December 20 | Martin LutherWritten by University Communications
If you haven’t heard it already, you will soon. There will be that time when you are watching some random movie or television show and a character will start talking about his or her “faith.” Or perhaps it is a public official thanking various faith-based groups, or describing someone’s deep faith commitment.
“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith, from first to last, just as it is written ‘The righteous will live by faith.’"
– Romans 1:17
Talk of faith becomes even more popular during the Christmas season, as we gingerly walk around the topics of Jesus and salvation with our unbelieving friends, family, and co-workers, all to keep the atmosphere light and jovial. So we keep faith generic.
But is faith ever generic? The very definition of faith seems to demand an object into which the faith is placed. And so we approach December 25 with a simple question, where do we place our faith?
This question haunted a young German monk in the 1500s by the name of Martin Luther. An exceptionally gifted child, Luther was driven by a strong-willed and hard-working father to make something of himself as a lawyer. Yet, Luther went a different path, enrolling in a monastic order especially known for its academic prowess—the Augustinians.
Luther took to his study of medieval theology with amazing tenacity, and as the Renaissance scholars of the day produced more and more texts of Scripture in the original Hebrew and Greek (the main text used by the church at the time was only found in Latin), Luther poured over those as well.
His intensity for study was outpaced by his intensity for spiritual growth. However, the drive behind this intensity was fear. Luther feared hell. He feared damnation. He feared God. And that is as far as he got. Just fear.
As he poured over Scripture, he sought to overcome fear through righteous living. Luther attempted everything he could according to the Church at the time to earn his salvation. He took the Lord’s Supper incessantly. He read Scripture constantly and remained steadfast in prayer. In the realm of good works, he engaged in that as well, and he had grown to become a stand-out monk and budding professor of theology. In short, Luther put his faith in himself.
Fear drove him, but not to holiness. Rather, it drove him to misery.
A student of Scripture, Luther often lectured on different books of the Bible at his university in Wittenberg. Among them came a lecture on the Book of Romans, which only multiplied his fear, especially as he read Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4–“the righteous will live by faith.”
“This phrase was customarily explained to mean that the righteousness of God is a virtue by which He is Himself righteous and condemns sinners,” Luther later recalled. “In this way, all the teachers of the church except Augustine had interpreted the passage.”
For Luther, the righteousness of God, that for which he strove, was absolutely unattainable. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get there. In fact, he became all the more defeated when he realized that every bit of his strivings for God came from a selfish motivation—fear of judgement. How can one purely love and serve another when all they are doing is fearing their judgement? How can you put faith in that?
But then, the change happened.
“This misunderstanding continued until, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, I finally examined more carefully the word of Habakkuk 2:4: ‘The just shall live by his faith,’” Luther explained. “From this passage I concluded that life must be derived from faith.”
Luther abandoned his striving for righteousness and came to realize that the righteousness of God was the gift given to us, not a judgement upon us, and it is through faith—faith in the righteous gift of God—that we are made right with Him.
Through this revelation, Luther said, “the entire Holy Scripture became clear to me, and heaven itself was opened to me.”
Luther’s heart and life changed when he took his eyes off of himself and his own works and placed them upon God’s gift.
So what is God’s gift to us? His gift is the birth of Jesus, who was laid in a humble manger. His gift is the life of Jesus, who revealed the Kingdom to us. His gift is the cross of Jesus, through which we can receive His righteousness. And His gift is the resurrection of Jesus, and the knowledge that we too will be raised with Him.
This Christmas, avoid the generic faith. Avoid the faith that has no object at all or the faith that is only focused on yourself.
Instead put your faith in the same place where Luther and so many more have—in Christ. Only there will you find peace, and only there will you really begin to love and serve God.