By Jim Vitale
Next Tuesday is Reformation Day. And here in the Lutheran Church we talk a lot about Martin Luther. We mention him in sermons; we study his writings; we talk about his history; we have even named our denomination after him (which, incidentally, he would be mortified to learn). But why? 506 years ago, Luther sparked reform in the church by nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door. It is clear that Luther’s actions changed the landscape of his time and ours, but apart from this historical change, does the Lutheran Reformation still matter to us today? I mean really matter. In the course of our daily lives, does Luther’s breakthrough make any difference? The answer, simply put, is yes.
But first, what exactly was Luther’s breakthrough? Well, it centers around Luther’s understanding of “the righteousness of God”. He examines this in his Preface to the Latin Writings. As a young monk, he saw the phrase “righteousness of God” as words of condemnation. As a product of his environment, he believed that God’s righteousness was something for which to strive and that through good works he could become righteous in God’s sight. However, he believed the wrath of God burns against all those who do not attain such righteousness.
Yet Luther knew he could never meet such demands and thus sank into despair. He became obsessed with his own sinfulness. He would confess his sins to his father confessor, leave the confessional, and make it about ten paces away before he would remember more sins, turn around, and march back into the confessional. Finally, his father confessor told him to “leave, and don’t come back until you’ve committed a real sin!”
Luther despaired that no matter how many sins he confessed, no matter how many acts of penitence he committed, no matter how many good works he attended, he would never attain the righteousness necessary for heaven. And then one day, still in the thrall of his despair, he read again from Paul’s letter to the Romans, and his mind was opened. He came to understand the true meaning of those words “righteousness of God.” He realized, by the grace of God, that righteousness was not a measuring stick but a gift. God does not hold us up to his righteousness and rail against us when we fall short. Rather, through the Holy Spirit and by the sacrifice of Jesus and the grace of God, God gives us God’s righteousness; therefore, we are freed from trying to earn our salvation. We need not strive to become righteous; God has already made us so. Good works flow from that righteousness, which is given to us through faith and by absolutely no work of our own. They are not the cause of our righteousness before God but rather the result thereof.
So why does Luther’s breakthrough matter to us today? Because feeling like you need to earn righteousness through good works did not disappear after Luther recognized the saving power of grace. This problem is integral to the human condition, and most Christians continue to wrestle with the tension between grace and works. Our American protestant work ethic makes us particularly prone to the works-righteousness struggle because we find our value almost exclusively in hard work. This is exactly the thinking that caused Luther so much despair.
Societal influence and the very human condition cause us to think that a right relationship with God is something we work toward. It is true that we should do good works and strive for what is best, but do not fall into the despair that Luther did. Doing those good works and striving for what is best does not make you right with God. Jesus Christ makes you right with God and that righteousness has been given to you already as a free gift. You need not despair of your relationship with God. In God’s eyes, you are already righteous. This is what Luther came to realize in the Reformation, and that is why the Reformation still matters today.