Here I Stand

  Today marks the 514th birthday of a great hero of the faith—the man who threw a lightning bolt through Christendom: Martin Luther. Many Christians know little about Luther beyond the fact that he nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door and set off the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s insights, including his insistence on justification by faith alone—sola fide—divided the church for centuries. But today these same insights are making it possible for Protestants and Catholics to join forces to preserve the civilization Luther helped create. Luther was, in many respects, the father of the German nation. When he translated the Bible into German, Luther standardized that language for the first time. He rallied German princes in his struggle against the corrupt Borgia papacy, and helped Germans to see themselves, for the first time, as part of a larger nation instead of a collection of petty principalities. But Luther’s cultural significance went far beyond Germany’s borders. When he stood before the Diet of Worms and refused to recant his position on justification by faith, he uttered the famous words "Here I stand… I can do no other." These words had profound theological significance—and they also created the foundation for the modern world: the idea of individuality, the individual standing before God. Prior to Luther, identity was derived largely from membership in a group. Following Luther, the individual conscience reigned supreme. As historian Ken Jowitt writes, "one can hardly find a more poignant, courageous, blunt statement of individualism than ‘here I stand… I can do no other.’ " But Luther’s most important contribution was his re-discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith—as Luther put it, that "faith alone makes righteous and fulfills the law." This "chief part of the gospel," Luther wrote, had been obscured by a penitential system that emphasized human effort at the expense of faith. For nearly five centuries, the gulf between Catholics and Protestants has centered around the question, how are we justified before God? During the last 20 years or so, Catholic scholars, such as Peter Kreeft of Boston College, have begun to say, "Luther is right: We are justified by faith." Four hundred and eighty years after he helped split the church, Luther’s insight into justification by faith is helping bring Christians back together. In 1994 some 40 evangelical and Catholic leaders, myself included, signed a statement called "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." The document calls on all Christians to work as allies against a common enemy. Just this week, the signers of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" are releasing a new statement that affirms what the Reformers meant by Sola Fide—justification by faith alone. The document is called "The Gift of Salvation," and it will surprise many. Luther would have been proud to sign it. He has, in a sense, been vindicated. And he would be thrilled, five hundred years later, to see the church rally behind this bedrock Christian truth.


Chuck Colson


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