Luther in 1517

Recently I revisited the first year of the Reformation. After reading what Luther wrote – and what he didn’t – I came away with five thoughts that struck me vividly.

1. Christ’s patience

The first lesson that leaps out at me has to do with Christ’s patience as our teacher. How long-suffering our Lord was to Luther as he muddled his way towards the truth about himself.

We often think of the Reformation as a defining moment that led to a movement. Luther himself wrote this way, and it is stirring to read:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the righteousness of God,” [Rom. 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26] because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

Luther’s words reveal what a light entered his life when he saw that there was a righteousness available to sinners that is not our own. There are few greater joys than discovering that there is a righteousness in Christ that is not our own. And yet it is manifestly the case that when it came time to teach the way of salvation, Luther took years to put all the pieces together.

Scholars debate whether Luther’s understanding of salvation through Christ alone fueled his protest against the church, or whether his doctrinal disputes with the church helped him to see the sufficiency of Christ. That is because it took 5-10 years for Luther to clearly articulate what we call the 5 solas, and even more years to reshape the church’s understanding of saints and sacraments, penance, purgatory and the papacy. How patient our Lord was with Luther. How patient he is with us too – given so much more light, and yet always muddling our way towards more truth.

2. Christ’s encouragement

Second, Luther’s life-story reminds me how encouraging Christ is. The fact that he gave Luther colleagues to support him, a supervisor who understood him, and young scholars who received him is testimony to our Savior’s ability to encourage; proof that he made like us in every way, sin excepted, and understands us.

Our Lord also gave Luther that clarity of conscience and well-timed moments of joy that Reformers, in fact all pastors and Christian people need to press on. After having nailed an appeal to the pope on the cathedral door in Augsburg – Luther seemed to like nailing things to doors – Luther returned home to Wittenburg. There he wrote – as it happens, on Oct 31, 1518 – “I am filled with such joy and peace that I wonder why my struggle seems to be important to many and great men.” This is Christ’s ministry of encouragement, through his Holy and Powerful Spirit. Where would we be without it?

3. Christ’s power

The third thing that stands out in Luther’s story is Christ’s power. With so many false doctrines cluttering the road to the cross, with so many false crosses in which to trust, it is a wonder that he ever found it at all. The more one studies the problems of the church, the more marvelous Christ’s power is to behold.

Medieval theology is bad enough. But medieval church polity was almost worse. Since the resources of the church could be bought as an investment by the highest bidder, the actual job of a parish priest was sold to the lowest bidder. It was a system that favored the least qualified applicants. Christ’s reform of such a church, through Luther, is a display of astonishing wisdom and power. How true it is that what is impossible with man, is possible with God.

4. Christ’s wisdom

And what more could we say? For doesn’t all of this only highlight, in the fourth place, the wisdom of Christ? Time would fail me to tell of the revival of education among the elite that allowed Luther resources he needed. Or of the European printing press, invented just in time to disseminate this rediscovery of the gospel. Or of states and empires so tightly bound in political intrigue that the pope was unable to crush Luther and the Protestant reformation until it was too late. How wise our God is to prepare an entire continent to serve as a stage for his chosen instrument.

5. Christ’s sufficiency

All of this only underscores the absolute sufficiency of Christ – not least the sufficiency of Christ for sinners.

The church in Luther’s day said that by God’s grace, our works justified us. That left most people depressed, and a few people happy. A few other theologians – all of them mavericks — said that this was not true. Even our best works are not impressive. The good news, they declared, is that God has decided that if we only try our best, he’ll show us grace anyways. A kind of God-helps-those-who-help-themselves theology.

But isn’t the problem with this that we often don’t do our best? Luther saw this, and eventually declared that they were all wrong. Luther came to see that in the righteousness of God there is another way. Our salvation does not rest in God turning a blind eye toward us. Our salvation rests in the fact that he looks on his Son and sees in him a glorious righteousness that covers all who trust in him.

We cannot afford to get fuzzy about these gospel facts. Frankly, many professing Christians have in our day drifted into a version of late-medieval theology. Their vague hope is in a blind benevolence that smiles on all who do their best. If that observation about the church in our day – perhaps especially the youth groups in our day — is true, then the real scandal of modern evangelicals heading to Rome is not that they make the trip, but that the commute is so short.

We have only just begun our study of the Reformation, but let us seize the opportunity that this night affords, and rejoice with Luther that salvation is Solo Christo, by Christ alone. And may our Father in heaven, by his most powerful Spirit, help us to see the absolute sufficiency of Christ as a Savior for sinners. Which is what we all are.

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn
Chancellor’s Professor of Historical Theology, Associate Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.