Tuesday, Oct. 31 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
Within a month, copies of the 95 Theses were being read throughout Germany and nearly everywhere in Europe including Rome. Luther was instantly famous because he had written what many had been thinking but feared to make known. These propositions, which Luther wanted to debate and defend, were largely about the Roman Catholic teachings on indulgences (various forms of gaining forgiveness of sins), but the seeds of the Protestant Reformation were there as well.
The language of the church and the Roman Catholic Bible was Latin, but Luther had gone to the original language of Greek in his study of the New Testament. Two words were made clear to him: “repent” and “justify.” He had been taught that repent meant “do penance.” But in Mark 1:15 when Jesus preached “... repent and believe in the gospel.” He saw repentance was linked to faith in the gospel Jesus preached, which really was faith in himself. Repent meant to turn or change our mind, not do penance.
The other key discovery of Luther earlier in 1715 was as a professor of Bible at Wittenberg University. He began teaching through the letter to the Romans to his students. He had for a least 10 long years sought to satisfy the justice of a righteous God by all the means he had been taught by the church. He was miserable. The more he tried, the more he saw his sins, and he even confessed to hating God because according to the church’s teaching the righteous God gave him commands he could never obey fully. He saw no possible way to bridge the chasm between his sins and a righteous God.
But as he came to Romans 1:16 he read, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” He saw that the message of the gospel contained the power of God to save anyone who believes it, no matter who they might be.
But how does this work? Well, Luther found in verse 17, “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘the just shall live by faith.’”
Luther had hated the righteousness of God as I said, but here he saw that the righteousness of God was not something he had to achieve, but what Paul spoke of here was a righteousness outside of himself, a righteousness that God provided, not by works but through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
His heart and eyes were opened by the Holy Spirit to see this righteousness of God was the very righteousness of Jesus Christ. The word for justification in his Latin translation meant “make righteous.” (In other words, God had to make a person righteous through all the sacraments of the church.) But the original Greek meant to declare or regard or count righteous.
Justification is a declaration by God that a sinner is innocent and righteous because it is the righteousness of God in Christ put to the account of the sinner and all the sinner’s sins put to the account of Jesus Christ when he died on the cross. Jesus paid the full price of all his people’s sins.
When Luther by God’s grace came to understand these truths, joy flooded his soul and he confessed he had been born again. And though not able then to see all the implications of the gospel he now experienced, he began to teach and preach with great power in ways he never had before. And it wasn’t long until this gospel of God’s free grace to sinners spread throughout most of Europe. It was a revival from the Lord, and many were brought to salvation full and free.
Luther was a bold volcano of a man and did not get everything right. None of us do, but he was one of God’s instruments in a century that changed forever Europe and western civilization, indeed the world.