Martin Luther was a pastor, theologian, and university professor. In each of these facets to his vocation, Luther was characterized by his teachings, and the teachings of Martin Luther impact Christians across the globe to this day. Among the chief of Martin Luther’s key teachings, which have had a lasting impact, are: justification by faith alone, the theology of the Cross, the freedom of a Christian, and the bondage of the will.
According to Martin Luther, justification by faith alone– the teaching that we are counted as right in God’s sight only on the basis of our trust in Christ, and not due to anything we have done– “was the ‘hinge on which all else turns,’ the ‘issue on which the church stands or falls.’ And Luther saw with astonishing clarity its implications for every other Christian teaching or belief” [Denis R. Janz, ed., A Reformation Reader(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 77]. Luther’s whole approach to the Christian life may be summed up in his last written words, “We are beggars, that is true.” “We can earn no merits which will purchase for us a standing before God. We are beggars– needy, vulnerable, totally bereft of resources with which to save ourselves” [George, 104]. We must be justified by faith alone, for as sinners we have nothing in ourselves that could possibly contribute our salvation.
“For Luther the good news of the gospel was that in Jesus Christ God had become a beggar too. God identified with us in our neediness” [Ibid]. “Luther’s whole theology can be quite accurately summed up as one protracted attempt to direct men and women to God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, and Him as crucified” [Carl R. Trueman, Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 48]. This is Luther’s theology of the Cross: that the power of God, which is in one sense hidden during Christ’s weakness and suffering, is– in a greater sense– most perfectly revealed through His humiliation and death on behalf of sinners, and we meet God through dying to ourselves. Each of the Gospel accounts– Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John– culminates in the death of Christ on the Cross; each Christian life is characterized by daily taking up a cross: dying to self and following Jesus (Luke 9:23). This is why Luther once wrote, “the Cross alone is our theology” [WA 5.176.32-33].
On the basis of Christ’s work on the Cross for sinners, the Christian man is truly, fully free: free from sin and free from the impossible burden of attempting to be counted as right in God’s sight by means of law-keeping or adherence to ceremonies devised by men. Yet the freedom of the Christian is tempered by the fact that we are to live for God and others in a self-sacrificial manner. In his book On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), Luther famously wrote, “The Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant to all, and subject to everyone.” This paradoxical statement is explained by the fact that we are made spiritually free through faith in Christ– we are dependent on Him alone for salvation, and therefore no command or opposition from men can affect the welfare of our souls. On the other hand, because we are focused on Christ and not on ourselves, our actions in life should be motivated by a focus on His glory and on loving sinners whom He died to save.
Christ’s work on the Cross was absolutely necessary for our salvation because each one of us– due to the fall of Adam and our own evil choices– is naturally sinful to the very core of our being. Our desires do not line up with God’s desires; we each want to rebelliously go our own way rather than humbly relying upon God. “Luther had come to see how radically sin affected humanity… that it was so all-consuming that nothing short of death could cure it– and that death he found in the death of Christ on the Cross” [Trueman, 20-21]. Luther explained and defended this teaching concerning human sinfulness in his book The Bondage of the Will (1525), which he felt to be chief among his written works. As J.I. Packer noted:
“The Bondage of the Will is the greatest piece of theological writing that ever came from Luther’s pen. This was his own opinion. Writing… on July 9th, 1537, with reference to a complete edition of his works, [Luther] roundly affirmed that none of them deserved preservation save the little children’s Catechism and The Bondage of the Will; for only they, in their different departments, were ‘right’ (justum)” [J.I. Packer, “Historical and Theological Introduction,” Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2002), 40].
Luther felt that the doctrine concerning the bondage of the human will to sin was crucial, for it is only when we understand the desperate nature of our situation that we seek the freedom found through the Cross.
More could be said regarding the legacy of Martin Luther. As Roland Bainton noted, “Luther did the work of more than five men” in Bible translation, the setting of liturgy, catechism, preaching, and the writing of hymns. The movement spearheaded by Luther “gave the impetus which sometimes launched and sometimes helped to establish the other varieties of Protestantism [groups of churches that were formed in protest against the Roman Catholic Church]. They all stem in some measure from him.” But even the Roman Catholic Church must admit that it owes much to Luther, in that it “received a tremendous shock from the Lutheran Reformation and a terrific urge to reform after its own pattern” [Bainton, 301-302]. Christians today the world over have struggled with sin, found assurance of salvation in the Cross of Christ alone, and have looked to the Scripture alone as our only infallible, final authority, and many of us– whether knowingly or not– interpret our own experiences based in part on the pattern set by how Martin Luther interpreted his experiences both in struggling with the text of Romans 1:17 and in defending his faith against the power structure of the Roman Catholic Church.