The ROAD TO REFORMATION
In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series will culminate
in the October 2017 issue with an account of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.
Luther struggled mightily to find peace with God and certainty of salvation. We have seen how he drove himself mercilessly to achieve this while he was a monk, and was himself driven nearly to despair in the attempt. But this peace came to him in quite a different manner. Late in his life he described his experience in this way, “Then I felt as if I had been completely reborn and had entered Paradise through widely opened doors. Instantly all Scripture looked different to me.” He also mentions a tower in the Black Cloister in Wittenberg in which he studied as the place of this discovery. “And my conscience and spirit were lifted up, and I was made certain that it is the righteousness of God which justifies and saves us.” When this took place is not precisely known, but it is widely thought to have been in the fall of 1514.
What led Luther to this point? First and foremost, we note that Luther was now constantly immersed in the study of Scripture. He lectured on the Psalms (1513-15), then on Romans (1515-16), next on Galatians and Hebrews (1516-1518), and finally back to the Psalms (1519), for he thought that now he might be prepared to understand them.
Secondly, he preached often, both in the cloister to his fellow monks and then several times a week in the town church. One year he is said to have preached 170 sermons! That’s more than three a week! Thus, his entire attention was given to trying to understand and teach the Bible.
His first lectures were based on the standard text of the time: the Latin Vulgate. But God in His wise planning had arranged that, just at this time, it was possible to return to the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, and Luther was among the first to do so.
Erasmus, a noted scholar, had prepared a more accurate Greek New Testament by diligently collecting and comparing a large number of manuscripts. Luther used the first edition almost as soon as it was printed. He used the second edition in translating the New Testament a few years later.
John Reuchlin, a lawyer and accomplished linguist, had published a Hebrew grammar and dictionary a few years earlier, in 1506. This made him controversial because many people suspected he was sinfully collaborating with the Jews. And when the Dominican monks sought to persuade Emperor Maximillian to burn all Hebrew writings in his empire, Reuchlin bravely opposed them, and found himself in serious danger. One of the few people to offer him support in this controversy was Luther, who certainly did not want the Hebrew Old Testament destroyed. An interesting side note is that Reuchlin was the teacher and great uncle of Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s friend and colleague, and an invaluable help in his translation of the Old Testament.
And what was that insight that opened the gates of Paradise to Luther? In a word, the doctrine of justification. Wrestling with the expression “the righteousness of God,” he came to understand that it was used in two different ways in Scripture. Sometimes it is that righteousness that is in God and prompts Him to punish the unrighteous sinner. But when Paul says, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith,’” (Romans 1:17) it is referring to that righteousness given by God and received by faith. This is Christ’s righteousness, which covers our sins, and on account of which God declares us holy. This is the foundation of the Reformation message, the pearl of great price, recovered by Luther and given to us to treasure.
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.