A Reformation of the Imagination

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The Reformation was yet another era of history when God’s people were faced with the question that Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

The Lutheran Reformation was a reformation of many things. What began on October 31, 1517 with Martin Luther’s Wittenberg post on October 31, 1517 was a flint-lock event. In calling for debate on the issues surrounding repentance and indulgences, Luther’s teachings quickly spread to other articles of faith: original sin, the Lord’s Supper, the proper distinction of law and gospel, Christian vocation, the Scriptures in the vernacular, the proper understanding of Divine Service, and of course, at the center of everything, the chief article of justification: that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. In the years following 1517, the Lutheran Reformation touched every aspect of Christian doctrine and practice. Yes, it was a reformation of justification.

And although we don’t often think about it this way, the Lutheran Reformation was also a reformation of the imagination.

How so? In Luther’s day, the average Christian (Luther was no exception) saw God not primarily as good and gracious but as a righteous judge, full of wrath and anger over sin. Sin which must be appeased and answered for, in large part, by the work of the Christian. Grace that must be earned, however, is of little comfort; and ceases to be grace.

When Luther, and Christians of his day pictured God, they saw, or imagined, God as a righteous judge, not a merciful redeemer. It is no wonder Luther found no comfort in this picture of God. If God’s grace must be earned, the Christian is left only with pride and eventually despair.

The Reformation was yet another era of history when God’s people were faced with the question that Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” The Roman Papacy at the time had provided an answer, only it provided no comfort. As Luther discovered, it was quite the opposite. No matter how hard he tried to atone for his own sin, or find forgiveness in God’s sight he could not, and would not find it in his own righteousness.

What Luther needed, and what the church needed, was a reformation of the imagination. To see God not merely fallen sinners saw him, but as Scripture revealed him. As Paul writes in Romans 3, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24).

This is what happened as Luther began to study the Scriptures. The more he read the Psalms, prophets, and epistles of Paul, the more he began to see that God revealed himself, not only as a judge of sin, but the one who took the judgment of sin upon himself in Jesus. Yes, God is a righteous judge, but his righteousness is not a reward earned by the hands of men, but a gift purchased, won, and given by the hands of Christ crucified. God’s righteousness is not achieved, it is received by grace through faith in Christ.

Sometime between the years 1508 and 1518 (scholars still debate the exact date), Luther had what came to be known as his “tower experience.” He was in the Black Cloister in Wittenberg reading in Romans about the righteousness of God. This righteousness of faith Luther rediscovered was not something he had to earn, but was revealed and given in the gospel.

In one of his famous Table Talks, Luther recounted his tower experience this way:

The words ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness of God’ struck my conscience like lightning. When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified. If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish. But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ [Rom. 1:17] and ‘the righteousness of God’ [Rom. 3:21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God contribute to the salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy. My spirit was thereby cheered. For it’s by the righteousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ. These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me. The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower. (Luther’s works, vol. 54: Table Talk, 193-194).

In Romans, in the prophet Habbakuk, in the Psalms, and countless other passages of Scripture, the Holy Spirit painted a different portrait of God’s righteousness in Luther’s mind. Luther began to see a different picture of God than the one he had so often imagined. Through the gospel, Luther came to see God’s righteousness revealed as a gift, not a merit badge. Through the gospel, Luther saw God’s mercy on display in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through the gospel, Luther saw God’s grace revealed in Christ our savior, redeemer, and friend of sinners.

Through the gospel, Luther’s imagination was reformed. He saw God as God had revealed himself throughout the Scriptures. It truly was a reformation of the imagination, and not just for Luther, but for you and me too.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16-17).