On October 31 we will celebrate the 504th anniversary of the day Martin Luther made his 95 theses public. But what exactly was Luther’s breakthrough? What realization did he come to that set the Western world on a course that would break the stranglehold of Roman Catholic authorities, produce Bibles in languages people could read, raise literacy rates across Europe, and birth thousands of new Christian denominations?
Luther lived in a world dominated by a fear of death—a fear only increased by the Roman Catholic teaching that through our works, we can appease a vengeful God. In his own words, “Under the papacy we were told to toil until the feeling of guilt had left us.” But it never did. No matter how hard Luther worked, he never considered himself worthy of God. He entered into multiple periods of depression in which he began to ask one question that would lead to his breakthrough: Why is the gospel good news?
In his forthcoming book, The Word of The Cross, Jonathan Linebaugh helpfully notes that Luther’s answer came in three parts.
1. God’s Promise
As Luther understood the late-medieval Roman Catholic tradition of his time, the priest’s words te absolvo (“I absolve you”) confirmed an already existing state: the repentant sinner was forgiven and the priest’s declaration confirmed that reality. Luther began to wonder: What is it, then, that is actually absolving me of my sin?
Luther knew that when God creates, he speaks. He spoke to make the heavens and earth. He will speak to bring the new heavens and new earth. Could he also speak righteousness into existence? If righteousness could not be earned, could it be promised by God, accomplished by Christ, and spoken into existence? Indeed it could.
This new understanding (or rather, rediscovery of an old understanding) of God’s promise, apart from our works, categorically changed the way Luther understood the Christian life. “To believe in God as Abraham did,” Luther argues, “is to be right with God because faith honors God. Faith says to God: ‘I believe what you say.’”
2. Law and Gospel
Luther had been taught that the law and the gospel were functionally the same thing—just existing in different parts of redemptive history. Israel was accepted through obedience to the law; the church is accepted through obedience to the gospel. Luther, though, came to rightly understand that law and gospel are two separate things.
In his new understanding, he described the function of the law as twofold. First, the law shows us the effects of our sin. In his commentary on Galatians, Luther observes in reference to fallen man: “This monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe. And that is what the law is, a big axe.” The second function of the law is to drive us to Christ. “When the law drives you to the point of despair,” he notes, “let it drive you a little farther. Let it drive you straight into the arms of Jesus who says: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”
The gospel, then, is Christ’s accomplishing the feat of the law for us and taking on the curse we deserve. It is faith in the promise of the gospel that frees us from the law. But how is this promise of freedom applied?
3. Justification By Faith
This is the best-known of the three aspects of Luther’s breakthrough. For years, he could not get around Paul’s writing to the Romans:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16–17)
Luther had been taught that the revealing of God’s righteousness was a bad thing—the way God would punish the unrighteous. The church was working from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, which made personal righteousness sound more like a process than a once-for-all declaration by God. This prevented the church from seeing the revealing of God’s righteousness as a good thing. Instead, it gave way to doctrines like penance and purgatory.
But a right understanding of “righteousness” (in the original Greek) allowed Luther to see that this is not at all what Paul is saying. Justification isn’t a process; it’s a declaration by God of our righteousness in Christ, immediately imputed to us. The moment we believe the promise of the gospel, we are pronounced righteous.
Writing to Pope Leo X, Luther said, “Now, just as Christ by his birthright has obtained these two privileges [kingship and priesthood], so he also imparts and shares them with everyone who believes in him.” Luther called this the “happy exchange”: on the cross Christ gives us his righteousness; in exchange he receives the wrath of God.
The Roman Catholic Church understood people to oscillate between two distinct states: righteous and unrighteous. Luther came to see these states as overlapping—and in that overlapping space the Christian lives simil iustus et peccator: simultaneously justified and still a sinner.
Result: Good News
In his own words, Luther described his breakthrough:
Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.
Luther’s breakthrough was a gospel that is truly good news. For the first time, he experienced freedom—the kind you feel when you are fully known and fully accepted. It’s a freedom that brings security, assurance, and, most of all, love.