The Theological Heart of the Reformation

Dec 21st, 2017 | Category: Church Work Professional, Faith/Learning, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Ronald K. Rittgers

I would like to comment briefly on what I take to be the real theological heart of the Reformation, which has everything to do with Luther’s evangelical theology of consolation. As we seek to assess the importance of the Reformation 500 years after its birth, it is important to draw our attention to this theological heart afresh, because I think it is still beating today and is as relevant as ever. As you no doubt know, the Protestant Reformation began as a search for a new kind of consolation. Luther the troubled monk could find no enduring peace for his tortured conscience in the means of consolation available to him, including indulgences, and consequently came to hate the God who demanded so much from him in terms of righteousness. Luther then experienced a Reformation “breakthrough” while studying the Pauline corpus, especially Romans, in which he saw that we are justified not by good works but by grace through faith. Luther felt himself “born again” and came to regard God as his most loving Father who had given His Son to die for our sins and to be our righteousness. Luther also felt himself called by God to spread the gospel to his contemporaries, so that they, too, could know the peace and comfort he had experienced through the Word. Luther clearly saw himself as a prophet. Central to Luther’s evangelical consolation was the certainty of forgiveness that came from basing one’s salvation on the sure foundation of the divine promises of the Word rather than on the shaky ground of one’s efforts to appease God.

This narrative is basically correct, although modern scholars wish to emphasize that Luther was greatly influenced by ancient and medieval sources, in addition to Scripture, in his breakthrough experience, and that this experience was probably a protracted affair rather than a sudden conversion. But all would agree that justification by faith was key to the evangelical solace that Luther discovered for himself and offered to others. I want to pause for a moment to comment on what I think lay at the heart of justification by faith and therefore at the heart of Reformation solace.

We have to ask ourselves why Luther felt so guilty in the monastery, what was the source of his angst? One might answer, he thought he had to save himself through his own good works, that is, he believed he had to become righteous through his own efforts, and he knew he could not do so because he was so utterly convinced of his bondage to sin; therefore he despaired of salvation. This answer is also basically correct, but it overlooks a further question—what standard of righteousness did Luther think he had to live up to? What was the basic theological and existential problem he was trying to solve? If we can understand this problem, perhaps we can gain better insight into the nature of the solution that Luther proffered.

There is every reason to conclude that in keeping with his training as a monk and theologian, Luther thought righteousness consisted of the love of God above all things and the love of neighbor above oneself, that is, he thought God expected him to fulfill the two great commandments and to do so perfectly and, at least initially, of his own accord. At the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place in 1518, Luther argued that God expects perfection from human beings, and perfection consists of loving God with a total will and of doing good out of complete and perfect love for God (LW 31: p. 61–62). Luther the spiritual perfectionist—not the view we usually have of the father of Protestantism, especially not in 1518, when he was supposed to have discovered many of the defining elements of his evangelical theology. Luther allowed no modification or reduction of this standard at Heidelberg—he was adamant that God expects us to love him perfectly with our entire being. He was also adamant that we are utterly incapable of doing so because we are enslaved to sinful self-love. As Luther scholar Simo Peura has argued, “Luther’s entire theological work can be viewed as an attempt to solve the problem of self-serving love” (Puera, 1998, p. 78). Anders Nygren had earlier maintained in a similar vein that this self-serving love stemmed from the mistaken belief that we can generate love for God ourselves, drawing on an innate or infused quality of love in our souls. Nygren argued that Luther corrected this mistaken belief (Nygren, 1953, p. 709-716). Thus, Luther the monk was not concerned in the first place with the problem of a guilty conscience, but with the ethical dilemma that led to this conscience, the twin problems of sinful self-love and self-initiated love. Luther’s solution was to posit God as the Giver of a pure, unselfish, divine love that was able (gradually) to free human beings from self-love and allow them to become conduits of the divine love to others. One received this divine love through faith, which both covered one with Christ’s righteousness and caused Christ to dwell within one’s heart (LW 31: p. 63). God was sheer Giver, human beings were mere receivers.

Listen to how Luther spoke about divine love at the Heidelberg Disputation. In thesis 28 he asserts, “The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” In the explanation of the thesis Luther argues against the view that God’s love operates on the same principle as human love, insisting, “Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive” (LW 31: p. 57). I take this to be the real heart of Reformation consolation. If I had to point to one place that captures the true center of Reformation theology, it would be thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation, although I would be quick to emphasize that this divine love comes to us in the most unexpected form, the crucified Christ  (LW 31: p. 50–51). Luther thought that most if not all of the theology of his day taught that sinners had to make themselves attractive to God before God would bestow His love and grace on them, and sinners were capable of doing so. Inspired by the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine, Luther maintained that just the opposite was the case. For him, justification was the flowing forth of God’s love that loves the sinner as sinner and that renders the sinner attractive as sheer gift. The faith that receives this gift may be seen as a form of loving trust of God that confidently expects to receive all good things from His gracious hand. This faith is also a gift from God; it is does not arise from any inherent quality in the soul (Bast, 2004, p. 149).

Viewing self-serving love arising from self-initiated love as the central problem of the fallen human being in Luther’s theology helps to account for why he spends so much time in Reformation manifestos like The Freedom of the Christian on the fulfillment of the second commandment. He believed that his evangelical theology enabled one to truly love the neighbor as one received unmerited divine love through loving trust in God, which fulfilled the first commandment. A big chunk of The Freedom of the Christian is given over to a consideration of neighbor-love. As Luther reflected on the Christ hymn in Philippians 2, he asserted, “…the good things [i.e., faith and righteousness] we have from God should flow from one to the other and be common to all, so that everyone should ‘put on’ his neighbor and so conduct himself toward him as if he himself were in the other’s place. From Christ the good things have flowed and are flowing into us. He has so ‘put on’ us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. From us they should flow to those who have need of them…This is true love and the genuine rule of a Christian life. Love is true and genuine where there is true and genuine faith” (LW 31: p. 371).  So, Luther’s theology provided an alternative way to enabling a fallen human being to fulfill the two great commandments, to “fear and love God,” as Luther puts it after each commandment in the Small Catechism. At the heart of this alternative way lay a radical account of divine love.

I wish to emphasize this love because 500 years later I think we are still sorely tempted to believe that we must somehow make ourselves attractive to God before God will love us, and we are still sorely tempted to believe that we are able to do so. We tend to think that God basically operates the way we operate when it comes to love. You see someone in class and you say to yourself, that’s the one for me. He is so handsome, so smart, and yet so gentle. I want to be his and I want him to be mine. Or, she is so beautiful, and so intelligent, and so funny. I want to be hers and I want her to be mine. And so what do you do? You try to make yourself attractive to that person. You go to the gym, study more diligently, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and pray that he or she will notice you, for there is nothing greater in life than loving and being loved by the beloved.

As innocent and natural as this way of behaving is, it does not make for very good theology. The heart of the Reformation message is that God does not love this way. God loves us precisely in our unloveliness, and it is precisely His love that makes us lovely in time (although one should be quick to add that even the fallen sinner retains a basic loveliness—a basic worth—as an image bearer of God). There is nothing greater in life than being loved in this way, of responding to this divine love in faith, and then of sharing this love with others. Drawing on some of the most beautiful lines in Scripture (Song of Songs 2:16), in The Freedom of the Christian Luther describes the Christian’s relationship with Christ as a marriage in which the Christian responds to God’s radical love in Christ by saying, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (LW 31: p. 352) This relationship of love is finally what the Reformation was and is all about.


Bast, Robert J. (Ed.). (2004). The reformation of faith in the context of late medieval theology and piety: Essays by Berndt Hamm Leiden: Brill Publishing.

Nygren, A. (1953) Philip S. Watson, (Trans), Agape and Eros. London: S.P.C.K.

Peura, Simo, (1998). What God Gives Man Receives: Luther on Salvation, Carl E.Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Eds.) Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, (pp. 76-95). Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


Author Information

Ronald K. Rittgers holds degrees from Wheaton College (B.A.), Regent College (M.T.S.), and Harvard University (Ph.D.) He holds the Erich Markel Chair in German Reformation Studies at Valparaiso University, where he also serves as Professor of History and Theology. Contact Dr. Rittgers at