In April of 1511, Martin Luther went to Wittenberg, a city of 2,000 to 2,500. Luther received his Doctor of Theology in October of the following year, but for all his accomplishments, certainty of salvation eluded his grasp. He confessed his sins as much as possible, even six hours at a time in the confessional booth. Prayers were no help either. Even Johann von Staupitz, the vicar of his Augustinian order, could not help him with the mystic way: “Since man is weak, let him cease to strive; let him surrender himself to the being and the love of God” (p. 38). Something was still lacking.
Finally in 1513, Staupitz granted to Luther his own chair of Bible in the university, and Luther took up the Psalms in August. He would teach Romans in 1515 and Galatians in 1516. “One may wonder,” it is told, “why Luther had not of this himself,” that is, “to wrestle with the source book of his religion” (p. 42). “The reason is not that the Bible was inaccessible, but that Luther was following a prescribed course and the Bible was not the staple of theological education” (p. 42). Here was the substance of what his biographer calls “the evangelical experience.”
His biographer makes much of Luther’s teaching of Psalms in that “a new picture . . . of Christ” is seen (p. 45). From Ps 22:1 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Christ exclaims that He is forsaken, identifying with mankind and thus man’s sin, showing Luther that Christ, while yes the judge, nonetheless “suffers with those whom he must condemn and feels himself with them subject to condemnation” (p. 45). By teaching the Psalms, Luther saw Christ as judge but also his Savior.
As to Romans, the source from which we thank Luther for his cry of “Sola Fide!” in the face of works-salvation, his long-held view of a wrath-ready God who judged the always impure by His perfect righteousness transformed when he saw justice met in Christ who gave His righteousness to him. Romans 1:17 caught Luther’s eye: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith.’” Luther’s words speak of his rebirth:
“I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven” (p. 48).
Quotations from Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MS; Hendrickson, 1977).