In some ways, Luther’s understanding of justification by faith and the gospel was fundamentally different from that of the other theologians of the Reformation period. In particular, his conception of justification as a healing process can be seen as providing the basis for an alternative paradigm for the doctrine of justification by faith that resolves many of the problems associated with the traditional Protestant formulations of that doctrine and also recaptures the logic and power of the New Testament gospel.
Five hundred years ago, after publishing his 95 Theses and speaking out in his other writings against the injustices and abuses he saw in the church of his day, Martin Luther stood firm before Emperor Charles V at Worms and refused to recant anything he had said or written. Yet while many Christians today celebrate Luther’s resolve and claim to identify with his thought and teachings, we must ask ourselves: Are we really willing to stand for what Luther stood for?
In response to systems that oppressed the common people by exploiting, silencing, and excluding them, both Martin Luther and Paulo Freire proposed inclusive forms of education that revolved around dialogue and critical thinking. As we seek to develop and implement strategies and liberating forms of praxis to struggle against the new forms that injustice and systemic violence have taken in our own day, we can learn a great deal by placing Luther and Freire in critical dialogue with one another and with our present-day contexts.
Shortly after Luther published his 95 theses, he found himself facing the very real threat of being put to death for his views unless he recanted. Why did he refuse to recant? And what have Lutheran Christians in places such as Africa discovered in the gospel that makes them willing to put their lives at risk for their faith today?
Luther often pointed to the story of Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22 to affirm that, if God spoke through the mouth of a donkey once, God can speak through any of us, no matter how insignificant, unworthy, or unqualified for that task we may seem in the eyes of others. If such is the case, then we must listen to the voices of all if we hope to discern God’s voice today.
Two of the factors that have contributed most to the crisis that our churches and institutions of theological education are facing today are the traditional interpretations of the gospel and the models of the church that we have inherited from the past. In order to address that crisis, an emphasis on the transforming and healing nature of the gospel as well as the adoption of new forms of community are necessary.
Did Paul and Luther proclaim the same gospel? Although Luther’s understanding of the work of Christ reflects some ideas that are foreign to Paul’s thought, both agree on the heart of the gospel, namely, that justification is by faith alone, since “faith alone fulfills the law.” In Christ God graciously accepts sinners just as they are, so that as they live out of faith, trusting solely in God for forgiveness and new life, they may become the righteous people God desires that they be, not for God’s sake, but for theirs.
Can we speak of sola gratia as a divine attribute so as to affirm that all that God does is grace? Traditionally, Western Christian theology has answered that question negatively, placing God’s justice in opposition with God’s grace. When we understand divine grace as unconditional love, however, we rediscover a gospel capable of transforming lives and responding effectively to the crisis of faith we face today.
For centuries, Western Christian theologians have been divided over the question of whether the basis upon which believers in Christ are justified and forgiven is the change and renewal that God brings about in them through faith or instead the atoning work of Christ carried out prior to and independently of any such change and renewal. A reexamination of Martin Luther’s thought on the subject can offer fresh answers to that question.
Martin and Gustavo: Two Theologies of Liberation and their Implications for the Church’s Mission Today
Despite the differences in their thought, both Martin Luther and Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez placed the idea of liberation at the heart of their understanding of salvation. Only when we follow both of these theologians and Jesus himself in immersing ourselves in the contexts of the marginalized and excluded can we learn to articulate the gospel today in ways that enable us to carry out faithfully the mission God has entrusted to us.