Every week I preach justification by faith to my people because every week they forget it. – Martin Luther
Whether or not Luther actually nailed his 95 Theses to the Church Door at Wittenberg is a disputable matter. It’s certainly good theater even if it didn’t actually occur. I do know he sent them by post to his archbishop, along with a cover letter and an essay on indulgences, all dated October 31, 1517. That’s why the date is commonly held to be the start of the Reformations. I’m using the plural form intentionally for the simple reason that it is more than evident that numerous and varied European Ecclesiastical reformations were occurring at the time, Luther’s work among them, rolling across the continent like some kind of unforeseen explosion, leveling all before it. Even if he’s not the author of the Reformation, Luther is it’s giant, titanic Everest, almost impossible to scale and majestic in its brilliance.
Luther got himself into a scrape for which he did not bargain, a battle he did not seek. The obedient monk-priest-academic became the revolutionary with a pen and pulpit, even though that wasn’t his aim. At first. From the beginning, he wanted to care for the souls in the parish, sort through the theological matters of his day, and support the Church in its work. When the whole matter of indulgences arose, Luther was certain that the Pope couldn’t possibly approve of such nonsense as Tetzel was promoting, and equally sure that his archbishop would oppose the strategy as well. That’s the rub. It turned out to Luther’s astonishment that the Pope and his archbishop were each taking a 50% cut on the sales. That’s the part of the equation that made life suddenly difficult for the monk. Radix malorum est cupiditas.
When Luther was untethered from the restraints of his order and began to contemplate the ‘freedom of the Christian man’ he quickly came to realize that salvation did not depend on achieving ultimate justification through a manic pursuit of sanctification. On the contrary, the Gospel in its sacramental-like power – the Gospel most certainly is ex opere operato – makes Christ and all that is his ours, now. Justification is not the end of the process but its foundation, received by faith alone. We hear the promise of the Gospel and, rather than calling God a liar when he says we are forgiven, believe him and find rest for our weary souls. Like a bride receiving upon marriage all the resources that her bridegroom brings to the relationship, we the Beloved Bride of the Beloved Son, are the heirs of his riches. His story is now our story. Yes, we are still sinful while we live and as long as we live, but this does not alter the fact that we are also Christ’s, and therefore righteous: simil iustus et peccator.
Luther took such freedom seriously. He laughed and sang and drank. A lot. You may hear many moving and powerful quotes from Luther, and that’s good, but don’t miss the unruly ones: “A happy fart never came from a miserable ass.” Luther rejoiced in the goodness of God loving him despite his sin, and broke free from the soul-choking stranglehold of performance-based religion into the freedom of the glory of childlike trust in an all-sufficient Savior: “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”
For Luther, a double exchange has taken place: Christ is our righteousness; it is his righteousness – a righteousness outside of us and alien to us – that is made ours by a legal declaration from the highest court – God himself. The unchanging Christ is my righteousness and he is in heaven; because that righteousness is counted as my righteousness, I am as perfectly righteous today as I was yesterday and could ever be tomorrow. It is Christ’s righteousness, not mine which secures my soul for God. The other end is equally vital. My story became his story on the cross. My sin was counted to him. Jesus was not given a sinful nature but rather became a sin-bearer, the collective guilt and shame of the people of God placed on him as he suffered and died on the cross.
Luther wrote about this grace in these terms: “Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.” Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride’s and she all that is his—for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh (Gen. 2:24)—so Christ and the church are one spirit (Eph. 5:29-32)… Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours… This is an infinite righteousness and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.”
Christian faith then does not begin with looking within for either the resources to be saved or the evidence that salvation has come. Christian faith begins with looking away from myself, looking above, to Christ himself, our enthroned Savior who is our righteousness. In the words of absolution from the minister – whether in the liturgy or in the Gospel proclaimed in the sermon – we hear the Savior from heaven saying, “Your sins are forgiven. I am your righteousness.”
My childhood recollections of this point in the liturgy are very clear, the math of absolution manifestly simple to me. The minister said my sins were forgiven in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That’s the name in which I was baptized. OK, did I doubt I was baptized even though I could not recall it? No. Did it stick even though it wasn’t my faith at that moment that defined the boundaries of its efficacy? Yes. So there was the same Name announcing a divine fact, and now I possessed the added bonus of at least some modicum of understanding: I knew I was a sinner; I knew I needed forgiveness; I knew Jesus was the Savior; I knew he was speaking… to me in the Gospel. This was not because I could ‘feel’ it but because it was in black and white on the page, outside of me, depending on God’s fidelity rather than mine. I can remember thinking, “God says my sins are forgiven. No matter what I feel about it. I trust him, not myself. I lie frequently but he is Truth. OK, then. Next.”
In the end, Luther’s theology offers me the Gospel rather than the Law, news rather than demand – or even advice. The Law is holy, just, and good; it just isn’t very helpful. It’s a handsome husband but impotent. The Gospel, however, is the power of God for salvation, which is just what I need, since ‘by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.’ In the end, the Gospel offers me Christ himself, and the sacraments reinforce the offer, communicating to me Jesus himself in all of his goodness and grace. Luther’s message of justification by faith alone is, in the end, justification by Christ alone. This is all that is needed, especially in the face of the ‘prince of darkness grim’ when he assaults our conscience: “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”
Some may criticize as crass and overly simplistic the saying, “Jesus plus nothing grants everything”, but in reality, it’s a beautiful summary. I dare not add anything to him and his work; I dare not receive anything less than all of him and all his work. For that Reformation emphasis, I wake up every day, glad of heart for ‘the just shall live by faith.’
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