We say the Reformation began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. But actually, Luther himself still needed to “get there.” The reformation of Luther himself hadn’t been completed yet.
The 95 Theses were the result of the “indulgence controversy,” which had been going on for several years. Even in 1514, Luther complained that people were trying to make the way to heaven easy with indulgences. As a preacher in the Augustinian monastery, he included in some of his sermons criticism of indulgences. But a treatise on indulgences that he wrote during this time shows that he still was uncertain about purgatory and did not yet reject the false teaching that the merits of Christ were dispensed by the pope. The 95 Theses actually belong to Luther’s pre-reformation theology. He was “not there” yet.
But he was getting there. Arriving at the truth does not happen all at once, but it does happen through the Word. Luther’s “Reformation discovery” came through spiritual attacks from the devil, both outwardly and inwardly. But only his meditation on God’s Word – driven there by these outward and inward struggles – brought Luther true faith in Christ. We learn from his example that outward conflict in this world, inward struggles of conscience, and even the need to help others in their struggles of faith all serve to drive us to the comfort of Christ revealed in God’s Word.
In 1509, Luther’s superior in the monastery, Johann Staupitz, had directed Luther to pursue a theology degree that qualified him to be a professor of the Bible. As Luther lectured in the monastery on the Psalms in 1515, on Romans in 1515-16, on Galatians in 1516-17, and on Hebrews in 1517-18, he spent hours immersed in the Scriptures. Not until 1518 or 1519 did he arrive at a consistent faith in justification by grace alone.
His intensive study of the Bible in preparation for teaching helped Luther in his inward struggles. Ever since he was a young man, Luther had been bothered by the term righteousness. He knew Christ not as his Savior, but as the judge of a person’s works. Everywhere in Scripture that Luther encountered the term righteousness (for example, Psalm 31:1: “Deliver me in Your righteousness”), he was filled with anxiety. He believed God’s righteousness only condemned him.
Through the effects of the indulgence controversy and the 95 Theses – the outward conflict and also the inward doubts – his study of God’s Word was sharpened and blessed by the Holy Spirit. Luther wrote about this and published it near the end of his life (1545):
“I hated the term ‘righteousness of God’ because I had been taught that means that God is righteous in Himself and does good, and He punishes all sinners and the unrighteous. I discovered that, in the sight of God, I was a great sinner. My conscience was troubled and distressed. I also did not trust my ability to ease the anger of God with my satisfaction and merit. For this reason I did not at all love this righteous and angry God who punishes sinners. Rather I hated Him and was full of secret anger toward Him.”
Luther said that the Holy Spirit led him to see (in Romans 1:17 and 3:21 especially) that the term “righteousness of God” is not a threatening word of God (Law), but a promise (Gospel): “the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed … as it is written: The just shall live by faith.”
So, Luther said, “I realized that this is what the apostle means: The Gospel reveals the righteousness that is valid in the sight of God and through which God – out of grace and pure mercy – justifies us by faith. I learned that the righteousness of God is His mercy, through which he regards us and keeps us righteous.
“At that point I immediately felt that I had been born again and had found a door wide open, leading straight to Paradise. As much as I had hated the term ‘righteousness of God’ before, I now loved and treasured it. This passage of Paul became for me a gate to heaven. If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God. This is what it means to behold God in faith: that you should look upon His fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger.”
Luther arrived at this correct faith not only through his own inward struggle or the outward controversies, but also through the task of pastoral care. While in the monastery, he was given the position of district vicar of his Augustinian order; this meant he was responsible for giving spiritual counsel to others (as Staupitz had given him).
In 1516, Luther wrote a letter of comfort to George Spenlein, who had served in the Wittenberg monastery with Luther for four years but was recently transferred. Luther knew of Spenlein’s struggle with despair and a burdened conscience. Luther wrote:
“I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ.” Luther then speaks of the temptation for people to be righteous by their own works “without knowing the righteousness of God, which is most bountifully and freely given us in Christ. They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible.”
Then Luther’s letter gives us a window into the state of his own soul in these years. He was moving away from this false view toward the right faith, but daily struggling to believe it: “While you were here, you were one who held this opinion, or rather, error. So was I, and I am still fighting against the error without having conquered it yet.”
Finally, Luther gives a beautiful summary of the true faith in Christ:
“Therefore, my dear friar, learn Christ and Him crucified. Learn to praise Him and, despairing of yourself, say, ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am Your sin. You have taken upon Yourself what is mine and have given me what is Yours. You have taken upon Yourself what You were not and have given to me what I was not.’ Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one.
“For Christ dwells only in sinners. For this reason He came down from heaven, where He dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of His. For if our consciences could find peace when we struggle and suffer on our own, then why was it necessary for Him to die? You will find peace only in Him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works.”
Rev. Jerry Gernander
Bethany Lutheran Church & School