Martin Luther: A Reformer Remembered

October 20, 2017

This month marks the historic observation of a euphoric occasion: the Protestant Reformation! Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther defied the Roman Catholic Church by declaring the doctrine that salvation is sought by faith, and not secured by one’s purse or arrived at by works. The movement he started led to the light of God’s grace being revealed throughout Europe, but how did this famous reformer first taste of God’s grace himself?

 

“The just shall live by faith!”

“The just shall live by faith!”

 

The words do not flash or glitter.

 

Like the ocean, they do not give any indication upon the surface of the profundities and mysteries that lie concealed beneath. And yet of what other text can it be said that, occurring in the Old Testament, it is thrice quoted in the New?

 

“The just shall live by faith!” cries the Prophet.

 

“The just shall live by faith!” says Paul, when he addresses a letter to the greatest of the European churches.

 

“The just shall live by faith!” he says again, in his letter to the greatest of the Asiatic churches.

 

“The just shall live by faith!” says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, addressing himself to Jews.

 

It is as though it were the sum and substance of everything, to be proclaimed by prophets in the old dispensation, and echoed by apostles in the new; to be translated into all languages and transmitted to every section of the habitable earth. Indeed, Bishop Lightfoot as good as says that the words represent the concentration and epitome of all revealed religion. “The whole law,” he says, “was given to Moses in six hundred and thirteen precepts. David, in the fifteenth Psalm, brings them all within the compass of eleven. Isaiah reduces them to six; Micah to three; and Isaiah, in a later passage, to two. But Habakkuk condenses them all into one: ‘The just shall live by faith!’”

 

And this string of monosyllables that sums up everything and is sent to everybody—the old world’s text: the new world’s text: the prophet’s text: the Jew’s text: the European’s text: the Asiatic’s text: everybody’s text—is, in a special and peculiar sense, Martin Luther’s text.

 

For, strangely enough, the text that echoed itself three times in the New Testament, echoed itself three times also in the experience of Luther. It met him at Wittenberg, it met him at Bologna, and it finally mastered him at Rome.

 

In the retirement of his quiet cell at Wittenburg, while the world is still wrapped in slumber, he pores over the epistle to the Romans. Paul’s quotation from Habakkuk strangely captivates him.

 

“The just shall live by faith!”

“The just shall live by faith!”

 

“This precept,” says the historian, “fascinates him. ‘For the just, then,’ he says to himself, ‘there is a life different from that of other men; and this life is the gift of faith!’ This promise, to which he opens all his heart, as if God had placed it there specially for him, unveils to him the mystery of the Christian life. For years afterwards, in the midst of his numerous occupations, he fancies that he still hears the words repeating themselves to him over and over again.”

 

“The just shall live by faith!”

“The just shall live by faith!”

 

Years pass. Luther travels. In the course of his journey, he crosses the Alps, is entertained at a Benedictine Convent at Bologna, and is there overtaken by a serious sickness. His mind relapses into utmost darkness and dejection. To die thus, under a burning sky and in a foreign land! He shudders at the thought. The sense of his sinfulness troubles him; the prospect of judgement fills him with dread. But at the very moment at which these terrors reach their highest pitch, the words that had already struck him at Wittenberg recur forcibly to his memory and enlighten his soul like a ray from heaven—

 

‘The just shall live by faith!’

‘The just shall live by faith!’

 

Thus restored and comforted,” the record concludes, “he soon regains his health and resumes his journey.”

 

The third of these experiences—the experience narrated in that fireside conversation of which the manuscript at Rudolstadt has told us—befalls him at Rome. “Wishing to obtain an indulgence promised by the Pope to all who shall ascend Pilate’s Staircase on their knees, the good Saxon monk is painfully creeping up those steps which, he is told, were miraculously transported from Jerusalem to Rome. Whilst he is performing this meritorious act, however, he thinks he hears a voice of thunder crying, as at Wittenberg and Bologna—

 

‘The just shall live by faith!’

‘The just shall live by faith!’

 

“These words, that twice before have struck him like the voice of an angel from heaven, resound unceasingly and powerfully within him. He rises in amazement from the steps up which he is dragging his body: he shudders at himself: he is ashamed at seeing to what a depth superstition plunged him. He flies far from the scene of his folly.”

 

Thus, thrice in the New Testament and thrice in the life of Luther, the text speaks with singular appropriateness and effect.

 

With the coming of the text, Luther passes from the realm of fear into the realm of faith. It is like passing from the rigours of an arctic night into the sunshine of a summer day; it is like passing from a crowded city slum into the fields where the daffodils dance and the linnets sing; it is like passing into a new world; it is like entering Paradise!

 

Yes, it is like entering Paradise! The expression is his, not mine. “Before those words broke upon my mind,” he says, “I hated God and was angry with Him because, not content with frightening us sinners by the law and by the miseries of life, he still further increased our torture by the gospel. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood these words—

 

‘The just shall live by faith!’

‘The just shall live by faith!’

 

—then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God!”

“Henceforward,” he says again, “I saw the beloved and holy Scriptures with other eyes. The words that I had previously detested, I began from that hour to value and to love as the sweetest and most consoling words in the Bible. In very truth, this text was to me the true gate of Paradise!”

 

And they who enter into the City of God by that gate will go no more out for ever.

 

Adapted from Fastened Like Nails Vol. I.

 

 

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