Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: Martin Luther

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on B&H Academic Blog and is the second in a series of theological biographies by Jason Duesing: Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History.

Lightning needed only to strike once near the young contemplative Martinus Ludher (1483-1546) to prod him toward conscription to the confines of monasticism. At this point in his life, Luther was beyond the fear of death. Rather, he feared not knowing if he was prepared for death. Shackled by uncertainty, Luther sought freedom in the avenues commonly thought to travel closest to the gates of heaven. Not only did this include departure from his family into seclusion but also any and every form of self-discipline and strict asceticism. Well aware of his many sins, Luther hoped to cross over into the free lands of God’s favor through abandonment from the world. But the more sins he confessed the more sins he found. Like Sisyphus at a new day’s dawn, Luther grew weary and angry at the paradox of an unattainable standard of holiness. With scowls directed toward the distant God he sought to please, the roots of Luther’s fits of frustration bore deep down to a simmering cauldron of ensnaring hatred.

Transferring to the town of Wittenberg to serve under the guidance of Johann von Staupitz, Luther found a counselor who walked with him through the murky labyrinth of his anxieties. Staupitz took the rough diamond of Luther’s life through a refinement process that encouraged the completion of doctoral studies in theology. Luther would teach at the university and in addition carry out pastoral responsibilities that forced him to consider others more than himself. The wandering path of Luther’s shackled labors now followed a shortcut that took him to the Bible. Staupitz led Luther to the Scriptures, and as Luther would later say about his own ministry, “The Word did it all.”  Luther had found the key to open the door to freedom.

Luther would later say about his own ministry, “The Word did it all.”  Luther had found the key to open the door to freedom.

Luther began teaching courses on the Psalms and Galatians, but his study of the letter to the Romans made the sun rise over Luther’s long dark winter of discontent with God. Of this letter he would say, “It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul.” Luther wrestled with Paul’s statement in Romans 1:17 “the righteousness of God” as the epitome of that exacting standard held aloft and dangling afar. He fought with the text night and day until at once he saw it in a new light. The righteousness of God, he said, is the gift of a merciful God to those he justifies by faith. He exclaimed, “All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.” Luther was free at last.

Luther’s understanding of the transference of the righteousness of God to sinful humans developed into a fully operational theological weapon that, as Timothy George notes, “fell like a bombshell” on the sacramental system of medieval Catholicism. First, Luther explained that by faith God justifies a man by giving him an alien righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer and the believer is declared righteous. This transfer provides the sinner total and complete absolution “as if he had no sin, for Christ’s sake.” Second, the righteous standing comes as a gift from God by faith alone. Faith is not a work of clever conjuring done by the believer. It is the work done by the Holy Spirit. Third, even though the believer is seen as just before God, Luther identifies him as simul justus et peccator, “just and sinner at one and the same time.” Luther explains that even though believers will continue to sin while on earth, they are set free from the penalty of sin due to the righteousness of Christ. None of this negates the calling of the believer to pursue good works. To the contrary, justification enables it. As Luther summarizes, “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”

Coinciding with Luther’s theological revolution came a growing awareness of the dire need for theological renovation within the Roman Catholic Church. In order to complete St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, Pope Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences to the masses. Parishioners buying an indulgence were promised eternal benefits—cleansing from sin and the expedient release of loved ones from purgatory. Luther felt compelled to respond and engaged on an academic level seeking to persuade those in power with a list of propositions written in Latin. On October 31, 1517, he posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg hoping for a debate but realizing that likely none would materialize. To Luther’s surprise, the Theses were soon translated into German and within weeks were reproduced and read widely. Consequently, Luther was thrust into a situation that required him to develop his views on the “need for reformation.” Thus, through his pen and from his lectern, his reputation grew and gained the attention of many, including the Pope.

As Luther summarizes, “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”

In response to three treatises Luther wrote in 1520, one of his debating rivals, John Eck von Ingolstadt, arrived with an official document declaring Luther’s excommunication from the Church and demanding the destruction of Luther’s writings and his recantation. Luther responded by burning the document in a public gathering and gave the Church no satisfaction of recantation. In 1521, Luther received a summons by the Emperor to the town of Worms. There Luther refused to recant before the State and famously responded, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. … Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” Luther was ousted by the Church, banned by the state, and now considered an outlaw. Eventually resettling in Wittenberg, Luther would provide one of his greatest gifts to Germany with the German translation of the New Testament in 1522 and eventually the entire Bible by 1534. As a sign of his rejection of monastic celibacy, Luther married a former nun, Katherine von Bora, and continued to lead the growing reformation.

Luther pursued the freedom he found in Christ in all areas of his life. Well known for his candid wit and courageous zeal, Luther’s gregariousness at times would get ahead of his better judgment. The eighteenth-century Methodist John Wesley, indebted to Luther’s preface to the book of Romans for his own conversion, lamented that what Luther needed was more friends who would challenge his “rough, untractable spirit, and bitter zeal for opinions.” Like all men, Luther had shortcomings. With regard to the Radical Reformers for example, Luther failed to distinguish between the peaceful evangelical Anabaptists and the revolutionary Muntzerites. In his later years, Luther regrettably advocated the deportation of all Jews based on their rejection of Christ as Messiah.

For reasons such as these blind spots and a common understanding of a shared sinful nature, the Protestant tradition has long abandoned the recognition of canonized sainthood. Martin Luther, for all his pioneering gifts to the history of Christianity, the recovery of the gospel of free grace, and the elevation of the sufficiency of the Word of God, remained still a sinful man. However, herein lies the best example of the graciousness of God that Luther proclaimed. A man once enslaved in sin received by faith the free gift of God’s own righteousness. While the work of God in his life transformed the world and lives of many, Luther retained a sinful nature and still sinned. Yet, all the while Luther referred to himself as Eleutherius, the free man. Set free by the justifying imputed righteousness of the Son of God, Eleutherius was free indeed.

Further Reading:

  • Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther. Fortress Press, 1966.
  • Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Hendrickson, 2011.
  • Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, Revised Ed. B&H Academic, 2013.
  • Martin Marty, Martin Luther: A Life. Penguin Books, 2008.