The young Martin Luder – that was the family name – had been a law student in the major university town, Erfurt. Against his father’s will he became an Augustinian monk.
But he was a poor tortured soul who felt himself under the wrath of God. He engaged in punishing fasts and endless confessionals. As a mendicant monk he begged his way 1000 miles from Erfurt to Rome as a pilgrimage.
But he was clever. The order appointed him Professor of Bible at the new university in the little, ‘nowhere place’, Wittenberg. In preparing his lectures on Romans and the Psalms he made a great discovery.
Luder had believed that the ‘justice of God’ engages with us in judgement and condemnation, which had led him into spiritual slavery to fear and to endless fasts and vigils. But in Wittenberg through his study of Romans he discovered that the ‘justice of God’ engaged with us not in judgment and condemnation but in grace and forgiveness through faith in the crucified Son of God.
As a result of this revolutionary discovery he did two things: First, he changed his name from Luder to Luther, based on the Greek word eleutheros, meaning ‘free’. He now signed letters as ‘Martin the free’. Secondly he wrote his most famous pamphlet, Of the Freedom of the Christian. Freedom before God was everything.
Luther greatly loved Galatians, which he called his ‘wife’. Paul’s words, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (5:1) sum up the deepest feelings of St Paul and Martin Luther.
A key text for Paul and Luther was Galatians 2:16:
we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Three times he affirms ‘faith in Christ’ as the only basis for being ‘justified’, that is deemed to be ‘in the right’ with God and by God. Three times he denies any role to ‘works of the law’. ‘Faith’ in Jesus Christ is the only basis for one’s relationship with God.
Back in the First Century Paul was rejecting such ‘works of the law’ as the necessity for male circumcision, obedience to Jewish food law, and the observation of the feasts of the Jewish Calendar (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles).
In the sixteenth century Luther saw a parallel to these in the necessity for pilgrimages, fasts, worship of relics and religious statues, and the use of indulgences.
In Luther’s day, as in St Paul’s, people were saying that ‘Christ Alone’ is not sufficient to bridge the gap between the holy God and sinful man. They were advocating ‘Christ Plus’ – ‘works of the law’ (1st century), ‘religious works’ (16th century). But the apostle Paul, followed by Luther insisted: Christ Alone.
To illustrate his point Luther used the example of marriage.
A man and a woman are joined together by their marriage vows.
They exchange their property:
His property becomes hers
Her property becomes his.
When we cast ourselves on the mercy of Christ
the soul of the Christian is joined to Christ. They become one.
A great exchange occurs: Christ takes our sin and gives us his righteousness.
Paul admonished the Galatians for their short memories. When he held up before them the message of Christ crucified they heard that message, believed in Christ and received the Spirit (Galatians 3:1-2). So how can they now be looking to and believing in ‘works of the law’? The hearing and believing of the gospel of Christ is the only way to God’s forgiveness and the receiving of the Spirit of God.
This great truth was expressed in the architecture of Lutheran churches. The pulpit was on the side of the congregation, not the front. In the front was Christ crucified. The preacher directed the eyes of faith of the congregation to Christ, who was front and centre.
Inevitably Luther was criticized for giving people permission to sin, hiding behind the cross of Christ. Luther responded with a paradox:
‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to no one.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all’.
He added, ‘each of us should become a Christ to the other. And as we are Christs to one another, the result is that Christ fills us all and we become truly a Christian community’.
A small group met in the White Horse Inn in Cambridge to read Luther’s words. They were known as ‘little Germany’. Among them was Thomas Cranmer, future Archbishop of Canterbury.
Cranmer created three instruments to define the Church of England as a reformation church: the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles and the Ordinal for Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
Echoing Luther Article 11 states: We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort…
In 1960 the Constitution of the new Anglican Church of Australia enshrined Cranmer’s three instruments of the Reformation as the basis for the national church, for each diocese (including Sydney), and for each parish (including ours).
Our church is a Reformation Church and owes much to our martyred brother Thomas Cranmer, who had been influenced by Martin ‘the free’, who in turn was directed by the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. We stand on the great truth: Christ Alone.