A Jagged Contention: Luther’s Conversion

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“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it 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 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. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

“And I extolled my sweetest word 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.”

– Martin Luther, Preface to Latin Writings


Question:

Today we celebrate the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door. As you read this autobiographical account of Luther’s conversion, what do you think the legacy of Luther is today? Does the 21st century church still find itself being shaped by the justifying word of Christ as Luther found it in Romans?  Or, have other teachings taken center stage?

Share your thoughts in the comments below

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9 thoughts on “A Jagged Contention: Luther’s Conversion

  1. I believe that some churches are sharing that message, however unfortunately, most churches seem to,at best,have only a minor place for the Gospel. It’s as if we are saying let’s hurry up and “get saved” so we can get on to the “important” things,like being “spiritual”, the” higher life “,or ” serving God”etc.

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  2. I think the church is still, in general, focused on the righteousness of God in Christ, but it varies by denomination and even within denominations. I also think many denominations still teach justification by faith, but also add to it in a similar manner to the Catholic Church.

    There is the word-faith movement that says Christians must speak blessings into existence through the power of faith. As a form of prosperity gospel, it’s a false gospel, and there is generally no mention of justification.

    Within Calvinist circles, there are guys like Michael Horton who emphasize a Law Gospel distinction, the importance of the sacraments, and keep their focus on the finished work of Christ as external to us. Justification by faith is central to their theology.

    However, there are also guys like John MacArthur who says in his book “The Gospel According to Jesus,” that Christians will ultimately be judged by their works. Only if they have enough works to prove that their faith was really genuine will they get be saved.

    My experience with run of the mill evangelical churches is that they still essentially teach justification by faith, but they rarely use those words and they either focus on practical living at the expense of gospel proclamation, or they water down their theology to be more appealing to outsiders and they miss many of the contours of the justice and grace of God.

    I went to one Southern Baptist church in the process of church shopping, where the sermon was all about the wicked public school system that has taken prayer out of the public schools. There wasn’t any mention of the work of Christ.

    Some liberal churches, like the PCUSA church that my sister goes to, still believe in and teach justification by faith, but they down play the seriousness of the sins that require justification in the first place. Some go so far as to deny the exclusivity of Christ, and the need for justification at all.

    In my opinion, the primary thing that conservative Lutherans have to offer the broader Christian world is a model of how to keep justification by faith central without falling off the horse into legalism on the one side (i.e. Roman Catholicism or MacArthur’s “Lordship Salvation”) or antinomianism on the other side (i.e. mainline Protestantism, or Zane Hodges’ “Free Grace Theology”).

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  3. In the broadest sense, the Church is still missing the point as most churches do not preach this true Gospel. Catholics still bind justification to works. Protestants cling to “ordinances” as demonstrations of personal faith or to private, personal revelations and “spirit-led” explorations into the divine above and beyond the Word. Many seek grace in personal works of piety and mercy expecting to cooperate with God toward salvation. Essentially, the Church which confronted Luther still stands.

    What we have is the proper message but not a world that wants to hear it. The desire to be complicit in salvation, to grow toward godlikeness, to prove merit is the way of this world. No free lunches, you get what you pay for, your earn your keep, you want what’s yours, what you’re entitled to and have coming to you. Sometimes, I get the feeling that we’re being asked what good is Grace and salvation if it’s free? How valuable could it be? Show me how to be and give me credit for my efforts. Don’t give full pay to any slob that starts work in the kingdom a minute before the workday ends! Slay that fatted calf for me because I’ve been so faithful!

    The world shapes religion as a seeking after divine approval. This is why we remain in Reformation and our message is still crucial – the Good News is still drowned out by the world’s noise, even in the Church.

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    1. You’re absolutely right. It’s the natural tendency of man to always try to earn salvation, or at least payback God in some way after salvation has been freely given.

      I think legalism can be very subtle, and can pop its head up in many different ways. Unless we’re on guard against our natural tendency to justify ourselves, it’s always going to creep back into our lives, sometimes undetected.

      It’s the duty of Christians to daily fight against sin, and I think that includes a daily fight against the pride of works-righteousness, no matter how subtle its manifestation.

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      1. At the same time, we have to joyfully accept the good works prepared for us and seek to obey God because we are saved. It’ll always be tainted but we can, as you said, remain on guard.

        I’ve always loved it when Christ dished out the grace (healing and life) before telling people to sin no more. Salvation that makes a good life possible. Life-long Lutherans are prone to err on the side of overlooking the value of works for fear of relying them. That is, perhaps, something our preachers could work on.

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      2. You’re absolutely right that the message of the gospel includes, “go your way and sin no more.” I would never want to tell Christians that we shouldn’t live a holy life, or that we shouldn’t kill our sin, so much as we are able.

        I’m not a life-long Lutheran, so maybe I can’t speak to this in the way you can, but the Lutherans I’ve been getting to know over the past few months don’t seem overlook the value of good works. The church I’ve been going to has a congregation of people who are zealous to do good works. It’s been very encouraging to see. They’re very active in ministering to their community and they’re quick to make it known when one of the members is in need.

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