In the Name of Jesus, our righteousness, who gives us confident assurance of eternal life as a free gift, dear Christian friends,
Today is Reformation Sunday. It's been 517 years since the birth of Martin Luther. And this morning, fellow-redeemed, I'd like to talk to you about what God accomplished through Luther -- roughly 500 years after his impact.
Carlyle said that Luther was a great man -- not in the sense of a man who set out to become great, but great in the sense that a mountain is great -- naturally but unintentionally. This affable, lovable, yet courageous and heroic German stood as a boulder in the midst of the stream of history and diverted it from its channel. But as I've already mentioned, it's not any human being that we remember on this day. Rather, we remember what God was able to do through Luther, and what God's main message to mankind really is.
Remember firstly that Martin Luther simply brought to light again the Gospel of the grace of God. He brought to man's attention once more that God's grace could not be bought, and it could not be earned. He proclaimed that God's grace was free and unmerited. He boldly asserted that salvation was a gift, received by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
This Gospel had been preached before. The Scripture tells us that the Gospel was preached to Adam and Eve after the fall into sin. God promised them a Savior who would crush the head of that old serpent, Satan, in total victory, even though the devil would wound the Savior's heel in the process. The Gospel was preached unto Abraham in 1900 B.C. By revelation of the Holy Spirit, Abraham saw Christ's day, so he knew the Gospel of grace and handed it down to his descendants. Yet, by the time Christ entered our dismal world, the Gospel of grace had been buried under a whole mountain of Pharisaic rules and regulations. Man had returned to something he seems unable to part with for long: the idea that his own strivings, his own goodness, his own benevolence and piety will earn the favor of the Almighty. God's chosen, the Jews, were suffocating under a pall of self-righteousness!
But then Jesus, the God-man, the Savior promised to Adam and Eve, and Abraham, and all their descendants came in all the shining brightness of the grace of God. And by dying on the cross and rising victoriously, Jesus won salvation for all people. And the message of this blood-bought salvation, salvation freely bestowed upon all who would believe this Good News, caught fire in Jerusalem, took hold of Rome, then rushed across Europe like a mighty tidal wave, transforming myriads of people as it went.
But as Judaism had done before, Christendom lost its grip upon the grace of God. The Dark Ages blanketed Christendom during medieval times, and the light of the Gospel was dimmed once again, and almost completely forgotten. A new Pharisaism arose upon the earth. It took a different form, but it was the same in essence. It was the false belief that man must save himself by his own strivings, his own piety, and his own goodness.
Yet just when things seemed darkest, there was born to a humble woodcutter and his wife a son named Martin Luther in 1483. This son was destined to be used by God to change the shape of centuries to come.
Martin Luther was used by God to bring to light, once more, the Gospel of God's saving grace received through faith alone in Christ. Starting with Luther, this Gospel rippled across Europe again with mighty power! A new dawn had come. The windows of all Europe had been thrown open and a fresh breeze rushed in with the light of a new morning of the love and grace of God. Everywhere men leaped from darkness to light; they leaped from death to life. It seemed like a new resurrection day had come to Europe.
You know, God has, at times, taken men who studied law and used them mightily. He chose to do this with Martin Luther. The doctrine of justification, of course, is a legal concept! It tells us how a guilty sinner can stand before a holy judge and be accounted worthy. He's accounted worthy because the righteousness of Jesus Christ has been put on him, like a white robe, in which he stands faultless before the throne, clothed in the righteousness of Christ alone.
During his legal studies, Luther was walking across the countryside when all of a sudden the sky grew cloudy and dark. A fierce thunderstorm blew in. There was a sudden, blinding flash followed by a deafening crash. Lightning had struck a tree close to him. The bolt threw Luther face down into the mud. Frightened that another bolt was being readied with his name on it, he lifted up his muddied face and raised a dirtied hand, crying out to Mary's mother, "Help, St. Anne, and I will enter a monastery." In later years Luther realized it wasn't St. Anne that helped him that day, but the Lord God Himself had had mercy on him, and set him on a very special path in life!
Also later, Luther would say that if ever a monk could have been saved by monkery, it would have been him. Luther gave himself over to the single task of saving his own soul. He put himself into it as few men ever had.
Today many people don't believe in a heaven or a hell, but the people of Luther's time believed in them firmly. Therefore, Luther set out to make himself right with God, to make himself acceptable to God, to offer some righteousness of his own to God, lest he be lost forever!
Luther prayed, at one time for six weeks without eating and practically without sleeping; yet he found no peace with God. He would beat himself with a whip until he was found unconscious in a pool of blood by morning; yet he found no peace with God. To purify himself, Luther would stay outside all night long in the snow and freezing winter weather of northern Germany, naked; yet he found no peace with God. He would starve himself until he would faint, and his fellow monks kept thinking he'd finally killed himself. Still, he found no peace with God.
Now you see, fellow-redeemed, Luther wasn't some suicidal maniac. He wasn't doing anything completely out of the ordinary for his day and age. Indeed, the way he would torture himself was actually sanctioned by the Roman Church as a way of doing something super-spiritual -- as a way of denying and crucifying the sinful flesh. Luther was simply following to the letter what the corrupted Church of his day taught to be the way to heaven.
Finally Luther told Father Staupitz, the monastery head, that sometimes he thought he hated God! You see, Luther had fallen into the fatal trap of thinking he had to earn the love and favor of God, that he could, by purifying his own soul, make himself acceptable to God. The lie of self-purification has snared multitudes through the ages. It differs little from pagan and Hindu beliefs where men pierce their bodies with spears and burn themselves with hot irons, supposing God is somehow pleased with this.
Such teaching makes God out to be a fiend. Such teaching is spouted by the devil, himself a fiend, who would have men worship him under the semblance of God.
Now Staupitz, the monastery head, was one of those exceedingly rare individuals in those days of deepening spiritual gloom who still managed to glimpse the light of the Gospel of grace through the spiritual fog. He replied to Luther, "Brother Martin, look to the wounds of Jesus! Put your trust, not in your own strivings or your own character or your own effort, but in His Cross." A new light briefly glimmered for Luther at that moment, but he didn't fully understand, so Dr. Staupitz sent him to teach the Scriptures. And while teaching the epistle of Romans at the university, Luther came to Romans 1:17 and read these words which startled him: "The just shall live by faith!" He wondered what these life-changing, world-changing words meant.
Those words are found first in the Old Testament Book of Habbakuk; then in the New Testament they're echoed three different times. In Hebrews, the writer speaks to the Jews with that same great text: "The just shall live by faith." In the letter to the greatest of the Asiatic churches, Paul says "the just shall live by faith," and in the letter to the greatest of the European churches, Paul repeats, "The just shall live by faith." In those words are the epitome of the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. It's boiled down to one simple string of words: "The just shall live by faith."
Well, dear friends, while he was still thinking deeply about the meaning of those words, Luther was sent to Rome as an emissary of his monastery. His heart was filled with anticipation. He believed Rome to be filled with saints and angels. But when he got there, his fellow priests told him that if there was a hell, then most certainly Rome was built upon it! While Luther said one mass, they said four or five, milking the pious for personal gain. Everywhere he found superstition and vice.
But he was still a fanatical pilgrim, running from one shrine to another seeking every possible indulgence until at last he came to the Scala Sancta, the sacred stairs, those long, beautiful stairs that had been brought from Jerusalem upon which Jesus Christ was supposed to have stood when he was condemned by Pontius Pilate. To earn a special indulgence, he began to climb up on his knees, kissing each stair and saying his rosary.
But when he reached the middle of the stairs, that text returned to his mind. It seemed to whisper, "Martin, the just shall live by faith." He ascended another stair, kissed it, and said his prayer when the voice again came, "The just shall live by faith." The words were repeated until they seemed to resound throughout his mind and heart and being. They became louder still until it seemed that the whole room thundered with the sound, "THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH!"
Luther leaped to his feet and looked around as if suddenly awakened from a dream, and he thought, "What superstitions can one descend into!" He turned and ran down the stairs, and made his way back to Wittenburg, with a new conviction growing in his heart. There in Wittenburg, his fellow priests reportedly found him sobbing under a crucifix and crying out, "It was for me! Thank God, it was for me!" Luther would later say that when he realized that a man is saved by grace through faith alone, and not by works, and that heaven is a free gift, it was as if the doors of paradise itself had been opened, and he'd walked joyfully through into the presence of God Himself!
Indeed he had, fellow-redeemed! Now he was a transformed man whose eyes had been opened to the truth. Now he'd seen that men are justified by God's grace in Jesus Christ through faith alone in the Savior. Those who sought to be justified by faith would live; those who sought to be justified by some other way, by their own works or strivings, would die.
Luther began to proclaim this rediscovered message of gladness, this Gospel, this Good News of grace and freedom. Many responded. In fact, all of Wittenburg and then most of Germany became excited as the news spread.
But not all welcomed it, and some were even willing to kill to stamp it out. Dr. Eck, the greatest philosopher, theologian, and orator in all Europe, challenged Luther to debate him. Luther accepted. And this lowly monk from Wittenburg astonished the listeners because his simple faith in the revealed Word of God turned Eck's learning and sophistry into dust.
But the matter wasn't resolved, and Luther's situation became more tense and precarious, so that he was commanded to trek to the Imperial Diet at Worms to answer about his heretical teachings. He went in spite of warnings not to. Many people remembered what had happened to John Hus.
Just 100 years earlier, John Hus had taught the same doctrine. He was invited to the Council of Constance, supposedly to debate his point, but instead he was issued an ultimatum to recant or be burned alive. Hus was burned. But in spite of this, Luther said that though devils be as thick as the tiles on the roofs, "I will go to Worms." Slowly he made his way across Germany to the great imperial court, known as a Diet.
Tens of thousands of people swarmed the city for this great event. When Luther was finally (after a long wait) ushered into this magnificent hall where the Diet was to be held, there were 5,000 people gathered in the hall itself. At the head of the room in a great throne chair sat the newly crowned Charles the V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Next to him stood Alexander and Dr. Eck, the legates from Rome. Beside them were counts and electors and bishops and archbishops and cardinals. There were princes and barons and knights. It seemed that every important person in Europe had gathered there for that great meeting. Dressed in his humble monk's outfit, Martin Luther was ushered to the center of the room. Standing alone beside a table, he was told not to speak until questioned. Alexander then asked him, "Are these your books?" Looking at some twenty books on the table, Luther acknowledged, "Yes, these are my books." Promptly, Alexander fired off the question, "Will you or will you not recant?"
That question was like a spear piercing to his heart. Luther's knees weakened, his head spun, and his imagination conjured up visions of roaring flames consuming the body of Hus. Luther's friends had been right. There would be no debate; there would be no opportunity to defend his teachings. Such had never been intended. Luther pleaded for a little more time to consider.
After the Diet reassembled the following day, Luther was led out once more. The crowd hushed. "Will you or will you not recant?" they asked the Wittenburg monk.
He replied, "In many of these books I teach truths, such as the Lord's Prayer, which are held in common by all Christians. I cannot recant of these."
Dr. Eck retorted, "We want an answer, a direct answer without horns or hoofs. Will you or will you not recant?"
The flag for the last lap had been raised. As Christ had once stood before Pontius Pilate, a representative of imperial Rome, so Luther stood now before representatives of another kind of Roman authority. Being part of perhaps the most critical moment in modern history, Luther made a decision to change the course of future centuries. Looking to God for strength, he said, "My conscience is bound by the Word of God. Unless I am convicted and refuted by Holy Scripture, since it is wrong to go against conscience, I cannot and I will not recant anything." And this included a belief that both councils and popes may err!
A huge roar went up crying, "Burn him, burn him!" and in the midst of that roar, the legates said, "You cannot prove that they have erred!"
Luther cried out, "I will prove it, if you will give me a chance to speak."
Over the howling and baying of the people, Eck was heard to cry again, "Will you or will you not recant?" Then these final and immortal words were offered by Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
On the sidewalk where the great cathedral in Worms once stood there is a plaque which reads: "Here stood Martin Luther for God and country." He was condemned to be burned. He was given twenty days to change his mind or his life would be forfeited to whoever could catch him.
Luther wanted to keep preaching publicly, but he was kidnapped by his friends and whisked away to the castle at Wartburg in the Thuringian mountains. It was there that he translated the Bible into German. After a year, he left disguised as a knight to come out and lead the reformation again. And shortly thereafter, in a letter to one of his friends, George Spalatin, he asked, "I would like to know how it is with your soul?"
I wish that every one of us could receive such a letter from a man like Luther. And isn't that the kind of question we should be asking, not only ourselves, but also our loved ones?
Luther was used by God to restore to the Church that essential, heart and soul truth of Christianity, that we're not saved by anything we do, rather, we're saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. But the Roman Church still teaches against this truth to this very day! The new Catholic Catechism affirms this statement adopted by the Council of Trent in the 1500's: "If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that this trust alone is that whereby we are justified, let him be eternally damned." (Session 6, Canon 12 of The Council of Trent)
Do you know friends or family members who are being taught officially by their church that faith alone in Jesus is not enough to get you into heaven? Do you know friends or family members in a Protestant denomination who aren't sure how you get to heaven? Do you know fellow-Lutherans, who've sat at the feet of faithful pastors who've preached countless times to them that we're justified by grace through faith alone in Jesus, do you know fellow-Lutherans who may not know, in spite of all this, or who may be a wee bit shaky as to just how you get to heaven?
Dear friends, out of eternal love for those friends and family members, here are two diagnostic questions, suggested by the widely respected pastor and evangelist, Dr. D. James Kennedy, that we can ask them:
First of all, "If you were to die tonight, would you be certain that you would go to heaven?" Dear friends, if you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior, you can be absolutely certain that heaven awaits you as soon as you die! How would your friend or loved-one answer?
The second question is this, "Suppose you were to die tonight, and you stood before God, and He asked you, 'Why should I let you into my heaven?' What would you say?" And as children of God you and I would answer, "I believe Jesus took all my sins upon Himself and took my punishment in my place. That's why I should be let in!" And God will immediately usher us into eternal joy. How would your friend or loved-one answer this question?
For their sake, for their eternal sake, we really need to know how they would answer. Then, if there's any doubt, then we can share with them that Good News, that great news, that terrific news, that even though our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, Jesus has become our righteousness, and heaven is a free gift in Him. Through faith alone in Him, crucified and risen, we're completely forgiven and saved! O my friends, may it resound in each one of our souls, "The just shall live by faith!" Amen.