The story is often told that Martin Luther was reading the book of Romans, and that at Chapter 1, verse 17, he consistently got tangled up in the word “righteousness.” Luther himself says:
For a long time I went astray [in the monastery] and didn’t know what I was about. To be sure, I knew something, but I didn’t know what it was until I came to the text in Romans 1 [:17], ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ That text helped me. I learned to distinguish between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the gospel. I lacked nothing before this except that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I regarded both as the same thing and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection. But when I discovered the proper distinction—namely, that the law is one thing and the gospel is another—I made myself free.” (Luther’s Works, Volume 54, P442).
Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the law, when he tells us to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) Yet how this is interpreted in the gospel is remarkably different than how it was used in the law.
Our righteousness is not at all based on whether or not we follow the rules, for we are all painfully aware of how short we come up; we’re all sinners. In the eyes of the law, we can’t ever be righteous. This is what tortured Luther for years, causing him to fast for days on end, beat himself, sleep outside in the cold, and sit with his confessor for hours and hours at a time. He was desperately trying to be righteous and falling short, always aware of his sinful nature.
It was only once Luther recognized the truth and heart-wrenching beauty of the gospel, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” that he understood that the love of God doesn’t hang on what we can do or not do as humans, but stands instead on grace: God’s love is freely and abundantly given to us despite our inability to earn it.
When Luther and Calvin, Knox and Wesley, and many other courageous men and women, stood fast in their belief that God’s grace is all-sufficient, the world changed: literacy was encouraged, public education became a reality, and social programs were created. For the Reformers, the love of God and neighbor became the standard by which all of life’s activities and actions were chosen, undergirded with the blessed assurance that even in our weakest moments, Jesus is for us. When we no longer have to obsessively worry about saving our own souls, we are freed up for service to God and each other.
There are those who say that inevitably public education, literacy, and social programs would have developed purely as a natural result of the progress of humankind, independent of the influence of the Reformers. I am unconvinced that this is so. I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the understanding of these chosen disciples, and that the world as we know it was forever changed by their passionate witness to a new interpretation of the gospel.
- Sola Fide, by faith alone.
- Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone.
- Solus Christus, through Christ alone.
- Sola Gratia, by grace alone.
- Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone.
So what does all this mean for us, five hundred years later? Today, Jesus reminds us what our response is to our salvation: to love God wholeheartedly, to serve God joyously, and to see God in the face of our neighbor. May it be so.
Janet Taylor, Westmount Presbyterian Church, Edmonton