On July 2, 1505 a young student was traveling from his home town of Mansfield in Germany back to law school in Erfurt. The skies opened, and a violent thunderstorm encircled him. Legend has it, he was almost literally struck by lightning. Young Martin Luther was paralyzed with fear. He believed God was unleashing the very thunder of heaven to judge his soul. Fearing for his life, he cried out to Saint Anne, “Help me…and I will become a monk.” Weeks later, Luther left behind a promising career and joined a monastery.
The church at Luther’s time saw sin as something that people needed to cooperate with God to rectify. This produced the view that God was a wrathful tyrant, who continuously counted one’s sins against oneself. One could never be certain of God’s kindness and mercy. That summer thunderstorm became for Luther God’s voracious judgment against him.
Luther’s reading of Paul’s Letter to the Romans would revolutionize his view of God and his understanding of sin. After opening the letter, Paul builds a case that ends with these words, “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law… (Romans 3:20).” Previously in the letter, Paul made the case that sin is an inherent condition, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (Roman 1:21).” Luther later used two concepts to explain this condition. He used the Latin term for “root” to explain that we are at root sinful beings. Although we have free will, we tend to use it to sin. Luther also used the Latin term “incurvitas” to explain that our sin makes us curve in on ourselves. We become preoccupied with ourselves at the expense of loving God and neighbor.
If God had left humanity in this condition, there would be no hope. Thank God the story does not end there, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known…This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (Romans 3:21-22).” The basis of this righteousness is not our cooperation with God to rectify sins. The basis is God’s presentation of Christ as a “sacrifice of atonement.” We receive this righteousness by trusting in God’s provision in Christ’s once and for all sacrifice.
This Scriptural concept would be summarized in the reformation slogan, “Faith Alone.” By faith alone, we can be assured of our right standing before God.
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