Martin Luther’s greatest contribution remembered on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10

Martin Luther may have been the greatest of the Protestant Reformers. A book I would highly recommend is Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers, in which something of the complexity of that time is presented with a full, succinct look at the theology of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and Menno Simons, the last one not really wanting to reform the church, but start over according to the New Testament teaching- but by and by realizing, that you can’t just start from scratch, but must take into account the early centuries of the church when they wrestled through teachings on the Trinity and who Jesus is in his humanity and Deity.

Martin Luther and John Calvin may have been the most gifted of the Reformers, certainly not without their flaws, but it’s a mistake to simply brush them off. They are important church fathers contributing to the church’s understanding and edification in the faith.

Martin Luther himself, and what he accomplished is nothing short of amazing. Of course he would say, and it’s so true that it was not him, but the grace of God in and at work in him. Maybe his greatest contribution was to uncover and unshackle the gospel from the church’s traditions which had all but buried it. And this is not at all to say that all tradition is bad. Every church necessarily so, I think, and in reality has tradition. The question might be whether it’s good, or not, not whether a church should have tradition.

Martin Luther’s insistence from scripture that we are saved by grace alone through Christ alone is at the heart of understanding how the gospel, the good news in Jesus becomes good news for the one who hears or reads of it. God’s grace is a gift, one neither deserved, nor earned, which we receive by simple faith apart from works. Because of Christ’s work for us on the cross in his death, as well as his resurrection and what followed. It is a powerful, living salvation for sure, all in and through Jesus.

the righteousness of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and “hyper-grace”

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

There are some within what is called the hyper-grace camp of the church who relegate Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to his ministry to the Jews and as a function of the Law, simply to condemn them in their sin. Ironically what Jesus actually is doing is talking about a righteousness which can only be realized by grace, and comes from the inside out.

There are aspects of the old covenant in the sermon, such as Jesus’s reference to offering gifts at the altar. But the heart of the sermon is plainly the difference in the righteousness that comes with Jesus and the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom in him. Of course this is fully realized through Jesus’s death and resurrection followed by his ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But to relegate the Sermon on the Mount to the old covenant and the Jews, and essentially what we’re delivered from is a misreading of scripture, and a terrible loss.

And for that matter there is much that is rich for us in the Old Testament. God has always had his people, a remnant by grace (Romans 11:1-6). Abraham and David are held up as exemplars for us of God’s grace through their faith (Romans 4). Abraham who God promised to be the father of many nations is called the father of us all by his faith as both an example to us, and the one through whom would come God’s blessing of the Seed who would bless the world, the Messiah, Lord and Savior Jesus (Romans 4; Galatians 3).

The Sermon on the Mount is a centerpiece, perhaps the centerpiece of Jesus’s teaching in the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 the parallel to it, and Jesus’s Upper Room discourse the eve of his crucifixion also central to his teaching. Of course his teachings are sprinkled all throughout the gospels as in his parables (like the Good Samaritan, and the Lost/Prodigal Son), separate sayings, and his teaching on the destruction of the temple and the end times.

We read to some extent how Jesus’s teaching is fulfilled in the letters which followed after Pentecost. But Jesus’s words stand on their own, as well. To miss them by waving them off as a function of the law is a great loss to the church, not only in terms of losing the teaching, but in the failure to handle accurately the word of truth. Something we all have to keep working at, and hold each other accountable to, in and through Jesus.