Judges 2:10-11 (NIV)
“10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals.”
THE LORD FORGOTTEN
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 into an exciting time in human history. During Luther’s lifetime, Michelangelo would paint his famous ceiling. Copernicus would show the world that the Sun is the center of our solar system instead of the earth. Columbus would discover America.
But Luther’s family knew little about the world beyond their local roads. They were poor peasants living in the rough country and climate of 15th century Germany. Food, clothing and shelter were not always easy to obtain. An unusually wet spring or a dry summer could double the price of grain, or worse.
Hunger wasn’t the only wolf that stalked the people of Luther’s day. The Plague was on the loose as well. In the German city of Strasbourg, the Plague killed 16,000 of the 25,000 inhabitants. That’s a death rate of 64%. When the Plague was finally done with Strasbourg, it left 300 surrounding villages deserted.
Because so few people were educated (less than 10% of Europe could even read) this was also an age of superstition. Dr. James M. Kittelson writes…
“…[it was] an age of pilgrimages, saints and relics. The search for spiritual security colored everything. Christ was often pictured on a throne with a lily (resurrection) coming from one side of his head and a sword (damnation) coming from the other. The burning question was, “How can I avoid the sword and earn the lily?”Luther was not raised to know Christ as a compassionate Savior, but rather as a terrifying judge. A judge that would only give you eternal life, if you had been good enough to earn it.
Of course, this idea that you can earn your own forgiveness is completely foreign to the Bible. But who could read? And even if you could, the Bible wasn’t available German.
In other words, the common people had to just take the priest’s word for it. And this young Martin did, for many years.
In the book of Judges it says, “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10 NIV).
Well, that pretty much sums it up for Luther’s day too. Virtually nobody really knew the true God anymore, nor what God’s Son had done for sinners through His death on the cross.
Romans 1:16-17 (NKJV)
“16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
AN ALIEN RIGHTEOUSNESS
Whether naturally, or through his parent’s strict discipline, Luther grew up with a sensitive conscience. He was acutely aware of the sins he committed daily against God and man.
So, he did what the church told him to – he confessed his sins to a priest. He did penance for his sins. He prayed to the saints. But nothing helped his troubled heart.
Luther felt that he was sinning even while he was confessing his sins. He knew that at the moment of confession he was at his most selfish. He wasn’t confessing his sins out of love for God, and to give God the glory. He was confessing his sins out of the most selfish desire to save his own skin.
His fear of God’s judgment eventually led Luther to become a monk. Perhaps if he gave up all his possessions and dedicated himself to serving God apart from the world he could find relief. But in the cloister he found that he was just as sinful, if not more. He punished his own body. He prayed for hours on end. He did what his church superiors told him to do. But still, his sins weighed heavy on his mind.
Far from bringing relief, life as a monk made Luther increasingly angry at God. Later in life Luther wrote, “I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners”.
When Luther read, “…in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed…” (Romans 1:17) he thought, God is righteous, what comfort is that? I am still a sinner.
When Luther read on that, “…The righteous will live by faith”, that didn’t help either. He wasn’t righteous, he was a sinner. So, how could he “live by faith” if he wasn’t yet righteous?
But Luther misunderstood what this passage meant. Eventually he realized that this passage didn’t mean one had to become stop sinning in order to then obtain life. While studying this passage, the Holy Spirit finally got through to Luther showing him that the righteousness of God is GIVEN to those who trust in Jesus. Sinners are declared righteous BECAUSE they believe in God’s promised Savior. Faith in Jesus gives a person God's righteousness!
Later Luther wrote, “This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, I saw the whole face of Scripture in a new light. …And now, where I had once hated the phase, ‘the righteousness of God,’ I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of phrases, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise to me.”
This teaching, Justification by Faith, was the heart of the Lutheran Reformation. It is not our own righteousness that saves us, it is an alien righteousness. The righteousness of God given to us through faith in the Savior who died in our place.
John 2:13-22 (NASB)
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME.”
18 The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
REFORMATION BY THE WORD OF GOD
By the time Martin Luther arrived on the scene, the church had degraded into a huge money making engine. Writer Paul Thigpen helps us to understand how bad things had gotten with his description of Pope Leo X, the reigning pope at the beginning of the Reformation.
“Extravagant son of a notorious Renaissance family, Giovanni de’ Medici was made a cardinal at the age of 13 and became Pope Leo X at 38. He has been described as “a polished Renaissance prince,” and “a devious and double-tongued politician.” Pleasure-loving and easy-going, Leo went on a wild spending spree as soon as he ascended the papal throne.Luther wasn’t the first to see that there were things that needed fixing in the church. Men like John Wyclif in England, and John Huss in Prague had previously spoken out about abuses in the church.
Expenses for his coronation festivities alone cost 100,000 ducats—one seventh of the reserve Pope Julius had left in the papal treasury. Leo’s plans for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica were estimated to cost over a million ducats. Within two years as pope, Leo had squandered the fortune left by his predecessor and was in serious financial embarrassment.
To keep up with his expenditures, his officials created more than two thousand saleable church offices during his reign. The estimated total profits from such offices have been estimated at three million ducats—but still they were not enough for Leo.
The sale of indulgences provided the pope with yet another source of income. To pay for St. Peter’s, offset the costs of a war, and enable a young noble to pay for three offices to which Leo had appointed him, the pope issued an indulgence for special sale in Germany. A Dominican, Johann Tetzel, was given the task of promotion, Luther reacted with his theses, and the rest, as they say, is history” (Martin Luther’s Early Years: A Gallery of Friends and Enemies by Paul Thigpen).
So, why hadn’t the church been reformed before Luther came along? Perhaps a big part of the reason was that others tried to reform the outward abuses of power, while Luther took aim at the source of these abuses – the false teachings which were accepted and taught by the church.
Starting with the core doctrine of Justification by Faith, Luther went on to call the people back to the simple Word of God as the authority in the church.
It was not Luther, the man, who set the Good News of sins forgiven through Jesus Christ back in it’s proper place in the church. It was Luther, the man of God. It was not Luther’s lone voice that called sinners back to Christ as their Savior, it was the Word of God spoken through Luther that did this.
In typical Luther fashion, “when his Wittenberg congregation admired him for his bold stance against pope and emperor in 1521, he told them that it was while he and Philipp Melanchthon were having a beer that the Word of God reformed the church” (The Unrefined Reformer by Dr. Eric W. Gritsch).
Revelation 14:6-7 (NIV)
6 Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
LIGHTS OF THE REFORMATION
God gave the apostle John a vision while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. In this vision John saw an angel flying high in the air, out of the reach of everyone below. Somehow John could see that the angel had the “eternal gospel” to proclaim to the world. When I imagine this, I see the angel holding a lantern whose bright rays shine out to those on the dark earth below.
In this poetic way, our God assures us that the Good News of sins forgiven through Christ will continue to be proclaimed throughout the ages, until that same Jesus returns to collect his followers.
No powers of darkness will be able to extinguish that light of life and salvation. Whether those powers come from within the visible church, or from without.
I am quite certain, that if Martin Luther had never lived, the message of Christ would still have survived and spread throughout the world.
Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546 at the age of 62. Like many before him, Luther was a sinner. His faults were many. Since friends an acquaintances were constantly jotting down the things Luther said in casual conversation, his misspoken words can be read to this day.
But also, like many before him, Luther was blessed by God. Chosen even though he was unworthy. Chosen to be redeemed by the blood of God’s Son. Saved through faith in the Christ. Chosen to be a messenger holding out the gift of God’s forgiveness to the world.
Do you remember what the word “angel” means? It means “messenger”. And that is what Luther was, a messenger sent by God.
And that is what you and I are today as well. By the grace of God, we too have come to know that because of Jesus our sins were paid for. Through faith we are declared righteous in God’s sight. And we hold the light of this message in our hearts, and if we can summon the courage to speak it, it will shine out to others.
Let us be lights of the Reformation shining on today. Saying, God’s grace alone saves us from sin’s punishment, not anything that we do. Saying, faith alone connects us to Christ’s forgiveness. Saying, Scripture alone is what we stand on and bow to.
And may the Holy Spirit work powerfully through His Word spoken by our mouths, so that it will be said, “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who still knew the LORD and all that he had done for sinners, through Christ Jesus.”