Luther’s beautiful break with the age-old error of the church

picture courtesy Ferdinand Pauwels/ public domain

Today, 31 October 2017, we remember that exactly 500 years ago Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Those theses were a reminder that depending entirely on the Lord does not come easy for us. To believe that we are saved only because Jesus Christ has paid for all our sins and that believers can contribute absolutely nothing to their salvation continues to be a hard pill to swallow for most. We want to pay something towards our salvation, to do a little swapping: ‘Lord, You give me salvation but I’ll also do something to earn it.’ Israel fell into this trap time and again. The Pharisees developed it into a fine art. Some of the early Christian churches were caught up in it. So, too, was the church of the Middle Ages, and later Luther. It’s the damnable sin against the second commandment, of wanting to serve the LORD in our own way, and it has plagued the church through the ages.

When Israel feared the Lord, trusting in His promises, there was only one altar. It stood in Jerusalem and, as the Lord had directed, was connected to the temple service. Many people went there once a year to offer sacrifices of thanks. Once a year, that’s all. For the rest the people feared the Lord and He blessed them abundantly. But after a while the people thought that offering sacrifices at Jerusalem once a year just wasn’t good enough. Every town had its own hill or high place and they began offering sacrifices to the Lord on these hills every month. The Lord had told them to sacrifice to Him only in Jerusalem, but the people knew better. Before long they were sacrificing ‘on every hill and under every green tree’. They would show Him how religious they were, how serious about serving the Lord, how deserving of God’s favour. Their self-willed religiosity became disobedience. Their trust in the Lord alone was exchanged for a confidence based partly on their own religious works.

Later the Pharisees had the same idea. The Lord had given Israel commandments. The Pharisees would show just how seriously they took the service of the Lord. Adding finicky details, developing rule upon rule, they imposed burdens under which the people suffered. By being obedient to these rules, the people were told, they would have the right relationship with God. God would surely be pleased, they thought, with all these efforts, and their salvation was more likely to be assured.

In the New Testament church Christian Judaists of Galatia and Colosse couldn’t shake off these same ideas. They spread their views that salvation depended on keeping the Old Testament sacrifices and ceremonies. Their views threatened the existence of the churches. Paul reprimands them sharply: ‘O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you … Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?’ (Gal 3:1,3).

The Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was steeped in the same ideas of needing to do something for salvation, of needing to do good works to be saved. Moreover, the church added a number of sacraments through which the church passed salvation on to the people, thereby making the clergy indispensable for salvation. The people were taught to live in fear of a righteous God Who would judge them on whether their good deeds outweighed their evil deeds. Moreover, a period in the fire of purgatory was needed to purify the sinner before he could proceed to heaven. The length of time in purgatory depended on how many good works one had done. And if one really wanted to impress God one should forget about being a butcher, baker or homemaker. A religious life in a cloister, separated from such worldly pursuits, was more likely to ensure one could go straight to heaven when one died.


This is the atmosphere in which Luther grew up. Even as a youngster he was constantly afraid of not being holy enough to appear before God. As a young man he experienced moments of great fear. He resolved to do more for the Lord, pray more, do more good works, watch out more for sin, become more holy in order to be able to appear before the righteous and holy God before whom no evil could stand. Confronted by the nearness of God and death when lightning once struck the ground near him Luther cried out in terror, “Help me St Anna, I’ll become a monk.” Desperate to appease God he immediately forsook his career as lawyer and entered a monastery. There, through a Spartan life of self-sacrifice, sleepless nights, frugal living and self-inflicted punishments, he sought to satisfy the demands of righteous God. There was none as dedicated as Luther, yet he was always tormented by the thought that he hadn’t done enough, that perhaps he wasn’t saved. Although he studied the Bible, he saw only God’s justice, righteousness and holiness on every page and he would struggle yet harder to win God’s favour.

And so Luther continued in the same error of the Israelites of old who sought to please God by going beyond what God commanded, by serving God in their own ways. Basically, it was self-willed religion – sin against the second commandment. What Luther did was essentially the same error as that of the Pharisees, believing themselves able to obtain their own righteousness through works of the law. It was the error the Christian Judaists of Colosse and Galatia couldn’t seem to shake off; the error of the Middle Ages whereby people thought that by their own efforts and actions they could be justified before God.

And yet, although he continued in this error for years, it never satisfied Luther. Though all his efforts were intended to justify him before God, he never felt justified. He pored over the hallowed pages of God’s Word trying to find assurance of salvation, but he read it in the light of middle age thinking and human constructions rather than simply accepting what God’s Word said. Yet he struggled on, trying to understand. He read in the Psalms that God’s children were called the righteous. How could that be? He certainly did not dare to call himself righteous. And while giving lessons on the letter to the Romans he came across the words, “… a man is justified by faith apart from deeds of the law.” How could this be? Everything the church had taught him focussed on the need to do good works. It set him thinking and, in due time, God graciously gave him the light of understanding.

He learnt to see that there is no ladder to heaven consisting of a series of steps. It simply isn’t true that there are people who are a little way on the way of salvation, with others further along that road, while yet others, perfected, have reached salvation. That was the same error the Colossian Judaists taught. But Paul showed that the whole congregation, small and great, were perfected in Christ. Indeed, if you did not expect everything in Christ you were lost. Christ gives salvation and all the riches that go with it freely to those who believe.

Luther was later to say about this great discovery: “At that moment my heart was filled with such a blessed joy as I had never experienced before. It was as though the gate of heaven was opened to me.” At last he had learnt to understand Scripture and to know how the Lord was to be served with joyful heart. He cried out: “You, Jesus, are my righteousness.” And he said: “The Holy Spirit has taught me that.”

Luther had learnt the gospel of free grace, which does not depend on man’s efforts. He learned to see what later Hendrick deCock and Abraham Kuyper had to learn: that we cannot contribute one sigh to our salvation.

The Lord Jesus called the people who were heavy laden under the burdens of the Pharisees to take on his yoke which was easy and light, and they followed Jesus. Paul basically gave the same message to the Christians of Colosse and they left the false teachers. When Luther started preaching the gospel of salvation through grace alone many desperate souls embraced the gospel with joy and found peace of mind and true comfort. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel proclaimed again during the great Reformation, the Reformed gospel which distinguishes us from the great variety of religious bodies around us that believe that in addition to Christ the believer must do something towards his salvation. It is the gospel of comfort, the beautiful gospel of free grace, of believing that we belong to Jesus Christ who fully paid for all my sins and presents us clean to God as if we had never committed any sin. Praise God from whom such blessings flow!

J Numan