There is a reason why the preacher often has a captive audience at a funeral. Death touches us all. We are mortals living in a mortal universe and have no power to save ourselves. Luther was teaching something he personally experienced. It’s impossible to separate the instruction of Luther from the internal turbulence of his spiritual life.
As is evident in his lectures and writings, his approach to Scripture is marked by his respect for the text as the Word of God. The truthfulness of God was at stake. He began with the traditional four-layered method of understanding the Scriptures as was taught by the religious authorities of his time. However, very quickly his study and teaching were reduced to the plain meaning of the text. The grammar, the historical setting, and the subject of the Scriptures spoke to the soul of Luther. He was an authentic vessel—a minister of the Truth—the practical teacher to whom the Spirit through the text conveyed the enlightenment the prisoners of this dark world need. He recognized the Author and His intended audience. The text spoke to Luther in his spiritual struggles. He was familiar with the subject not just for scholarly analysis and debate, but also because God intended it for sinners in order to reclaim them and bring them hope. Luther experienced the darkness, but dawn was breaking upon the soul of Luther.
The Law prepared Luther to receive the Gospel. It is the gift of righteousness in Christ that brings a sinner to the Gate of grace, which Jesus is for those who have nothing to offer God by their observance of His Law. It is the grace of God in Christ that brings the new heart by which believers are eager to please God not for merit but in thankfulness for Christ. Only those with the Spirit can rightly “discern” the meaning, purpose, power, and place of the Law and the Gospel, and only they can “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
Luther was no longer trying to please God in order for God to be pleased with him. His lectures evidenced a change in his understanding of Saint Paul that had not more clearly been set forth since the apostle himself walked and taught on earth. Luther’s own handwritten lecture notes for Romans (chapters 1–3) dated 1515 as well as the students’ notes taken during these lectures indicate that Luther understood “the righteousness of God” as God’s gift to the sinner and distinct from the righteousness of observing the Law. As Luther frantically searched for relief by means of the formal righteousness acquired by his personal devotion, the Spirit liberated him through His words “the righteousness of God” to the light of grace and hope in Christ.
Every age until the end needs this enlightenment that speaks to the weary soul. When teaching and preaching lose sight of the intended purpose of God in sending Christ and the Spirit to bring to light the only righteousness that has the power to save a sinner, they fail to produce God’s intended results. The how-to approach that attempts to make Christianity relevant to the masses by offering a god that is pleased with sinners because their love and commitment are good enough and makes them feel comfortable with themselves and promises success that can be measured in human terms catastrophically misses the point. The Scriptures were written “to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15) so that we “have God’s approval.”
Apart from the Spirit— “faith”—“it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). The Law expresses the will of God, and it is the purpose of a believer’s life to do the good things God wants done. But this is the result of faith that trusts the merciful God revealed in Christ and is given with the Spirit through the Word. The Law is not the reason God loves sinners. The righteousness that God freely gives in Christ is the reason. This is what dawned in the soul of Luther and wherever “the lamp” of the Gospel shines in the heart. As Luther explained 2 Peter 1:19, “The gospel does the very thing that happens when one is caught in a house in the middle of the darkest night. Then it would be necessary to provide a light until daybreak, so that one could see…. The world, too, is nothing else than a kingdom of darkness. In this darkness God has now ignited a light, the gospel…. How can people have God’s Spirit if they do not have God’s Word?” In 1515 Luther was coming to see “the righteousness of God which is through faith” everywhere in Scripture.
In a dark world dark hearts try to justify themselves. This darkness is pervasive in our times as the Laws of God are removed from prominent places and the institutions of God are redefined as if it was enough to be righteous in our own eyes. But Luther remains for us an illuminating example of a heart enlightened by the Spirit. For to him the clearer the Law became, the more apparent the foolishness of human righteousness and the more precious the “righteousness of God” were.
Reverend Thomas E. Smuda
Trinity Lutheran Church
Rogers City, MI
Faith Lutheran Church