It was a hot day in the summer of 1505. Martin Luther, a German law student, was walking down the road when the sky suddenly became overcast and unleashed a violent thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning knocked Luther to the ground.
This unpleasant encounter with electricity intensified Luther’s already simmering anxieties about death and judgment. He cried out, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk.”
Luther entered the monastery because he thought the monastic life would make him fit to stand before a holy God. As a monk, Luther’s efforts at self-reformation were impressive. His daily prayer vigils, periods of fasting, and hours spent in the confessional surpassed the practices of the other monks. During the cold German winters, Luther often slept without blankets, believing that such afflictions might garner God’s favor.
Luther wrote of his monastic experience: “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading and other work.”
Much to Luther’s chagrin, all of his religious exercises, far from liberating his guilty conscience, only made him more aware of the depth of his sin. He realized that his sin was not measured by human standards but by God’s standard. In despair he said, “This word is too high and too hard for me that anyone should fulfill it.”
Luther shuddered at the prospect that he, a morally flawed man, would one day stand before the judgment seat of a holy God.
In his monastic duties Martin Luther served as a professor at the University of Wittenberg. A scholar in Hebrew and Greek, he taught theology and the Bible. In preparation for his classes on the books of Romans and Galatians, he discovered the solution to his terror of one day standing before a holy God. In Romans 1:16-17, he read that 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.’”
Luther had read that text hundreds of times before, but this time, a light went on. He realized that the gospel reveals not merely the righteous character of God — God’s righteous character had long ago been revealed in the Old Testament. What the gospel reveals is the righteousness of Christ, which God gives to us when we believe. For the first time, Luther understood not only the righteousness that God possesses but the righteousness that God gives.
Luther saw that God declares sinners righteous when they believe that Jesus, as their representative, lived the holy life they failed to live and then died the death they deserved to die. This is the doctrine of justification by faith. Justification involves a double exchange: we give Christ all our sin, he gives us all his righteousness. It is a free gift from God and is received by faith alone.
The apostle Paul wrote, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
Two years later, Luther, protesting abuses in the church, drew up his 95 theses for debate. He posted this list of grievances on the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. This notice served as the springboard of the Protestant Reformation.
If Luther’s efforts at self-reformation could not win the favor of a holy God, what chance do we have? We can only throw ourselves upon Jesus Christ and receive the free gift of salvation through faith alone.
Peter Kemeny is the pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church of Frederick, a Bible-based congregation in Frederick (www.goodnewspres.org).