What Was Luther’s ‘Breakthrough’?

On October 31 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The day Martin Luther made his 95 theses public. In the coming weeks churches will preach the solas, historians will argue over over whether he actually nailed the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle and my friends in Italy (where we lived for five years) will likely wonder what the big deal is.

Many scholars will debate over when exactly Luther came to his ‘breakthrough.’ I can’t do any better than putting bookends between the years 1513 and 1518. I’m not sure it matters that much anyway.

The question we should be asking is this: What exactly was Luther’s breakthrough? What realization did he come to that set the Western world on a course that would break apart the stranglehold of Roman Catholic authorities, produce Bibles in languages people could read, set the stage for 30 years of war, raise literacy rates across Europe and birth thousands of new Christian denominations?

Many would say justification by faith or the three solas (Scripture alone, faith alone and grace alone), but I think Luther would describe his ‘breakthrough’ differently.

I want to extend a special thank you to Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh and Reformed Theological Seminary for making this clear to me.


Luther was very much a product of the 16th century. He lived in a world dominated by a fear of death. A fear that was only increased by the Roman Catholic authorities of the day. This fear, in part, drove Luther to become acutely aware of his sin and set him on an almost obsessive search for reconciliation with God.

As hard as Luther worked, he could not find the comfort he searched for because the dogma mandated by the Roman church didn’t offer it. In Luther’s own words, “Under the papacy we were told to toil until the feeling of guilt had left us.” But it never did. No matter how hard Luther worked, he never considered himself worthy of God and entered into multiple periods of deep depression.

In this depression, Luther began to ask one question that would lead to his breakthrough: Why is the gospel good news? His answer came in three parts.

The Promise of God

It is a common misconception that a Roman Catholic priest absolves sins when they say the words ‘Te absolvo’ (I absolve you). With those words, the priest is simply stating what he believes is already the case. Luther began to wonder, what is it, then, that is absolving me of my sin?

Luther began to see that when God wants to create, He speaks. He spoke to make the heavens and earth. He will speak to bring the new heavens and new earth. Could He also speak righteousness into existence?

A life free from the penalty of sin could not be earned, but it could be promised by God and spoken into existence. “To believe in God as Abraham did,” Luther argues, “is to be right with God because faith honors God. Faith says to God: “I believe what you say.””

This new understanding (or, rather, a return to an old one) of God’s promise apart from our works categorically changed the way Luther viewed the Christian life. Luther wrote, “The curse of God is like a flood that swallows everything that is not of faith. To avoid the curse we must hold on to the promise of the blessing in Christ.”

Law and Gospel

The second part of Luther’s breakthrough was a clearer understanding of the division between law and gospel. Luther understood that our sin prevented us from hearing God speak the way we were intended to. So, God must condescend. He must make the deaf hear and He does this through His Word.

Luther had this tendency of breaking things into twos and he divided up Scripture into law and gospel. Writing to Pope Leo X, Luther says, “It should be pointed out that the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commands and promises.”

Luther defined the content of the law as the commands of God attached to a condition. If we obey, we live. If not, we are cursed. The function of the law, then, was two-fold. First, to show us the effects of our sin. In his commentary on Galatians, he wrote, “this monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe. And that is what the Law is, a big axe.”

The second function of the law, according to Luther, is to drive us to Christ. Again from the same commentary, “When the Law drives you to the point of despair, let it drive you a little farther, let it drive you straight into the arms of Jesus who says: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.””

The gospel then is Christ’s accomplishing the feat of the law for us and taking on the curse we deserve. And here is what makes this such a breakthrough! Luther had been taught that the law and the gospel were functionally the same thing, just existing in different moments in salvation history. Once luther saw the law and gospel as two separate things that is when he claims he ‘broke through and was free.’

In The Freedom of A Christian, Luther writes, “What person’s heart, upon hearing such things, will not rejoice greatly and grow so tender that he will love Christ in a way not possible by the observance of works or law?”

So, it is faith in the promise of the gospel that frees us from the law. But how? How is that promise of freedom applied?

Justification By Faith

The most famous of the three components. We are justified by God through faith, not by our works. Luther read Paul in Romans 1:16-17 and was stuck.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.

Luther had always viewed the revealing of God’s righteousness as a bad thing. He thought this was the way God would punish the unrighteous. But he began to see that this is not what Paul is saying.

The church at that time was working from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible which made righteousness sound more like a process than a once and for all declaration by God. Understanding righteousness as a process gave way to doctrines like penance and purgatory. Luther began to see that justification isn’t a process. God declares us righteous and Christ’s righteousness is immediately imputed to us. Now the gospel is good news!!!

Again writing to Pope Leo X, Luther says, “Now, just as Christ by his birthright has obtained these two privileges [Kingship and Priesthood], so he also imparts and shares them with everyone who believes in him.’ Luther termed this the ‘happy exchange.’ Christ trades his righteousness with us and in exchange he receives our guilt.

The Roman Catholic Church in that day imagined two circles, one righteousness and the unrighteous. They understood a person to be fully in one circle or the other, often going back and forth. Luther now imagined those circles overlapping and in that overlapping space lived the Christian simil iustus et peccator. Simultaneously justified and still a sinner.


These are the concepts behind ‘Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone.’ These are the components of Luther’s ‘breakthrough’ which we can most simply summarize as the gospel. In Luther’s own words,

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.

Here we see the result of his breakthrough: Freedom. The kind of freedom you feel with a loved one who fully knows you, yet fully accepts you. A freedom that brings security, assurance and, most of all, love.


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