Faith in Focus

450th Anniversary of Luther's death


In the early hours of the morning of 18 February 1546, Martin Luther passed into the presence of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This year marks the 450th anniversary of that event.

The life of Luther is more thrilling than any fiction writer could ever produce. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones called him a "volcano" of a man. Through his preaching, writings and courage, God sent forth the light of the Gospel into a Europe benighted by the darkness of Roman Catholicism. Many were to light their torches at the blaze God started through Luther. So mighty were the changes brought about that this period of history is known to us as the great Reformation. It is of that heritage that we are the heirs.

Two issues at the heart of the Reformation lie at the heart of any sound understanding and experiencing of true Christianity; these are the authority of the Scriptures, and the question of how sinners can be justified and forgiven by a holy God. (I say understanding and experiencing because it is possible to learn the doctrines of Scripture without inwardly experiencing the reality.) Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) and Faith alone (Sola Fide) became the catchwords of the Reformation.


The authority of the Bible in the life of the Christian

"Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, - unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, - and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!" (Luther before the nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and the leaders of the Church at the Diet of Worms,1521 [Hist.of Ref.]

The study of the Bible demands humility

"The Holy Scriptures require a humble reader who shows reverence and fear toward the Word of God and constantly says, "Teach me, teach me, teach me!" The Spirit resists the proud." [LW, AE], Volume 54, [TT], between May 21 and June 11, 1540.

The Word must be rightly divided

"The Word of God should be rightly divided, and with care, for people are of two kinds. On the one hand are the contrite, who need consolation. On the other hand are the rigid ones, to whom apply the law, threats, examples of wrath, the fire of Elijah, the waters of the flood, and the destruction of Jerusalem; these must be attacked at once and must be made to feel terror." [TT] October 7, 1538.

Why Luther read through the Bible twice a year

"For some years now I have read through the Bible twice every year. If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant." [TT] October 21, 1532.


The Bible's teaching about justification by faith alone permeates Luther's writings. Perhaps the fullest presentation of the doctrine appears in his Commentary on St Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, which he initially delivered as lectures at the University of Wittenberg in 1531. John Bunyan wrote of it: "I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all books that I have ever seen."

Lose the article of justification, lose all true Christian doctrine!

"... if the article of justification be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost.... between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of Christ, or between active and passive righteousness, there is no mean. He then that strays from this Christian righteousness, must needs fall into the active righteousness; that is to say, when he hath lost Christ, he must fall into the confidence of his own works." [Galatians, 26]

"If righteousness come by the law, then Christ died in vain"

"For whosoever seeketh righteousness apart from faith in Christ, whether by works, by satisfactions, or afflictions, or by the law, rejecteth the grace of God and despiseth the death of Christ, whatsoever he protesteth with his mouth to the contrary." Commenting on Galatians 2:21.

Release from accusations of conscience or God's law

"... he [Christ] made satisfaction. He is the righteous one, and this is my defense. He died for me, he made his righteousness mine and made my sin his own; and if he made my sin his own, then I do not have it, and I am free." [LW, AE25], 188, quoted in [LtR], 95.

"Therefore, my sweet brother, learn Christ and him crucified; despairing of yourself, learn to pray to him, saying, 'You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, but I am your sin; you have taken on yourself what you were not and given me what I was not.' Beware of aspiring to such purity that you no longer wish to appear to yourself, or to be, a sinner." Letter, April 1516. (LW, AE 48), 12-13, quoted in [LtR], 95.

Justifying faith is a living faith which overflows in joyful obedience

"It is a further function of faith that it honors him whom it trusts with the most reverent and highest regard, since it considers him truthful and trustworthy .... So when the soul firmly trusts God's promises, it regards him as truthful and righteous .... When this is done, the soul consents to his will. Then it hallows his name and allows itself to be treated according to God's good pleasure for, clinging to God's promises, it does not doubt that he who is true, just, and wise will do, dispose, and provide all things well.

Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith? What commandment is there that obedience has not completely fulfilled? ... This obedience, however, is not rendered by works, but by faith alone." [FoC], 284-285 quoted in [TPoG], 254.

Christ and faith must be the centre

"Under the papacy I was exposed to every error. The reason is that I had no faith. Faith is, as it were, the centre of a circle. If anybody strays from the centre, it is impossible for him to have the circle around him, and he must blunder. The centre is Christ." [TT] Summer or Autumn, 1532.


As we remember this anniversary of Luther's passing from this world to glory, may the Lord use these brief extracts from his writings to ignite, or re-ignite us with the same passion as He did Luther. So we shall know ourselves to be true heirs of the Reformation, those who have a vital, living, saving relationship with our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and live to the praise of His glorious grace.

Books refered to:

J.H. Merle D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century [Hist. of Ref.]

Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, in: Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960) [FoC]

Martin Luther, A Commentary on St Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (James Clarke & Co., London, 1953) Based on lectures delivered at the University of Wittenberg in 1531 and first published in 1535. Revised and completed translation based on the 'Middleton' edition of the English version of 1575. [Galatians]

Luther's Works [LW], American Edition [AE], Volume 54, Tabletalk [TT], (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1967)

James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer (IVP: Leicester, 1989) [LtR]

John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Multnomah: Portland, 1991) [TPoG]

Additional material for your interest.

1. From a letter by Luther to Spalatin, Elector Frederick's Chaplain, circa 1517, in D'Aubigne's History of the Reformation

"Just Let The Voice Of Christ Be Heard"

"[Spalatin] desired to make himself useful to the people, but like many at all times, he wished to do so without giving offence. He not only wished not to irritate anyone, but on the contrary to conciliate general favour."

"Point out," says he to Luther, "some work which I may translate into our mother tongue - a work which will please generally, and at the same time be useful."

"Agreeable and useful!" replies Luther; "the request is beyond me. The better things are the less they please."

What is more salutory than Jesus Christ? And yet to most he is a savour of death.

You will tell me that you wish to be useful to those who love what is good. In that case just let the voice of Christ be heard.

You will be agreeable and useful, depend upon it; but it will be for a very small number; for the sheep are rare in this region of wolves."

2. Extract from John Piper's, The Pleasures of God, p.257

We Are His Pleasure When He Is Our Treasure

"... God's pleasure in obedience is good news because that obedience that pleases him is the obedience of faith. Another way to put it would be to say that God is happy with our obedience when our obedience is the overflow of our happiness with God. God is delighted with our obedience when it is the fruit of our delight in him. Our obedience is God's pleasure when it proves that God is our treasure. This is good news, because it means very simply that the command to obey is the command to be happy in God. The commandments of God are only as hard to obey as the promises of God are hard to believe. The Word of God is only as hard to obey as the beauty of God is hard to cherish."

John Piper's, The Pleasures of God (Multnomah: Portland, 1991), 328pp, is available from: The Mews Christian Bookshop, c/- Rev. Don Lark, 55 Prospect Bank, Wakari, Dunedin ($29.95 inc. p&p)

Rev. Don Lark (Dunedin)

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised August 96 / Copyright 1996