Luther stood confident not in his intellect or courage but in the righteousness of Christ.
Five hundred years ago, on April 18, 1521, Martin Luther took a stand. At the emperor’s request, Luther had come to the Diet of Worms to stand before the politically powerful of the Holy Roman Empire. Though he faced the likelihood that the emperor would condemn him or send him to his death, he refused to take the safe way out.
When it was demanded that he give a simple and straightforward answer to the question, “Will you recant what you have written?” Luther offered an unflinching response: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen” (Luther’s Works Vol. 32, p. 112).
We have no recording or video clip to give us sound bites, but Luther’s confession still impresses. Knowing how often we have shied away from a clear confession for fear that someone might think us strange, Luther’s boldness amazes us.
But why did he do it?
Luther’s words offer some help in answering the question. The Scriptures bound him, he said. They conquered him. They captured his heart. The Word of God had taken his conscience captive, so that he only could confess what the Bible taught.
A story of God’s grace
How did God’s Word capture his heart? This is the more important story. It’s not an account of Luther’s tenacity or his intellect. It’s rather the story of God’s extraordinary grace. The Lord, with the light of his gospel, broke through the darkness of Luther’s heart. In his ignorance, Luther believed that he must produce a righteousness with which he could stand before the righteous God. That’s why Luther lived in terror of God. He knew he had not—and couldn’t—satisfy God’s demands with his obedience.
As Luther studied the verse “In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed” (Romans 1:17), the professor found himself frustrated. He thought it unfair that the gospel, which by definition is to be good news, would talk about the righteousness of God. He understood “the righteousness of God” to be the righteousness God demands from sinners, something humans cannot produce no matter how hard they try. But then the Holy Spirit graciously led Luther to believe that the righteousness of Christ was not a demand but a gift. Christ’s perfect righteousness was his through faith. The Father delighted in Martin Luther, the way he delighted in his Son.
When the Lord finally broke through, the reformer felt that he “had entered paradise itself through open gates” (Luther’s Works Vol. 34, p. 337). The gospel of righteousness through faith alone captured his heart. Though he had to battle with an accusing conscience throughout his life, Luther found peace in the message of righteousness through faith in Christ. It became the driving force of his life. He wanted more than anything to confess clearly the righteousness of Christ in all his preaching, teaching, and writing.
Our story too
Luther’s story is dramatic. Yours is too. Born to sinful father and mother, you entered this world thinking, as Luther did, that righteousness before God was your responsibility. You were ignorant of the one way to the righteousness that counts before God: through faith in Jesus.
The Lord graciously broke through your darkness. Through the gospel connected to the water of baptism, the Lord applied to you what Jesus did for all. Jesus’ death is your death. His life is your life. His righteousness is your righteousness before God. Let’s say that in a different way: God has forgiven all your sins in Christ. Through that message, the Holy Spirit created faith in your heart so that you believe what you would never have believed on your own: You are innocent in God’s sight through faith in Jesus.
Since God cannot lie and would never deceive us, we have every reason to be confident in the righteousness of Christ. It’s true that we may not always feel righteous. As we examine our lives, for example, we will see what seems like certain proof that God couldn’t consider us righteous. We feel such shame for our sins that we cannot stand ourselves. We assume that if we consider ourselves disgusting, the holy God necessarily holds the same view.
But this is the beauty of God’s declaration of righteousness: God does not base it on our performance, but Christ’s. The Lord promises that he will always view those who trust in Christ as righteous. It is good for us to confess daily our failure to live as we ought and acknowledge our need for the righteousness of Christ to cover us. But then, with the Spirit’s help, we can stop listening to the accusations of our conscience and the condemnation of the devil. We trust what we cannot see or feel this side of eternity: We have “the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9).
Confident in Christ
Confident that we are righteous in God’s sight through faith in Christ, we resign from the futile pursuit of a righteousness before God based on our achievements. With the apostle Paul, we want to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:9).
Since the Lord has freed us from the burden of producing our own righteousness, we can view our interactions with those around us differently. If we think that we must manufacture our own righteousness by serving others, we turn people into objects. We use them as means to an end. We “serve” them so we might earn credit with God. We’re really serving ourselves.
Since God has already declared us righteous through faith in Christ and we cannot enhance our status before him by what we do, we are free to serve others without self-interest. We can relish the privilege the Lord has given us—to be instruments by which he blesses others.
The righteousness of Christ gives us confidence to face the ultimate consequence of sin: death. As we feel our end draw near, our conscience will condemn us and the devil will accuse. We will be tempted to focus on our own righteousness instead of the righteousness of Christ. For that reason, we pray that the Lord would “grant us a blessed end and graciously take us from this world of sorrow to himself in heaven” (Explanation of the Seventh Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). We ask him to help us close our ears to every other voice and listen only to his promise that the righteousness that counts before God is ours through faith in Christ.
On the Last Day our risen Savior will raise our bodies from the dead and glorify them, making them like his glorious body. We will then be righteous, not only in status but also in conduct. We will serve the Lord and those around us perfectly.
This is the first article in a three-part series based on the 2021 synod convention essay.
Author: Earle Treptow
Volume 108, Number 11
Issue: November 2021