Many children are looking forward to October 31. They enjoy dressing up as their favourite superhero or some other character, and even more the large amounts of sugary treats that they will consume. It is a great time for all.
But this October 31 is much more significant than Halloween. Many people in the church world recognize October 31, not so much as Halloween, but as Reformation Day. It was this day in history that people acknowledge what was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And this year, it is exactly 500 years since the start of that momentous movement. It was that event 500 years ago that not only the church, but the entire world was changed. And all this by some guy posting some theological points on a church door. A man named Martin Luther.
Why should we care? We are Baptists and not Lutherans. Some Baptists would even say we are not protestants, but I think that might be a stretch. We are definitely not here to worship Martin Luther. Not only was he a mere human, he was also someone with some significant faults. But perhaps it is in his mistakes that we can find hope. If we take one thing from Martin Luther’s story, it is that God uses imperfect people to fulfill his perfect will.
As I said, Reformation Day is the day we remember Luther posting something on a church door. What he posted was something called the 95 theses, that 95 theological points that he wanted to make. In this he was responding to the Roman Catholic Church. We need to remember that this was not a correction from outside but from inside. Luther had for many years been faithful member of the Catholic Church. His primary goal, at least in the beginning, was not to tear down the Roman Catholic Church or to start his own sectarian group. His deepest desire was to reform the church, to correct the errors that had crept in and to bring everything back on track. There was one particular error that he wanted to address was something called indulgences. The Roman Catholic Church was on a major building trend, including the building of some very important churches in Rome. Such activity required large amounts of money. The church knew that many people were concerned about how long they would spend in purgatory. Although purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible, people believed that everyone who died, even good Catholics, still had some sin and were not ready to meet God, so almost everyone would have to spend time in purgatory to pay off those sins. Purgatory was not as bad as hell, but was still not some place you would want to spend a long time in. It was also believed that the Pope had the spiritual authority to shorten the time that people would spend in purgatory. This shortening of time was made available for a price by selling indulgences. People could give money to the church and thus would be able to cut time off their time in purgatory and get them into heaven quicker.
I must make clear that none of this is meant as an attack on the Roman Catholic Church as it is today. Even during the time of Luther, there were many who stayed with the Catholic Church but acknowledged that the selling of the indulgences was an abuse. The Roman Catholic Church experienced its own reformation after this event and I would say that the Roman Catholic Church ultimately benefited from Martin Luther’s critique.
Responding to the selling of the indulgences was a large part of what Luther did 500 years ago. But it was so much more than that. It was something that directly affects us, something that is relevant even if we have never heard of indulgences. To do that, we are going to have to back up a bit on Luther’s story, going some years before the posting on the Wittenberg door.
The Story of Martin Luther
Our story really begins when Luther was in his early twenties. Luther was an intelligent and gifted young man. He was training to become a lawyer and his parents were looking forward to him marrying and making lots of grand babies for them. That’s why they were horrified by what happened one fateful night. Luther was caught in a terrible storm. Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening. Being so scared, he called out to St. Anne and said that if she saved him, he would give up his career as a lawyer and become a monk. Luther survived the storm and became a monk, much to the disappointment of his family (at least on the last point). There is some irony here as Luther would eventually reject the praying to saints.
Was Luther a good monk? That would depend on who you asked. He was brilliant. He dove into his studies and eventually became a theology professor. He had a deep understanding of the Scriptures and was hungry for more. He also took the disciplines and activities of being monk very seriously. He once even walked all the way from the monastery in Germany to Rome, a distance of 1000 miles. So why was there a problem? Luther regularly annoyed his fellow monks and their superiors. Not because of his lack of discipline but because of his overcommitment. If Luther knew one thing it was that he was sinful and that sin separated him from a holy God. He tried to do everything and more to bridge that gap between himself and God. He punished his body, confessed his sins, prayed and read the Bible. But no matter what he did, he could never seem to close that gap between himself and God. Assurance of being accepted by God continued elude him.
That’s where the Bible came in. As a monk, Bible reading was a part of his role. As a theology professor, he needed to do the extra study to teach. One of the parts of the Bible that Luther began to study was Paul’s letter to the Romans. The basic message of Romans is that all people, Jews and Gentiles, start off in the same place as alienated from God and that we can only be saved from this alienation through faith in Jesus Christ. This was exactly what Luther had been struggling with. Paul talks in Romans about righteousness. That’s was Luther’s goal. But Paul makes it clear that we cannot work our way to that righteousness, but rather we are declared righteous by God when we put our faith in Jesus. This is what Luther had been looking for all the time. Luther stopped striving and put his faith in Jesus and found his assurance. This gave him the strength, not just to finally have personal peace, but to transform the church and ultimately the world.
Before leaving Luther, I will tell you that he left the monastery and got married, to an ex-nun of all people and had lots of babies. His parents were happy.
Salvation By Faith
Enough about Martin Luther. We have our own problems. We may not go to the extremes of Martin Luther, but we all start off alienated from God and have to address the question of how get right with God.
I would not want to compare myself with Martin Luther, but there was a time in my life where I believed in God but felt distant from him. I tried to earn God’s love and acceptances. I fulfilled all the duties that I thought were expected of me, tried to be a good person, but the harder I worked, the more distant God seemed. I eventually came to the point where I gave up striving and surrendered myself to Jesus and received my assurance that I was right with God.
Paul, who wrote Romans, was a hard working religious person. He was so zealous for God, he persecuted Christians, who he saw as corrupting his native Judaism. It was only through meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus that Paul’s eyes were finally opened.
In Romans, Paul is writing to two groups of Christians, each of whom think they had an advantage over the other. Paul demolishes their pretensions of advantage and reminds them that they all start from the same place of sin.
Paul speaks of the gospel, the good news. This gospel is not just a neat theological slogan, it is the power of God. This power works toward salvation. This power reveals righteousness.
Would you describe yourself as righteous? Many of us would not want to self-describe as righteous because it sounds like we are puffing ourselves up. But that is because we think of righteousness as something we achieve ourselves and we are only too aware of our shortcomings. But the righteousness that Paul talks about is not one that we can earn. Rather God declares us to be righteous. It is like being out on trial and hearing at the end of the trial the welcome words of the judge, “Not guilty!” That is what God does for us. We are declared righteous.
That is only reached by faith. we must put our faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is more than just believing. Most people believe that there was some person named Jesus, they may even believe some theological facts about him. Faith is closer to trust than it is to mental assent. It is the difference between believing that person could fly a plane and trusting enough to go up in the plane with that person as the pilot.
None of this is meant to say that works are not important. Paul stresses over and over that we are only saved by faith and yet he did so much to preach the gospel and spread the kingdom of God. Martin Luther, once he gave up striving and embraced faith, eventually accomplished more once he gave up trying to earn God’s love than he did when he was seeking it.
Living as a Christian, working for the kingdom, these are things that we do as a result of being in God’s family, not as a way to get in or even to stay in God’s family. Followers of Jesus seek to become more like Jesus because we are already in the family and a family resemblance should be a natural part of that.
We are not here to worship Martin Luther. He was a man like any other, a jumble of good and bad qualities. But God used that man 500 years ago and many times since to spread the message that we cannot earn our own righteousness but we can be declared righteous by faith.
This was the message that Paul needed, that Luther needed and that we need today. Are you striving and feeling like you are always failing? Let it go and surrender to Jesus. What Jesus did on the cross and his resurrection has the power to do what we cannot do ourselves. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are adopted into the family of God. the gap between ourselves is closed and we are declared righteous, whether we feel it or not. This is the power of salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ.