By Evan D. Burns
October 31, 1517 ought always to be remembered as the sacred day when the Spirit of God used the German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), to launch the Protestant Reformation. Luther was a prophetic voice that took no prisoners with his theological assertions. His theological persuasion and unbreakable dissent emerged from his knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. The Reformation was the rediscovery of the Word. And it was through the languages that Luther unearthed the treasure of the gospel: justification by faith alone.
The following excerpts from his commentary on Galatians exemplify his zeal for this doctrine:
- There is a clear and present danger that the devil may take away from us the pure doctrine of faith and may substitute for it the doctrines of works and of human traditions. It is very necessary, therefore, that this doctrine of faith be continually read and heard in public…. This doctrine can never be discussed and taught enough. If it is lost and perishes, the whole knowledge of truth, life, and salvation is lost and perishes at the same time. But if it flourishes, everything good flourishes.
- If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost…. For between these two kinds of righteousness, the active righteousness of the Law and the passive righteousness of Christ, there is no middle ground. Therefore he who has strayed away from this Christian righteousness will necessarily relapse into the active righteousness; that is, when he has lost Christ, he must fall into a trust in his own works.
- Therefore we always repeat, urge, and inculcate this doctrine of faith or Christian righteousness, so that it may be observed by continuous use and may be precisely distinguished from the active righteousness of the Law. (For by this doctrine alone and through it alone is the church built, and in this it consists).
- The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness. This is that matter of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self.
For Luther, eternal joy and eternal punishment were at stake in this doctrine. To him, the minister of the Word ought to be fervent and constant in teaching this doctrine. One cannot be casual and lackadaisical in proclaiming Christian righteousness. As Luther said, there is no middle ground. This doctrine is absolutely essential for salvation.
Luther’s invincible weapon of justification by faith was produced in the factory of the original languages. Consider his grave concern that gospel ministers know Greek and Hebrew in “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools” (1524):
- In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages….
- And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel.
- It is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.
- But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations.
- We should not be led astray because some boast of the Spirit and consider Scripture of little worth, and others, such as the Waldensian Brethren think the languages are unnecessary.
- So I can by no means commend the Waldensian Brethren for their neglect of the languages. For even though they may teach the truth, they inevitably often miss the true meaning of the text, and thus are neither equipped nor fit for defending the faith against error. Moreover, their teaching is so obscure and couched in such peculiar terms, differing from the language of Scripture, that I fear it is not or will not remain pure. For there is great danger in speaking of things of God in a different manner and in different terms than God himself employs. In short, they may lead saintly lives and teach sacred things among themselves, but so long as they remain without the languages they cannot but lack what all the rest lack, namely, the ability to treat Scripture with certainty and thoroughness and to be useful to other nations. Because they could do this, but will not, they have to figure out for themselves how they will answer for it to God.
Timothy Lull. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005 (18).
Luther’s Works, ed. W. Brandt and H. Lehman (Philadelphia Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 357-366.
Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons. They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.