Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther was awarded a doctorate by the University of Wittenberg. We may not think that this was anything out of the ordinary, but, in fact, this proved to be a catalyst in Luther’s life, and paved the way for his later Reformation discovery. Through this preferment, Luther became a permanent member of the university’s teaching faculty.
As a result of his lectures at the university, Luther discovered the true nature of the righteousness of God, which ultimately led to one of the defining moments in church history.
Martin Luther entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in 1505, following a somewhat harrowing experience during a summer thunderstorm. By taking holy orders, Luther hoped that his salvation would be assured1 Most people of his day considered monastic life to be a positive step in finding a way around future judgement, or, at least, enabling one to accumulate a significant credit balance in God’s sight.2 Luther’s concern was symptomatic of an age where the terror of death and eternal judgement caused great religious anxiety for some.3 Luther felt more keenly than most individuals about his need of salvation. He constantly suffered from attacks of insecurity, and a deep-seated fear of death and the devil. He suffered from what John Bunyan would later describe as the ‘bruised conscience’; the intense spiritual battle that ensues in the conscience of an individual who seeks to combat temptation.4 To continue the analogy with Bunyan, Luther alternated between the ‘Slough of Despond’ and ‘Doubting Castle’, never certain that he would finally attain the ‘Celestial City’. His constant cry was how could he find a gracious God? What better place, then, to find the assurance that constantly evaded him than the monastery at Erfurt?
Typical of everything that Luther ever attempted, he completely immersed himself in the process of becoming a monk. If anyone was to achieve salvation through human effort, Luther would set the bar as an ascetic par excellence. Yet, despite observing canonical hours, keeping masses, reciting rosaries and the endless rounds of self-examination, Luther became more disillusioned, uncertain of his salvation, and even more certain that he was worthy of eternal damnation.5 Had Luther continued in this state of spiritual despair, he would unquestionably have succumbed to a mental breakdown, or something even worse. But God would lead him to discover the true nature of the righteousness of God, and to protest against a sixteenth-century church that had lost its way.
Luther’s world was influenced by various kinds of scholastic theology. When he began his studies at the University of Erfurt in 1503, the prevailing influence was the via moderna. This form of theology taught that in the doctrine of justification, there was something that could be done to initiate the process of salvation.6 Luther was more directly influenced by this teaching than any other. Although the theologians of the via moderna tried to play down the effect of their teaching, there is no doubt that most individuals (including Luther) accepted that human effort could be efficacious with God. It was Luther’s dissatisfaction with this works-righteousness system that eventually led to his reformation experience to which we now turn.
It is important to understand that Luther’s ‘Reformation Discovery’ did not happen by chance. It was the end of a long and arduous voyage, a passage of time when Luther’s guilt-ridden conscience came into dynamic tension with the biblical text. Luther’s dissatisfaction with covenant theology gained momentum as he immersed himself in biblical studies. His first study from 1513-1514 was directed towards the book of Psalms. Working through the Psalms, Luther drew down heavily on the parallel experiences of Augustine, mirroring his own theological breakthrough with his.7 Despite initially maintaining the principles of the via moderna, Luther’s notes on the Psalms disclose a perceptible shift in his theology.8 He despaired of his own worth, but found in the Christology of the Psalms a new insight into the righteousness of God. He came to see the ‘Justice of God’ as a righteousness revealed in Jesus Christ and bestowed to man on the ground of faith’.9 Luther linked this with the individual’s personal relationship to God. By the end of his studies in the Psalms, Luther became disillusioned with the covenantal theology of the via moderna. What replaced it was a radical understanding of the way in which God justified the ungodly through Christ alone.
The next phase in the development of his new theology brought him into contact with Paul’s letter to the Romans.10 Here, at last, Luther found the answer to the ‘justice of God’ in Romans chapter 1 verse 17. He later recalled this experience, ‘I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly … I was angry with God … Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience … ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live'”. There I began to understand … the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live”. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates’.11
Luther saw the righteousness of God as the exact opposite of human righteousness. Human beings were not active, but passive in respect of justification. Righteousness could not be realized by human effort.12 The righteousness of God was something alien and extrinsic to humanity, or, ‘the righteousness of another, instilled from without’.13 It came as a gift through faith in Christ alone; it was imputed, not imparted or infused, and could not be earned as a reward.14 Luther no longer remained angry with God.15 For Luther the God, now revealed in the gospel, was a God of grace and mercy, not a punitive judge. Luther concluded that the ‘works of the law’ are inherently powerless to procure salvation. The Pauline expression ‘works of the law’ was interpreted by Luther as applying to any form of works-righteousness, and not simply to Judaism. Luther also referred to the law as a ‘large and powerful hammer’,16 required to break and crush the presumption of righteousness and reliance that a person placed on his good works. Thus, Luther viewed the law as playing a positive role in pointing people to Christ, but, negatively, in the sense that it could not justify the individual before God. Although Luther viewed the law as abrogated in terms of obtaining righteousness, he still regarded the law as retaining an important function in the Christian life. Luther developed the idea that the Christian remains in this life at one and the same time both righteous and sinner. So for Luther, Christians lived simultaneously in two worlds – one subject to the Spirit, the other subject to the flesh. In order to subdue and discipline the flesh, Christians need to engage with the law, which brings an awareness of sin. Westerholm states that ‘Luther even claimed that to the extent Christians are “flesh”, they remain “under the law"’17
We have reached the critical point in Luther’s life. George indicates that ‘Luther’s doctrine of justification shattered the entire theology of merit and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself’.18 Paradoxically, though, for Luther, the doctrine that for so long had haunted him now becomes the benchmark by which all other doctrines would be measured. His personal and religious struggles which led to his ‘Reformation Discovery’ provided him with a powerful matrix for the interpretation of Paul’s teaching.
‘Oh, if I were to enter a monastery (I thought) and serve God in cowl and tonsure, he will reward and welcome me’. (LW 51: 83).
McGrath states that the priory was an austere place – yet, on the basis of the theology of the day, it seemed to Luther to guarantee his place in heaven. Was not becoming a monk the surest way to avoid hell?
This was a late medieval phenomenon, particularly post Black Death. For a graphic insight into the effect of the plague on Europe in 1348 see Owen Chadwick’s comments in The Early Reformation on the Continent at pg. 70.
Rupp sees a unique parallel between the spiritual experiences of both men. He argues that Bunyan drew heavily on Luther’s commentary to the Galatians, which mirrored his own spiritual pilgrimage, and Bunyan’s ‘Grace Abounding’ and ‘Jerusalem Sinner’, which illuminated Luther’s teaching about ‘Anfechtung’.
Luther reflected later on this state of bondage during his lectures on Galatians in 1535 when he wrote, ‘I went to confessions frequently, and I performed the assigned penances faithfully. Nevertheless, my conscience could never achieve certainty but was always in doubt and said, “You have not done this correctly. You were not contrite enough. You omitted this in your confession"’. (LW 27: No. 15).
Tomlin states that when Luther read Biel’s textbook of dogmatic theology, he came across and was persuaded by the idea that God has entered into a covenant, or pact, with humanity. Within the framework of this agreement or covenant, sinners were capable of making a small moral effort on their own, without the help of God’s grace. An initial effort was required before God would respond.
E.g., LW 11: 20.
McGrath states that there is every reason to suppose that Luther’s discovery of the ‘new’ meaning of the ‘righteousness of God’ took place at some point during the year 1515, possibly while he was still delivering his first course of lectures upon the Psalter. (Luther’s Theology of the Cross, pg. 98).
Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms 1521, pg. 38.
Rupp draws a comparison with Luther turning to Romans by recalling the words of G.K. Chesterton about H.G. Wells that ‘one could almost hear him growing in the night, so plain was the growth in maturity, independence and coherence.’ (Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms 1521, pg. 40).
LW 34: 338. Whether Luther’s ‘Tower Experience’ (Turmerlebnis) is totally accurate is a moot point, but McCulloch suggests ‘it was a turning point remembered later by Luther.’ (Reformation-Europe’s House Divided, pg. 119).
George states that Luther’s break with the nominalist concepts of merit and grace was a fundamental step in his developing doctrine of justification. (The Theology of the Reformers, pg. 66).
This is where Luther ultimately departs from Augustine in terms of the locus in quo of righteousness. As McGrath states, ‘Augustine located this gift within humanity, as a transforming reality; Luther argued that it is located outside us, being ‘reckoned’ or ‘imputed’ to humanity, not imparted’. (Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, pg. 43).
McGrath states that the essential feature of Luther’s theological breakthrough is thus the destruction of the framework upon which his early soteriology was based, and thence the necessity of reinterpretation of the concept of iustitia Dei. (Iustitia Dei, pp. 193-194).
McGrath, Justification By Faith, pg. 52.
LW 26: 310.
Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters, pg. 11.
Martin Luther in Greenman, Jeffrey P. and Larsen (ed) Reading Romans through the Centuries, pg. 116. This is, of course, a reference to the Roman Catholic church. [Editor]