Martin Luther’s Favorite Text

“The righteous will live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4)

Writer Frank Boreham invites us to visit two European libraries. The first, in Erfurt, Germany, displays a famous painting of  Martin Luther as a young Augustinian monk. In the painting it is early morning and the sunlight beams through a window lattice. The young scholar is poring over the scriptures from which a broken chain is hanging. The light rests on the words, “The just shall live by faith.”

In the second library, under a glass case, lies the manuscript of a letter by Dr. Paul Luther, the youngest son of Martin Luther. It reads: “In the year 1544 my late dearest father, in the presence of us all, narrated the whole story of his journey to Rome. He acknowledged with great joy that in that city, through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, he had come to the knowledge of the truth of the everlasting gospel. It happened in this way. As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of the prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind: ‘The just shall live by faith!’ Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenberg and took this as the chief foundation for all his doctrine.”

Frank Boreham wrote: “This text made Martin Luther and the text that made Luther made history with a vengeance.” He was converted and given assurance that he was saved by faith in Christ alone. When that happened God changed the humble priest working in a small German city, into the mighty reformer who changed the course of world history. “It was as though all the windows of Europe had been suddenly thrown open, and the sunshine came streaming in everywhere,” wrote Boreham.

“The text that made Martin Luther” is repeated three times in the New Testament as the underpinning for the doctrine of justification by faith. It is quoted in Romans 1:17 to support Paul’s teaching on the righteousness of God as a free gift of faith. It is quoted in Galatians 3:11 to emphasize how believers are to live under grace and not under legalism. Hebrews 10:38 quotes the Habakkuk text to introduce the priority of faith, “But my righteous one will live by his faith.

This text, echoed three times in the New Testament was echoed three times in the experience of Martin Luther. At Wittenberg, as a young priest he was heartbroken over his sins. In his cell, he would rise early in the morning to study. He encountered Romans 1:17 with fascination. Later he wrote, “This means that eternal life is the gift of faith.”

Years passed. He traveled to the Benedictine Convent at Bologna, across the Alps. He was very sick. fever left him deranged, depressed, and in fear of death. Visions of hell and judgment terrified him. At the very moment his terrors reached their highest pitch, the Holy Spirit brought to his mind the phrase, “The just shall live by faith.” Boreham wrote that Luther was comforted, restored and was able to resume his journey.

At Rome he was seeking to do penance for his sins. The Pope had issued a decree that all who would ascend the Lateran Staircase on their knees would be issued an indulgence (a certificate of release from Purgatory). Luther thought that he could perform this meritorious act to appease God’s wrath. So  this good Saxon monk crept painfully up the stairs thinking that his pain and blood would satisfy God’s justice. He had been taught that by torturing himself in this way that he could turn away God’s judgment.

While he was doing this, the words of Habakkuk 2:4 came to mind again, “The just shall live by faith.” According to the stories, Luther got up off his knees believing that he was not saved by religious merit or acts of devotion, no matter how well-intended. He was saved completely and entirely by faith in the merit and worth of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross.

Boreham quoted Luther: “When by the Spirit of God I understood these words — ‘The just shall live by faith! The just shall live by faith!’ — then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God!. . . In very truth this text was to me the true gate of Paradise!”

(From the book, A Frank Boreham Treasury, edited by Peter F. Gunther)

Pastor Randy Faulkner