Making sense of salvation

University campuses—this story takes place in the ancient university town of Wittenberg—have always been dangerous places. You never know where you might end up should you dare set foot on one. I doubt that Martin Luther had any inkling that one day his exercise of academic freedom (commingled with spiritual anguish) would set in motion a renewal movement that would change the church forever—both in its Protestant and Roman Catholic expressions.

He strode up to the large wooden door. Paused. Then unfurled a hand-written scroll. With a few swift strokes of a hammer, the nail bit into the door’s wood. There the scroll hung, curled slightly by the breeze.


It was a young professor’s invitation to seriously and publicly discuss a medieval Catholic doctrine that was tearing apart the fiber of his soul: salvation. What is repentance? How are we made right with God? What role does the church and, more specifically, the Pope play in granting the forgiveness of sins?

It was October 31, 1517—the beginning (if it could be called that) of what we today refer to as the Protestant Reformation. Many churches celebrate Luther’s bold action today (also known as All Hallows Eve or Halloween, of course). But it’s also fitting that Reformation Day falls right before All Saints’ Day (November 1), given that the Reformation emphasized, among other things, broadening ministry to those outside of ordered ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons) and religious vocations (those who belonged to a monastic order, as Luther himself did).

Luther’s grievance flowed from the internal tension between his lived experience of being a Christian, his ministry as an Augustinian priest and preacher at Wittenberg, and his role as a teacher of theology in the divinity faculty. As a priest and professor Luther was obliged to believe and teach the (medieval) Church’s doctrine of “progressive” salvation (soteriology)—the idea that salvation takes root in the life of the believer through seven sacraments, which dispense grace to Christians so that they can be saved over time. The sacraments were baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, marriage or ordination to Holy Orders, confession, responsive penance, and, in the end, administration of the Last Rites that aid in the transition from this life to the next.

This foundational medieval Catholic theology was problematic for Luther for two principal reasons. First, Luther faithfully participated in the sacramental life of the church and yet found that his soul was still anguished concerning his own salvation. As long as salvation equaled moral perfection, he lived in utter defeat, turning from his sin only to eventually fall once more into transgression of God’s law. And he feared the “righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17), which he understood as God’s holiness, purity, other-ness, unity, and perfection. Indeed, to Luther, the righteousness of God was the basis of God’s wrath toward sinners.

Read the rest of the post at the InterVarsity blog.

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