Spotlight Service - Luther - Heretic or Hero? - Romans 1:1-5
It all began on the 31st October 1517- Halloween, with the posting of a legitimate university notice on the local University’s notice board which happened to be a door on the Castle of Wittenberg- now in modern day Germany. What did the notice consist of? It was a series of theological propositions for debate, called 95 theses, mainly protesting against the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences. Let me explain. The Castle of Wittenberg was renown for its collection of religious artefacts - called relics; 5,005 in all. Amongst them, it was alleged, were pieces from the burning bush of Moses, nine thorns from the crown of Christ, 35 fragments of the cross of Christ, hay and straw from the stable of the Nativity and some hair of the Virgin Mary as well as 204 pieces of bodies of the babies King Herod slaughtered including one body fully in tact. It was claimed that by adoring these items, together with reciting special prayers and paying the appropriate fee, it was possible to get remission either later for yourself or presently a dead relative who found themselves in a place between heaven and hell called purgatory, an unpleasant abode of purification for those who had not quite yet made it to heaven. This remission was called an indulgence which could only be granted by the Pope. Now as you will appreciate such a belief had a powerful hold on the lives of many ordinary worshippers and also provided a vital source of income for the Church. One person who managed to make a lot of money in teaching this was a man called Tetzel, who travelled around Europe preaching and even managed to devised a little ditty,- a sale’s slogan if you like which went like this: ‘ The dead cry, ‘Pity us! Pity Us! We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a mere pittance. Will you leave us here in the flames? Will you delay our promised glory? As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.’ And if you believed that it was your mother or child in such a place that would have been a powerful motivator for you to give wouldn’t it? The terror of purgatory was sometimes portrayed to the common folk by means of plays carried out in the open. And it was this, amongst other things, that was about to be challenged on that All Hallows eve. Who was it that dared to bring such a challenge against the establishment? It was a young Professor of Theology from the local university, an Augustinian monk called Martin Luther. And what was it he began? A spiritual revolution which simply turned the world upside down known as the Reformation.
So what was Martin Luther’s problem? Was it simply a concern with the ruthless exploitation of the religiously gullible? A mere protest against ecclesiastical corruption? Well no ,not really. There were many others who were unhappy with the state of the church in Europe at that time. For Luther it was something much, much deeper, something more personal. This is the way Professor Roland Bainton of Yale describes what was happening. ‘ Martin Luther did not rebel because he was a German. Nor did he rebel because he was a sectarian. Luther was obsessed with the problem of his own personal salvation. He became a rebel only because he found the Church’s way of salvation to be in vain.’ This is the way Luther himself describes his struggle : ‘ How can I find a gracious God. That is, how can a righteous God ever enter into a personal relationship with a sinner like me?’ That was , as he saw it, the fundamental problem facing everyone. And as you look into your own heart and see things there you would rather not see, that may well be the question going through your mind at the moment, how on earth could God possibly accept and not simply banish someone like me?
So Luther was obsessed all right. But it was not the obsession of a neurotically diseased mind, but the anguish of a healthy conscience. He knew that he was on the wrong side of a holy God and that if this somehow was not rectified then his eternal future looked very bleak to say the least.
But the Church had a ready made answer to this dilemma, as taught by one of its leading theologians Gabriel Biel, which went like this: God had entered into a contract with humanity- a covenant. If human beings kept their side of the contract, doing things like loving God and hating sin, then God would keep his side of the bargain by justifying them, putting then right with himself. And God was quite impartial about this, it was what you did rather than who you were that mattered. But it was recognised that help was needed to keep our side of the covenant- and that help came in the form of something called grace. The question was how was this grace received? The answer: through the church’s sacramental plumbing system which piped this grace like a fluid to the individual. The church taught that there were seven sacraments which acted as conduits of mercy to the soul- baptism, confirmation, confession (and penance), the mass, marriage, ordination and the last rites. And this is still taught at the popular level, so let me read to you part of a little booklet written by Father Francis Ripley as an introduction to the Catholic faith: ‘ The redemption of the human race came through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Christ substituted himself for us by taking our punishment on himself. (So far so good, but then we have this little addition which makes all the difference in the world:) God has appointed certain definite channels by which the merit’s of Christ’s death are applied to ourselves. Those channels are called sacraments.’
Luther, of course, had tried all of these things in order to find peace with God, but at every turn all he encountered was despair. Born in 1483, he was baptised as a baby, confirmed as a child, regularly attended mass and confession ( the first four sacraments) but when he had just finished his MA in law at the age of 22 something happened to him on the 30th June 1505 which was to change his life for ever. He was out riding when a severe thunderstorm broke and a bolt of lightening struck the ground beside him causing his horse to throw him. Taking this as a sign of the judgement to come, he cried out, ‘St Ann help me and I will become a monk.’ True to his word that is what he did (sacrament six-and having taken a vow of celibacy sacrament five -marriage - was ruled out leaving only the last rites- number seven). And yet when he became a monk, the internal struggle not only continued but intensified. This is how Luther describes his experience: ‘ I was a good monk and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. All my companions in the monastery would confirm this. And yet my conscience would not give me certainty but always doubted and said, ' You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out in your confession.' The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, I daily found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.’ You see, Luther couldn’t meet the preconditions for mercy as the church taught it. Oh he tried, how he had tried; he prayed until he was sick, he fasted until he nearly died, he even joined other pilgrims in going to Rome climbing the sacred stairs of St Peter on his hands and knees kissing each step on the way, after all hadn’t the church taught that release from purgatory could be obtained by those showing such devotion? But when he got to the top of those stairs to his horror all he was met with was the most appalling doubt.
So Luther went back to his monastery feeling worse than ever. His father superior, Staupitz, exasperated with him and his morbid doubts, sent him away to the University of Wittenberg to study for a doctorate, maybe this would take his mind off things. ‘What subject shall I study?’ he asked. The wise old Friar replied, ‘Biblical studies’. And that is what he did and that is when an internal spiritual revolution began in his life which was eventually to spill out into the whole world. And it happened in this way:
In his little study he had before him, in the Greek, Paul’s letter to the Romans as we have it before us this evening. He couldn’t make it past Romans 1 and verses 16-17 which reads ‘ For I am not ashamed of the Good News (the Gospel message) for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. For in the Good News a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.’ You see he had been brought up with the belief that God’s righteousness demanded the blotting out of sinners like himself in judgement. So how could that be Good news? It sounded like pretty bad news to him. Then the light slowly dawned as to what Paul actually meant.
This righteousness of God which the Gospel speaks of , is not earned, it is a gift. Instead of becoming righteous by being good and religious- we are declared righteous - justified- acquitted - pronounced to be in a right relationship with God by God himself. This is possible not because of anything we have done but because of what God’s Son Jesus has done. We are not put in a personal relationship with God by what he does in us through the sacramental plumbing system, but because of what God has done for us by way of the cross. What is that? Well, God showed his righteousness not by ignoring our sin, but by punishing it in Jesus in our place. The cross is, if you like, God’s lightening conductor drawing his anger away from us onto his Son- as Paul says later in chapter 5 ‘Christ died for the ungodly’- the judgement we deserve, Jesus freely receives as a sacrifice to take away our guilt. What we don’t deserve, forgiveness and eternal life, he freely gives. Luther saw this as a ‘great exchange’. Think of it in terms of having the right clothes to enter the presence of a King. Because of our rebellion and selfishness, in God’s sight it appears that we are wearing sweat laden, flea infested vests. You wouldn’t dream of turning up to the Palace like that would you? You need a change of clothes. Where do you get them? Well, from Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son. And so as we come to him personally, he, as it were, takes on his back our dirty linen to incinerate them at the cross, and he puts upon us his pure, fresh clothes of righteousness, so that now when God looks upon us, he sees the perfect clothing of his Son. And so God shows his righteousness in two senses. First ,he is righteous in punishing our sin at the cross, not ignoring it. He is also righteous in rescuing us, doing for us that which we can’t do for ourselves- forgiving us and granting life in His presence for ever.
But how is this received? How does it become real personally? Not through the sacraments-Paul doesn’t mention them. What does he speak of? ‘Faith’. This is an ordinary word which could be translated ‘trust’. You see up to this point Luther had been trusting in all the wrong things- what he did, what the church provided, with the result that he was miserable because he could never be sure that he or the church had done enough. But as he read this letter and the light began to break he switched his trust to Jesus and what God had done in him, and what God had done was enough- full, final and complete. Jesus dying in our place on the cross was enough to cover every sin committed in the past and every sin that would be committed in the future. And you did not have to supplement that work by confession or attending mass. And when Luther , as many millions of people before him and since, realised this truth that forgiveness is free and for all who will dare to receive it as a gift by faith alone- the effect is electric. This is how Luther described his own experience: ‘ I felt as if had been reborn and had gone through the open doors of paradise. The whole Scripture took on a new meaning and whereas I formerly hated the expression ‘the righteousness of God’ I now began to regard it as an inexpressibly sweet truth, a gate into heaven.’ So instead of God being a dark and brooding figure for ever disapproving of him, Luther discovered him to be a kind Father who gave his one and only Son to save people like him.
And so Luther worked out the consequences. If this were true, and it was, then the religious rigmarole in which he had been brought up was false and misleading. Instead of people enjoying the liberty of the forgiveness of sins through faith, they were being held captive to fear and superstition-hence his rebellion against the sale of indulgences- they had no place. Well, you can imagine that this was not well received. It was a direct challenge to the authority of the church, it seriously threatened its revenue and he was called to give an account before the Holy Emperor himself in 1521 and was excommunicated by the Pope and even had attempts made upon his life such that he had to go into hiding at one point. But now his spirit was free. His teaching spread like wildfire, especially through the new printing presses and Europe was transformed.
His own personal life was changed too. His guide was now the Bible and since the Bible did not forbid marriage, he got married to a runaway nun - Catherine or as he called her ‘My Lord Katie’. He now had a love of life he did not have before. He delighted in music and wrote many songs and hymns. He even had a bowling alley built at the back of the monastery. Life was a gift by God to be enjoyed under God. He said, ‘ No one knows how it hurts a young man to avoid happiness and to cultivate solitude and melancholy. I, who have spent my life mourning , now seek and accept joy wherever I would find it.’ That is what real inner peace with God through simply trusting in God’s promise of forgiveness in Jesus alone brings.
But this is no superficial thing for it was the Gospel which upheld him in the dark times too. Luther, you see, often suffered from depression, but it was knowing that inspite of his feelings, God’s feelings towards him would not change- his Word ,the Bible had said so : ‘Whoever comes to me I will never turn away.’ But it was this Gospel, the Gospel of full and free pardon, eternal life secured by Christ, which also provided an anchor at the point in which no church or religious system of good works could ever provide, the point of death. Luther had several children but perhaps the closest of them all was his little Magdelene who died at the tender age of 13. As she lay dying, Luther weeping at her bedside asked her: ‘Magdelene, my dear little daughter, would you like to stay here with your father or would you be willing to go to your Father yonder?’ Magdelene answered: ‘ Darling father, as God wills.’ Luther wept and holding her in his arms he prayed that God would free her and then she died. At the funeral service which Luther conducted, with his daughter laid out in the coffin, he declared: ‘ Darling Lena, you will rise and shine like a star, yea like the sun.. I am happy in spirit but the flesh is sorrowful and weak and will not be content, the parting grieves me beyond measure. I have sent a saint to heaven.’ No doubt, no purgatory, just the quiet assurance that God is as good as his Word - ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’
Now it may be that you are here tonight from a religious background or from no religious background at all and yet inspite of all that, if the truth be known, you do not have peace with God or even yourself. Your faith is in all the wrong things, who you are, what you have done, what you hope to do, and none of these things can even begin to calm what you know to be troubling you right now- your conscience. There are things in your life-and mine - of which we are utterly ashamed and if only we could put the clock back would do things differently. Well we can’t change the past, but God can change our future. And that comes when like Luther, and the apostle Paul many years before him, you personally confess to God your own helplessness to please him and be saved, and rely totally upon what Jesus has done for you on that cross, the one who is now alive and who by his Spirit wants to come in and be ruler of your life. Now tonight would be a good time to do that.
But you know, the real test of a person’s faith is not just how they live, but more importantly how they die. Luther never fully recovered from his daughter’s death. The burden of leading a Reformation eventually began to tell and in February 1546 Luther lay on his deathbed and prayed these words: ‘O heavenly Father, God of all comfort, I thank you that you have revealed yourself to me your beloved Son Jesus Christ, in whom I have believed, whom I have preached and confessed, whom I have loved and praised.. I pray dear Lord Christ, let me commend my soul to you. O heavenly Father, if I leave this body and depart this life, I am certain that I will be with you for ever and ever, and that I can never, never tear myself out of your hands. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (he said this three times and). Father into your hands I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, the true God. Amen.’ Could you pray that?
Well, someone else who discovered this liberating mercy of the Christian message was the singer Johnny Cash, who after years of drug abuse, selfishness and neglect committed his life to the Lord Jesus Christ finding a peace which had hitherto alluded him. And as he was dying he recorded a song which put all his worldly achievements, together with the hurt he had caused others in perspective, that song is called, ‘Hurt’ and we are now going to listen to it accompanied by the award winning video- here then is Cash, a man like Luther who in loving gratitude relies solely and totally upon his Saviour.
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