The Righteous Shall Live by Faith: Martin Luther & the Lutheran Tradition
Romans 1:8-17

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in the small town of Eisleben, Germany (about 120 miles southwest of Berlin). His parents, Margaret and Hans Luder, gave him the name Martin for the simple reason that he was born on St. Martin’s Day, the day the Roman Catholic calendar reserved for celebrating the feast of St. Martin of Tours. It is said that his father prayed aloud at the bedside of his newborn son, asking God to grant him grace, that he might become known for learning and piety.

Shortly after Martin was born, his family moved to nearby Mansfeld, where his father owned a small business in the copper mining industry. Hans Luder determined to give his son a good education and he sent young Martin to Latin school, where he excelled in academics despite his harsh educators, who believed that beating boys was the best way to make them to learn. Poor Martin once received fifteen whippings in a single day at school.

When Martin was 18 years old, he enrolled the University of Erfurt, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Germany, to study law. His father worked hard to pay for his education and he wanted him to become a wealthy and famous lawyer. Martin soon became one of the best students at the university and he proved so adept at public debates that he earned the nickname “The Philosopher.”

 

The Monastic Life

Then in 1505, two events took place that caused Martin’s life to take a dramatic turn. The first one was the sudden death of a friend that he loved very much. When he heard about it, he asked himself, “What would become of me if I were to die suddenly.”

The unexpected death of a loved one, especially a young person, should always make us consider our mortality and make us think about the condition of your own souls.

Later that summer, while returning from Erfurt after visiting his parents, he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm. Suddenly, a lightning bolt fell almost at his feet. Confounded with fear, he dropped to his knees and prayed to St. Anne to save him. When he arose unhurt, he believed the saint had saved him.

In response to these two events, he made a vow to become a monk. Even though his father was disillusioned by his decision, Martin believed the monastic life would draw him closer to God and earn him the assurance of salvation that he so desperately desired.

Martin was an exceptional monk. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices—going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and whipping himself. He tried to think of every sin he had ever committed and did penance for them all, but none of these religious practices made him feel any better. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God.     Along with other Roman Catholics, Martin had been taught that God was so holy that he could only be approached through the saints. His trust was not in the Savior, but in saints and angels, good works, doing penance, and trying to pay for his own sins. As he later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” He wrestled with this restlessness in his soul for the seven years until a breakthrough finally came.

 

Transformed by the Biblical Text (Romans 1:17)

Luther eventually earned his doctorate in Bible and become a professor at Wittenberg University. During a study of the Book of Romans, he began to see a way through his dark dilemma. As he read what would become the famous “Reformation text”—Romans 1:17—his eyes were drawn to the word “righteous.” Who, after all, could “live by faith” but those who were already righteous? The text was clear on the matter: “the righteous shall live by faith.” Luther hated the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God,’ because he had been taught God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. He could not live by faith because he was not righteous—and he knew it.

But he eventually saw that the Apostle Paul was teaching that there is a transfer of righteousness in the gospel—that his salvation depended on God’s righteousness, not his. When a sinner puts their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Jesus atones for the sinner’s sin and transfers his righteousness to the sinner’s soul, thus satisfying the wrath of God. Luther describes his spiritual transformation in his own words:

At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I …began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.

On the heels of this new understanding came others. To Luther, the church was no longer the institution defined by apostolic succession; instead it was the community of those who had been given faith. Salvation came not by practicing the sacraments but by grace alone through faith alone. The idea that human beings had enough goodness to seek out God was contrary to biblical teaching. Humility and doing good deeds were not a means of earning God’s grace but were a necessary response to the gift of grace. Faith no longer consisted of assenting to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but of trusting in the merits of Christ. Luther’s life was transformed by the biblical text, especially Romans 1:17!

 

The 95-theses

It wasn’t long before the revolution in Luther’s heart and mind played itself out in all of Europe. It started on All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517, when Luther publicly objected to the way Catholic preacher Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences. These were documents prepared by the church and bought by individuals either for themselves or on behalf of the dead that would release them from punishment due to their sins. As Tetzel preached, “Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!”

Luther questioned the church’s trafficking of indulgences and called for a public debate by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the castle church. Instead, his 95 Theses spread across Germany as a call to reform, and the issue quickly became not indulgences but the authority of the church: Did the pope have the right to issue these indulgences?

Events quickly accelerated. At a public debate in Leipzig in 1519, when Luther declared that “a simple layman armed with the Scriptures” was superior to both pope and councils without them, he was threatened with excommunication.

In 1521 he was called to an assembly at Worms, Germany, to appear before Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Luther arrived prepared for another debate; he quickly discovered it was a trial at which he was asked to recant his views. Luther famously replied, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds of reasoning … then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” Then he added, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”

 

The Dawn of the Reformation

By the time an imperial edict calling Luther “a convicted heretic” was issued, he had escaped to Wartburg Castle, where he hid for ten months and translated the New Testament into the common German language and wrote pamphlets attacking Roman Catholic practices.

In early spring of 1522, he returned to Wittenberg to lead, with the help of men like Philip Melanchthon, the fledgling reform movement. He married a runaway nun, Katharina von Bora, which scandalized many. (For Luther, the shock was waking up in the morning with “pigtails on the pillow next to me.”)

His lasting accomplishments also mounted: the translation of the Bible into German; the writing of the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”; and publishing his Larger and Smaller Catechism, which have guided not just Lutherans but many others since.

His later years were spent often in both illness and furious activity. In 1531 alone, though he was sick for six months and suffered from exhaustion, he preached 180 sermons, wrote 15 tracts, worked on his Old Testament translation. But by 1546, he finally wore out.

Luther’s legacy is immense and cannot be adequately summarized. Every Protestant Reformer—like John Calvin, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer—and every Protestant stream—Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, and Baptist—were inspired by Luther in one way or another. On a larger canvas, his Reformation unleashed forces that ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern era.

It has been said that in most libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelves than those concerned with any other figure in history except Jesus of Nazareth.

 

There is no doubt that God used this modest monk named Martin Luther to change the world forever! Among all of Luther’s accomplishments, his greatest was rescuing the true gospel of Jesus Christ! For a thousand years, the church had taught that people could earn salvation from their sins by living decent lives and doing good deeds. But with Luther’s study of Romans 1 and other biblical passages, he reestablished the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone from the authority of Scripture alone. His simple protest for church reform morphed into an all-out Protestant Reformation movement that still continues to this day.

            As we remember the life and work of Martin Luther on this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, allow me to briefly apply the three most important aspects of Luther’s teaching to our modern context.

 

1.) Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura)

            The Bible alone is the church’s final authority in all matters of faith and life! Although God uses popes, cardinals, bishops, denominational superintendents, church councils, elder boards, and even pastors to provide leadership for his church, the Bible is its supreme rule. Human beings are fallible but the Word of God is infallible. Therefore, it is every Christian’s responsibility to read and study the Scriptures and make sure what the preacher is saying is what God is saying. Throughout history, many people have fallen prey to cults, been led astray by false teachers, or been held captive by church law because they did not investigate the Scriptures for themselves.

            Whatever you do, don’t just take someone’s word for it, read the Bible for yourself! Whether it be at this church or some other church, make sure the preacher’s words mirror God’s Word! Unfortunately, like the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages, many Protestant churches have abandoned the Bible and are guided by some other authority. Let us we learn from Martin Luther—may our church and each of us as individuals always submit to the authority of God’s Word!

 

2.) Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)

            Second, may we always be perfectly clear that a sinner’s soul is saved by grace alone! How many of you have heard the axiom: “Good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell.” Although this is a common belief, it is dead wrong! It’s completely contrary to biblical teaching! The Bible teaches that none of us are “good” enough to go to heaven. That is why Jesus died for us on the cross—so that his blood atones for our sins and his righteousness makes us righteous in God’s sight. Therefore, we cannot earn, produce, buy, or barter for our salvation! We can only accept God’s free gift. Our good deeds show our gratitude for God’s grace, but they don’t earn it!

 

3.) Faith Alone (Sola Fide)

            Third and finally, the only way we can access God’s grace is through faith alone! Romans 1:16 declares that the gospel provides salvation “to everyone who believes.” Verse 17 refers to “a righteousness that is from faith for faith.” The word “faith” does not refer to a mere intellectual acceptance—“Sure, I believe that Jesus existed”—but a faith of commitment—“I believe that Jesus died for my sins on the cross and rose again from the dead so much that I am willing to follow him all of my days!” It’s a faith that expresses true remorse for sin and genuine repentance. It’s a faith that produces perseverance through the difficulties of life. It’s a faith that fully submits to God’s will! Have you received God’s grace by making a genuine faith commitment to Jesus Christ?

 

            Scripture alone! Grace alone! Faith alone! Praise God for the life, teaching, and on-going legacy of Martin Luther!     

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