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Luther's Justification by Faith

 


A picture of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

You are listening to "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," written by Martin Luther.

Martin Luther as a young man agonized over his salvation.  He was a Roman Catholic, and the priests instructed him that only that institution could save him, because it was the institution on earth "ordained by God" to save people from an Eternal Hell.  It had been given the arm of the state to "enforce" salvation and compliance with its tentacles of ecclesiastical law.  Anyone who spoke out against its authority was branded a heretic and most heretics ended in a fiery death at the stake. (Oh, how many true born again saints of God were branded heretics and slaughtered for their beliefs!)

Luther was a "good" Catholic.  He did everything that he could to obey every jot and tittle of ecclesiastical law as it pertained to him.  Yet inwardly he sensed he was lost.  And because he believed so strongly in God and His Divine judgment, he lived in fear of dying and going to Hell.  After a frightening plague that killed half the people in his community --, many friends of his --  and a subsequent frightful experience in a thunder storm, he vowed to enter a monastery as a monk.

Luther became a "very good" monk.  He later said that if any man could be saved by his monkery, he of all people should have certainly obtained salvation. Anything he put his hand to, he did with zeal and fervor.  At the monastery, one of the most rigorous of the ascetic orders, he committed himself to fasting, constant prayer, starving the body, self beatings, etc. in order to bring his body, his flesh, under control and eradicate sin. Yet none of that gave him any assurance that he was right with God. He felt inwardly that he was harshly judged by the God of Wrath he had been taught about all his life. He said of that time that he "hated" this God that he thought he knew.

Several years passed, and Luther became a priest.  As he was in any endeavor he pursued, he was a "very good" priest. Because he was very well educated, he was assigned to teach at the university, and the subject assigned him was -- the Bible.  (Oh, Hallelujah!) He could have been given the charge of teaching Church Law.  After all, before he became a monk he had trained to be a secular lawyer. But now he had to really learn the Bible. As in every endeavor he undertook, he would be a "very good" teacher of the Scripture. He threw himself as fervently into his new task as he had ever done with anything assigned him.  He studied the Bible hours on end, and prepared lectures for his classes.  At that time the Bible was not written in the common language of the people; that was forbidden by Rome. He compared Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts, made notes, compared and cross-referenced Scripture. With all this arduous study, he became a Bible scholar.

One night, while preparing lectures on Romans,  he was focused on Romans 1:17, wrestling in his mind to determine its meaning. Suddenly he stopped, in awe. He read the words in Latin, that we now know so well in King James English:

"For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith."

Suddenly Luther sprang from his chair with joy, because the meaning had become clear to him, and with it the solution to his inner woes and lost state.  I give to you now Luther's own words, written in the last year of his life. This was long after his battles against "ecclesiastical authority" that had excommunicated him, sentenced, condemned him to Hell, and came close to burning him alive at the stake. He had exercised such courage in confronting them and taking a stand for the one true Gospel. In his words, you will see Luther's position on justification by faith:

"I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, "the justice of God," because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.  My situation was that, although an impeccable friar, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would appease Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated Him and murmured against Him. Yet, I clung to dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

"Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and that statement that "the just shall live by faith." Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. This immediately made me feel as if I had been born again and had entered paradise through newly-opened doors. The whole of the Scriptures took on a new meaning, and it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love, so that the passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven.

"If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God's heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. Thus it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon His fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see Him rightly, but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his faith."

Luther's new-found faith set his life on a new course.  Because his life was so immersed in the workings of the church, and because Luther never addressed any matter with less than fervency, he now set himself to speaking out against the atrocities of an institution that called itself the Church of God on earth that alone could reconcile men to God.  Luther knew now that was not true.  He knew that the only way that a man, woman or child can be reconciled to God is by Grace through Faith.  Shortly thereafter his 95 theses were nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany and set in motion the great movement of what we know today as the Protestant Reformation.  And so when the hundred greatest and most influential men of the Millennium (1001 - 2000) was named, Martin Luther made it in at number three! I do not recall now who the top two were, but they were not theologians!

Luther, of course, was only a man -- in many ways a flawed man.  That is no severe judgment against him. All men, even the best of them, are flawed.  There is no good in the flesh of any man. And any man, even though he knows God, can oftentimes say and do wrong things.  We can examine David's life, a man "after God's own heart," to see that this is true. The greater and more influential a man is, the more his failings are noticed and can affect others. But we all fail, and that is why we all need a Savior.  Luther cannot be given glory for what he did for God. It was God Who moved upon Luther and used him to bring about a great revival and a reformation based on Truth. Since Luther's time, many of the institutions spawned out of the movement he was so instrumental in beginning, have formed their own institutions and propagated error of one kind or another, in an attempt to bind men to certain doctrines that greatly conflict with "The just shall live by faith."  Nevertheless, because of Luther and others like him, used greatly by God, the one true gospel over the centuries has been kept alive. For one thing, we have the Bible translated into the common languages of the people, printed in the millions, available to us all.  Without Luther and others like Tyndale, Wycliffe, etc., this would never have happened.

Aside from religious freedom, we can thank Luther largely for our being politically free in this nation.  If he (along with others, of course) had not started the spiritual revolution that so influenced the founders of America and rulers of other nations, ecclesiastical hierarchy and authority would no doubt still reign over all human government in western civilization! And all men would still be in bondage to Rome! That form of religion would be forced upon us, and all other forms stamped out, by the arm of governments controlled by institutions.  Personal freedom to choose one's own religion, political view, career, life style, etc., would be virtually non-existent! Oh, yes, the real "age of enlightenment" was ushered in, not by intellectualism, but by the Word of God being made available to all people in their own common language! Rome did not tolerate born again faith, or sola scriptura that released the minds of men that led to the spirit of freedom. When people are not free to think or to carry out the actions of their own consciences, they are in bondage in every sense of the word.

The Roman Catholic Church of today, asserting its ecclesiastical, dictatorial authority, still speaks against Luther and the other Reformers, and attempts to discredit them. It no longer bears the arm of the state in enforcing its iron will, except in some Third World countries. But it still brands as heretical and excommunicates ("cuts off" and curses, brands anathema) those who speak out for freedom of conscience and "the just shall live by faith." This is not to indict individuals in the RCC, but merely to state that the church itself views itself as the only true church and its role is to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth through forced conversion. Today there are many religious "authorities" both "Christian" and "non-Christian" that are contrary to Truth and freedom of conscience and would make all men slaves -- either spiritually, mentally, bodily, or all three. 

What is the true church, the Body of Christ? Is it the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist, the Baptist? No. It is none of these, although those of the true church may be in any of these institutions. The Body of Christ is comprised of all born again believers since the church was instituted 2,000 years ago.  The spiritual Body of Christ is protected by Christ and cannot be contaminated, because it is a spiritual entity, indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. All members of the Body of Christ are in spiritual unity because they have all come in the same way: by faith. In that faith is unity. They have all come by way of the Cross. In that is unity. If one has come by way of the Cross and has faith in Christ alone, with the foundation of faith the Bible alone, in that is unity. There can be no ecumenism that contradicts these great truths: Grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone, and Scripture alone as the basis of Truth.

What we call "local" churches are a mixture.  The only justification for a local church's existence is that it gathers together a part of the flock, teaches the Word of God, centered in Christ, holding up His Cross and leading people to Him. The Holy Spirit is at work in such churches, anointing that message. A church's mission is not to preach "Name it and claim it," legalism, man's doctrines, or a watered-down gospel, or exist as a social club. But its mission is to preach and teach the Cross of Christ and repentance leading to justification by faith.  A local church may not be able to keep out the unsaved. But when the unsaved come, they should hear the gospel message - the one true and complete gospel -- that saves, sets free, and focuses on Christ.  If churches are not doing that -- if they are preaching  and teaching some other gospel -- they are enemies of the Cross and of Justification by Faith.

Want to read more about Martin Luther? Glorify the God who miraculously moved Luther to do His Will! It is good to learn of the great men of the faith and to study Church History. You may find much about Luther and much that he wrote and said at:

The Wittenberg Project

Martin Luther's Table Talks

Also, there were two good movies made, one very recently. It has some flaws, but there is a lot of truth there, too, comparing it to his various biographies. An older movie was made in the early fifties. The newer move is named Luther, and can be found in most video rental stores. Click here to read a review that I placed on Amazon.com.

Also, read Bainton's famous book, Here I Stand, a detailed biography of Luther.

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Copyright 2005 Mary Cage. Permission is granted to freely use this article with proper credit given. The author requests that if used on a website, that a link be put to this site.