Martin Luther: A Brief Introduction to His Life and Works

By Paul R. Waibel | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER TWO
Salvation
in the Late Middle Ages

At the heart of the Protestant Reformation was the question of salvation, or how a sinner comes to be justified before God. It was for the Reformers, especially Martin Luther, to rediscover the gospel proclaimed by the New Testament church, that is, that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The early church proclaimed that salvation was a free and wholly unmerited gift of God's grace, whereby God attributes the righteousness of Christ to the individual who is inherently sinful on the basis of his faith in Christ, thus justifying that person in God's sight. This biblical tenet had become obscured by the medieval church's fusion of justification with sanctification. Originating as an event, an instant, when God proclaims the believer righteous on the basis of his faith in Christ, justification came to mean a process by which people attempt to earn their salvation by doing enough good works to offset their sins. Thus instead of salvation being a free gift of God's grace, it came to be laden with the oppressive burden of “works-righteousness.”


Salvation in the Early Church

The way of salvation as proclaimed by the early church is first presented in the gospels, and then spelled out by the Apostle Paul, especially in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. There salvation is presented as an event, a onetime act of God's grace, whereby the sinner, having put his faith in the redemption of Jesus Christ's death on the cross, becomes righteous (i.e., justified) by God. This was the basic principle rediscovered by Luther in his study of the letters

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