Our confidence as we face life and death is not based on faith, but on God’s promises.
James F. Korthals
For years Martin Luther lived in misery. He agonized over the uncertainty of his relationship with God. He viewed his Savior not as a loving God but as an angry judge. To add to his spiritual turmoil, close encounters with death further deepened his despair. On one occasion, Luther suffered from a severe fever and witnessed a university friend die from the plague. He realized he could have been the one who died, but then what would happen? How could he come before God’s judgement throne? Could he be saved?
Weighed down by his guilt
After a close encounter with a lightning bolt, Luther’s fear about eternity drove him to join the Augustinian Eremite monastery in Erfurt. Upon his entry into this regimented existence, he was told his monastic vows would lift the load of guilt from his conscience. Monastic life would restore him to the status he had enjoyed immediately after his baptism. The record of his sins would be wiped clean, and he would be a new man.
Young Brother Martin dedicated himself to being a good monk. Yet peace with God continued to escape him. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (Luther’s Works [LW] Vol. 34, p. 336,337).
Luther later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I” (Luther The Reformer, p. 53). Yet the harder he tried to please his God, the more aware he became of his own sinfulness. Weighed down by his sins, Luther went without food for days and spent long hours in prayer. He thought he could beat the sin out of his life with a whip.
Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s mentor and monastic superior, tried to direct him to God’s mercy, but without success. Finally, Staupitz concluded that the young man needed more work to distract him from fixating on his sins. Staupitz ordered Luther to pursue an academic career. Ultimately, Staupitz wanted Luther to earn a doctorate in theology so he could teach at the new University of Wittenberg.
The Bible was not unknown to Brother Martin. The day Luther entered the monastery he received a red leather-bound copy of the Vulgate, the Latin Bible. The demands of teaching forced Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Yet what he found did not always comfort his troubled conscience. He heard the apostle Paul say, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17). When Luther read these words, his eyes were not drawn to the word faith, but to the word righteous. He thought, “Who could ‘live by faith’ but those who were already righteous?”
Luther remarked, “I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and customs of all the teachers, I had been taught . . . [that] God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 336). Luther did not think he could live by faith because he knew he was not righteous.
Freed by God’s grace
As Luther continued to study, he was led to see a way that overcame this dilemma. Years later, Luther wrote, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, . . . I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 337).
Freed from the weight of his guilt and assured of divine love, Luther believed and taught that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. Faith trusts in God’s promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross. This forgiveness, Luther believed, was God’s work from beginning to end.
To Luther the church was no longer an earthly institution headed by the pope; rather it was the community of all those to whom God had given faith. He knew the Bible said that there was no spark of goodness in us to seek God. Luther believed only “fools” built their theology on such a flimsy foundation. Humility was no longer a virtue that earned grace, but it is a response to the gift of grace. Faith no longer consisted of following the church’s teachings but of trusting the promises of God.
Luther no longer feared death but placed his faith—itself a gift from God—in Christ who had won forgiveness for all his sins.
In a 1527 sermon Luther wrote confidently:
“When the hour of dying comes and death is before one’s eyes and frightens us with its glance of the devil’s cunning and God’s wrath, so that you think that you are certain to go under and you look around for a place to stay and to step . . . you must only look and direct all your senses to, and hear nothing other than, what God’s Word says. You should ignore what you feel or at least overcome it. Seize upon the Word and let nobody take it from you. Say to yourself, ‘Here I am in death’s distress and anxiety; but I know that I have been baptized and that God has promised me this and this.’ Put his Word above everything else, no matter how strongly death presses in!” (Weimarer Ausgabe Schriften, Vol. 24, p. 184).
James Korthals, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at David’s Star, Jackson, Wisconsin.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the fifth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.
Luther still speaks
Salvation is entirely by grace. Even the faith that lays hold on it is not of our doing, but God’s gracious working in us. In his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, written in 1520, Luther put it this way, “Do not think lightly of faith. It is a work that is of all works the most excellent and the most difficult. Through it alone you will be saved, even though you were obliged to do without all other works. For it is the work of God, not of man as Paul teaches (Eph. 1:19). The other works he performs with our cooperation and through us; this alone he works within us and without our cooperation.”
Today some mistakenly insist that faith is something sinners must somehow produce in their hearts by their own efforts. Though Jesus died for the sins of the world, they teach that the sinner must also must do his part. One must believe.
So we hear about people making their decision to believe. We hear theologians pointing to faith instead of to what faith believes. Luther correctly taught that faith is only the hand into which God pours his blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation. God must even break open the fist of unbelief by the power of the gospel to turn it into the receiving hand of faith.
All glory be to our gracious God who not only planned and prepared our salvation, but gave us the faith to believe it.
Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.
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Author: James F. Korthals & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017
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