching also began to change the day-to-day religious practices of ordinary Christians.

Luther wasn't just attempting to tweak the system he had grown up with, he was putting an axe to the roots of late medieval Roman Catholic theology. Monasticism, a life of self-denial, spiritual exercises intended to earn God's favor, and the life gained a Christian nothing, Luther taught. Only the Gospel, the teachings and life of Jesus Christ, could save sinners from judgment and eternal death.

As Luther said during the Romans lectures: "We must know we are sinners by faith alone, for it is not manifest to us; rather we are more often not conscious of the fact. Thus, we must stand under the judgment of God and believe his words with which he has declared us unjust, for he himself cannot lie."

Before this, Luther had been shown by his teachers to find the law in the Gospel. Now, as one Luther scholar wrote, Martin was shown by the teaching of St. Paul that "the purpose of the law was to drive Christians to Christ alone."

The point Luther drew out from this was that since we are shown to always be sinners, we are always called to repent of our sin. Therefore, since we are always repenting, since we are always sinners, we are always justified by faith in Christ to whom we look for forgiveness of sin. Thus, a Christian is always a sinner, always repentant, and therefore always declared righteous on account of Christ.

This paradox confused many. Where others had tried to smooth over and systematize such (seeming) contradictions, Luther plunged into the tension. He stood as sinner and righteous at the same time, and he rejoiced because Luther was shown that there is where a Christian hears Law and Gospel, is put to death and raised to new life, is condemned to hell and yet is lifted up into heaven with Christ.

As Luther said in the Romans lectures: "It is not he who possesses a certain quality who possesses righteousness; rather, this one is altogether a sinner and unrighteous; but he has righteousness to whom God mercifully imputes it and wills to regard as righteous before him on account of his confessing his unrighteousness and his imploring of God's righteousness. This we are all born and die in iniquity, that is, unrighteousness. We are just solely by what the merciful God imputes to us through faith in his Word."

Next time we will examine how Luther's pastoral concerns drove his teaching and preaching in the face of growing opposition.

Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota. He is also the online content manager for Higher Things.

Created: January 20th, 2017