Martin Luther and the Righteousness of God

It was 500 years ago this year when Martin Luther took a stand against the various aspects of corruption and misguided doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church, thus launching the Reformation. On the heels of my class on the History of Christianity at Colorado Christian University, I read an article in Christianity Today, January/February 2017, Vol. 61, No. 1, by David Zahl, titled, “Justify Yourself.” I find the Protestant Reformation to be a very engaging and fascinating topic, and, indeed, consider Martin Luther to be one of my heroes of the Medieval Church. It was an easy decision for me to do my final paper on Martin Luther.

Luther

Zahl, wondering whether the Reformation is over, writes, “Don’t we get the message already? Aren’t we all on the same page when it comes to salvation by grace through faith? The short answer appears to be no.” This has been true for me personally, which is why I have struggled for decades with my will versus God’s, and with forgetting that I am nowhere near equipped to ever be justified by my own actions. I consider myself somewhat of an amateur scholar of the Apostle Paul, especially of his Epistle to the Romans. I find chapters six, seven and eight of Romans to explain the very essence of the Gospel. I relate fully to Paul’s commentary on warring with the flesh, especially having spent forty years in active addiction.

LUTHER’S BREAKTHROUGH

Martin Luther had an overpowering sense of his own sinfulness. He spent a great deal of time in confession, and often worried that he might have “forgotten” something he did wrong, thereby not making a thorough confession. He believed this would put him in jeopardy of losing the reward of being completely forgiven. As a monk, he was remarkably astute. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices – going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. As he later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”

Though he sought by these means to love God fully, he found no consolation. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God. Not knowing what to do, he began pouring over the first chapter of Romans. The 17th verse was literally keeping him up at night: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” (KJV) Luther had been trained in the Medieval understanding of Paul’s phrase the righteousness of God as being shorthand for the awesome holiness of God, before which all of mankind must quake in fear. Basically, Luther understood the verse to mean, “The Gospel reveals that God punishes sinners,” which, of course, is no Gospel at all.

In his article, David Zahl writes, “Brother Martin, you see, possessed what might politely be called an overactive conscience. Today he’d likely be termed a neurotic or ‘a real handful.’ Whatever the root of his sensitivities, they had already driven him into a monastery, where he hoped a life of radical service might bring him the peace with God he craved.” Finally, on this particular day, as Luther meditated on Romans 1:17, he had an epiphany. Zahl said this is how Luther described it: “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.”

As Zahl explained in his article, Luther came to realize the difference between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the Gospel, or that which can be earned by man (although not really!) and that which is given by God. Prior to this point in this studies, Luther regarded both God’s law and His Gospel as the same thing, and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except their degrees of perfection. Luther said, “When I realized the law was one thing, and the Gospel another, I broke through and was free.”

RADICAL DISTINCTION IN AN UNDIVIDED WORD

It’s been said many times that there’s really nothing new under the sun. What was believed hundreds of years ago is often still considered true today. I, for one, believed for many years that the Bible is divided into two halves. There is the Old Testament (the Law of God) and the New Testament (the Gospel of God). Of course, this in effect shackles the Word of God. The distinction between the Law and the Gospel is less about imposing a doctrinal straight-jacket on the Bible than about engaging a living God over the entirety of an unfolding story. If anything, reading the Bible through the eyeglasses of “law” and “Gospel” safeguards the Word from being read predominantly as an instruction manual and more as a living instrument of the Spirit that proclaims God’s work in the world on behalf of sinners in need of saving. From cover to cover, the Bible is about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

As Zahl puts it, “Indeed, the distinction between law and Gospel is a powerful explanation of how the Bible doesn’t just sit there; it reaches out and grasps us, shakes us, transforms us, frees, us – it kills us and makes us alive. Luther said, “There is no man on living Earth who knows how to distinguish rightly between the law and the Gospel. We may think  we understand it when we are listening to a sermon, but we’re far from it.” Luther believed only the Holy Spirit knows how to make this distinction.

THE LAW

Luther believed that God has spoken to human beings and continues to speak to human beings in two words: law and Gospel. He believed these words are distinct from one another but not inseparable. The basic distinction is as follows: The law tells us what we ought to do; the Gospel tells us what God has done. The law shows us that we need to be forgiven; the Gospel announces that we have been forgiven. The law paves the way for the Gospel by revealing our predicament, and the Gospel proclaims the Good News to those struck down by the law.

What most of us think of when we think of “the law” in religious terms is, of course, the capital-L Law of God, the Oughts and Ought Nots that we find spelled out in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. We automatically think of the great commandments of God: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t worship idols, love God with all your heart. This Law shows us the true outline of holiness. And in doing so, it reveals us to be selfish, obstinate, self-centered people, fundamentally flawed, turned away from what is right, away from God Himself. Of course, the Law ultimately shows us our own mortality, for it reveals the wages of sin. (Romans 6:23)

I’m impressed by Luther’s description of the law as “a constant guest” in our conscience. Zahl puts it this way: “You might say that the little-l law is the air we breath as human beings, the default setting, the quid pro quo that characterizes our internal life and much of our external one as well.” In other words, to get approval, we have to achieve something. We have to do something. Behavior precedes belovedness: Climb the ladder, or else. Zahl makes an interesting comment that we could be walking down the street, mid-week, not giving any thought to last Sunday’s lesson at church, yet our behavior is governed by subconscious commands telling us, in much the same dogmatic fashion that was once reserved for religious commands, “Thou shalt be skinny, successful, independent, self-actualized.” We have grown accustomed to the internalized voice of a demanding parent; that feeling of never being quite enough, which drives us to the point of exhaustion.

THE GOSPEL

The second word, Gospel, means good news. News is not a command. Command comes in the imperative voice – “Do this” – and news in the indicative voice – “This has been done.” Look at it this way: We typically watch the evening news to hear what has happened or has been done. For Christians, of course, the good news is Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, taking the entirety of God’s wrath upon Himself and setting us free. The Gospel announces that because of Christ’s death and resurrection we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even by who are are, but by what Christ has done and who He is. Our guilt has been atoned for, and the deepest judgment satisfied, reconciling us with the Father. While the law is conditional – a two-way street – the gift of Christ is unconditional. Like all true gifts, we have to do nothing to earn it or deserve it. His affection cannot be bought or merited. It is a free gift with no strings attached. Jesus simply gave.

Much like capital-L and little-l forms of law, there exists a corollary between the capital-G Gospel of Jesus and little-g grace in human affairs. We see this played out in our own lives  and those of others around us. When it comes to lifting the human spirit, nothing is more potent than love in the midst of deserved judgments. This is sometimes referred to as unconditional love. Grace proves, time and again, to be the force that inspires service and creativity; hope and vulnerability; new life. Biblical figures like Zachaeus and Gomer, fictional ones like Jean Valjean and Ebenezer Scrooge, and historical figures like John Newton and Martin Luther King, Jr. testify to such human qualities.

A grace-centered view of the world takes for granted that we are all severely handicapped in our ability to love one another, and that we stand a better chance of loving our neighbor when we aren’t looking to them to do or be what they cannot do or be. Christian hope, therefore, lies in not having to generate love on our own steam but in prior belovedness, expressed in sacrificial terms, and in spite of our being undeserving. This, of course, is the very definition of divine love. It is known by its tendency to seek out and care for the unlovable. The law commands that we love perfectly; the Gospel tells us that we are perfectly loved. Consider, for a moment, how “humanly” impossible it is to love in the manner described in 1 Corinthians 13 (“The Message” translation):

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

One of Luther’s earliest and most important expressions came in thesis 26 of The Heidelberg Disputation (1518). He wrote, “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” As Zahl notes, “The pressure to self-justify has been removed, and it has been replaced with freedom: the freedom to die and yet to live, to fail and yet to succeed. The freedom to love, to serve, to wait, to laugh, to cry, to sit idle, to get busy – yes, even to play.”

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