Amidst all the Reformation Day celebrations, revelry, and back-slapping by Lutherans it’s easy to forget (or ignore) the explosive power of Luther’s teaching in his early days as a lecturer at Wittenberg University. It’s easy to forget that today, just like then, most people who laud Luther publicly as a reformer, revolutionary, and so on, secretly reject his teaching because it’s too much to take. The personal cost is too much. The force of Luther’s exegesis is just too destructive to good morals and social decency.

Students who’d come to Wittenberg expected a traditional theological curriculum well-grounded in Late Medieval theological principles. And, early on, during Luther’s Psalms lectures in 1512-15, that’s what they heard for the most part. But, for those who stuck around until his Romans lectures during 1516-17 or who enrolled after he’d delivered his theses at Heidelberg in 1518, the force of Luther’s exegesis couldn’t be held back by flimsy parchment and ink or a lecturer’s podium.

Once the true, biblical meaning of “God’s righteousness” took hold of him whole and complete Luther couldn’t do anything else except chase after the consequences of this truth: God is righteous when He gives sinners His righteousness through Jesus Christ. That was the thing that settled Luther’s long-asked question: “Where can I find a gracious God?” When the truth about God’s righteousness was revealed from Scripture for Luther the gates of heaven burst open, as he later said, and out poured a flood of grace and truth whose name is Jesus Christ the Crucified.

Luther discovered that God crosses the divide between Himself and sinners (a divide that sinners, not God, establish), and through Jesus’ bloody suffering and death takes our sin on Himself, giving us His righteousness instead. This discovery caused a kind of hard reset for Luther. Everything he’d ever been taught as a young monk about God’s righteousness and sinners—the uncrossable divide between righteous and holy God and sinners who are like mud-covered pearls—was old software trying to run on a new hard drive.

And if that wasn’t scandalous enough for those who relied on themselves to become righteous, what came next from Luther set teeth on edge. If God is righteous in His declaring sinners righteous, Luther taught, that means the antithesis of God’s righteousness is that people can’t do anything other than love themselves. The first, second, third, and last thing sinners only ever care about is themselves. It means that even when we’re focused on being righteous our attention is on ourselves. Why? We’re only worried about becoming righteous because we fear death and hell. Left to ourselves without the threat of judgment and hell and Old Adam runs amok through creation. [Editor’s Note: See also Dr. Rosenbladt’s sermon which examines this from a creative angle.]

That’s why Luther taught the students, in contradiction of what he’d been taught, that people who imagine they can love God above all things and do what the Law commands according to what God himself intends are “plainly insane” “fools” and “pig theologians.”

There’s no movement from sin to righteousness, Luther taught. There’s no movement from us to God. The whole movement of righteousness is from God to sinners through Christ Jesus. All a sinner, the Old Adam, contributes to his salvation is “sin and resistance.”

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The whole point of Scripture then, for Luther, is summed up by St. Paul when the apostle teaches that “the whole task of the Lord is to humble the proud and bring them to a realization of this condition, to teach them that they need grace, to destroy their own righteousness, so that in humility they will seek Christ and confess that they are sinners, and then receive grace and be saved.”

When God’s righteousness catches up to sinners He performs a hard reset on them. God’s righteousness in Christ Jesus freely declared and reckoned as free gift in a joyous exchange for Old Adam’s sin and death and hell. And the force of this exchange is so potent that it bursts every barrier put in its way.

For those students who stuck around, who were overshadowed by this revolutionary teaching, many went on to become professors, clergy, and reformers themselves. As a consequence, “Luther’s teaching” as it’s often called, cost them family and friends, careers, security, and even their lives. But why not bend? Why not give up on what they’d learned in Wittenberg? Why suffer personal loss, excommunication, and death for one man’s teaching?

Because it never was “Luther’s teaching.” It still isn’t. The force of exegesis in Luther’s teaching was and always will be God’s Word, and Christ Jesus is His Name. The One Who on the cross became sin for us so that through His resurrection we may be declared righteous by God today and forever.