by Rev. Donavon Riley
When Luther moved to correct the long-held teaching that a Christian was partly sinner and partly righteous (and this in varying degrees depending on his humility, penance, charity, and so on) he attacked head-on the medieval teaching about holiness.
Luther taught that a Christian is totally sinful in himself, but totally righteous in Christ through faith, and this was constant throughout life. That meant holiness was not something to be sought after on a progressive scale of works, but something to be enjoyed through faith in Christ. In fact, for Luther, especially based on his reading of the Old Testament, wherever God is He makes sinners holy by His presence among them. God is holy and those whom He calls into relationship with Him are thereby holy, by virtue of His coming near to them. Personal experience, spirituality, success or failure at living a god-pleasing life were irrelevant regarding holiness. One was either “in Christ” or not. And, in Christ, a Christian is totally holy, because God declares him righteous for Christ’s sake.
Luther knew that his teaching was theological dynamite. But he pushed on preaching and teaching that only someone who’d given up trying to achieve holiness for himself was prepared to receive God’s grace, which came from being in Christ Jesus.
As Luther wrote, “it cannot be that a soul filled with its own righteousness can be replenished with the righteousness of God, who fills up only those who hunger and are thirsty. Therefore, whoever is full of his own truth and wisdom is not capable of the truth and wisdom of God, which cannot be received save by those who are empty and destitute.”
Luther denied that a Christian can become better in the presence of God. All his works and doings are exposed as sinful and damned in relation to a holy God. Only the righteousness of God in Christ makes a Christian “holy.” Therefore, faith empties a person of his own desire to become holy and instead focuses him more and more on Christ Jesus. This is a Christian’s one sure and certain hope in life.
“The wounds of Jesus,” Luther wrote, “are safe enough for us…This, if anyone is too much afraid that he is not one of the elect…let him give thanks for such fear, and rejoice to be afraid, knowing with confidence that the God who says, ‘the sacrifice of God is a broken, that is a desperate, heart’ cannot lie.”
Not a single work we call “holy” impresses God in the least. Only Christ makes Christians holy. Likewise, then, only Christ can make a person “whole in hope,” as Luther noted.
Luther followed Scripture where it led him, where his questions were answered by God’s solid words about Jesus. But Luther’s whole world was populated by people who’d been taught that faith and good works led to salvation, not faith alone in Christ alone. The push back against Luther’s teaching, especially as he wrapped up his Romans lectures, was about to escalate. When Luther had taken his vows as a professor he’d sworn to uphold the truth and condemn false teaching.
By 1518, there were many who’d become convinced by what they heard coming out of Wittenberg that Martin Luther may have become confused about true and false teaching. They felt that young Luther was in need of severe correction before he misled too many priests, professors, students, and laity into damnable unbelief.
Next time we will examine the explosion that occurred when Luther publicly opposed the sale of indulgences.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.