This April it is 500 years since Luther (1483-1546) stood trial before emperor Charles V in the German city of Worms.
After a difficult struggle Luther understood the gospel that our righteousness is not through works but through faith in Jesus Christ. He has paid for our sins.
But the Roman Catholic Church (RC) taught that we had to earn the forgiveness of sins through our good works.
This resulted in many people becoming insecure: have I done enough?
Luther preached freely that everyone who lives by true faith is justified, and will then also live by the rule of gratitude: the ten words of God’s covenant law.
LUTHER STANDS BEFORE THE EMPEROR
Luther had been won over by the gospel of free grace for Christ’s sake. Because he defended this good gospel given by God, he now stood before emperor Charles V, who had been asked to condemn Luther as a heretic – in accordance with the policy of the Church.
This meant that at the Diet at Worms Luther had to reckon with two powers. Before the eyes of the people there was first of all the power of the emperor. He had called Luther to deny his books and teaching, for in them he had contradicted the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
Second, there was for Luther at the same time also the power of the gospel which he had come to know as the Word of God. After years of struggle and fears God had taught him to know, from the Scriptures, the grace that the sinner is righteous before God only through faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone who believes in Jesus is set free in God’s judgment.
And now there was this tension at the Diet at Worms: would Luther bow before the emperor who could condemn him to death?
Luther, however, relied on God’s Word. He knew: The Lord will not abandon me and He will not leave me to my fate. The certainty of that faith gave him the strength to confess: “Because my conscience is captive to the Word of God I cannot and will not revoke anything, because it is dangerous and impossible to do something against my conscience. May God help me. Amen.” He braved the power of the emperor, and stuck to the certainty that God justifies sinners for Christ’s sake.
JUSTIFICATION BY WORKS?
Before Luther could declare this firm confession, he had much to learn. He had grown up from an early age in the climate of the Roman Catholic Church, with its teaching that you have forgiveness of sins only by your own good works. Every person has to do something to earn the right to salvation.
The gospel that God had given His own Son to save us from all our sins was more and more suppressed. That the church had to preach the light of God’s grace in its full breadth vanished more and more into the background. People themselves had to get to work to repay the large debt of their sins to God.
Back in the 13th century the influential theologian / philosopher Thomas Aquinas taught that people can return to God largely by their own power. Grace was seen as a contributory help on the way to salvation. The result of this was that many church members got into great difficulties. With much effort they eagerly sought the way to God. They struggled against the temptation of sin. Many began asking themselves whether they had done enough to appear blameless before God. Had they indeed correctly obeyed the rule of God’s law?
Fearful questions arose in their minds, often followed by a difficult struggle.
There were, on the other hand, also those who did not take long to decide whether they were indeed justified. They just did not take very seriously the gravity of sin.
The doctrine of the RC church had clouded the gospel of justification by faith alone. It had separated searching sinners from the treasure of Christ’s grace.
In this Roman Catholic climate Luther too struggled with that big question: how am I righteous before God? What must I do to go free in the judgment of the great God of heaven and earth? It robbed him of his sleep.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the gospel of full grace had been obscured. The church had placed itself between the great work of Jesus Christ on the one hand, and poor sinners on the other.
The Roman Catholic line was: the church alone can hand out the treasures of Christ. And it can do that only in accordance with the rules the church itself has set. Everyone had to earn those treasures by way of all kinds of good works and penance.
It was in this climate that Luther learned that God, being a righteous God, puts His demands to man. God remains faithful to what He said, to both His promises and demands. He changes neither His plans nor His words. This is the firm line with which the Lord maintains both with people and also with His church.
And now Luther’s problem was that to live with God, he too would have to satisfy the rules of God’s covenant law. The God who is just, demands also from people a life in accordance with His justice. God’s righteousness demands obedience and loyalty.
Luther approached the justice of God from within himself. He placed himself in the centre of the search for the opening to living with a gracious God. As a poor sinner he thought that he had to travel the road to heaven in his own strength. But he was unable to do that.
Luther did his utmost to perform the so-called good works. Living a strict life in a monastery, keeping a strict fasting regime, imposing self-punishments: he did it all. But the peace of forgiveness was not found. God’s righteousness remained standing as a righteousness that punishes the sinner.
That is how Luther kept searching for reconciliation with his God: From where will my help come? God is a God of faithfulness. True. And forgiveness of sins can be received only by satisfying the demand for obedience. The guilt of the sinner is not reconciled until the demand has been met and the debt paid.
GOD’S JUSTICE IN BRIGHT LIGHT
Luther was unable to find the way to God—until the Holy Spirit opened his eyes. It is a well-known fact that he found the answer to his questions in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans 1:16 and 17. And also Romans 3:23 and 24: “ … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
The key lies in the expression: being justified, or: being made righteous.
Luther had first read these words as meaning that God as judge punishes the sinner with a punishment appropriate to his transgression. So it meant that the sinner was made righteous by way of punishment. It was punitive justice, punitive righteousness. A person had to do something himself to escape that righteousness. But this was for Luther an unbearable thought because he was incapable of doing it.
But now he read Romans 3. “All have sinned”: all people. Nobody has any right to enter the glory of living with God. No one is able to reach that life.
But … and this was the change for Luther: could it be possible to be a sinner and at the same time be righteous before God?
The text then continues: “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ!” Which means that forgiveness is free.
The righteousness in living with God is received through grace. The poor sinner who worries about his sins can, through Christ and together with Him, live with God. The sinner has atonement through faith in Jesus Christ. He goes to heaven together with Jesus Christ!
Luther has talked and sung much about this gospel with great joy. Think of the Luther song: ‘A mighty fortress is our God’. The last verse reads: “God’s Word will stand forever”.
During the rest of his life Luther preached about this Word of God with much joy. He was delivered from his struggling search.
JUSTICE AND HOLINESS
The righteousness of faith is the heart of the gospel. Christ made atonement for the guilt of our sins, and also fulfilled in our place the demand of the law.
The question now follows whether the law – the ten words of the covenant – still has any value for us. Has not the demand of the law become null and void, now that Christ has accomplished everything?
Luther could boast in the righteousness for Christ’s sake. He had found the treasure of the forgiveness of sins. However, that gospel of forgiveness is not an isolated gift. The law, too, retains its force. There we are taught to live in obedience to the will of God.
Luther kept these two – law and gospel – somewhat apart. The law accuses the sinner. That’s what our Catechism says, in Lord’s Day 2. But with Luther it seems that the function of the law is limited to driving us to Christ. The law, which teaches us what sin is, focuses attention on Christ as our Saviour and Mediator. Compare also our Heidelberg Catechism: LD 24, Answer 62: “… the righteousness that can stand before God’s judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God… ”.
Luther placed the justification through faith before the knowledge of misery through the law. First there is the justification, to be followed by the question about the law as rule of thankfulness. This raises the idea that when you live with Christ the law would be less important.
Calvin follows Luther. He, too, confesses the justification through faith. And that, together with that justification, God grants the forgiveness of sins. To this Calvin adds: to whomever the righteousness of Christ is imputed, the Holy Spirit works also the renewal. Out of, and together with the justification, follows sanctification. “It is therefore impossible for this holy faith to be inactive in man, for we do not speak of an empty faith, but of what Scripture calls faith working through love (Gal 5:6)”, Article 24 BC. This means that the good works are not done in one’s own strength, but that the Holy Spirit works to that end in us. Calvin speaks about an indivisible bond between the two. “Christ does not justify anyone whom He does not at the same time sanctify.”
THE PLACE OF LAW
Luther was struck by Romans 3:23, 24: “… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. There is no one who keeps the law of God. All people are sinners. And yet many are justified through faith in Jesus Christ, being transferred from the world where sin reigns, to a community that lives with God, where joy is found in keeping God’s commandments. God’s children shall more and more … “in love and delight strive to live according to the will of God in all good works”, see Lord’s Day 33.
“But what are good works?” asks Question 91, and the following Lord’s Days 34 – 44 provide the answer by explaining the law of the Lord.
Answer 115 stresses that we are unable to keep these commandments. They are preached so strictly, that “… we seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ”.
Here it becomes clear that the law is indispensable in the liturgy. For we badly need that preaching of the law. It knocks aside every notion that we are able to attain salvation in our own strength.
And yet the law does not rob us of the assurance of forgiveness. The Lord wants especially that by the light of the law we pray more and more to Him for the grace of the Holy Spirit, who teaches us to hate sin and to love the Lord wholeheartedly. Where there is living in the certainty of this faith, the law is sought as the rule for living in thankfulness for the redemption Jesus Christ has earned for us.
THE RULE OF GRATITUDE
Luther stood as the first reformer at the forefront of the Reformation. The Holy Spirit taught him the law is not a demand we have to meet ourselves.
Thus, after centuries of darkened views about God’s grace, Luther was allowed to let the full light on that grace shine again in his sermons and books.
The churches of the Reformation have always confessed the justification through faith as an article with which the church stands or falls. The blood of Christ alone is the only and sufficient payment for our sin. He bore the guilt of our sin for us. That’s why we can go free in the judgment of the great God. Through the blood of Christ we are delivered from the curse of the law. Then, as redeemed, we will pray for the guidance of the Spirit of Christ, so that we will now use the law as a rule of gratitude.
Today there is, in many churches, no longer much interest in the law. That law is considered to have been in force only during the time of the old covenant. But now that Christ has come and has fulfilled the law, the commandment of love is now considered to be the first and only commandment. The grace of atonement is more or less automatically added. All emphasis is placed on your duty to live in love with and for your neighbour. That is what the christian on earth will now have to be busy with.
This view causes the law as a rule for your life to lose its place. Where that happens, the joy and riches of the gospel also fade. “For whoever preaches the gospel without addressing man as a sinner, delivers a message without an address” (1). Luther struggled with the guilt of his sin, and he sought the way to righteousness before God. But without the law, that is: without the knowledge of your own misery, the righteousness of God shall not be found. Luther and the other reformers have confessed it: the church stands or falls with that justification through faith. This is a word that also in our days is most valuable. Know the law and the gospel, so we can sing, both in weakness but still in true faith: in ourselves we have ourselves no defence, but a mighty Lord, the Son of God, fights for us.
Only He can triumph.
Translated by J Eikelboom, from Leven uit de Rechtvaardiging, by Rev H. W. van Egmond in De Bazuin, April 2021