To celebrate the anniversary of Martin Luther sparking the Reformation with his 95 Theses, Ligonier Ministries’ documentary Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer will be available for free on YouTube through Friday. (After that time, you can find it on Amazon.) The documentary is a good reminder of the beauty of justification by faith and the power of the Bible.
Luther was keenly aware of his sin, and no works prescribed by the church could ease his conscience. He knew he didn’t have the righteousness he needed to escape the wrath of God. Because of this, he said, “I did not love, no rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners.” From the documentary:
This inner turmoil went on for years until finally, in an instant, Luther was overcome. He began to see the words of Romans 1:17 clearly, as Paul meant them to be understood—that we are justified by faith alone, not by our works. And the gospel—hidden for so long—began suddenly to burn within him:
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words…. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Luther feared God’s perfect justice and was tormented by his sin until he realized the magnificent truth that God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”—that God has not lowered His standard of righteousness and justice one iota, yet at the same time the perfect righteousness we need to stand before God is given to us “apart from the Law…even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21–26).
No other religion resolves the tension between justice and grace—either the standard must be lowered and justice denied as our sins are swept under the rug, or the perfect standard is upheld and we are left in despair, unable to meet that standard. Elsewhere, there is either forgiveness without justice or justice without forgiveness. But not in Christianity. God’s solution of upholding both justice and grace through Jesus’ loving, self-sacrificial suffering on the cross for us always astounds me with its brilliance, simplicity, and beauty.
This is what Luther rediscovered in the Scriptures. I thank God that He revealed His gospel so clearly to us in His Word, and that we have access to it in our own language. For a long time, this was not the case. As the documentary says, “The Scriptures themselves had been all but lost to the average parishioner, and this, perhaps, was the greatest tragedy of all.” I hope you are fully taking advantage of the fact that we are free to read and study the Bible whenever we want!
Ligonier’s documentary doesn’t shy away from Luther’s sins (particularly his writings condemning the Jews). But even his sin shines a light on the gospel. We need never hide our sins (or the sins of other Christians) because the essence of Christianity is the gospel, which presupposes our sin. In fact, we’re told that “if we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). Be encouraged by the fact that God so powerfully used a sinner like Martin Luther to advance the gospel despite his sin. The gospel is greater than any man and also necessary for every man, no matter how great he seems to us.
The documentary closes with this:
There’s something else Luther’s story proves. However dark the century becomes, however powerful the opposition, God will never allow the light of the gospel to be fully extinguished. And just when the fire appears to be fading forever, God will make it burn more brightly than ever before.
Amen. May you be encouraged in the gospel this week, thanking God for the Scriptures that revealed it to us.