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Martin Luther on Reformation Sunday



[1] Who is the best English hymnwriter? Surely everyone is going to shout, “Charles Wesley”. Who is the best liturgist? Anglicans and non-Anglicans agree it’s Thomas Cranmer. The most perceptive Bible translator? – William Tyndale. The most able catechists in English Christendom are the Westminster divines, while the finest preacher is deemed to be Hugh Latimer.

Imagine all these gifted people, gifted with diverse talents, gathered up and concentrated in one individual. What it took a dozen Englishmen two hundred years to accomplish, Martin Luther did in twenty. Luther is prodigious.

Did it all begin on Nov. 9, 1483 when Luther was born? Not exactly. It began thirty years later when Luther, tormented by uncertainty concerning his standing as unholy sinner before holy God, ransacked Scripture yet again but this time found lighting up for him the life-giving theme of the righteousness of God.

Up to this point Luther had always understood the righteousness of God as a quality in God that merely highlights the unrighteousness of the sinner. In other words, the righteousness of God, a righteousness that God possesses in himself, can only be bad news: God’s righteousness exposes and condemns the sinner’s unrighteousness.

Now, however, Luther saw with Spirit-given Kingdom-sightedness that the righteousness of God is that act of God whereby God renders his people rightly related to him; that is, the righteousness of God is that act of God whereby God turns capsized relationships right-side up. In the same way, the power of God isn’t a quality that God possesses so as to render human capacity insignificant. The power of God, rather, is that act of God whereby God empowers his people. The wisdom of God is that act of God whereby God renders his people wise.

Up to this point Luther had looked upon human righteousness as active; it was a righteousness we were supposed to achieve or acquire by extraordinary feats of so-called sanctity, religious observances, pilgrimages, fasts and flagellations; supposed to achieve or acquire, that is, but weren’t able to.

Now, however, Luther discerned and ever after spoke not of an active righteousness whereby we come to merit our standing with God; instead he now spoke characteristically of a passive righteousness that was passive only in the sense that our righted relationship with God is God’s gift, a gift that we can never fashion or forge or achieve, yet may and must receive. This gift has already been fashioned for us by the One whose cross has borne our sin and borne it away. The believer’s righteousness is passive in the sense (only in the sense) that the hymnwriter captured centuries later, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.”

In his fresh appropriation of Scripture Luther grasped that what he could never achieve had been given him; the acquittal a guilty person could never earn, someone else had won for him; the pardon a condemned rebel would never deserve, the sin-bearing Lord had pronounced upon him. In short, a clemency that remained out of reach was his, thanks to crucified arms that embraced him so as never to let him go.

Luther gloried in the truth and reality of the greatest gift imaginable; namely a righted relationship with God. He gloried in it and glowed with it every time he spoke of it.

[2] Listen to Luther himself as he traces for us the path whereby he came to glow:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction….Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul…most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it [i.e., the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live’. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous [person] lives by a gift of God, namely, by faith….There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me….And I extolled my sweetest word [‘the righteousness of God’] with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.”

[3] The “place in Paul” was Romans 1:17. For the rest of his life Luther would return to the epistles, chiefly Romans and Galatians, whenever he needed to revisit the gospel of right-relatedness with God by faith, the good news that God, thanks to his cross-wrought mercy, puts in the right with himself those who through their disobedience and defiance are currently in the wrong before him.

Specifically, Luther found Paul’s epistle to the Galatians the clearest, ‘impossible-to-miss’ declaration of the gospel. Luther wrote a commentary on Galatians in 1519, and another one, much expanded, in 1535. He used to refer to Galatians as his ‘Katie von Bora’. Katarina von Bora, everyone knows, was Luther’s wife (with whom he remained ardently in love); by naming Galatians as ‘my Katie’ he meant that whenever he needed invigoration, comfort, consolation, encouragement, not least correction, he knew where to go.

Luther relished Romans and Galatians inasmuch as there he found the epicentre of the gospel stated clearly and compellingly. For this reason, these two Pauline epistles would correct aberrant readings of Scripture elsewhere.

Luther couldn’t have known, of course, that the gospel of Romans would give rise to 80 commentaries on Romans alone, written by scores of thinkers, in the 16th century. He couldn’t have known that Romans would undergird the Evangelical Awakening in the 18th century. He couldn’t have known that Romans would undergird Karl Barth’s theological bombshell in the 20th century. But he wouldn’t have been surprised to see it happen. And he would have known why.

While Luther would extol the gospel of God’s grace for the rest of his life, a gospel unmistakeably delineated in Romans and Galatians, he didn’t come upon it there for the first time. He came upon it first in the Older Testament. To be sure, the Older testament doesn’t use the vocabulary of Romans/Galatians, but certainly the Older Testament speaks of the God whose mercy visits mercy upon those whose predicament before him is otherwise hopeless, and who thereby gives them a standing and a recognition – ‘you are my daughter, my son, with whom I am now pleased’ – they could never merit or achieve. Luther found the gospel throughout the Older Testament, but especially in Deuteronomy, the second half of Isaiah, and the Psalms.

[4] Plainly Luther exulted in the good news of God’s righting sinners with himself through faith in the crucified; plainly Luther exulted in this inasmuch as he was preoccupied with being in the right with God. Why was he preoccupied? Was he neurotically anxious over an insignificant matter? Was he obsessing over something inconsequential?

Luther was oceans deeper than this. He was aware that God is not to be trifled with. He knew that the sinner’s predicament before God is perilous. When I was on my way to my doctorate (University of Toronto) I had to appear before Prof. Jakob Jocz, Wycliffe College, for an oral examination. When the examination had concluded, Prof. Jocz, a Christian from eastern Europe who had witnessed unspeakable suffering and who was as deep as a well; Jocz said to me, “Mr. Shepherd, your grasp of the gospel is remarkable. Always remember that people never get the gospel; they never get the gospel until they understand that God is properly angry with the sinner.”

Luther knew as much. Luther knew that our defiant disobedience principally does three things to God: it breaks God’s heart, it provokes God’s anger, and it arouses God’s disgust.

Scripture, particularly the Older Testament, speaks again and again of God’s heartbreak at the recalcitrance of his people. (All we need do here is read the book of the prophet Hosea.) As for God’s anger, it too is found on every page of Scripture, not least in the gospel accounts of the public ministry of Jesus, where Jesus ‘boils over’ every day, it appears. As for God’s disgust, Scripture reminds us that we are repulsive to God; we are a stench in the nostrils of God. Over and over Scripture uses the language of ‘defile’ and ‘defilement’. Sinners are defiled people whose defilement God finds obnoxious.

How obnoxious? What’s the most repulsive thing you can imagine? (Don’t tell me!) Luther, whose imagination never lacked vividness, lived in an era that hadn’t yet seen a flush-toilet. Luther’s vocabulary with respect to repulsiveness – I think I should say no more lest I empty this room and spoil your lunch.)

[5] Let’s shift gears and think about Christmas. Every year in the Christmas season Luther capered and cavorted, laughed and leapt like children so very excited on Christmas Eve that they are beside themselves. Why was Luther near-delirious with joy over Christmas? He was ‘over the moon’ because he couldn’t thank God enough for the Christmas gift. The gift, of course, is Christ Jesus our Lord, given to us as the Saviour we need as we need nothing else.

Luther knew that when God looks out over the entire human creation, God can’t find one human being, not one, who renders him the glad and grateful, cheerful obedience God expects from the people he has created. Whereupon God says to himself, “If I’m going to find even one human being who renders me such cheerful obedience, I shall have to provide that human being myself in the person of my Son”. And so we have Christmas, where God in his mercy provides the human covenant-partner of God who remains rightly related to his Father in life and in death.

Luther knew that because Jesus of Nazareth is the one whose entire life and death are unbroken obedience, then insofar as we cling to the Nazarene in faith we are bound so closely to him that when the Father sees the Son with whom he is ever pleased he sees you and me included in the Son: we too, clinging to this one in faith, are declared – effectually declared – to be rightly related to the Father.

Luther knew, in the second place, that when sinners provoke God’s just judgement upon them, God’s judgement is just and there is nothing sinners can do to relieve themselves of it. Yet the breathtaking news of Christmas is that in the Son whom God has brought forth in our midst: in him, on Good Friday, the just judge visits his judgement on the Son who has identified himself with sinners, even as the just judge, the Father, one with his Son, absorbs his judgement in himself. If the just judge has exercised his judgement upon us only to absorb it in himself, what is left you and me? – mercy, pardon, acquittal, acceptance.

Luther knew, in the third place, that when sinners arouse God’s disgust (God finds sinners loathsome), the good news of Christmas is that the one crucified between two terrorists at the city garbage dump has soaked up the stench we are with the result that those who cling to him in faith are now rendered the fragrance, the perfume, of Christ (as the apostle Paul speaks of Christians in 2nd Corinthians).

Luther ‘lit up’ over Christmas just because he knew that in the Bethlehem gift the obedience we are expected to render but don’t; in this one such obedience has been rendered on our behalf. The anger we have provoked has been borne for us and borne away. The disgust we arouse has been soaked up by the one who leaves us smelling like roses. (Don’t we speak, at Christmas, of the ‘rose of Sharon’?)

All Luther wants to do is thank God for this gift and cling so very tightly to this gift in faith so as to be identified with him forever.

For Luther, then, the Christmas child is our salvation. In him we enjoy the same relationship with our Father that he, the Son, enjoys with his Father; namely, we, now rightly related to God, are that child of God with whom the Father is ever pleased.

At this point Luther knew himself a free man; a free man because freed by God’s gospel.


Yet Luther knew that those who have been freed for God have been freed not only for the praise of God but freed also for the service of the neighbour.

In 1520 Luther published a tract that has turned out to be the best-known of all his writings. The tract is labelled Christian Freedom.

Not only is this tract moving on account of its understanding and expression; it is also comprehensive in its discussion as few other tracts are. Luther himself wrote of it, “Unless I am mistaken… it contains the whole of the Christian life in a brief form.”

Before we probe Luther’s tract we must be sure we understand ‘freedom’ in conformity to Scripture. In popular parlance, freedom is the capacity to choose among alternatives. A child at an ice-cream counter is said to be free to choose vanilla or strawberry or pistachio. Such ‘freedom’ (so-called) is nothing more than indeterminism; that is, the child hasn’t been coerced, outwardly or inwardly, to choose one flavour over another.

Yet when Paul reminds the Christians in Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal.5:1), he cannot mean that Christ has set us free so that we may choose to obey Christ or disobey him. (Such freedom, so-called, is nothing less than the bondage of sin.) The apostle can only mean that Christ has set us free to obey him – and this only. In other words, freedom is having Jesus Christ remove all impediments to our obeying him; to say the same thing differently, freedom is the absence of any impediment to acting in accord – and only in accord – with one’s true nature.

Imagine a derailing switch placed upon railway tracks. The train is impeded from travelling along the rails. When the switch is removed, the train is said to be free to run along the rails. If someone asks, “But is the train free to float like a boat?”, the proper reply can only be, “But it isn’t a train’s nature to float like a boat; it’s a train’s nature to run on rails.”

Christ has freed his people to act in accordance with their true nature; namely, a child of God. In other words, Christ simultaneously frees us from all claims upon our faith and obedience that contradict our nature as child of God and frees us for everything that reflects our nature as child of God. It is our nature as child of God to love God and love the neighbour in utter self-abandonment.

Luther succinctly sets out the theme of the tract:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Expanding on this statement Luther writes,

We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbour.

Christians, freed by Christ for their true nature – bound to Christ by faith and bound to the neighbour by love – live henceforth in radical self-forgetfulness. Taken out of themselves, their self-absorption shrivels and their anxiety evaporates. The gospel effects this, and can effect it just because the gospel, as all the Reformers after Luther insisted, isn’t chiefly idea but rather power. The Reformers everywhere reflected Paul’s conviction that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).

Luther goes on to say that there is only one way of living in Christ by faith. There are, however, three ways of living in the neighbour by love.

[1] We live in the neighbour by love as we share our neighbour’s material scarcity, and do so out of our material abundance, even material superfluity. Luther admits this costs us little. If I have five shirts, giving one to a shirtless neighbour exacts little from me. Luther notes too that when we do this we also gain social recognition (today, we’d say an income tax receipt for ‘gift in kind’).

[2] We live in the neighbour by love, in the second place, as we share the neighbour’s suffering. Luther maintains this is costlier in that proximity to suffering in others engenders suffering in us. Painful though it is, however, we feel good about it; and if we do it well, we are rewarded for it (the Order of Canada or the Lions’ Club Humanitarian Award accorded Mother Teresa).

[3] Finally, says Luther, we live in the neighbour as we share the neighbour’s disgrace, the neighbour’s shame. This is by far the costliest way of living in the neighbour. Here there is no reward; here there is no social recognition. Here, on the other hand, there is nothing but social contempt and ostracism. Here we profoundly know what it is to be ‘numbered among the transgressors’, for was not our Lord before us publicly labelled with a disgrace he didn’t deserve? In concluding his discussion of this matter Luther insists that our service “takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss…. [the Christian] most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has” – including his reputation.


Martin Luther on Reformation Sunday: the man from Wittenberg launched a revolution that altered the course of history. Today we have probed only one area of his work, but it’s an area foundational for everything else.

Luther recovered the freedom of the gospel: the freedom that gives penitent sinners the gift of free right-relatedness to God thanks to the crucified Son; and the freedom whereby otherwise self-preoccupied people can forget themselves by abandoning themselves and their fussiness as they live henceforth to assist the neighbour whose need is undeniable and whose suffering is relentless.

Martin Luther happens to be a giant.

Victor Shepherd          October 2017