On October 31, 1517, a thirty-four-year-old monk by the name of Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany to be debated by those interested in doctrinal error in the Church. This marked the official beginning of what is known in history as the Reformation Event.
The question that comes before us in this sermon is this: How does the Reformation affect the spiritual life of people who live 500 years later?
First, we look at what the Gospel did to Luther’s life.
When the disciples left Jerusalem to evangelize the world, they had a very simple message to proclaim. They were to tell the story that God came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ; He suffered and died for the sins of the world; and those who confess their sins and trust Him as their Savior and Lord will be His children forever.
When Luther was a young man with great spiritual concerns, this message had been so clouded by the Church that he could not understand how a person could find peace with God. No longer was the Church proclaiming that God was love, that He sent His Son to die for the sins of the world, and that forgiveness and peace with God was a gift we receive simply by trusting Jesus as our Savior and Lord. No longer did spiritually needy people hear they could walk in a personal relationship with the Savior who loved them.
Hoping to find this peace, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery where he hoped to escape the temptations of the world. Instead, satan met him inside that building, and his soul was tortured still. No matter how often Luther went to confession, he found no peace.
Yet he continued his studies and was a faithful monk. In 1512, he received the degree of Doctor of Theology and became a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg. It was while Luther was preparing his lectures on the book of Romans that God spoke to the young theologian through these words: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ÔThe righteous live by faith'” (Romans 1:17).
These words opened Luther’s eyes. He found peace for his mind and fire in his soul. This was a message that the world must hear: “The righteous live by faith.” However, the hierarchy did not share Luther’s conviction. They warned the people that a “wild boar” was loose in the vineyard.
After years of theological arguments and trials, Luther was called to Worms to withdraw his treatise on the church’s departure from Scripture. As he stood before noted theologians and Emperor Charles himself, they asked if he was ready to withdraw his writings. It was then that Luther made his famous statement:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other Ð my conscience is bound to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not, recant anything, for to go contrary to conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise.”
Luther was convicted as a heretic and was excommunicated from the Church. He could be hunted and killed. This was heartbreaking for Luther because he loved the church. It was the beginning of the Reformation, and out of it came the Protestant Church.
This is a story in history, and is important to be told. But we also must consider how can this reformation experience affects those of us who live five hundred years later.
One of the great blessings this event from our rich evangelical heritage is the message that we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone! This message was given by the Holy Spirit and returned to the Church’s proclamation following the Reformation.
During these years since the Reformation, people have come to know Christ and have passed the message on in many ways throughout the world. Missionaries have paid a tremendous price by sharing this Gospel in heathen lands, and they are still doing so today. But God has blessed His Church, and the world has been changed.
Yet as we see the blessings that have come to the world since the Reformation, we find human nature cannot comprehend the message that salvation is free. Gradually the Gospel does not ring as clearly as the Bible teaches. Let me illustrate.
When I was a young person, we had annual Reformation rallies. Congregations gathered and joint choirs sang Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” with great luster. Outstanding preachers came to tell the story of how God used the reformer to tell us the simple Gospel. We were inspired and went home as faithful children of the Reformation.
However, I had no peace in my soul. I had been taught, and I believed, that salvation came through faith in Christ alone. Yet I was also told by some of the well-meaning pietists in our congregation that I could not do certain activities if I was God’s child. For example, I could not attend a school-sponsored dance, for this might lead me into adultery. Soon the same thoughts that plagued Luther in the monastery developed in my head. Salvation through faith in Christ plus keeping some of the legalistic rules, like not dancing, drinking, playing cards, etc. Many of us were raised on this teaching of mixing the Law and the Gospel. It only led to confusion about the Christian faith.
It was not until I was a sophomore in college that I first heard the gospel clearly. I sat in the back row of an auditorium listening to a theological professor speak to 400 pastors. He said to the assembled pastors, “I do not like to be offensive, but I must say in Christian love that when I hear some of the preaching coming from our pulpits on Sunday morning, it is not a clear gospel. You are telling the congregation that they are saved by believing in Jesus, but then you add that they must also do something. The results are that the poor people are not spiritually able to do what is demanded of them, and they have no peace. Such preaching reminds me of the advertisement that says, ÔIt is 99.44% pure,’ meaning that, although Christ has done most of what is necessary for salvation, we also have to make a contribution to it. This takes away the assurance of our salvation!”
That did it for me! I was free. It was the greatest day in my life. Christ has done it all, and I contribute nothing! Did that mean that as a free person I could now go out and follow the desires of my sinful nature? Not at all. My life would now be lived out of love for my Heavenly Father. He redeemed me, and I am His forever. He had captured my soul. He would direct me in my living, but the good that would come from my sinful being was a fruit of my faith, not a contribution to my salvation.
As I listen to preaching today and read some of the theological books on social justice, I fear we fall into the same sin of works righteousness. Certainly a Christian loves his brother and sister, feeds the hungry, cares for the sick, and visits the poor in spirit, but these actions are a fruit of the faith, not a contributing factor to his salvation.
The Gospel Ð that we are saved by grace Ð is so far above our human reasoning that we cannot comprehend it. We hear people say there is no free lunch. Many believe this is also true when it comes to their eternal salvation. So they hope they will be saved, but have no assurance. Others believe there is nothing to worry about. A gracious and loving God will save us all.
The Reformation event gave us back the clear biblical teaching that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus. This is the core of the Christian faith, which is eternal. God grant that it may be proclaimed faithfully until he comes again