This post originally appeared in an email sent out by Ambassador Publications, or the Parish Education of the AFLC. I had been asked to provide a book review for a resource by or about Martin Luther. They are sending out emails with a new review each week of 2017 in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Click here to read other resource reviews.
In a sleuth-like manner Dr. Uuras Saarnivaara in Luther Discovers the Gospel seeks the solution to the question of when Martin Luther became a “Lutheran.” Saarnivaara, the first theology professor at our AFLC Seminary, offers the purpose of this book in the preface, “It tries to show what was Luther’s path to a living fellowship with God and to a participation in the grace through which he gained the joyful assurance that he was acceptable to God.” Saarnivaara puts together the puzzle pieces of details that give us a good indication of when exactly Luther discovered, or rediscovered, the Gospel. Key events in Luther’s life are aligned with his concurrent writings.
I had always assumed that there was only one “breakthrough” in Luther’s life: the “tower experience.” Yet Saarnivaara skillfully shows that Luther’s discovery of the Gospel happened in stages, with the final burst of light coming at that tower experience.
Up until that point Luther had been steeped in the writings of Augustine and others during his time in the monastery. Augustine did not possess a fully-formed evangelical view of justification. There was just enough doubt in that theological system to drive Luther to despair. Staupitz, the leader of the monastery where Luther lived, was a key person in Luther’s life. He counseled Luther in his despair and indeed pointed him to Christ. This counsel from Staupitz moved Luther closer to fully discovering the Gospel.
In the “tower experience” Luther had been studying Romans 1:17: “The righteous shall live by faith.” The light of the Gospel penetrated his heart so that he came to view justification as completely the work of Christ for him on his behalf. Saarnivaara claims that without this tower experience, Luther would have been merely a “reformist” and not a “reformer.” Others, namely Wycliffe, Huss, Savonarola fit this description. By examining the writings of Luther at key moments in his life, one can see how this fully-formed view of justification began to shine through. Saarnivaara recommends that the Lutheran Church “own as its true spiritual possessions only those writings of Luther which date from the year 1519 or later.”
I heartily recommend this book as a great resource to reflect on how the Gospel was discovered by Luther. May the light of the Gospel penetrate our hearts!