This odd little book still occupies an honoured position on my bookshelves after over thirty years. ‘Little’ refers to its 4 by 7 inch format. It is not short, being almost 1.5 inches thick!
I was an unsaved young man when I first encountered this volume in a bookshop. In my search for something more than the state religion I knew, I had graduated from novels about Satanism, and literature about those we now know as the Goths, to religious books, be they liberal or whatever.
Covers were uninspiring in those days. There was no gloss, only the title and a rather morose-looking Martin Luther. As I paid the ten shillings I had little idea that ‘the monk who changed the world’ would be instrumental in changing me.
Seeking real Christianity
To a newcomer, the book’s contents are not attractive: ‘Preface to the New Testament 1522’; ‘Preface to the Psalms’; ‘The Freedom of a Christian 1520’; ‘The Pagan Servitude of the Church 1520’; ‘Secular Authority 1523’; and so on.
A note to the reader states: ‘The selections in this volume are intended for the general reader. They are meant for individuals interested in gaining a picture of the essential insights of Luther and of his enduring significance on the basis of a direct … acquaintance with his writings’.
In my case, ‘gaining a picture of the insights of Luther’ would be the understatement of a lifetime. I was going to be brought to share those insights in a soul transforming experience.
Luther’s interests corresponded with something that mattered to me: how can we live a life pleasing to God? In his ‘Preface to the Psalms’ Luther commends the psalms above the legends of the saints as a means to lead us ‘into the fellowship of saints’.
He goes on to say: ‘if you wish to see the holy Christian church depicted in living colours … then place the Book of Psalms in front of you; you will have a beautiful, bright, polished mirror which will show you what Christianity is’.
Reading the Bible had convinced me of the gap between my Christianity and the Christianity of the Gospels, and I wanted to know authentic Christianity.
Two kinds of righteousness
The turning point for me centred around the ‘Preface to the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans’, ‘Two kinds of righteousness 1519’ and ‘A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians 1531 (Selections)’.
As I read these over a period of a year I came face to face with the central question of salvation: ‘How should man be just with God?’ (Job 9:2). In the 1519 sermon, Luther distinguishes between what we now call ‘imputed righteousness’ and ‘imparted righteousness’.
He shows that we are not accepted by God because of our good works but that the latter flow from our being accepted by God on the basis of an ‘alien righteousness’, that is, the righteousness of Another.
‘Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours’(p. 87). This justification by faith alone in Christ alone was new to me.
My entire religious experience had centred on me doing the best that I could in being kind to my neighbour. I had things completely the wrong way round.
Living to serve God
I felt no animosity to the suggestion that I could do nothing to save myself, and that salvation must be received as God’s free and gracious gift in Christ or not at all.
My only problem with this doctrine was that if there was nothing for me to do to be righteous, I would stop trying to live a good life and my Christianity, such as it was, would collapse.
Gradually, however, I came to see the relationship between faith, forgiveness, freedom and walking in newness of life. In his ‘Preface to Romans’, Luther states of the Christian: ‘By his faith, he is set free from sin, and he finds delight in God’s commandments.
‘In this way, he pays God the honour that is due to him, and renders him what he owes. He serves his fellows willingly according to his ability, so discharging his obligations to all men’ (p. 24).
I thank God that my life has never lost the identity that I gained from the Reformation gospel as I encountered it through Luther. Such writers never date.
However different their times might have been to ours, they still inspire us through their dusty tomes. Within the drab covers we find a vibrant presentation of the way of life as experienced by men of fortitude and ambition.
Their ambition is one that we should share, namely, that sinners will be saved to the glory of Christ the Saviour.