Martin Luther

“The Word Did Everything”

The European Reformation (Cameron)John Murray calls the 16th century Protestant Reformation “the greatest event for Christendom in the last 1500 years” (Collected Writings of John Murray Vol.2, p.203). The rediscovery of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ turned the world upside-down and changed all of subsequent history.

How does one explain the remarkable power and effect of the Protestant Reformation?

After all, the reformers had none of the technological advantages that we enjoy today, such as the internet, cell phones, radio, television, rapid transit, etc.

They had to rely on the pen, the printing press, and the preaching of the Word of God.

And they faced constant opposition and even violent persecution from many who were in positions of great ecclesiastical and political power.

So what was the secret of the Protestant Reformation’s success? Luther himself writes,

“I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp [Melanchthon] and [Nikolaus von] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the Papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses on it. I did nothing; the Word did everything . . . .” (Euan Cameron, The European Reformation, p.106-07)

Now Martin Luther certainly labored diligently. As one writer notes, “His collected writings in German are over 100 volumes” (Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, p.16). But at the end of the day, the real power behind the Reformation was the Word of God.  As Luther put it, “the Word did everything.”

And so if we would see a new reformation in our own day, we too must learn to trust in and rely upon the power of the Word of God. For it is the Word of God that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). It is the Word of God that does not return void or empty, but always accomplishes the purposes for which God sent it (Isaiah 55:11). And it is the gospel alone that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).


Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

martin-luther-2524287_1280October 31st marks the anniversary of the beginning of the 16th century protestant reformation. For it was on that date, just over 500 years ago now (back in 1517) when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is thought by many to be the start of the Protestant Reformation.

The 95 Theses were essentially 95 points of dispute or debate over what Luther saw as the abuse of the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the sale of indulgences.

What exactly was an “indulgence”? Philip Schaff writes,

“In the legal language of Rome, indulgentia is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment. In ecclesiastical Latin, an indulgence means the remission of the temporal (not the eternal) punishment of sin (not of sin itself), on condition of penitence and the payment of money to the church or to some charitable object.” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, p.147)

And so the Indulgences were put forward as a way to essentially pay for remission of temporal punishments for sin for the living, or for the release from purgatory for a deceased loved one.  But as one writer notes,

“In practice the ignorant could not help thinking that they were ‘buying’ forgiveness for themselves or their beloved in the hereafter, or at last that by their generosity they were doing a good work which the Pope declared to be effective toward forgiveness in the hereafter. ‘The moment the money tinkles in the collecting box, a soul flies out of purgatory’ – there is no doubt that this proverb was preached.” (Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, The Penguin History of the Church Vol. 3, p.42)

Put in this light, it is easy to see why Luther took issue with this practice.

The Roman Catholic Church used the sale of indulgences to raise vast sums of money to pay for, among other things, the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So you could say that in some ways what started the Reformation was a church fund-raising program or building fund gone awry. (It always seems to be about money, doesn’t it?)

Luther simply presented his 95 Theses for debate in the hopes of reforming the abuses of  indulgences. He wasn’t seeking a revolution. He wasn’t even arguing against the church’s official doctrine and practice of indulgences per se (at least not yet). He was simply seeking debate and reform. No one even took him up on his offer to debate the issue of indulgences. But his 95 Theses were quickly translated, published, circulated, and read far and wide.

To the modern reader the 95 Theses probably don’t seem all that revolutionary. They do not even explicitly mention the doctrine of justification at all. (To be sure, it was Martin Luther’s understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification that was behind his opposition to the sale of indulgences.)

The first of his 95 Theses is as follows:

“1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

He essentially builds his case from there, point by point (95 points in total).

And perhaps the most important of them all is #62, which says,

“The true treasure [or treasury] of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

And the very last of Luther’s 95 Theses states that Christians, in following Christ, their head, should “thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace” [i.e. the false peace offered through the sale of indulgences].

Luther’s earnest desire was that Christians would place all of their hope for forgiveness and heaven in Christ alone.

Thanks be to God that because of the Reformation, countless souls have done just that, and found true peace with God through faith alone, in Christ alone, by the grace of God alone, to the glory of God alone!

And as John Murray notes, “This heritage is not only one to be cherished; it is one to be propagated.” He reminds us that the Reformation is not just past history, but is also “a present duty” as well. (The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1, p.292)



Martin Luther on “Alien Righteousness”

AlienMartin Luther is often quoted as speaking of the imputed  righteousness of Christ in the justification of sinners as an “alien righteousness.”

Now that may sound like a rather odd phrase, but Luther here is not speaking of little green men. What he means is that such a righteousness is utterly foreign to us; it is not inherent or even infused in us, but is entirely from outside of us.

He says of this alien righteousness:

“[It] is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith, as it is written in I Cor. 1[:30]: “Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”” (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, p.155)

He spells this out in more detail later in the same paragraph, where he writes,

“Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.””

Can you say those same things confidently? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you can! For in your justification by faith in Christ, Christ’s own “living, doing, speaking, suffering and dying” are just as much yours as if you yourself “had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.”

In justification, the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ is imputed to you by faith. That includes what is often referred to as His “passive obedience” (i.e. His suffering and death on the cross), as well as His “active obedience” (i.e. His life of perfect, sinless obedience to the will of His Father).

Now that really is good news that is out of this world!

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

Here is a great clip from the 2003 film, “Luther.”  This scene is Martin Luther on trial at the Diet of Worms.

May the Lord Jesus Christ grant a fresh outpouring of the spirit of the Reformation in our day, so that His church would be characterized by people whose consciences are captive to the Word of God!

The Spark that Lit the Flame of the Reformation


What was the spark that lit the flame of the Protestant Reformation?  John Murray writes,

It may be safe to say that the greatest event for Christendom in the last 1500 years was the Protestant Reformation. What was the spark that lit the flame of evangelical passion? It was, by the grace of God, the discovery on the part of Luther, stricken with a sense of his estrangement from God and feeling in his inmost soul the stings of his wrath and the remorse of a terrified conscience, of the true and only way whereby a man can be just with God. To him the truth of justification by free grace through faith lifted him from the depths of the forebodings of hell to the ecstasy of peace with God and the hope of glory.” (Collected Writings of John Murray Vol.2, p.203)

In other words, it was the salvation of one sinner – a monk named Martin Luther.  Not only his new-found understanding and grasp of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ, but his personal belief in it  – that he himself was justified by faith alone in Christ alone – was the spark.

Martin Luther found true peace with God through faith in Christ.  And by the grace of God he would spend the rest of his days telling others how they too could know peace with God through the good news of Jesus Christ.

Are you (like Martin Luther before his conversion) stricken with a sense of estrangement from God because of your sins?  Are you suffering from a terrified conscienceYou too can have peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ.  The truth of justification by the free grace of God through faith in Jesus can lift you from the depths of the forebodings of hell to the ecstasy of peace with God and the hope of glory.

The just shall live by faith (Romans 1:17)!