The Standard October 28, 2021
On October 31, 1517 a young monk named Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. For years Luther wrestled with not feeling worthy of God’s favor and that all of his good works were not sufficient to satisfy the Holy Trinity. To him, “the righteousness of God” pressed down like a suffocating weight. As a new professor at the University of Wittenberg, Luther lectured on the Book of Psalms in 1513. From 1515-1517 he taught from the Epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians. While studying the Scriptures in preparation for these lectures, Luther said he “achieved an exegetical break through, an insight into the all-encompassing grace of God and all-sufficient merit of Christ.” The Holy Spirit also used Romans 1:17 to help him understand Christians being justified by grace through faith in Jesus. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)
The Weimarer Ausgabe edition of the complete works of Martin Luther translates him as writing, “Then finally God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is a gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely faith, and that sentence: The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel, is passive, indicating that the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written:’The righteous shall live by faith.’ Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise. In the same moment the face of the whole of Scripture became apparent to me. My mind ran through the Scriptures, as far as I was able to recollect them, seeking analogies in other phrases, such as the work of God, by which He makes us strong, the wisdom of God, by which He makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. Just as intensely as I had now hated the expression ‘the righteousness of God,’ I now lovingly praised this most pleasant word. This passage from Paul became to me the very gate to Paradise.’”
Luther wrote his 95 statements and questions to challenge certain teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He did this in a much more humble manner than might be assumed. Luther believed that their selling of indulgences to absolve sin was a corrupt practice, especially hurting the poor. Buying indulgences on behalf of a loved one who already had died or for yourself for the future was supposed to be a way to reduce the amount of time a deceased person had to stay in purgatory, where they were being purified before getting into heaven. Luther insisted in his two central points that the Bible was our sole authority and that people gained salvation by grace through faith and not by performing good deeds. He did not intend to start a movement to break away from the Catholic Church, but to encourage its reform.
This Sunday many Christians will celebrate Reformation Day. Let us contemplate these words of the Apostle Paul and then a challenge from Martin Luther. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) “Learn to know Christ and Him crucified. Learn to sing to Him, and say, ‘Lord Jesus, You are my righteousness, I am Your sin. You have taken upon Yourself what is mine and given me what is Yours. You have become what You were not, so that I might become what I was not.”