What Does Martin Luther Have to Say to Us Today?

Rolf Sons

Justification Newly Discovered - Part 1

Certain pictures of Luther have made a deep impression on us. Of course, we imagine the Theses that he nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 1517. Perhaps we see him as the courageous man who confessed at the Diet in Worms before the emperor, “Here I stand. I can do no differently.” Perhaps we see him as the great theologian and Bible translator, how he completely translated the New Testament out of the Greek in only six weeks alone in the Wartburg.

Or maybe we also see him as the housefather who lived in the Augustinian abbey in Wittenberg, with his wife Käthe, their six children and a host of friends and students.

All of these pictures are correct, but we must not forget one thing. Anyone who was around Luther not only met a great theologian, church Reformer and passionate fighter; he also met a desperate, often depressed, and almost always a tested person. Without this background, Luther and his work cannot be understood.

Luther suffered from terrible trials all his life. The question of his election and the assurance of salvation tormented him.

One man who stood by him in these trials was Johann Staupitz, an Augustinian monk and also a professor of theology who, after various stations, was called to Wittenberg in 1502. When Luther began his studies in Wittenberg in 1508, he sat at the feet of Staupitz and listened to his Biblical lectures. Staupitz was a spiritual father for Luther, to whom he could confess. Staupitz showed Luther the merciful God. Luther should take refuge in the wounds of Christ.

What Staupitz said to him in private, Luther soon found himself in the Scriptures. It was the epistle to the Romans that opened his eyes. It says there in chapter 1:17, “Therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther wanted to know what “righteousness” meant. In the tradition in which he was brought up, righteousness was what the judge of the world, Christ, bestowed on people on the grounds of their good deeds. According to this “justitia distributiva,” God gave His righteousness to people according to the measure of their good works.

Let us listen to Luther:

“Although I lived as an irreproachable monk, I felt uneasy that I was a sinner before God and that I could not rely on God reconciling me through my own efforts. I not only loved—no, I hated the righteous God who punished sinners. Not just with silent blasphemy, but certainly with immeasurable grumbling, I was indignant at God, and said—as though it were not enough that wretched sinners were lost forever through original sin—with all the necessity of the law of the Ten Commandments, that God had added pain through the gospel, and that His gospel itself had threatened His righteousness and wrath…So I raged wildly and with a confused conscience, but I knocked recklessly at this [Romans 1:17] with Paul; I was thirsting to know what Paul wanted. Then God had mercy on me.”

In the midst of exhausting Bible study, God showed him a new understanding of righteousness. Looking back on his experience, he wrote:

“I felt that I was completely reborn, that I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From then on the whole face of the Scriptures was changed for me…As much as I had hated this word ‘righteousness of God’ before, now just as fondly I praised it as the sweetest word I knew, so that this verse in Paul became for me a gate to paradise.”

Luther had discovered the justifying God. Soon this realization filled his whole life, his theological writings, his preaching, and not least His counseling.

Oswald Bayer, one of my theological teachers who is an ethics professor in Tübingen (Germany), would say: “Theology is like eating spaghetti. When you put a fork into it, everything else comes with it.” With this comparison, Bayer was thinking of the doctrine of justification. This cannot be isolated from other theological themes. For the understanding of creation, it is just as central as the doctrine of man. Without the article of justification, the question of last things, the question of judgment, the salvation or rejection of man, cannot be answered appropriately. Justification is not last for pastoral counseling, preaching and basic education. The article of justification is the center of Reformation theology, from which everything else derives. Luther never tired of impressing the Word of God on his students, as future counselors and preachers.

What is the nucleus of the doctrine of justification? Luther said on this subject:

“The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article, the world is utter death and darkness.” With this article on justification, stands and falls the church, my salvation, my life and my death. In the next two parts, we will see what this doctrine has to do with our daily lives.

To put it bluntly, justification is about the question of understanding man as the receiver. Man is dependent and needy, but God gives and gives. This is the nucleus. From this Archimedean point, the whole world can be lifted off its hinges. I will give you an example of this:

At a meeting of clergymen in a small town in Germany, I wandered with a friend through a market. The streets were full of stands and tables. At one table, there were beautiful, self-made ceramics and pottery items. I watched from the crowd how a roughly ten-year-old boy worked on a vase, when it suddenly slipped out of his hands and broke on the floor. The owner came immediately to scold the boy, who assured him he had not done it deliberately. This was his justification. The owner, however, insisted on a substitute for his vase. The boy had no money on him and could not pay for it. My friend had also watched the scene taking place. He spontaneously went to the owner and put a €20 note into his hand, and explained that the matter was in order and he should leave the boy in peace. Surprised by this unexpected development, the boy gratefully ran off.

This is exactly what the Bible means by justification. In a situation in which I cannot justify myself, another takes my place. He takes over my guilt and helps me in this way, undeservedly, out of my plight. Luther grasped as few others the spiritual connection. God justifies the person who is in a hopeless situation. He does it free of charge, “for Christ’s sake through faith,” in Latin “propter Christum per fidem.” This says everything. Because Jesus paid my debt and I accept it in faith, I am justified. God is the subject of justification. I, as a human being, receive it.

Midnight Call - 09/2017

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