Philosophers talk about possible worlds… a way the real world could have been. So let’s imagine, for a moment, that Luther had never been born. Or perhaps that he had never converted to the Augustinian order. Or that he had never had the courage to pound the 95 theses to the Church at Wittenberg. What would have become of the Reformation?
We know that there were other elements in the Catholic Church that likely would have pressed for Reformation, so Luther wasn’t the only motivating force. But imagine with me… no Luther. How many would still be under the spell of the Catholic Church? Would you believe that one of the main reasons Paul wrote Romans was to declare the saving power of baptism? Or that Christ purchased for you the opportunity to obtain increasing justification via sacraments?
Perhaps you’ve never been a part of the Catholic Church. Growing up as a young Catholic boy, I never understood salvation apart from the Church. To my understanding, salvation involved the sacraments. Being justified meant more then proving faith via works… it meant coming back to mass every weekend. It meant being baptized in a Catholic Church. It meant partaking of the Eucharist. That an alien righteousness could be imparted to me… that was nowhere near my young mind. This was a righteousness enabled by Christ, yes… but for me to complete with my works.
In… 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.
But I… felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.
I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
From 1519 until 1998 is a long time, but the message that God unleashed in Luther’s pen reached my ears through the preaching of an Australian pastor. That alien righteousness became mine through faith, and there was a temporal security that was already mine from eternity. What joy swells up inside me… tearful joy… as I write this. No words can properly express it.
So tonight, when my friends and I gather in my living room to read Romans, sing A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and reflect on the life of Martin Luther, we’ll be doing so not chiefly out of a heart of revelry or camaraderie. Rather, it will be out of gratitude to God for Luther and the other Reformers… who pointed us all towards Christ.