Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Well, this isn't Christmasy, but it's still a favorite.

October 27, 2002
This Week's Message:

Romans 1:16-17

Right with God: The Heart of the Reformation

I have been asked to explain to you here today what this "Reformation" is all about. It is true that many blame me. Some of course, greet me with nothing less than love and joy, but many curse the name Martin Luther. Did you know that Pope Leo once called me a wild boar-and a drunken German? Perhaps I have been a bit of both.

I never intended to start a Reformation. As a matter of fact, I never intended to be a clergyman. I wanted to me a lawyer. My father, Hans Luther, God rest his soul, he also wanted me to be a lawyer. I went off to school and in my last year I was traveling near the village of Stotterheim when a violent storm came up. At first just rain, a hot rain for a hot July day, but then a bolt of lightening so close I was knocked to the ground, my whole body tingling, and I cried out, "St. Anne, help me! Save me and I will become a monk!"

The storm stopped, so I guess St. Anne heard me. Now I see the hand of God in all of this, though I must say that I would never today call on St. Anne or any other saint to save me. Saving is God's work alone. But I digress.

I told my father of my vow. You must know that my father was a hard-working coal miner. The ideal of his son as a lawyer was exciting. Lawyers make money! Priests are well-educated paupers! He was so angry that I think I called out to St. Anne again!

But I was determined. I entered the monastery. I went to the Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt. After two years of study, I was ordained a priest. Father came to the ordination. It was a nightmare.

There I was, officiating at my very first mass. Things were going wonderfully. Father sat on the first row. He was actually proud of me, I could tell-"My son, the priest!" I knew the mass frontward and backward. But when I came to the Prayer of Consecration, I stopped. I faltered. I froze. I could feel beads of sweat on my forehead-worst, I could see the nervous look on the face of the people.

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I tried to go on, but I couldn't. Instead, I slunk back to the pew where my father sat, and another priest finished the mass.

Father lectured me afterwards. "A priest? A priest? My dog is more fit to be a priest than you are! Martin, you have humiliated me, and your family." I reminded him of the lightening and my vow to St. Anne. He said that it wasn't God who had spoken to me that day-perhaps it was the devil!

I will never forget that day. Father thought that I was unfit. So did I. There I was doing my priestly duty, and as I prayed, I was stricken with terror. Who am I to address the majesty of heaven? Who am I to lift my eyes up to the Lord of all? Can it be that I, a little pygmy, can say to God, "I want this, I ask for that?" I am just dust and ashes and full of sin, and here I am speaking to the living, eternal, true God!

One person who understood was my Father Confessor. During training in the monastery all of us are assigned a Father Confessor. Mine was a good man, a good priest named Father Staupitz. I confessed everything to him. I really did want to be right with God, and I thought that confession was the right way. I told him everything; I thought that's what I was supposed to do. Do know that once, I spent six hours confessing my sins of the previous day? The other monks thought I was being lazy!

I rather think I was driving Father Staupitz as crazy as I was driving myself. Once he got so disgusted with me that he got quite angry and said. "Look here, Martin, if you want Christ to0 forgive you, come in with something worth forgiving. Tell me that you killed your father, or that you blasphemed God, or committed adultery-instead of all these little sins. Man, God is not angry with you! You are angry with God. Don't you know that God commands you to hope!"

He was right-to a degree. My heart told me that I should hope. But nothing I was learning told me why.

Did I love God? To tell you the truth, sometimes I hated Him. Sometimes Christ seemed to me nothing more than an angry judge with a sword in His hand. That's how it seemed to me.

Not long after my ordination-yes, I was ordained even after I botched the mass-I was transferred to Wittenburg where I studied theology. It seems that they wanted to make an academic out of me-less dangerous that way. And they said I had a skill for theology and Biblical studies, and in a few years I was a professor at Wittenburg.

I was to lecture on Romans one semester, so I began my preparation. I was only in the first chapter when I became stumped by the meaning of the text. It is Romans 1:16-17:

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

My problem was with the phrase "a righteousness from God." Now I understood that to mean "the justice of God"-His holy, true, justice. So here's how I understood Paul's words: in the gospel of Christ, God has revealed His holy justice.

God's holy justice. I thought of the lightening on that July day: God's holy justice. I thought of how I drove Father Staupitz mad with all my confessing. It was because of my fear of the holy justice of God. I recalled the day that the fear of God so struck me that I could not complete the mass. It was that holy justice that had kept me in fear all my life, and here it was again.

But there was something puzzling here. The passage goes on to say that the righteous shall live by faith. What is there in God's holy justice that enables a person to live by faith? It was a troubling puzzle. And it was my personal puzzle.

Then it dawned on me that I had misunderstood the word "righteousness." Yes, indeed God is holy and just, but that is not what Paul speaks about here.

Sometime later I wrote down my exact thoughts. Yes, here's my journal:

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, "the just shall live by faith." Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open door into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on took on a new meaning. Before, the "justice of God" had filled me with fear and even hate; but now, it had become to me inexpressibly sweet and full of love.

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God's heart and will, so that you can see His pure grace and His overflowing love. By faith, you can behold God and see His fatherly, friendly heart. If you only see anger, you have not seen Him as He is-only as if a curtain separates you from Him, or a dark cloud in the sky obscures the sun.

O what joy! The weight of my sin tumbled off my shoulders. I suppose I will always be a melancholy soul, but in heart I am a happy man.

Well, the whole Bible began to make so much more sense to me. And I shared my discoveries with my students. They and I both began to suspect that what I found in the word of God could not be reconciled with the teaching of the church in Rome. Perhaps I could have kept it at that but when this disgusting dog of a man named Johann Tetzel came through Wittenburg, it was too much.

Tetzel came through selling indulgences. In Rome, they have a whole theology of it, but the essence is this: contribute money, and have your sins forgiven. Or even your dead relatives' sins. It was all just a money-raising scheme to pay off the expense of building St. Peter's cathedral in Rome.

In one hand, I held the Bible. In the other, the doctrines of the church. I tried, I truly did, to reconcile the two, but I couldn't.

Now at the University, when you wanted to debate a subject, you posted the topic for debate on the chapel door. I wrote out my paper with 95 points of debate on the door of the chapel on October 31, 1517-All Saint's Eve.

Some of my students copied out by hand all 95 Theses. And then they took them to a printer. In two weeks, they-and I-were the talk of all Germany. I never planned that, and I never expected that.

The next few years were the most frightful time of my life. I was challenged to debate after debate. And quite frankly, I won all the debates. I even converted some of debate opponents to my point of view. (It has been my experience that most men of intelligence will ultimately agree with me!)

Then Pope Leo censured me. He ordered all my books burned. That's when he called me a "wild boar."

They knew I was popular in Germany, though. So they arranged for a special meeting-a Diet-to assemble in the city of Worms. Here I was amid all these men of learning and theology-the very soul of the church-and I had the audacity to say to them, "You are all wrong; I am right"?

It was April. April 17. All my books and pamphlets-the ones Leo had ordered burned-were stacked on a table to my side. A bishop asked me, "Are these books yours?"

I quietly answered, "Yes, the books are mine, and I have written more." The bishop asked again. "Do you recant these writings?"

If I had said yes, I would betray my own conscience. If I said no-well, who was I to stand up to the whole Christian world, to the whole church and say they were wrong?

It was my first mass all over again. I froze. So I asked if I could have until the next day to think it over.

I got no sleep that night. It was my personal Gethsemene. I prayed…I asked God why didn't He find someone else do this. I would be happy passing my days teaching in the University. But that was not God's will. I suspected that they would kill me. I asked God for strength. Sleepless, I went back to the meeting hall the next day.

I had a speech all ready, and tried to answer yesterday's question with the speech, when that same bishop interrupted me: "I ask you Martin, answer candidly without a speech-do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors they contain?"

I quietly answered, "Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will so answer. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason-I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they all contradict each other-my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."

When the meeting was, God sent the Duke of Saxony as my Savior. He had me kidnapped-for my own protection! He hid me in one of his castles-and I used the time to begin translating the Bible into German, so any German could read the Word of God for himself.

I heard that priests and nuns all over Germany were leaving the religious orders-even marrying! I came out of hiding to try to restore some kind of order. And I, the Augustinian monk, ended up marrying my dear Catherine-a former nun! (I have found, dear friends, that changing diapers is a great aid in spiritual growth!)

And so that is how it all got started-this "Reformation." They curse me in Rome. Just because I called the Pope the vicar of the devil! What a temper!

This is not about me. It is about what God has said in His Word. We "Protestants" still protest the abuse of the word of God. And this abuse puts up a barrier between common people and the true knowledge of God. This is not a trivial matter. It was one that I was-and am-prepared to die for.

Recall the word of Paul in Romans 1:16-17:

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

With Paul, we brothers and sisters, should never be ashamed of the gospel-the real Biblical gospel. Never let it get overgrown with weed of tradition and human wisdom.

The gospel-the real Biblical gospel-is the very power of God to save everyone who believes. Not to terrify everyone who believes! In this gospel, God's way of making people right with Himself is revealed. This gospel is the good news of Jesus-crucified for us. Bearing all our sin on Himself, in His body and soul, so that we poor sinners don't have to confess six hours a day, but be free!

And the doorway in is faith. "The righteous will live by faith." Faith alone. Not faith plus works or plus the church or paying off that dog Johann Tetzel! Just faith. God's grace comes first-His grace in Christ-and faith is all the condition needed to receive that grace. O, praise God, the Giver of life!

Well, I must go now. I'm working on a hymn. I wrote one already: "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head." This new one I heard the tune for at the tavern, and I like it: "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing…"

Well, God bless you, and remember, be faithful to God's word. He sets all who put their faith in Him free. I am proof of that. Farewell, my friends. Farewell.

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