A number of themes show up repeatedly over the span of Luther’s prolific writing career. Some are obvious and require little rehearsal. Themes like the utter pervasiveness of sin, the holiness and righteousness of God, and justification are all hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation and thus their appearances in Luther’s writings are not surprising. However, these themes are certainly not the only ones on which Luther writes, for he comments on what many would consider to be settled doctrines of the Church like the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ, showing his continuity with the historic Church. Though Luther does not spurn the entire Catholic tradition, his comments on Christology certainly relate to the distinctive elements of his Reformational ressourcement. For Luther, Christology touches each part of the Christian faith, from Bible interpretation to pastoral care to the church’s doctrinal system more broadly, as Luther knows nothing of the modern rift between preaching the text and teaching doctrine.
In order to understand Luther’s insistence that the doctrine of Christ be a crucial focal point in true theology, one must understand the context in which Luther was writing. Historically, Luther is writing on the heels of medieval scholastics like Robert Holcot and Gabriel Biel who, though they differ in some important places, see Christ primarily as an example. For instance, Biel notes that Christ is “an example for our imitation.” What is more, even where Christ is thought of as gift, He is thought of not as a gift which saves men certainly and effectively, but as a gift which enables men to live in a “state of grace” and dispenses merit to individuals as He has so ordained or “contracted,” placing individuals in the position to earn their own salvation by doing works in such a state of grace, earning merit through the grace and mercy of Christ. Indeed, Holcot states that “through the law and grace of our ruler Christ we merit eternal lifeby our own full merit.” It is not difficult to see why Martin Luther struggled so mightily with the righteousness of God, for he could not live up to its demands. When he looked to Christ, he found a harsh Judge rather than a Savior and Propitiator.
In commenting on Romans, it is exactly this Savior and Propitiator whom Luther finds. Paul, in dealing “not merely with the Son of God in general but with Him who has become incarnate and is of the seed of David,” says that the believer’s “iniquity will not be found...in those who cry to Him, because Christ has brought them aid from the fullness of His purity and has hidden this imperfection of theirs.” Indeed, Christ is the only person who can remedy the sin within humans after the Fall. Luther states that, “Now with us the situation is that Adam must get out and Christ come in, Adam become as nothing, and Christ alone remain and rule. For this reason there is no end of washing and cleansing in this life.” Adam, in whom man is born, “makes sinful and nullifies also the good works,” making clear that it is Christ alone who can offer this washing and cleansing, which will only be “completed through death.” Indeed, it is only because of Christ that Luther can say, “Sprinkle me, therefore, with the true goat’s blood of Jesus Christ. Then I will be truly and thoroughly cleansed, without all my works and efforts.” For Luther, especially in the early days of his writing and teaching career, Christ is the one who cleanses the believer from his or her sin, providing great spiritual comfort and consolation