In 1517, Martin Luther, an obscure Augustinian monk, launched the Protestant Reformation.
He did so when he wrote ninety-five theses questioning the authority of the Roman Catholic system and posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That was the first shot fired in the battle of the Reformation—which was eventually heard around the world.
Some time later, Luther saw exactly what was wrong with the Roman Catholic Church when he came to Romans 1:17, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” Reading those words, he understood the true gospel for the first time.
That critical statement in Romans 1:17 is drawn from Habakkuk 2:4 and is also quoted in Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38. The truth it contains established Luther’s understanding of the gospel, brought about his salvation, and gave power to his ministry as God used him in the great recovery of the gospel that came to be known as the Reformation.
But how did Luther go from a Catholic monk to a protesting Reformer?
The Life of a Monk
Before Luther was a clear-headed theologian, he was a confused monk. Before he was a powerful force, he was a tormented failure. Before he had spiritual peace, he lived in constant spiritual pain—Luther was depressed. He was so overwrought with guilt that he lived in constant anxiety and fear.
While still pursuing a career in law, Luther encountered a thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning hit the ground so near him and terrified him so badly, that he pledged to become a monk if God would spare him from His wrath, which Luther thought had come in the form of lightning. Keeping his vow, he became an Augustinian monk and moved into a monastery.
There, he found the road to salvation was very hard. In fact, it was not just hard for him, it was hard for everyone. It was so hard that the Catholic Church invented a place called purgatory so that people who were too bad to go to heaven but too good to go to hell could purge their remaining sin.
The best that Luther could have hoped for was purgatory, because no matter what he did, he could never get over the reality of his own sinfulness. He was tortured internally by guilt and fear.
Monks like Luther so feared God and the just throne of Christ that they turned to Mary. Mary, they were taught, was more compassionate than either the Father or the Son, so they would plead with her to petition Christ and God on their behalf, for their salvation. Yet, in Luther’s case, he knew he did not deserve salvation.
While Luther was taught that salvation is by grace, grace had to be earned. He believed that a person must accumulate a certain amount of merit in order for God to show that person grace. So in order to make himself worthy, Luther went to extremes. He gave himself over to every conceivable (and inconceivable) form of severe discipline. For example, Luther was told that eating meager rations of food was one way to gain the worthiness God desired; and so, with the rest of the monks, he ate a pitiful diet of bread and water. In fact, he fasted so often that his friends were afraid he was going to die.
The monks were also told that wearing severely uncomfortable clothing could increase their worthiness before God. So Luther did that too. Moreover, he gave himself to long sleepless vigils and would even beg, which was the most humiliating thing a man could do. It wasn’t that he needed to beg, but he did so because he thought it could obtain God’s favor.
Martin Luther knew that he didn’t have the merit he needed to be righteous in God’s sight. So he did what Roman Catholics were told to do, he applied for somebody else’s. This is how it worked: Some people died with more merit—that is, moral virtue—than they needed. That excess merit accrued in what the Roman Catholic Church calls the treasury of merit, where it is available for others to tap into. If someone wants to receive some of that excess merit, he must visit and venerate relics like imaginary bones of Peter, pieces of the cross, milk from the breast of Mary, and the blood of the martyrs.
For that reason, Luther walked 800 miles to Rome and 800 miles back. When he arrived in Rome, he ascended the Scala Sancta, the holy steps that had supposedly led to Pilate’s judgment hall when Jesus was tried. Sinners could gain merit if they crawled up that staircase, kneeling, bowing, and kissing the ground at every step as they progressed to the top.
During his time at Rome, Luther was exposed to its true nature. He saw more corruption than he had ever seen as a monk in Wittenberg—or anywhere else in Germany. Yet, he was still so bothered by his own sin that he would confess it incessantly, up to six hours at a time.
He had no peace; he had no salvation. He was driven to terror and fear because he desperately wanted to be right with God. He understood God’s wrath, judgment, and the reality of eternal punishment in hell. You could say he had a fear of God—the kind that drives sinners to seek reconciliation with God.
Luther was so afraid of the Almighty that it tortured him. He wanted God to forgive and accept him. He wanted to escape hell and enter heaven. But even after doing everything he possibly could, he could not satisfy his own heart or find relief from his guilt.
Luther Encounters the Gospel
One day as he was studying Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Luther couldn’t get past the first half of Romans 1:17: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” He wrote:
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,” 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 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.Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York: Abingdon, 1950), 65.
One simple biblical truth changed that monk’s life—and ignited the Protestant Reformation. It was the realization that sinners could be perfectly righteous before God through the means of faith alone. Martin Luther found the truth in the same verse he had stumbled over—Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous [or just] man shall live by faith’” (emphasis added). Luther had always seen “the righteousness of God” as an attribute of the sovereign Lord by which He judged sinners—an attribute sinful mankind could not reconcile with. But not anymore. He described the breakthrough that put an end to the dark ages:
I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice 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 “justice 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.Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York: Abingdon, 1950), 65.
Justification by faith was the great truth that dawned on Luther and dramatically altered church history.
Because Christians are justified by faith alone, their standing before God is in no way related to their personal merit. Good works and practical holiness do not provide the grounds for acceptance with God. God receives as righteous those who believe, not because of any good thing He sees in them—not even because of His own sanctifying work in their lives—but solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, which is reckoned to their account. “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). That is justification.
In its theological sense, justification is a forensic, or purely legal, term. It describes what God declares about the believer, not what He does to change the believer. In fact, justification effects no actual change whatsoever in the sinner’s nature or character. Justification is a divine judicial edict. It changes our status only, but it carries ramifications that guarantee other changes will follow.
Such forensic decrees are fairly common in everyday life. When I was married, for example, Patricia and I stood before the minister (my father) and recited our vows. Near the end of the ceremony, my father declared, “By the authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you man and wife.” Instantly, we were legally husband and wife. Whereas seconds before we had been an engaged couple, now we were married. Nothing inside us actually changed when those words were spoken. But our status changed before God, the law, and our family and friends. The implications of that simple declaration have been lifelong and life-changing (for which I am grateful). But when my father spoke those words, it was a legal declaration only.
Similarly, when a jury foreman reads the verdict, the defendant is no longer “the accused.” Legally and officially, he instantly becomes either guilty or innocent—depending on the verdict. Nothing in his actual nature changes, but if he is found not guilty, he will walk out of court a free man in the eyes of the law, fully justified.
In biblical terms, justification is a divine verdict of not guilty—fully righteous. It is the reversal of God’s attitude toward the sinner. Whereas He formerly condemned, He now vindicates. Although the sinner once lived under God’s wrath, as a believer he or she is now under God’s blessing.
Justification is more than simple pardon; pardon alone would still leave the sinner without merit before God. So when God justifies, He imputes righteousness to the sinner (Romans 4:22–25). Christ’s own merit—His perfect obedience as a man to God’s holy law—thus becomes the ground on which the believer stands before God (Romans 5:19; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:9; cf. Matthew 3:15). Justification elevates the believer to a realm of full acceptance and divine privilege in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, because of justification, believers not only are perfectly free from any charge of guilt (Romans 8:33) but also have the full merit of Christ reckoned to their personal account (Romans 5:17). Furthermore, when we are justified, we are adopted as sons and daughters (Romans 8:15) and become fellow heirs with Christ (v. 17). Such are some of the glorious blessings that flow out of justification.
Why is it that this particular doctrine grew into an insurmountable division between Roman Catholics and the Protestant Reformers? To answer that question, we must carefully examine the relationship between justification and sanctification—which is exactly what we’ll do next time.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to the Apostles)