What was the turning point in Martin Luther’s personal and theological life? The most common understanding is that the turning point was his discovery of justification by faith, with emphasis by most on justification.
Richard Rex contends, No, it was about “by faith” and the crucial difference in Luther’s life occurs in 1518 (not earlier) and has to do with certainty of salvation or a certain standing in a state of grace. That is, Luther was certain that he was saved. All of this is found in The Making of Martin Luther.
For me chp four was a stunningly interesting chapter, and I savored my way through it.
Such was the interpretative context within which Luther offered the following fragment of autobiography:
For thirty-five years I was a son of Hagar. I desired to be saved by works through the monastic life. There was no promise there, where I confessed, fasted, and celebrated mass. I was not certain that I was saved. … But when Sarah became my mother, I grasped the promise, that we are saved without works, by the promise.
Luther normativized certainty of grace as inherent to the gospel [Rex fluctuates on upper and lower case on gospel]. He was the first, so Rex claims, in the history of the church. It shows up in his lectures on Hebrews (1518).
For this reason the Christian must be certain, absolutely certain, that Christ appears before God as a priest for him.
Rex points to the newness of this theme in Luther.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this move in Luther’s theological development. Certainty of grace, based on faith alone, indeed commutable with faith alone, became the acid test by which he judged all Christian doctrine and practice.The offer of certainty dispelled the sort of anxiety over sin and grace that motivated what often seems like the frenetic and almost industrial “ritual performance” of late medieval Catholicism, with its votive masses commissioned in their hundreds and thousands, its indulgences denominated in hundreds of thousands of years, and its complex, protracted, and repeated cycles of prayers.
This certainty theme is not in the 95 Theses but it does show up in the Heidelberg Disputation. But Rex argues Catholics believed in both justification by faith and in salvation by grace, but this theme of certain apprehension of one’s standing before God is distinct to Luther and diverges from this Catholic contemporaries.
For Luther faith becomes passive vs. the Aristotelian and Thomist more active understanding of faith. It is trust. Or, as Rex puts it, “the specific, personal faith that the saving work of Christ had been made actual and effective in one’s own case” (85). I don’t know this field but it appears to me Rex gets close to seeing Luther in pietist terms:
It was his new conception of faith, faith now modulated to the key of personal certainty of grace, that constituted Luther’s most important and most original contribution in the field of Christian theology.
But once he had learned from Paul what justification by faith was, “it was all over with me and Augustine.” Augustine, he remarked on another occasion, got closer to Paul than all the scholastics, but he still did not get Paul, and did not adequately explain or understand justification.
lie faith that he taught was, in his view, the essence of the Gospel message, and in the light of his new understanding he faced the awful prospect of the near total corruption of the contemporary Church, for “the Gospel of God is pretty much unknown in the greater part of the Church.”
It was about certainty and this certainty was was at work in what Luther meant by justification by faith, which of course was his theological doctrine of importance:
The crucial discovery of 1518 was the decisive turning point in Luther’s theological development. That discovery was of a complete spiritual certainty that he was in what Catholics would call “a state of grace,” complete spiritual certainty that, in the words of the modern evangelicals, “he was saved.” This is not to claim that spiritual certainty rather than “justification by faith alone” was the theological heart of Luther s theology. The point is that “justification by faith alone” is itself spiritual certainty.