Martin Luther’s Text by Frank W. Boreham

November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546 | Eisleben, Saxony, Holy Roman Empire

It goes without saying that the text that made Martin Luther made history with a vengeance. When, through its mystical but mighty ministry, Martin Luther entered into newness of life, the face of the world was changed. It was as though all the windows of Europe had been suddenly thrown open, and the sunshine came streaming in everywhere. The destinies of empires were turned that day into a new channel. [Thomas] Carlyle has a stirring and dramatic chapter in which he shows that every nation under heaven stood or fell according to the attitude that it assumed towards Martin Luther. “I call this Luther a true Great Man,” he exclaims. “He is great in intellect, great in courage, great in affection and integrity; one of our most lovable and gracious men. He is great, not as a hewn obelisk is great, but as an Alpine mountain is great; so simple, honest, spontaneous; not setting himself up to be great, but there for quite another purpose than the purpose of being great!” “A mighty man,” he says again: “What were all emperors, popes and potentates in comparison? His light was to flame as a beacon over long centuries and epochs of the world; the whole world and its history was waiting for this man!” And elsewhere he declares that the moment in which Luther defied the wrath of the Diet of Worms was the greatest moment in the modern history of men. Here, then, was the man; what was the text that made him?

“The kingdom of God!”
“Far from the kingdom of God!”
“Not very far from the kingdom of God!”

Let us visit a couple of very interesting European libraries! And here, in the Convent Library at Erfurt, we are shown an exceedingly famous and beautiful picture. It represents Luther as a young monk of four and twenty, poring in the early morning over a copy of the Scriptures to which a bit of broken chain is hanging. The dawn is stealing through the open lattice, illumining both the open Bible and the eager fact of its reader. And on the page that the young monk so intently studies are to be seen the words: “The just shall live by faith.”

“The just shall live by faith!”
“The just shall live by faith!”

These, then, are the words that made the world all over again. And now, leaving the Convent Library at Erfurt, let us visit another library, the library of Rudolstadt! For here, in a glass case, we shall discover a manuscript that will fascinate us. It is a letter in the handwriting of Dr. Paul Luther, the reformer’s youngest son. “In the year 1544,” we read, “my late dearest father, in the presence of us all, narrated the whole story of his journey to Rome. He acknowledged with great joy that, in that city, through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, he had come to the knowledge of the truth of the everlasting gospel. It happened in this way. As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of the Prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind: “The just shall live by faith.” Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenberg, and took this as the chief foundation of all his doctrine.”

“The just shall live by faith!”
“The just shall live by faith!”

The picture in the one library and the manuscript in the other have told us all that we desire to know.

“The just shall live by faith!”
“The just shall live by faith!”

The words do not flash or glitter. Like the ocean, they do not give any indication upon the surface of the profundities and mysteries that lie concealed beneath. And yet of what other text can it be said that, occurring in the Old Testament, it is thrice quoted in the New?

“The just shall live by faith!” cries the Prophet.

“The just shall live by faith!” says Paul, when he addresses a letter to the greatest of the European churches.

“The just shall live by faith!” he says again, in his letter to the greatest of the Asiatic churches.

“The just shall live by faith!” says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, addressing himself to Jews.

It is as though it were the sum and substance of everything, to be proclaimed by prophets in the old dispensation and echoed by apostles in the new; to be translated into all languages and transmitted to every section of the habitable earth. Indeed, Bishop [J.B.]Lightfoot as good as says that the words represent the concentration and epitome of all revealed religion. “The whole law,” he says, “was given to Moses in six hundred and thirteen precepts. David, in the fifteenth Psalm, brings them all within the compass of eleven. Isaiah reduces them to six; Micah to three; and Isaiah, in a later passage, to two. But Habakkuk condenses them all into one: “The just shall live by faith!”

And this string of monosyllables that sums up everything and is sent to everybody – the old world’s text; the new world’s text; the prophet’s text; the Jew’s text; the European’s text; the Asiatic’s text; everybody’s text – is, in a special and peculiar sense, Martin Luther’s text. We made that discovery in the libraries of Erfurt and Rudolstadt; and we shall, as we proceed, find abundant evidence to confirm us in that conclusion.

For, strangely enough, the text that echoed itself three times in the New Testament, echoed itself three times also in the experience of Luther. It met him at Wittenberg; it met him at Bologna; and it finally mastered him at Rome.

It was at Wittenberg that the incident occurred which we have already seen transferred to the painter’s canvas. In the retirement of his quiet cell, while the world is still wrapped in slumber, be pores over the epistle to the Romans. Paul’s quotation from Habakkuk strangely captivates him.

“The just shall live by faith!”
“The just shall live by faith!”

“This precept,” says the historian, “fascinates him. ‘For the just, then,’ he says to himself, ‘there is a life different from that of other men; and this life is the gift of faith!’ This promise, to which he opens all his heart, as if God had placed it there specially for him, unveils to him the mystery of the Christian life. For years afterwards, in the midst of his numerous occupations, he fancies that he still hears the words repeating themselves to him over and over again.”

“The just shall live by faith!”
“The just shall live by faith!”

Years pass. Luther travels. In the course of his journey, he crosses the Alps, is entertained at the Benedictine Convent at Bologna, and is there overtaken by a serious sickness. His mind relapses into utmost darkness and dejection. To die thus, under a burning sky and in a foreign land! He shudders at the thought. “The sense of his sinfulness troubles him; the prospect of judgment fills him with dread. But at the very moment at which these terrors reach their highest pitch, the words that had already struck him at Wittenberg recur forcibly to his memory and enlighten his soul like a ray from heaven –

‘The just shall live by faith!’
‘The just shall live by faith!’

Thus restored and comforted,” the record concludes, “he soon regains his health and resumes his journey.”

The third of these experiences – the experience narrated in that fireside conversation of which the manuscript at Rudolstadt has told us – befalls him at Rome. “Wishing to obtain an indulgence promised by the Pope to all who shall ascend Pilate’s Staircase on their knees, the good Saxon monk is painfully creeping up those steps which, he is told, were miraculously transported from Jerusalem to Rome. Whilst he is performing this meritorious act, however, he thinks he hears a voice of thunder crying, as at Wittenberg and Bologna –

‘The just shall live by faith!’
‘The just shall live by faith!’”

“These words, that twice before have struck him like the voice of an angel from heaven, resound unceasingly and powerfully within him. He rises in amazement from the steps up which he is dragging his body; he shudders at himself; he is ashamed at seeing to what a depth superstition plunged him. He flies far from the scene of his folly.”

Thus, thrice in the New Testament and thrice in the life of Luther, the text speaks with singular appropriateness and effect.

“This powerful text,” remarks Merle D’Aubigne, “has a mysterious influence on the life of Luther. It was a creative sentence, both for the reformer and for the Reformation. It was in these words that God then said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light!”

It was the unveiling of the Face of God! Until this great transforming text flashed its light into the soul of Luther, his thought of God was a pagan thought. And the pagan thought is an unjust thought, an unworthy thought, a cruel thought. Look at this Indian devotee! From head to foot he bears the marks of the torture that he has inflicted upon his body in his frantic efforts to give pleasure to his god. His back is a tangle of scars. The flesh has been lacerated by the pitiless hooks by which he has swung himself on the terrible churuka. Iron spears have been repeatedly run through his tongue. His ears are torn to ribbons. What does it mean? It can only mean that he worships a fiend! His god loves to see him in anguish! His cries of pain are music in the ears of the deity whom he adores! This ceaseless orgy of torture is his futile endeavour to satisfy the idol’s lust for blood. Luther made precisely the same mistake. To his sensitive mind, every thought of God was a thing of terror. “When I was young,” he tells us, “it happened that at Eisleben, on Corpus Christi day [Thursday after Trinity Sunday], I was walking with the procession when, suddenly, the sight of the Holy Sacrament, which was carried by Doctor Staupitz, so terrified me that a cold sweat covered my body, and I believed myself dying of terror.” All through his convent days he proceeds upon the assumption that God gloats over his misery. His life is a long drawn out agony. He creeps like a shadow along the galleries of the cloister, the walls echoing with his dismal moanings. His body wastes to a skeleton; his strength ebbs away; on more than one occasion his brother monks find him prostrate on the convent floor and pick him up for dead. And all the time he thinks of God as One who can find delight in these continuous torments! The just shall live, he says to himself, by penance and by pain. The just shall live by fasting; the just shall live by fear.

“The just shall live by fear!” Luther mutters to himself every day of his life.

“The just shall live by faith!” says the text that breaks upon him like a light from heaven.

“By fear! By fear!”

“By faith! By faith!”

And what is faith? The theologians may find difficulty in defining it, yet every little child knows what it is. In all the days of my own ministry, I have found only one definition that has satisfied me, and whenever I have had occasion to speak of faith, I have recited it. It is Bishop O’Brien’s: –

They who know what is meant by faith in a promise, know what is meant by faith in the Gospel; they who know what is meant by faith in a remedy, know what is meant by faith in the blood of the Redeemer; they who know what is meant by faith in a physician, faith in an advocate, faith in a friend, know, too, what is meant by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

With the coming of the text, Luther passes from the realm of fear into the realm of faith. It is like passing from the rigors of an arctic night into the sunshine of a summer day; it is like passing from a crowded city slum into the fields where the daffodils dance and the linnets [song-birds] sing; it is like passing into a new world; it is like entering Paradise!

Yes, it is like entering Paradise! The expression is his, not mine. “Before those words broke upon my mind,” he says, “I hated God and was angry with Him because, not content with frightening us sinners by the law and by the miseries of life, He still further increased our torture by the gospel. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood these words –

‘The just shall live by faith!’
‘The just shall live by faith!’

– then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God!

“Henceforward,” he says again, “I saw the beloved and holy Scriptures with other eyes. The words that I had previously detested, I began from that hour to value and to love as the sweetest and most consoling words in the Bible. In very truth, this text was to me the true gate of Paradise!”

“An open door into the very Paradise of God!”
“This text was to me the true gate of Paradise!”

And they who enter into the City of God by that gate will go no more out for ever.

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