The following is an excerpt from Karl Holl’s booklength essay, “What Did Luther Understand by Religion?” (trans. Meuser & Wietzke) in which Holl draws out Luther’s theology beginning with his history. As you’ll see, Holl maintains a refreshing emphasis on everyday heart-level matters, compared to other scholars of his caliber. Still, you might want to put on your academic spectacles for this one—but it’s worth it. I started transcribing the first paragraph and just couldn’t stop there. Enjoy!

Like Jesus, [Luther] tried to show his contemporaries that their apparently intense piety, the piety of good works, devotions, and mortifications, was actually only an evasion of the more difficult task actually required by God…

But if Luther was right in his vigorous reinterpretation of the moral demands implicit in faith in God and in his effort to show how they constantly confront us in our everyday existence, then every event, every encounter with God, leads us back again to our own inwardness. This is especially true of a personal cross. Only when we recognize such discipline as salutary can we honestly affirm our cross and regard what is repugnant to us as grace. Luther viewed this soul-searching induced by the “sacrament of the cross,” as he was inclined to call it, as an essential part of the intended blessing. He did not believe that every adversity was a punishment for a specific sin that the person should search out and identify, although such a thing could happen. In such an instance Luther required the believer willingly to accept the punishment laid upon him by God and not to try to alleviate it, as the Catholic offer of indulgences seemed to suggest. However, he emphasized a more profound general principle. Our affectations disappear as we are compelled to bear the cross, as we encounter what we would rather avoid. Then we see ourselves as we really are. By looking at our own spontaneous behavior, our rising passion, the temptation to hate God, and the difficulty with which we submit to God, we can discern which will is actually dominant in us, the one that says yes to God or the one oriented to self. The cross, however, brings only those things to light which every observant person might perceive in his own practice of faith, indeed in his every prayer. For who has really attained constant trust in God, full inner freedom and joy, and the perfect will to serve God as he should be served? Who could help noticing how much in us is dead, half-hearted, selfish? When the conscience is sharpened through contact with God in prayer—and who can stand before God without experiencing this?—we find that even after we have done a good deed we somehow feel that we owe God something more. Even the believer still sins in every good work. The very best that we do is still infected with an egotism that ought to be conquered. Anyone who could glory in feeling the impulses of the Holy Spirit should experience this most strongly.[1]

…From the fact that the “old being” continually reappears even in the believer, Luther only inferred the necessity of continually returning to the beginning, namely, to the reestablishment of one’s relationship to God. For Luther, “justification” was not something that works itself out automatically once it has been experienced. It was rather an ever-recurring event that receives its special meaning and increasing profundity from the particular of the respective moment. Paradoxical as it may at first seem, Luther saw in these continual “new starts” the indispensable method for genuine inner progress. If the defect is in the person, the ego, then true ethical advance can take place only if this ego itself is constantly renewed. It is not enough that the sum total of good works is increased, as the Catholic church imagined. The ultimate motives must be reached, which dominate us even without our being aware of them. Justification, if a person takes it seriously, means a going back to one’s innermost being in the sight of God; the whole person emerges renewed; the selfless ego that is entirely devoted to God is born ever anew, and from the deepened relationship to God it derives the power to conquer the natural, selfish ego.

[1] See WA 12, p. 573, 1. 26: “There must always be such a mixture that we feel both, the Holy Spirit and our sin and imperfection. For it must be with us as it is with someone sick who is in the hands of the physician but is expected to get better.”