What Is Reformation Day?

At the time, few would have suspected that the sound of a hammer striking the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany, would soon be heard around the world and lead ultimately to the greatest transformation of Western society since the apostles first preached the Gospel throughout the Roman empire. Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses to the church door on October 31, 1517, provoked a debate that culminated finally in what we now call the Protestant Reformation.

An heir of Bishop Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther is one of the most significant figures God has raised up since that time. This law student turned Augustinian monk became the center of a great controversy after his theses were copied and distributed throughout Europe. Initially protesting the pope’s attempt to sell salvation, Luther’s study of Scripture soon led him to oppose the church of Rome on issues including the primacy of the Bible over church tradition and the means by which we are found righteous in the sight of God.

This last issue is probably Luther’s most significant contribution to Christian theology. Though preached clearly in the New Testament and found in the writings of many of the church fathers, the medieval bishops and priests had largely forgotten the truth that our own good works can by no means merit God’s favor. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and good works result from our faith, they are not added to it as the grounds for our right standing in the Lord’s eyes (Eph. 2:8–10). Justification, God’s declaration that we are not guilty, forgiven of sin, and righteous in His sight comes because through our faith alone the Father imputes, or reckons to our account, the perfect righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).

Martin Luther’s rediscovery of this truth led to a whole host of other church and societal reforms and much of what we take for granted in the West would have likely been impossible had he never graced the scene. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German put the Word of God in the hands of the people, and today Scripture is available in the vernacular language of many countries, enabling lay people to study it with profit. He reformed the Latin mass by putting the liturgy in the common tongue so that non-scholars could hear and understand the preached word of God and worship the Lord with clarity. Luther lifted the unbiblical ban on marriage for the clergy and by his own teaching and example radically transformed the institution itself. He recaptured the biblical view of the priesthood of all believers, showing all people that their work had purpose and dignity because in it they can serve their Creator.

Today, Luther’s legacy lives on in the creeds and confessions of Protestant bodies worldwide. As we consider his importance this Reformation Day, let us equip ourselves to be knowledgeable proclaimers and defenders of biblical truth. May we be eager to preach the Gospel of God to the world and thereby spark a new reformation of church and culture.

by Robert Rothwell

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More Writings of Martin Luther.

The Works of Faith and Assurance

by Martin Luther

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 2:5a). Saint Peter admonishes them to give evidence of their faith with good works. Since such a great blessing has been given to you through faith that you truly have everything that is God’s, he wants to say, add to this, be diligent, do not be lazy, supplement your faith with virtue; that is, let your faith break forth before the people, in order that it may be helpful, busy, powerful, and active, and may do many works and not remain sluggish and sterile. You have a good inheritance and a good field. But see to it that you do not let thistles or weeds grow in it.

“And virtue with knowledge” (v. 5b). In the first place, understanding, or knowledge, means to lead one’s outward life and practice the virtue of faith in a sensible manner. For one should restrain and curb the body, in order that it may remain sober, alert, and fit for what is good. One should not hurt it too much and slay it, as some mad saints do. For even though God loathes the sins that remain in the flesh, yet He does not want you to slay your body on this account. You should check its wickedness and wantonness, but this does not mean that you should destroy or injure it. You must give it food and necessities, in order that it may remain healthy and alive.

In the second place, understanding also means to lead a fine, sensible life and to act judiciously in external matters, in matters of diet and the like. One should not do anything imprudently, and one should not give offense to one’s neighbor.

“And knowledge with self-control” (v. 6a). Self-control applies not only to eating and drinking; it is moderation in all circumstances of life, in words, deeds, and bearing. One should not live extravagantly. Excess in adornment and dress should be avoided, and no one should make himself conspicuous by being haughty and arrogant. But Saint Peter refrains from fixing a rule, a standard or aim, pertaining to this …. In Christendom it will not do to issue laws, so that there is a general rule pertaining to self-control. For people are not alike. One is strong, another is weak by nature, and no one is always as fit in every respect as the other person is. Therefore everyone should learn to know himself, what he can do and what he can stand.

“And self-control with steadfastness” (v. 6b). This is what Saint Peter wants to say: If you lead a temperate and sensible life, you should not suppose that you will live without trials and persecutions. For if you believe and lead a good, Christian life, the world will not let you alone. It must persecute you and be your enemy. You must bear this with patience, which is a fruit of faith. “And steadfastness with godliness” (v. 6c). This means that in our whole outward life, in what we do or suffer, we should conduct ourselves in such a way that we serve God and do not seek our own glory and advantage. It means that God alone must be praised by what we do and that we must act in such a way that one can see that we do everything for God’s sake.

“And godliness with brotherly affection” (v. 7a). This love extends to both friends and enemies, also to those who do not act in a friendly and brotherly way toward us. Thus here Saint Peter has expressed in a few words what belongs to a Christian life and what the works and the fruits of the faith are, namely, knowledge, self-control, patience, a God-fearing life, brotherly affection, and kindness to everybody.

“For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8). That is, if you do works of this kind, you are on the right path and have a true faith, and the knowledge of Christ is active and fruitful in you. Therefore see to it that you do not make light of this. Hold your body in subjection, and do for your neighbor as you know what Christ has done for you.

“For whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (v. 9). He who does not have such a supply of the fruits of faith gropes about like a blind person and lives in such a way that he does not know what his plight is. He does not have the true faith …. Therefore he goes along and fumbles in uncertainty, like a blind man on the road. He forgets that he has been baptized and that his sins have been forgiven. He becomes ungrateful and a lazy and careless person who takes nothing to heart and neither takes hold of nor tastes such great grace and blessings.

With this exhortation Saint Peter wants to incite and urge us who believe to do the works with which we should prove that we really have faith. He always insists that faith alone justifies. For where there is this faith, the works must follow. “Therefore, bretheren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election” (v. 10a).

Indeed the election and God’s eternal foreordination is firm enough in itself and requires no confirmation. The call is also strong and firm. For he who hears the Gospel, believes in it, and is baptized, is called and will be saved. Now since we too, are called, we must be zealous, says Peter, to confirm this call and election for ourselves, not only for God.

If you want to be sure [of your election], you must adopt the method Saint Peter suggests here. Your own experience must teach you this. If your faith is well exercised and applied, you will finally gain assurance, and this will keep you from falling.

Writings by Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith

by Martin Luther

Faith is not what some people think it is. Their human dream is a delusion. Because they observe that faith is not followed by good works or a better life, they fall into error, even though they speak and hear much about faith. “Faith is not enough,” they say, “You must do good works, you must be pious to be saved.” They think that, when you hear the gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, “I believe.” That is what they think true faith is. But, because this is a human idea, a dream, the heart never learns anything from it, so it does nothing and reform doesn’t come from this `faith,’ either.

Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words.

Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they’re smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools. Ask God to work faith in you, or you will remain forever without faith, no matter what you wish, say or can do.

 

An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125]

Martin Luther, Part 2

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22a).

We concluded last week by covering the early years of Martin Luther, one of the most important figures in the history of the church. We saw how in his early life, Luther came to understand that if forgiveness depended on our own obedience to the law, then we have no hope of salvation at all.

During this same period, Luther was chosen to go to Rome and present a case regarding his monastery before the Vatican. In 1510, he traveled to Rome and upon arriving there was shocked by what he witnessed. Far from being a holy city, Rome had become a place of debauchery where the priests of the church indulged in flagrant licentiousness. Prostitution, homosexuality, and hypocrisy caused Luther to further doubt some of the traditions that Rome had added to Scripture.

Luther returned to Germany, still despondent over his own sinfulness. In 1515, he was studying the books of Psalms and Romans as a part of his vocation as professor of theology. It is during this period that he had his so-called “tower experience.” Reading passages like Romans 3:21–22, Luther realized that he could be forgiven, not based upon his own works but upon the righteousness of Jesus that was available to him if he would trust in Christ alone for his salvation.

Luther’s understanding of salvation did not manifest itself all at once but rather deepened over time. When church officials began selling release from purgatory in the form of indulgences, Martin became deeply distressed. However, he was still loyal to the church in 1517 when he nailed his ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in order to protest the flagrant abuses of the sale of indulgences. The theses, which were originally intended only to provoke academic debate, were soon distributed widely throughout Germany as a result of Guttenburg’s newly developed printing press.

The pope did not take kindly to Luther’s popularity. As opposition grew and Luther’s study of the Bible continued, he began to demonstrate the illegitimacy of extrabiblical traditions including purgatory and the infallibility of the papacy. Despite the threat of death, Luther would not recant of his teachings at the Diet of Worms in 1521 and continued preaching the biblical Gospel until his death in 1546.

Coram Deo – Living Before the Face of God

When we trust in Christ alone for our salvation, our sins are imputed to Him as the one who bore the wrath that we deserve. Consequently, by faith alone His righteousness is imputed to us, and we are declared “not guilty” by the Father. Rejoice in this marvelous exchange, and enjoy the freedom that your salvation grants you.

Martin Luther, Part 1

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).

It would be impossible to understand the past five hundred years of church history, let alone Western history, without taking time to consider the contributions of Martin Luther. This German monk gave the loudest voice to those calling attention to the loss of the Gospel in the medieval church and provided the flashpoint for the renewal movement known as the Protestant Reformation. In addition to bringing the church back to the Bible, Martin Luther’s thought has influenced the institution of marriage, the concept of individual responsibility, church and state relations, and countless other areas.

Luther was born in 1483 to a German miner who owned several mines and was able to pay for young Martin to be educated. His father desired that he become a lawyer and so Luther enrolled in the school of law at the University of Erfurt in 1505.

However, the providence of God had other plans for Martin. On a journey home during the same year he entered law school, Luther found himself in the middle of a great thunderstorm. When a lightning strike caused him to be thrown from his horse, Luther promised Saint Anne that he would become a monk if she preserved his life.

Luther kept his promise and enrolled in an Augustinian monastery, much to his father’s dismay. Martin’s zeal to obey the monastic order was unparalleled. He spent hours confessing his sins to his confessor and then later would find other brothers to whom he would confess even the slightest sin. His confessor eventually told him not to come to confession unless he had a truly serious sin to confess.

Luther’s intense guilt over his sin came from his remarkable insight into the character of God. He understood that God’s justice was absolute, demanding punishment for even the smallest of peccadilloes. The fact that the church of his day offered the possibility of forgiveness to those who would both put their faith in God and perform works to merit God’s grace offered him no comfort.

This was because Luther knew that he could never perform enough works to earn God’s forgiveness. The Bible told Him that no one will ever be justified by his own conformity to God’s law (Rom. 3:20). The church had lost the biblical understanding of salvation and we shall discuss Luther’s response to this fact in our next study.

Coram Deo – Living Before the Face of God

Apart from Christ, the law of God crushes us. It demonstrates how unable we are to meet God’s demands. It shows us that we can never do enough to earn back the life Adam enjoyed before he fell into sin. The only one who can do this is Christ. Thank Him for accomplishing our salvation, and continue to confess your need for His work.