How did Martin Luther come to understand justification?
By: The John Ankerberg Show
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|Why is it important to be sure where you will spend eternity? Is the faith that people have in God going to get them into Heaven? Matthew 7 says, “I’m sorry. I never knew you,’ here’s what His message is.” What are two ways that Jesus talked about misplaced faith.
Copyright: 2003, Number of Programs: 4, Cat. No. YBS1
Keywords: Personal effort, Gift of God, Psalm 22:1, Romans 1:16-17
Lutzer: So I need to tell the story about a man who wrestled with this, and his name was Martin Luther. Now, some people are turned off because they say, “Well, Martin Luther was so anti-Catholic, etc.” Regardless of what people think of Luther , they have to hear this part. Here’s a man who enrolls in the monastery in Erfurt with the desire basically to save his soul. What he wants to do – thank God that at least medieval theology taught that you had to be as perfect as God to get into Heaven – so what he wants to do is to strive to become perfect enough for God to accept him. He goes through all of the disciplines of the Church. He slept on a rough floor without blankets to mortify the flesh. He went begging. He accepted poverty. He did all that he possibly could. Sometimes he fasted so long that people thought that perhaps he would die.
Now, in addition to that side, the Sacraments of the Church were of some solace to him, particularly confession. The problem is, he would confess his sins for up to six hours at a time, until Staupitz, his confessor, you remember, became so exasperated and he said, “Luther! The next time you come here, let it be for some big sin, not all of these little peccadilloes, not all these little sins.” But John, Luther was a better theologian that his contemporaries because he understood something that our generation has forgotten: it doesn’t matter whether the sin is big or little. The smallest smidgeon of sin will separate you from God forever.
So, he wanted to confess all of his sins, but he ran into a problem. Sin, in order to be confessed, had to be remembered. If he wouldn’t remember them or couldn’t remember them, he couldn’t confess them, so they wouldn’t be forgiven. Furthermore, there may be some things that he did that God regarded as sin but he didn’t see as sin. And there was another problem. It was like mopping the floor with the faucet running, because tomorrow was another day. Even if you confessed all of your sins, tomorrow there would be more sins that needed to be confessed and it went on endlessly. He struggled with what is known in German as anfechtungen – that’s “an existential despair of soul and helplessness.”
Can I tell you the rest of the story?
Lutzer: Because it doesn’t end there, thankfully. What he does is, he eventually becomes a teacher in the little town of Wittenberg and Staupitz visits him there, because Luther is teaching ethics and philosophy. And Staupitz says, “Why don’t you teach theology. It might help your soul” because he’s going through this restlessness. I mean, he’s been to Rome and he never found peace there. And Luther said, “If I begin to teach the Bible, it might be the death of me.” He didn’t realize that in a sense, it was the death of him. So he begins lecturing on the Psalms. He comes to Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Now, says Luther, Jesus experienced what I’m experiencing, this sense of alienation from God. And it begins to dawn, “He did it for me.”
But the truth didn’t really light upon his soul yet until he was teaching the book of Romans and the famous verse in Chapter 1, verse 16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul says. But in verse 17 Paul says, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last just as it is written, the righteous will live by faith.” Notice, a righteousness from God is revealed. Luther read that and trembled. His problem was the righteousness of God. If God wasn’t so righteous, He would be easier to appease, right? But he began to ponder this text until he saw a connection and he realized something. Righteousness is an attribute of God, but it’s also a gift of God to those who believe. There is a righteousness that God confers upon us that is His own righteousness that is credited to our account by faith in Christ.
No wonder Luther said that when he saw this he was reborn and it was as if he entered into the gates of paradise. Because now he finally was able to meet God’s requirements because Jesus would meet all of God’s requirements for him. And the perfection that he sought through the Sacraments and through good works, all of which, of course, fell by the wayside because nobody can attain the righteousness of God, would now be given to him as a gift. What a revolutionary idea – a biblical idea, but incredibly revolutionary. Because what Luther saw is that all the human righteousness we could possibly do, all added together, can never attain the righteousness of God, and so just like you can add a billion bananas and never get an orange, in the very same way all of our righteousness can never attain God’s righteousness. If we receive God’s righteousness, it has to be a gift.