Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Trusting Jesus Christ — Alone

Luther’s Theological Legacy

In December 1536, Martin Luther thought that his death was near and, in fact, he nearly did die. His territorial ruler, John the Constant of Saxony, had enlisted him to prepare a summary of Lutheran teaching in preparation for a possible church council.

David A. Lumpp

Luther delivered, as he had in the past, but not before suffering a serious heart attack during the writing. The product of his work that winter would eventually be included in the collection of the authoritative Lutheran confessional writings, the Book of Concord of 1580. Early on in this piece, he wrote:

Here is the first and chief article: That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, ‘was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification’ (Rom. 4:[25]); and he alone is `the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1[:29]); and `the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Is. 53[:6]); furthermore, `All have sinned,’ and `they are now justified without merit by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … by his blood’ (Rom. 3[:25]). (Smalcald Articles, Part II, Article 1, paragraphs 1-4)

Notice that Luther develops this “first and chief article” (doctrinally summarized by Saint Paul’s “justification” above) by simply weaving together four familiar Bible passages. This is a fitting method for Luther, for he had been a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg for nearly the past quarter century. And he was convinced that these particular passages spoke for themselves, without any need for extensive commentary on his part.

Learning to read the Word

But it had not always been that way. Early in Luther’s career, even after he had begun teaching, the Word of God had not been so clear to him. Indeed, as he read the Bible then, he heard its demands and its accusation more clearly than its promises or its consolation.

It was only when he had learned — after much prayer, study, and experience — to distinguish between law and gospel that the Word of God came alive for him. For then he came to read the Bible as, above all, the book that brought him the gospel of Jesus Christ, which did not demand from him ever more and ever better works. Now the Word invited him only to hear and trust the promises of him who had died and risen again for him. The personal righteousness that he was helpless to produce on his own was God’s gift to him in Jesus Christ. Luther would come to call this the “righteousness of faith.”

If men and women were free — in Jesus Christ — from any need to please God by their own efforts or activities, they were now free to express their faith in all manner of service to their neighbors.

This gift of Christ’s righteousness, which Luther came to appreciate fully in about 1518, was too good to keep confined to a university classroom. The gospel, as Luther had come to understand it, would transform not only his own theology and life and that of his immediate followers, but the teaching and lives of great numbers in the Christian church as well.

If men and women were free — in Jesus Christ — from any need to please God by their own efforts or activities, they were now free to express their faith in all manner of service to their neighbors.

Saint Paul had described this Christian ethic as “faith active in love” (Galatians 5:6). Luther would call it simply “vocation.” By this he meant that the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls (Latin, vocatio) people to trust the mercy of God for every temporal and eternal need; and they in turn are invited to recognize their ordinary settings in life as places and opportunities for sacrificial service to others (hence the English noun “vocation”).

No longer were some works valued or esteemed more highly than others. This was true even of works that 16th-century church and society deemed as particularly “religious.” Instead, the daily and routine tasks of life are perhaps even more important. Why? Because God has no need for human works, but the flesh-and-blood neighbor in need certainly does. Luther himself pulled these thoughts together beautifully in his Large Catechism of 1529:

How could you be more blessed or lead a holier life, as far as works are concerned? In God’s sight it is actually faith that makes a person holy; it alone serves God, while our works serve people. Here you have every blessing, protection, and shelter under the Lord, and, what is more, a joyful conscience and a gracious God who will reward you a hundredfold. (Explanation of the Fourth Commandment, paragraphs 146-148)

The published writings of Martin Luther number literally thousands of pages. But the core of his thought can be captured in the conviction that Jesus Christ is a “mirror of the Father’s heart.” To know and be embraced by the love of God in Jesus Christ is the single greatest gift one can ever receive.

It is Martin Luther’s theological legacy that he unpacked that gift — its meaning and its implications — for his students and his parishioners. Thus he has passed it on to all those who trust Jesus Christ today.

David A. Lumpp is professor of theology at Concordia University, St. Paul. He is a member of Jehovah Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Saint Paul. (Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”)

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