We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
It is always a struggle to decide what to do when I get to this Sundayís lectionary. I know that a majority of my readers are not Lutheran. As a matter of fact, Iím sure many of you disapprove of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Many of you may not know much about him or the impact he had on the world. Some will even suggest that focusing on a man and his movement is taking our attention from Christ and His grace.
Yet it seems almost necessary to talk about Martin Luther this year since we are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the day when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the church door. The end result, unfortunately, divided Christians, but Lutherís impact goes well beyond the Church. He is often listed as one of the top ten most influential people in history, and is considered by many the most influential of the last millennium. The world was beginning to change when Luther appeared on the scene, but he was a driving force that brought many of them to fulfillment.
There were other reformers. There were other translators. There were other musicians and composers. There were other writers. The printing press had already been invented. Some have suggested that the world would be completely different without the impact of Martin Luther. One writer said that the United States would not even exist without him. I donít think I agree. We may credit Luther with changing the world, but he would say that it was God who did it through Him. And God could have used anyone. He just chose to use Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was a monk, priest and professor. He loved Godís word and studied it passionately. He was heavily burdened by his calling, fearful of the sin he knew he had committed throughout his life and fearful that his own sinfulness could impact those whom he shepherded. He was afraid that his sin was greater than Godís grace and did not see how he could be forgiven. He spent hours in confession repeating every little thing he had ever done. Luther was at the point of despair when he sought solace from Godís word and his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, tired of his lengthy confessions. ďMartin, during all the hours Iíve listened to you, I havenít heard one thing remotely interesting.Ē He told Luther to come back when heíd actually done something worthwhile to confess.
All joking aside, it was Staupitz that reminded Luther of the Gospel of grace, that Christ died for his sin. Luther grasped this grace when he read the epistle lesson we always use for Reformation Sunday. ďBut now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe.Ē It is by faith we are saved, not by works. Jesus completed the work of justification on the cross. Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him and that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God.
Lutherís confessor was the man behind the man. No man, not even Martin Luther, can do it all by himself. Lutherís story is filled with people who worked with him to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. That was his purpose all along. He wanted people to know that they are freed by the Gospel so that they would not be burdened by the expectations and obligations of manmade institutions. He posted the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church to begin a discussion about the abuses of the church. He didnít want to divide the Church; he wanted to restore the Church that Christ built.
It might have gotten nowhere if the Ninety-five Theses had stayed in Wittenberg. However, the printing press had been invented fifty years earlier, so the document was published and read widely around the Holy Roman Empire, by religious and secular leaders. It even made it into the hands of commoners. A copy was sent to Pope Leo X, who did not know at that moment what an impact that meddlesome monk would have on the Church.
One of the defining moments of Lutherís life was a trip he made to Rome. He discovered that the center of his faith was a place of decadence and lack of concern for Godís people. He began to criticize the Churchís excesses and errors.
The reformers were fighting against a body that had lost touch with Godís grace. Religion was much like it was in the day of Jesus Christ, with leaders determined to keep or enhance their positions and power. It was a religion that burdened Godís people with Law, losing touch with the center of Godís salvation: the cross. They sold indulgences to raise funds to build a massive new church building in Rome and they did this by feeding the fears of hell that were held by the people. They made the people believe that the only way they would make it to heaven was to pay for it. They even offered salvation for those who had already died: family members could free their loved ones who were wallowing in purgatory by paying the right price.
Luther seemed to have found the very meaning of today's Gospel message: that when we are saved we are made free to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. Freedom in Lutherís perspective was not about doing whatever we wanted to do, but about being what God created us to be. He never sought division, he sought change. Unfortunately, just like the religious leaders in Jesusí day, the religious leaders in Lutherís day had no room for Godís word in their lives. And so began the building of walls between Christians that has lasted five hundred years. Yet, even as Luther was willing to risk division by speaking forth Godís grace, he longed that the Church would remain whole. We continue to live in the freedom given by God through Jesus Christ so that we can reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that someday the Church will be healed and made whole once again. If not in this life, at least Godís promises will bring us together to share the feast of victory for eternity.
Martin Luther had a reputation for being temperamental, coarse and argumentative. Some have suggested he was a chauvinist. He was a grumpy old man at the end of his rather long life; he suffered from multiple health issues which made it difficult for him to do everything he wanted to do. He was opinionated and did not understand how anyone could reject the grace of God. Though no excuse, thatís why he struggled with the Jews, one of black marks on his life. Luther, like the Apostle Paul before him, knew he was the greatest of sinners. He also learned that Godís grace is greater than his sin. Thatís why one of the great mottos of the Reformation is ďsimul justus et peccator,Ē which means ďsimultaneously saint and sinner.Ē
Martin Luther was also thought to be a chauvinist, although his life indicates something much different. He was a confirmed bachelor until the Katherine bon Vora entered his life. She was his rock and in many ways his salvation. Luther was not very good at money. He should have been incredibly wealthy with the number of books he published, but he didnít make a cent on his printed work. She managed his household, taking care of a farm, borders and his children. There was always food on the table and wood in the fireplace. He knew that he needed her, and even called her Master Kate. He loved his family and spent as much time as he could with his children. He was devastated at the death of his first daughter Elizabeth when she was just a few months old.
Luther believed in education, and insisted that every child should have the opportunity to learn. He proposed that the monasteries be turned into schools and he took the reformation into the school house walls, offering classes for boys and for girls. The schools were available for children all members of society, from the wealthy to the peasants. He encouraged the peasant parents to send their children to school so that they could learn and rise out of their poverty. As a professor, he changed the structure of the lessons, focusing more on the ancient writings and languages, focusing more on the scriptures than on the traditions and doctrines of the church. Instead of teaching the students how to acquire worldly goods as was prevalent at the time, he wanted to provide training in everything necessary for living a faithful Christian life. Children were treated as more than cattle; they were treated as the future of the Church and the society.
Martin Lutherís goal was not just a reformation in the Church. He wanted the people to be reformed as individuals. There are those who see individualism in Christianity as problematic, but Lutherís understanding is that each person is made new by the Gospel to live and serve God as God has gifted and called them to live. We donít all have to be ordained to pray and praise God, to read the scriptures, to study and grow in faith. We simply have to love God and seek to draw nearer to Him. Oh, thereís always the problem with people misunderstanding the scriptures or making them mean what they want it to mean, but that is why Luther also encouraged Christian fellowship and community worship. We are individual sons and daughters of our Father with the same access to His grace, but we are also part of a larger body and joined together by the Holy Spirit to glorify God.
In Lutherís quest to help Christians grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, he invited them into the conversations of theology and church. Instead of answering his critics with a typical Latin answer, Luther wrote in German, then had the works published and sold to anyone. Though the printing press existed for fifty years, Luther worked to make it a viable form of communication. He encouraged and supported printers. He helped design a format that was appealing to the masses. His pamphlets and books, often written to respond to one manís questions, were published by dozens of printers in many cities. His work changed the publishing industry in ways that we still use today. Even our morning newspaper today was influenced by the way Luther published his works.
Martin Luther wanted Godís people to be able to read the scriptures for themselves, though most people could not read the Latin versions that were available. So, he worked at translating the Greek and Hebrew into German and published the Bible for the masses. He did not take this task on his own; he had help from others that he recognized were more knowledgeable than him. Together they put Godís word in the hands of the people. He wasnít the first. John Wycliffe published the New Testament in English. He also argued against the hierarchy of the Church. Though he died of natural causes in 1384, he was declared a heretic in 1415 and posthumously excommunicated. His body was exhumed, his bones burned to ashes and thrown into the River Swift.
Earlier reformers, including John Hus, were martyred for saying many of the same things. Wycliffe influenced Hus, a reformer who influenced Luther. We might consider Martin Luther one of the most influential men in history, we have to remember those who went before him, encouraged him, supported him, and worked with him. He served God in many ways as an individual, but he always knew that he was part of something much bigger.
As with so many aspects of Lutherís life, timing was everything. The pope and Emperor Charles V had other concerns. The Turks were on their doorstep and the plague was a constant fear. The world was changing, and the people were restless. Sadly, another of the black marks on Lutherís life is that the Reformation led to the Peasantís War; Lutherís teaching of freedom spurred the peasants to revolt against the nobility. It ultimately failed and hundreds of thousands of peasants and farmers were killed.
Martin Luther had such a huge impact because the timing was just right: the printing press provided widespread distribution of his message. It was a time of political, social and scientific upheaval. He had the support of powerful men, so his reforms reached far past the religious realm. He recognized that we live in two kingdoms - temporal and spiritual, an ideology that encourages justice - so that all people might work for the glory of God even when following earthbound vocations. When we do not have to buy our way to heaven, we are given the freedom to live in Godís grace today, looking forward to the promises of God that will be fulfilled in His time and way.
Despite his opposition, somehow Luther survived. Despite his health issues, Martin Luther was sixty-three years old when he died. Despite his prolific writing and success with the people, he was far from wealthy. Despite his faults, he knew the greatest gift was found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The world might still be as it is without Martin Lutherís influence, but God chose him for a purpose. God used Luther to reform the Church, to remind His people of His grace.
When Martin Luther read the passage from Romans 3, he rediscovered the foundation of the Gospel message: it is not by our works that we are saved, but by the amazing grace of God. It is so much easier for us to do good works than to accept the humbling reality that we can never make ourselves good enough to enter into the presence of God. We donít want God to see our imperfections and we fear what will happen when He does. It is much, much harder for us to cry out to God in our imperfections because we are truly afraid of what He might say. Yet, the true path, the better path, is to cry out in faith knowing that God is gracious and merciful, full of forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to earn His grace, but in faith we can boldly approach Him with our needs. He will stop and listen. He will heal. In Him and in Him alone, we have joy and hope and peace.
In the texts for today we see a strong and powerful image of God. He is ďour refuge and our strength.Ē We need not fear, like Martin Luther feared for himself and for his congregation, because God is a very present help in trouble. It was Psalm 46 that Martin Luther used as the basis for one of his most important works: the hymn ďA Mighty Fortress.Ē God is always there. He is a fortress in times of difficulty and a refuge in times of need. When things are looking bad in the world in which we live, as they must have looked to Luther in 1517, we can rest assured that God is present, active and faithful.
The Old Covenant included list of laws that were required for righteousness. Leaders demanded obedience, and they made threats or bribes to keep the people in line. The leaders laid heavy burdens on the people, and the people failed. Thatís why God made the New Covenant that gives the believer the faith and freedom to live according to Godís Word.
Jesus told those listening that the truth would set them free, but the Jewish leaders didnít understand what he was talking about. ďWe are Abrahamís offspring, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ĎYou will be made freeí?Ē They relied on their heritage; they relied on Abraham and Moses for their salvation. But since they could not keep the Law perfectly, they would always fail to live up to the expectations of that Law. Jesus said that whenever you sin, no matter how small or insignificant, you are a slave to sin. This is what Martin Luther discovered when he was trying to confess himself into salvation.
The New Covenant gives us a new attitude; it changes how we look at Godís Law and Godís Word. In faith we respond to the call of God. The Old Covenant, which comes from outside, is replaced with a covenant that comes from inside. The Law still has a purpose, in that it helps us to see that we are in need of a Savior. When we hear the Gospel, Godís Word is placed in the heart; faith is given so that the believer can act out of love rather than fear or greed. We are no longer burdened by that Law, but we are set free by faith to live out Godís Word in the world.
This life of grace is what Martin Luther discovered as he searched the scriptures for relief from his burdens. He longed to be freed from the fear, guilt and pain he experienced when he recognized himself as the sinner that he was. He knew there was no way he could be good or enough for the gifts of God. His fears threatened to affect his ministry, because he thought his lifetime of sin would invalidate the work he was called to do in the church.
Then he found the grace of God, that unbelievable truth that the work of salvation is not dependent on man but rather on the mercy of God. When we realize that we are sinners, in need of a Savior, our whole world is turned upside down. We are set free from the burdens of the law so that we might live to the glory of God in His grace no matter who we are. This is what happened to Martin Luther when he read Paulís words to the Romans, ďWe maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.Ē
A WORD FOR TODAY
Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page