EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth column in a year-long series leading up to the 500th anniversary of the 16th-century Reformation on Oct. 31, 2017.
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In 1505, the young man Martin Luther, cowering before a thunderbolt, vowed to become a monk and a devout servant of the Catholic church under the headship of the Roman pontiff. Fifteen years later, in the summer of 1520, Pope Leo X launched his own thunderbolt at Luther in the form of an edict that denounced Luther as a “wild boar” destroying God’s “vineyard,” the Catholic church. The pope warned Luther to recant his errors within 60 days, lest he be condemned as a heretic and turned over to secular authorities for punishment.
Why did Luther receive such a threat from the pope? As described in a previous column, Luther wrote 95 Theses in 1517 that challenged the pope’s authority and criticized the church’s practice of raising income by guaranteeing people’s salvation at a price. But by the time Pope Leo X published his edict (called a “papal bull”), it had become clear that Luther’s dissent from the Roman church ran much deeper even than this.
Now, Luther didn’t cower beneath the thunderbolt of the pope’s edict. When he finally received the edict in the winter of 1520, he burned it alongside copies of Roman ecclesiastical law and books supporting the pope. Meanwhile, he had begun to write a series of three classic works outlining the fundamental nature of his call for reform. In the last of these brief treatises, called On Christian Liberty, Luther declared the foundation of his teaching: namely, that people can be righteous in God’s sight by faith alone, and not by their own efforts.
For many years, Luther had himself been terrified by the righteous God who could justly condemn sinners to hell. However, sometime between 1514 and 1518, he gradually overcame his “hatred” for God’s righteousness as he poured over various passages of Scripture—particularly, Romans 1:17, which reads, “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
Luther had previously struggled with Romans 1:17 because he thought the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” referred to the righteous standard by which God judges sinful human beings. He wondered how such righteousness, supposedly revealed in the gospel, could be good news to helpless sinners. If this is what Paul meant by “the righteousness of God,” does the gospel not offer fear of judgment rather than hope for mercy? Decades later, long after his battle with the Roman church had begun, Luther recounted how his understanding of God’s righteousness changed:
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words [of Romans 1:17] …. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates” (Luther’s Works, vol. 34, pp. 336-337).
In late 1520, standing firm against the pope’s threats, Luther succinctly and profoundly defended this belief in On Christian Liberty. He explained that, for our spiritual health, life and righteousness, we need nothing but the Word of God—that is, in this instance, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And nothing can grasp the Word of God except faith alone. Good works cannot help us spiritually, nor can physical affliction harm us spiritually. In contrast, faith in the gospel brings righteousness apart from our efforts, and faith alone honors God, who promises salvation in the gospel.
By faith, Luther writes, our souls are united “with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.” Just as husband and wife share all things, even so Christ takes ownership of everything that belongs to us—including our “sins, death and damnation.” Likewise, by faith, we receive from Christ everything that belongs to Him—including life, salvation and righteousness.
Because we are united with Christ in faith, moreover, each of us is “a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” We are completely free from slavery under sin or the law, and all things “work together”—as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8—to bring about life, peace and salvation for us. At the same time, by faith in Christ, we are “priests,” graciously empowered to approach God’s throne and to pray for and teach each other. Such is the Christian liberty that we receive by faith.
In contrast, Luther adds, each of us is a “perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Nevertheless, we don’t serve anyone because we think that we can earn our way to heaven by our own efforts. Instead, we serve our neighbors out of the love poured into our hearts by God’s Spirit. Faith in Christ doesn’t free us to live in “idleness or wickedness”; rather, it frees us truly to love others, as Christ loves us.
“We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian,” Luther writes. “He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor.”
Luther’s declaration of Christian liberty was revolutionary, dismantling a late medieval religion consisting largely in attempts to earn one’s way to heaven through good works. But in 1520 he could hardly have imagined the revolution that would soon sweep across Europe because of his message.