Justification and Martin Luther

Ray Heiple

It was a hot, humid afternoon in July, 1505.  A brilliant young law student was traveling near the German village of Stotternheim in what was then Electoral Saxony.  Having recently earned his Masters degree, he had by all accounts, a promising and lucrative law career ahead of him.  But as often happens on hot summer days, the sky darkened without warning.  Green leaves stirred and shook in the trees as a rising wind began to agitate the branches.  It started to rain. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck so near the traveler that he was knocked to the ground.  Fearing God’s wrath would rest upon him if he should perish, the terrified young man cried out, “Help me St. Anne!  And I… I will become a monk!”  And so the man who would later renounce the cult of the saints vowed to a saint.  And just 15 days later in nearby Erfurt, Germany, the man who would later condemn monasticism entered an Augustinian monastery.  The man’s name was Martin Luther.  He was 21 years old.

If this story seems strange or unlikely, you must understand Christian piety at end of the Middle Ages. The vast majority of professing believers at the beginning of the sixteenth century in Christian Europe understood that Almighty God has a holy hatred of sin; that He will condemn sinners who die in state of sin to an eternity of miserable punishment in hell. To be justified before Him required righteousness. The best way to get righteousness, it was believed, was to enter a monastery, where you could spend the rest of your life in works of prayer, fasting, and study; denying the lusts of flesh, and giving up all you possessed to the poor.  So Luther entered the monastery to save his soul; to seek the righteousness that a holy God required in the best and most effective way he could; as a monk.

Young brother Luther tried, according to the teaching of Rome, to be justified by God on account of his good works.  In order to earn righteousness, Luther went beyond the prescribed fasts and prayer vigils of his order, spending hours in daily prayers, often fasting without a speck of food for days on end. If prideful thoughts came into his mind he would sleep on the hard floor or without any blankets, shivering all night to punish his flesh.  Luther was trusting and walking in what the church said you needed to do to be saved: do the sacrament of penance.  But to do penance and merit the grace of the sacrament, every recognized sin had to be remembered and confessed.  So during each day’s required time of confession, Luther would ransack his mind and his motives over everything he did or thought the previous day, regularly spending hours in the confessional in order to receive absolution.  But invariably mere moments later, he would remember some attitude, thought, or desire that was not wholly devoted to God and he would be in despair again until tomorrow’s time of confession.

It was not that Luther lacked the faith to adhere to the church’s teaching.  His problem was that he did believe!  He believed the Church when it taught that a believing sinner received the grace of justification through the sacraments as he did his part to cooperate and become righteous.  And this is what kept tripping Luther up – his part was never good enough.  His part of keeping the sacraments always spoiled the righteousness that he sought from them.  And so Luther began to hate the righteousness of God which condemned him.

In 1515 Luther was tasked with teaching Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  He studied the epistle diligently until he understood every phrase except “the righteousness of God.”  He had always understood the righteousness of God as that righteousness by which God Himself is righteous and which He justly requires from us.  Then Luther picked up a commentary of Augustine and read that when the gospel speaks of the righteousness of God, it is not talking about that righteousness whereby God Himself is righteous, but that righteousness that God has made available to sinners, which He gives as a free gift to all who believe in Jesus Christ.  The good news of the gospel is not that righteousness is revealed to believers as they do their good works, but “from faith to faith.”  Finally, Luther understood the teaching of Rom. 1:17, that the just (the one who is righteous) does not live before God by means of his own works-righteousness, but by his faith.  The righteousness God requires and must require of sinners He provides in the gospel and gives to all who believe.  When Luther understood this, he said it was as if the gates of paradise opened before him, and with tears of joy, he strode through.

My friend the good news of the gospel that Luther rediscovered is that God requires perfect righteousness for any human being to be justified in His presence.  This righteousness has already been completely accomplished by Jesus Christ, and He promises to give it, whole, entire, and immediately to anyone who believes in Him for it.

Ray Heiple (M.Div. RPTS, D.Min. RPTS) is the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA), host for the TV program Origins (CTVN), teacher of Bible and Apologetics at Robinson Township Christian School (RTCS), and author of Preaching with Biblical Motivation (P&R, 2017), and Pocket History of the PCA (CDM, 2017).

Ray Heiple