The young monk would confess to his confessor for hours and still be deeply troubled that he may have forgotten something. He know even one sin would damn him to hell. The monk would shake with fright when taking communion. He was terrified all the time. Confession, escaping the sinful world, serving as monk, and meditating on God seemed unable to offer him any peace or salvation.
Seeing the monk's agony, his confessor believed the monk might find relief if he were to go to the academy. At the academy he would have greater access to the Bible and he might have an opportunity to study God's Word more deeply. The monk was Martin Luther.
In 1515, Luther was lecturing on the Letter to the Romans. He later wrote, "that it was the first chapter of that epistle that he found the solution to his difficulties" (Justo Gonzalez, 1985, 19). Luther read Romans 1:16-17, which reads," For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith'" (ESV).
In Romans 1:17, Luther finally understood that man holds no righteousness of his own. He has none (which is supported by the remainder of Romans 1). Any righteousness he may receive can only come from God. But God does indeed reveal and even grant his righteousness to his creation. More amazing, is that there is not one thing apart from faith that man can do for salvation. No work can earn this righteousness. Salvation comes by faith alone, in Christ alone.
Luther was liberated! His effort to earn his salvation through his own 'righteous' works now looked silly, futile. It was possible that in this moment, Martin Luther became a regenerate, born-again Christian. And it was most likely that God used this discovery to launch Luther into the ministry that reformed the world. Luther's discover brought the focus back to faith in God rather than working and striving to save ourselves.
As we look at this same text today, do you find yourself striving by works? Are you depending on your own righteousness?
Think about Luther. He was in a monastery. He was praying, singing hymns, meditating, and seeking after God all day long. He was living in a community with others doing the same, and serving them. He was avoiding the many temptations of the world. Yet even in this setting he was not saving himself.
Are there times when doing ministry slips across the line and you may be doing it in an effort to save yourself? If it could happen to Luther in the monastery, it could happen to most of us.
One of, if not the, primary themes of the Book of Romans is this idea that the righteous live by faith. In other words, salvation comes by faith in Christ, alone. It, in fact, became one of the battle cries of the protestant reformation: Sola Fide! (It means 'in faith alone.')
* "Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted in 1529, is in the public domain.