by Rev. Donavon Riley
One of the significant teachings that led to Luther being summoned to Augsburg (to defend his teachings against charges of heresy) was his take on Christian righteousness. Late medieval theologians taught that a Christian, a true Christian, is one who has faith and is becoming better. Faith was formed by the love of God, and was formed continuously, refined and improved, by acts of love.
For late medieval theologians, a Christian’s righteousness was a process, a progressive sanctification, that happened through God’s infusion of grace. This grace was poured into a Christian specifically through the sacrifice of the Mass, confession, and penance. Special “spiritual works” also contributed to a Christian’s progress in sanctification and his overall growth in righteousness. In this way, the Papacy made itself indispensable to a Christian’s salvation. Apart from the Church, there could be no proper dispensation of grace and therefore no improvement in righteousness or progress in sanctification.
This brought Luther into direct confrontation with not just local church authorities, but with the entire papal system. During his lectures on the Psalm and then Romans he’d begun to see that the biblical teaching and the papal teaching on righteousness were at odds. This was a total revolution for Luther that carried him further and further away from the religion of his fathers.
Luther taught that a Christian is righteous and a sinner at the same time. A Christian is righteous on account of Jesus’ work for him, not because of his work for God. Thus, those who are faithful are always beginning again, daily, to live in Christ through faith. And as for works, and spiritual works in particular, they contribute nothing to a Christian’s righteousness before God. Instead, because a Christian knows he is righteous on account of Christ he is freed from worry about whether his works for the neighbor are pleasing to God. For Luther, the truly faithful do not live always by loving God, but a Christian lives by God always loving him.
This eventually led to Luther’s critique of religious authorities, because if a Christian is simultaneously righteous and sinful, every day, all day, until the moment of death, then the Church (specifically, the papacy) has no special charge from God to dispense grace or guide a Christian in works that improved and bettered faith. Instead, all religious authorities, even the Pope, Luther concluded, are set in positions of authority by Christ Jesus, and therefore it is Christ, not any person, who is the actual authority in the Church.
This teaching resulted in Luther being summoned to Augsburg. He had not only contradicted the teaching of the theologians of the church, but he’d taught that the Pope wasn’t the final and ultimate church authority. Only Christ Jesus can make that claim. So, it’s little surprise then that Luther caused so much rage and anxiety amongst family, friends, colleagues, students, and especially his opponents.
Next week, we will examine Luther in Augsburg and his conversations with Cajetan.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.