Preacher: Pastor Tim Redfield
Date: October 26/29, 2017
Text: Romans 1:16-17
This year we are having a special focus on Martin Luther because of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Each year we celebrate Reformation for just one Sunday on the Calendar. This year I decided that three Sundays would be more fitting. At times, I have heard the sentiment, “Do we put too much focus on Martin Luther?” There can even be the idea that Lutheran worship Martin Luther rather than God. I recognize that focusing on him more this year might be problematic toward those ideas. We do not worship Luther. He was just a man. However, it is good to talk about what God accomplished through Martin Luther. Over the next three Sundays I will include many historical details to show the significance of what God accomplished through the Reformation. I can’t include everything in 3 sermons so I will just go over the highlights. Today we focus on how special it was that Luther Discovered Gospel Freedom.
Part 1: A Sharp Conscience Led Him to Seek God
When you read about the life of Martin Luther, you can see many possible ways that God was carrying out a plan to use Luther for the good of the church on earth. There were many things going on in the world that made it possible for Luther to have an impact. The printing press was invented about 40 years before Luther was born. He was able to use that invention to spread his message. Among pastors and Bible professors of the time, there was a desire to go back to the original sources. This meant that there was a renewed desire to read the Bible in the original languages. There was also political instability at that time. The people were afraid of starvation and famine. The rulers might not even help the poor. People were nervous about the economy and inflation. And they were also nervous about the possibility of invading armies.
These situations and many more circumstances made it possible for someone like Martin Luther to be the driving force behind a massive change. When it came to religion, many of the Roman Church’s errors were on clear display. Indulgences were being sold to pay for many different projects. People were led to believe that they could buy forgiveness rather than actually being repentant over their sins. This was bolstered by the false teaching of purgatory. People thought that they would have to suffer in purgatory before they would be allowed into heaven. Indulgences were a way to avoid purgatory. The church at that time emphasized the power of the Pope over the entire Church. What the Pope said was superior to what the Bible said. Luther saw the problems with Rome. When he spoke out, he had political allies in the German princes. The German princes protected him from the Emperor and the Pope.
Luther wasn’t the first person to speak out against the Pope and the Roman Church. Others had been put to death for opposing Rome. God protected Luther. You can see God using Luther to accomplish something that had not happened when others opposed Rome. It starts with Luther’s sharp conscience. Ever since his childhood, he had thought of God as an angry judge. That was what he had been taught. The idea of the righteousness of God from verse 17 of our text really bothered him. He viewed God’s righteousness as the perfection which human beings had to strive to achieve. He thought that we had to become perfect through our good deeds before we would inherit heaven. Otherwise, God, the angry judge, would condemn us. He thought God was entirely unreasonable for demanding a perfection that no one could attain.
For a while, Luther followed the desire of his father. Luther was training to become a lawyer. However, he finally got to a point where his troubled conscience pushed him to become a monk. He was probably thinking about it before being caught outside in a terrible thunderstorm. When a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree, he made a promise that he would become a monk if he survived. He hoped that by becoming a monk he would be able to become more certain of his salvation. He certainly had more works to do and vows to obey but he still was uncertain if he would inherit heaven. He did not love God. He was terrified of God. He figured that he would just try his best and throw himself before the mercy of God. He hoped that God would be pleased but he feared that his sin would condemn him.
Fortunately Luther was assisted by one of his pastors. Johann Staupitz pointed him to Jesus and the Scriptures. It took a while for Luther to fully understand the gospel but he was now on the right path. He read through the Bible diligently. He started teaching the Bible as a Professor at Wittenberg. He understood that our works would not save us. Only God can save us. However, he still didn’t see how God saved us. Again, he figured that he would just plead for God’s mercy and hope for the best. Salvation through works was offensive to him. It was even more offensive when the Catholic representatives came to his town to sell indulgences. He knew that we could not please God with our good works. We certainly couldn’t buy forgiveness with a piece of paper.
Johann Tetzel came into town with great fanfare and a catchy slogan. “No sooner does the coin clink in the chest than the soul flies up to heavenly rest!” This was utterly offensive to Luther. People would purchase these indulgences and use them as an excuse to commit all kinds of sins. Luther wanted to debate this topic. That was why he made his 95 Theses. He figured that other Christians would see the error of indulgences and return to the truth of Scripture. He especially wanted people to see that indulgences were tearing down the Biblical teaching of genuine repentance. The first of the 95 theses says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” As believers, out of sorrow over sin, we strive to turn away from sin. Indulgences were allowing people to live in sinful ways while thinking they were forgiven.
When he posted those theses, he still had not fully discovered the gospel. Before we talk about that discovery I think we need to ask some questions. Do we ever fall into the same kind of works righteous attitude that burdened Luther’s conscience? Do we ever think that we can purchase forgiveness like many people thought back in the 1500’s? Our quick response would be that we don’t do those things. However, let’s think about that. Even though it has been taught to us repeatedly that we can’t earn our way to heaven through our works, there are still ways that this false idea creeps into our hearts. In fact, our sinful nature loves the idea that we can earn God’s favor. There are times that our sinful pride wants to highlight all that we do for God.
At times we think that we deserve many blessings because of how good we are. This is something I have to watch out for as a pastor. It is easy to think, “Look at all I do for God. I read my Bible. I preach sermons. I teach Bible Classes. I visit the sick and the shut-in. I attend lots of meetings. I work tons of hours. I reach out to people who need to hear the Bible. And I do so much more. I even donate a reasonable amount of money to God’s Work. Certainly I deserve to have great blessings come my way.” Maybe the thought process goes a little differently. This is probably more accurate, “With all I do, why aren’t more people joining our church? Why do people still find reasons to skip worship and Bible Study? Why do people still criticize my work and speak poorly of me when I speak God’s truth?” There are many other things I could put down. Whether it is pride or despair, we put too much focus on ourselves and what we do. Our works don’t bring us comfort. Our works don’t earn any special favors from God.
Part 2: The Power of the Gospel Led Him to See Forgiveness
Just like Luther, we need the gospel. Luther didn’t have pride in his works. Others were taking pride in those indulgences. Luther despaired of his works. He recognized they weren’t earning him anything from God. That is why it was such an incredible revelation when he discovered the gospel. If he had not discovered the gospel, the Reformation might have stopped. He published his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. We don’t have an exact date but we know that he didn’t truly discover the gospel until 1518. We know this because of his personal statements. He looked at Romans 1:17 and finally saw the truth. I could say a lot about the Greek of this passage. Even the English sounds a little awkward. Rather than going into all the details, listen to what Luther said:
“At last, by the mercy of God, as I was earnestly meditating days and nights, I started paying attention to the context of the words, namely, ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in [the gospel], just as it is written: “The righteous person lives by faith”’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the righteousness of God is revealed through the gospel, but it is a passive righteousness, that is, that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous person lives by faith.’
“All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had similar meanings, for example, the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest phrase of mine, ‘the righteousness of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.”
Luther’s long quote shows that he had finally discovered grace. It was a liberating event. He finally understood the gospel freedom that we read about in the gospel lesson for today. He no longer felt like sin was his master. He didn’t see God as an angry judge. He saw God as the potter in the Jeremiah passage. God had taken Luther and shaped him into a new person. Now Luther had the strength that he needed to proclaim this wonderful gospel to others. He did love God. He realized that God was working in his heart to produce fruits of faith. He no longer felt like he had to try to please God the angry judge. He wanted to joyfully serve God his loving Savior. This gospel gave him strength and confidence as he faced much opposition. Next week I will focus on the opposition to the truth of the Word. For today we only need to understand that the gospel of forgiveness through Christ gave Luther the strength to persevere.
When we understand and appreciate the gospel, it gives us a strength and comfort that we can’t find elsewhere. For those of us who were brought up in the Lutheran church, it is difficult to imagine the pure joy that Luther felt when he discovered the gospel. We have heard again and again that we are saved through the perfect life and innocent death of Jesus. And yet, we do have some glimpses of the joy he must have felt. We are still tempted toward despair when serving the Lord seems so difficult. Like I said earlier, we are tempted to wonder why our service to the Lord doesn’t lead to greater blessings in our lives. We get down. We stress out. We get anxious when it seems like our work is in vain.
And then we have those moments when the gospel brings us the greatest comfort. God reminds us that we don’t have to worry. Our works are not the key to earning God’s blessings. He is giving us the greatest possible comfort. Our ticket to heaven is certain and it doesn’t depend on us in the slightest. Jesus accomplished it 2000 years ago. He was completely perfect in our place. He suffered opposition on account of the gospel. His life was difficult on account of the truth. He was abandoned. He suffered the greatest shame for us. He remained strong and forgave all of our weaknesses. He died the death we deserved. He rose just like his believers will rise to eternal life. His perfection is a gift to his believers. The gift of the gospel gives us the comfort, joy, strength, and eternal hope that we need.
I want to go back just briefly to the idea that Lutherans worship Martin Luther. The main reason that idea doesn’t work is because Martin Luther did not save anyone. Martin Luther didn’t die on the cross. Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He was a sinner like you and me. He needed Jesus just like you and me. We call ourselves Lutheran not because we follow Luther. What we follow is the way that he looked at God’s Word. He saw the truth. He saw the gospel. He saw that Jesus was righteous in our place and therefore we are made righteous through Jesus. We are thankful that God used a man like Luther to help focus our attention on the cross of Christ. Because of the pure gospel, we have forgiveness and eternal life. We rejoice because of Jesus. Our focus on Reformation is on Jesus.