As we commemorate 500 years since the beginning of Martin Luther’s reform, it is fitting to remember the major themes that animated those reforms in theology, preaching, and Christian piety. The word sola—“alone”—became a watch-word for the distinctive emphases of the Reformation: sola scriptura—by Scripture alone; sola gratia—by grace alone; sola fide—by faith alone. All of these slogans expressed the Reformers’ efforts to clarify, safeguard, and faithfully proclaim the center of Christian faith and life: Jesus Christ. The one great Alone—solo Christo—appears like the sun with the other solas orbiting about it, basking in its warmth and light. Or as Luther wrote: “In my heart reigns this one article: faith in Christ. From him, through him, and to him all my theological thinking is flowing and reflowing by day and by night” (WA 40 I, 33).
This quote of Luther comes from the preface to his great commentary on Galatians, published in 1535. The commentary grew out of his lectures in 1531. He was a bit embarrassed at how long-winded it seemed, but if read as a testimony of Christ, he thought his profusion fitting. The preeminence and centrality of Christ in Luther’s thought gives his theology both its catholic and evangelical character and relevance—all Christians should benefit from it.
As the quote above indicates, one distinctive feature of Luther’s focus on Christ is how it serves as the starting point and touchstone for all other doctrines. This is especially clear in his Galatians commentary, as Luther continually argues from Christ back to other doctrines. One cannot truly grasp sin, the human condition, or the proper use of the Law until one knows what kind of Savior was given. Luther said, “Therefore those who fall away from grace do not know their own sin, or the Law they follow, or themselves, or anything else at all… For without the knowledge of grace, that is, of the Gospel of Christ, it is impossible for a man to think that the Law is a weak and beggarly element, useless for righteousness” (LW 26, 408-409). It is only from the vantage point of faith in Christ that all other doctrine can be truly known. In what follows, we will offer a few examples of this from Luther’s commentary.
The Definition of Christ. “The highest art among Christians is to be able to define Christ… But if this true picture of Christ is removed or even obscured, there follows a sure confusion of everything; for the unspiritual man cannot judge about the Law of God” (LW 26, 178, 373). The importance of defining Christ rightly is repeatedly stressed by Luther; this is the true starting point for theology. Certainly the Christ of the Creed is the Christ of Luther. He is both God and man to be sure; but defining Christ must go further than simply accepting the old doctrinal formulations of Christ’s divine and human natures. For Luther, to confess that Christ is true man keeps one from rummaging and climbing about to find and apprehend God; instead God has come to us. Speculation about God, apart from Jesus the incarnate God, leads one to every form of works-righteousness: “Begin where Christ began—in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, and at his mother’s breasts. For this purpose he came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way he might present himself to our sight…. and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty” (LW 26, 29).
Luther also speaks of Christ’s divinity in a similar way. Because Christ is true God, he has control of our salvation and has the power and authority to dole it out freely. Even as the Father grants us grace, peace, forgiveness of sins, life, and victory over sin, death, the devil, and hell, so Christ himself grants us these things—as Paul clearly states in his greeting to the Galatians, “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Here you see how necessary it is to believe and confess the doctrine of the divinity of Christ… Therefore when we teach that men are justified through Christ and that Christ is the Victor over sin, death, and the eternal curse, we are testifying at the same time that he is God by nature… For it belongs exclusively to the divine power to destroy sin and abolish death, to create righteousness and grant life” (LW 26, 282-3).
The Law Against Christ. Christ is the Unique One, and so an antithesis is produced between him and everything else in all creation (LW 26, 175). Even the Law of God, the highest and greatest thing in all creation (“what is more necessary in the world than the Law and its works?” (LW 26, 112), cannot be on par with the Son of God (LW 26, 141). Because Christ is who he is and does what he does, the Law cannot be or do any of these things. And so at any point when the Law claims for itself anything which by right belongs to Christ alone, the two are in conflict: “But if my salvation was worth so much to Christ that He had to die for my sins, then my works and the righteousness of the Law are vile—in fact, nonexistent—in comparison with such an inestimable price” (LW 26, 183).
Not only does the Law look dim in the light of Christ, but the human condition appears utterly dark. Arguing from Christ back, Luther delves into the depths of human sin: “These words, ‘the Son of God,’ ‘he loved me,’ and ‘he gave himself for me,’ are sheer thunder and heavenly fire against the righteousness of the Law and the doctrine of works. There was such great evil, such great error, and such darkness and ignorance in my will and intellect that I could be liberated only by such an inestimable price… For I hear in this passage that there is so much evil in my nature that the world and all creation would not suffice to placate God, but that the Son of God himself had to be given up for it” (LW 26, 175).
The Law For Christ. So is the Law evil? No, the Law is not from the devil, it is God’s Law, but when the Law is used contrary to God’s intention, this then is a diabolical use (LW 26, 14). Since Christ has always been our righteousness (as the promises testify), the Law was never intended to justify. It has another purpose. The law works for Christ by taking away all our hand-holds and confidences until only he is left. When the Law serves the Gospel in this way, they are “as far apart in time, place, person, and all features as heaven and earth, the beginning of the world and its end” (LW 26, 316) and at the same time “joined completely together in the same heart” (LW 26, 343).
Luther’s reform has often been regarded as a “Copernican Revolution” in theology. Perhaps this is true, though like Copernicus Luther does not actually place anything new into the center, but only attends to him who has always stood there: the sun of our righteousness. “In my heart reigns this one article: faith in Christ. From him, through him, and to him all my theological thinking is flowing and reflowing by day and by night.”
Dr. Erik H. Herrmann, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.