An expression one frequently hears today is this: “Behind every news item there is a story.” This undoubtedly is true. We may, however, also revise the expression somewhat and say “behind every historical event there is a story”. There certainly is. Thus it is that Luther’s quest for Justification is one of the stories behind that great event of church history which we call, “The Reformation”.
Shall we consider this story behind The Reformation from an angle seldom considered? Usually Luther’s quest for Justification is treated from a purely historical viewpoint and often from an Arminian viewpoint. Shall we approach it from a spiritual viewpoint considering the spiritual story behind Luther’s quest for Justification?
The first thing we should consider is this spiritual principle that the natural man hates the truth. All history and especially all church history, teaches us that he hates the truth and bears out the word of God inthat he does, “hold the truth under in unrighteousness”. From the days of the early church when the Comforter, The Spirit of Truth, came and led the church into the truth until this present day the natural man has sought to hold the truth under in unrighteousness. The attempts have been many and varied. The method depended upon the particular place the natural man, who strove to repress it, occupied. We do not find the natural man merely in the out-and-out ungodly man but also in the false church and even in our hearts. The method employed to hold the truth under in unrighteousness, then, depends on whether it is the world, the false church or the old man of sin within our hearts who seeks to repress it. The world seeks to do so by persecution and oppression, striving to exterminate the church physically and thus rid the world of the truth. The false church and false teachers seek to undermine faith in that truth and thus do away with it. They come with doctrines pleasing to man, that fascinate him and appeal to his proud nature. We repress and reject the truth by running away from the means of grace.
In Luther’s day it was the false church that repressed the truth by preaching the lie. It was the Roman Catholic church of his day that sought to hide the truth, and presented a corruption of the truth. With this perversion of the truth we must deal when we consider Luther’s quest for Justification. For, it was because the truth of man’s justification was perverted and corrupted that Luther found no peace of mind and sought to find assurance of his justification.
Let us briefly examine the teachings of the Roman Catholic church concerning man’s justification. In an article of this nature we have not the space to give a detailed view of the Roman Catholic teaching of Justification. This is not necessary either. It may be simply stated that the Roman Catholic church taught that man is justified by works. He is justified by his own individual works or by those of others, together with his works, or entirely separate from them. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Indulgences makes it plain that it is their teaching that man is justified by his own works. These Indulgences were written declarations of the priest that man’s sins were forgiven him, that he is justified before God, righteous in His sight and therefore delivered from the penalties of sin. Lest I be accused of presenting these indulgences in a wrong light let me quote literally some of the things these indulgences guaranteed. They guaranteed: (1) “liberation from all excesses, crimes, sins that thou mayest have committed, however great and enormous they may be, or from whatever cause; (2) a remission of penalties which would have been endured in purgatory. (3) If thou shouldest not die before long years, this grace will remain unalterable until thy last hour shall arrive”. In 1476, seven years before Luther’s birth, these indulgences were also made available for souls in purgatory. These declarations of the priest could be attained for a sum of money, by undergoing hardships and pains prescribed by the priest or even by entering in upon a monastic life. One special way to acquire an indulgence, which Luther himself undertook during his quest for Justification, was to descend on one’s knees—the so-called staircase of Pilate. Does not this practice and this doctrine teach that a man is justified by his works? That these indulgences could be acquired for those in purgatory also reveals that the individual is justified by the works of other men. There is another Roman Catholic doctrine which proves that they teach justification by the works of others. I have in mind the doctrine of Mariolatry. According to this doctrine we may pray to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who will intercede for us and for her sake, Christ will forgive our sins. We are, thus, also justified by the work of Mary. To be sure, the Roman Catholic Church will deny all this and say we are saved only by the blood of Christ. But, then, why teach these and other things as necessary besides that blood and as helps to be justified by His blood? This is nothing but a perversion of the truth and a manifest hatred for it. This perversion of the truth Luther found in his day.
To understand Luther’s quest for Justification we must also consider another spiritual reality generally overlooked in our church history books. The reality is this, that even as the natural man hated the truth and seeks to pervert and repress it, the’ regenerated child of God loves -the truth, seeks it and cannot feel satisfied until he has found it. He has the life of Christ in him. This causes him to long for Christ. He hungers and thirsts after righteousness; as the hart panteth after water brooks, his soul pants after God. He declares with David, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in His house all the days of my life”. Therefore is he especially eager to know the truth concerning his justification. His sins rise up against him. He knows, he feels and he believes that he has no right to dwell in God’s house, but he is also so eager to be with Him.
When you come to this regenerated child of God with the lie, it leaves him cold, dissatisfied and troubled. This must be the case for the lie leads away from God. If you come to this man and tell him, be is justified by his works, he will not find peace. He will only feel more keenly his unworthiness and feel farther from God’s house. You can deceive the unregenerated by the lie and make them believe that their works are sufficient, but the new man in Christ will be satisfied only when you come to him with Christ, and not a Christ of your own invention but with the Christ of the Scriptures, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is the way, the truth and the life. You must come with Him and justification through His blood alone. He is the way and another way there is not. The way of the cross leads home. Through His work on that cross we are justified. Thus a man is not justified by works but by faith in Him. Not so now that this faith is our work, but it is God’s gift to us and His means whereby He imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ. Come with this truth to the regenerated child of God and he will find peace. Of course he will, for Jesus said, “The truth shall make you free”, and this is the truth of Scripture. Since we are justified by faith, the contents of that faith must be the truth, and this is the truth of Scripture that Christ died for our sins and by His blood we are justified through faith.; ; ; ; ,
Thus it was that Luther could find no peace with God. He, being a regenerated child of God, and thus eager to dwell in His house, sought for if carefully and earnestly. He practiced what Rome prescribed. No one can say that he found fault with the Roman Catholic teachings without giving them a fair trial. He sought and strove, trying this and trying that. But not until he found the truth in God’s Word, “By grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast,” (), that he found peace. He found Christ, the way and the truth, and by faith was assured that in God’s sight he is righteous.
The point that I wish to make in this article is this, that Luther’s quest for Justification was not a quarrel with the Roman Catholic clergy whose corruption he saw. It was not a desire for mere intellectual enlightenment. Nay, it was the new life of Christ in him that caused him to hunger and thirst after righteousness that drove him in his quest for justification. His quest for justification was not first of all a quest for the doctrinal truth of justification. To be sure, he sought this. He had to seek this, as we tried to make plain, for only the truth can make us free. But the story behind this all is this, that in Luther seeking justification we have a true child of God breathing and panting after his God. In him we see the work of the Spirit. Luther had no quarrel with the church or with anyone else. He was seeking peace with God. But Luther was no exceptional man. Rather is this the case that God gave Luther an exceptional measure of His grace. We marvel at David’s spiritual life when he expressed his desire to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life, but we must not forget that it is this same spiritual life in Luther that drove him to seek justification and peace with God. In David, Luther and every child of God the life of Christ is implanted and this drives him to seek peace with God. This explains David’s one desire, Luther’s quest for justification and our hungering and thirsting after righteousness. By nature Luther also hated the truth and sought to repress it. It is the new life in him that drove him to seek the truth in order to find peace with God. Of course, (there is more that can be said of this quest. One thing, however, should still be said to complete the picture. Luther’s quest for Justification must also be explained in the light of God’s providence. God filled him with such a great measure of spiritual life and gave him such a great measure of grace to seek for the truth in the midst of darkness, that we today might have the truth and might have peace with Him. But again we should note how God works in His providence. He does not force Luther to seek and maintain the truth. He uses him as a rational willing creature whose mind and heart are renewed.