One event that will forever define the history of Christianity and the church in general is the Protestant Reformation. The person who pulled the trigger for this event was a German Catholic monk named Martin Luther (Schwarz 159. The beliefs and theological conviction which motivated and inspired Martin Luther to rebel against the Catholic Church, in which he was a priest, was justification by faith. Luther believed that man was justified only through believing in God and not because of any good works.
In 1501 Martin Luther joined the University of Efurt. His inquisitiveness and desire for knowledge led him to study theology. Consequently, he decided to become a priest and to dedicate his life to the service of God. However, his study of the Bible only aggravated his sense of sinfulness and seemed to elongate the chasm between him and God. He resorted to depriving and flogging his body because he felt it was the cause of his sinfulness. Like other priests and ordinary Catholics, Luther believed that good deeds were the basis of man’s acceptance by God (Blankman 6).
Martin Luther’s life changed when his spiritual director at the seminary gave him the task of reading the book of Romans. Here he learnt that righteous was only imputed on the basis of faith. It became evident to him that only God’s grace and faith in Jesus could render a human being right before God and not any good works that a person performed. This became the basis of the doctrine of Justification by Faith (Estep 116). Luther felt liberated and started to question some of the doctrines that were being taught by the church.
The joy of receiving transforming news was revealed in the new sermons which he started preaching to the congregation at Wittenberg. He told the masses that man was saved solely by the grace of God and was justified by faith and not good works. He was particularly critical of Indulgencies which were documents sold by the church to sinners to absolve the latter from transgression. It was for this reason that Luther nailed the famous ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg on 31st October 1517 (Gray-Cobb 41). He felt that the gospel as preached then was erroneous and negated the role of God as the justifier. Although he was still a Catholic clergyman, he was critical of any doctrine that went contrary to scripture.
Martin Luther became a prolific writer on the topic of justification by faith and also translated the Bible from Greek to German. At first there were attempts to reconcile him and the church but the ideological shift widened. In 1520, the church ex-communicated him and worked with the state to prohibit Luther’s writings (Kolb 91). This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was determined to teach what he believed was the truth even as he and his followers were hunted down and some of them killed. Justification by faith became his clarion call and that of his followers.
Luther understood justification to be a legal process. In his opinion, man’s sins required punishment or remission. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross paid the price for humanity’s sin. Human beings could not pay the price of sin because they were contaminated by sin. Justification is received when human beings believe in God and accept the death of Jesus on the cross on their behalf. In other words, righteousness is imputed on human beings through faith in God and not because the former deserve it (Oswald 155).
Luther taught that faith is the channel through which humans are justified by God (Schwarz 163). According to this reformer, man’s virtuous works do not contribute anything to his salvation. Luther had experienced the attempts by people to attain righteousness through works as was evidenced by the purchase of indulgences. The irony of indulgences was that only those who could afford were granted temporal forgiveness of their sin thus leaving the poor with guilt and fear of damnation. In Luther’s justification by faith theology, all people, rich or poor, who accepted the righteousness of Christ by faith were declared righteous and justified.
The role of works was also established by Luther in his teachings (Oswald 288). Contrary to the perception by most theologians of the time that works were the basis of acceptance before God, Luther asserted that works were the fruit of accepting the righteousness of God. Essentially, good works did not render people acceptable before God but those who accepted the Gospel were supposed to live righteous lives naturally. Justified Christians will live righteously just as a tree bears fruits naturally. Justification is not attained through laws, merits or acts.
In conclusion, Luther understood justification by faith to be the only true doctrine of salvation for human beings. In contrast to popular belief, good works played no role in salvation. However, those who accepted God’s righteousness would produce good works as a result of transformation (Oswald 288). This is the truth that made Luther to rebel against the church.
Blankman, Drew Martin Luther: Righteous Faith. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print.
Estep, William Roscoe. Renaissance and Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans
Publishing, 1986. Print.
Gray-Cobb, Maiya. Seeds of the Soul. Huntsville, AR: Ozark Mountain Publishing, 2009. Print.
Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. New York: OUP, 2009. Print.
Oswald, Bayer. Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI:
Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 2008. Print.
Schwarz, John. A Handbook of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House
Publishers, 2004. Print.