Text: Romans 1.17-18
Introduction: Typically I take one Sunday during the year to do a biography of sorts. I’ll pick a missionary, especially a missionary martyr or some other Christian Hero of mine: John Huss, Adoniram Judson, or Bill Koene. In recognition of this weeks 500 Anniversary of the Reformation, I’d like to talk about Martin Luther and what made him great.
Luther’s greatest contribution to us was his belief that God communicates to us through the Written Word. Hence, my title, Martin Luther: Standing on the Word of God.
1 Thess. 2.13: 13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
Hebrews 4.12: 12 For the word of God is living and active…
1 Peter 1.23: 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…
The Word of God: It is powerful and effective. It changes lives. It changed the life of the man who in turn, taught us of its value. Martin Luther taught us that God communicates to us through words on a page, written out, line by line, chapter by chapter, book by book. Luther wanted us to know that it is the authority for our lives – not the pope and not the church.
It changed his life and drove him, directed him to use it to change other people’s lives. The Word of God provides for us the vital information that is effective for salvation and holiness. Whereas, in the years and decades and centuries before Luther, The Pope and the Church were the authoritative source, even over and above God’s Word.
This Tuesday will mark 500 years since Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses upon the door of his church in Wittenburg, Germany. October 31, 1517 is the date historians mark as the reformation. This one event is like the hinge on the door that swings between what was past and what would become. The truth is, it would probably be closer for us to mark the date in six months. As a side note, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door in Wittenburg on October 31st, but it wasn’t until six months later that someone took those 95 Theses and translated them into German, had them published and circulated among the population.
Luther’s purpose in nailing these 95 Theses up on the door at the church was so that these topics could be debated among the theologians and scholars there at the University. That is why they were written out in Latin. The common man had no idea what was tacked up on those doors. At least not for another 6 months when they were translated and circulated among the people.
You and I are recipients of this man’s work. We’re beneficiaries; and not just his work alone, but on all those who were reformers. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
A Call to Ministry:
Luther didn’t always want to be in ministry. As a matter of fact, Luther had chosen to study Law. He had attained his Bachelor’s degree by the age of 19 where he graduated in the middle of his class (30th out of 57 students). He earned his Master’s degree three years later (1505) and graduated 2nd in his class (17 students). On his journey home from the University where he was beginning his study of Law, that a nasty storm swirled in around him and lightning struck and knocked him to the ground. In fear he cried out to be saved by St. Anne and promised to enter the monastery if she would save him. He would later say that God spoke to him through the thunder calling him into the ministry.
So powerful was this Damascus Road experience that it drove him into obedience in surrendering to the ministry. 15 days after that fateful afternoon, Luther entered the Monastery. Once, while visiting his father and mother, Luther noticed his dad in a very agitated state. It was an awkward moment because many guests had come over for some sort of party. Luther wanted to know what was bothering his dad. Luther’s father couldn’t control his frustration and confronted him about his choice to leave studying Law to become a priest. Who will take care of your mother and I when we are old? People stopped talking; all attention was turned to this father and son. Luther told his dad the story he had repeated to them many times before: You know that God spoke to me in the thunder.
In this ministry he would wear the habit of a monk. Even after he left the monastery he still wore the clothes of a monk. He did so for 19 years.
As Luther looked back on that experience he called it a ‘flagrant sin’. He did two things wrong: he didn’t listen to his father and he entered the ministry out of fear. Nevertheless, it was God’s will and he knew it.
Luther had no grasp of the grace of God – not at that time. He understood himself to be a sinner and his conscience always got the best of him. I think it was what made him a good monk. Luther always seemed to have a fear of facing God. And serving as a Monk might assuage the anger of God toward this sinner.
- When lightning struck near him, he cried out to St. Anne to save him. He was genuinely afraid of dying – and even more of facing God and the certain judgment he would suffer.
- When he began to serve in his congregation, he panicked in his first presentation of communion. How can a lowly pigmy like me stand before a perfect and holy God? (His words, not mine)
- He would be so overcome with fear as he offered the communion to his parishioners that he just about couldn’t finish the task.
- While in the monastery, Luther would fast for days. He would sleep through the cold nights without any clothes or covering. His sin was always before him and he wanted to ‘work’ it out of him – always trying to do penance for his sins.
You see, that was the Catholic way. Do Penance. i.e.: work for your forgiveness. That is one of the reasons the Catholic Church didn’t want the Greek or Hebrew Bibles to be translated or to be used by priests. Instead, they preferred the Jerome’s Latin. In Greek and Hebrew you would translate the word repent. However, in Latin, that same word was translated: do penance.
Luther would later write: I was a good monk. I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with visuals, prayers, readings, and other work.
Many have speculated as to what great sins Luther had committed that drove him to such great lengths to atone for his sinful thoughts. But I think that to be foolish. Too often we impose what sins beset us upon others who struggle. I think Luther’s struggle with sin was pretty balanced and that this balance of sin in every direction consumed him. As far as Luther could see it, God could not be satisfied at any point. God was perfectly holy and Luther was overwhelmingly sinful.
This continued to plague his conscience even after he took up a teaching position at Wittenburg. He would hound the priests at confession and they would complain that he was giving them his life story. Luther was so concerned about his sin before God, that he wanted to ensure he left no sin un-confessed. He wanted to ensure that he had been forgiven of every sin he’d ever committed.
A mentor of his had no answers, but he directed Luther to where the answers were to be found: Scripture. And God’s Word began to change Luther.
Luther arrived at Wittenburg in April of 1511 and began teaching Philosophy. He earned his Doctorate by October 1512, a year and a half later. In the fall of 1513, to his heart’s delight, he was switched to Theology and his first lectures were on the Psalms. In April 1515, he began his lectures on Romans.
While teaching on Psalm 22, he immediately recognized v 1 as a reference to Christ. My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? This was something with which Luther could identify: That God would forsake and abandon Luther because of his sinfulness. Indeed, he felt that abandonment. He felt the sin and the shame, but Christ – Christ wasn’t weak like Luther. Christ wasn’t sinful like Luther. It could only be the sin that Christ took upon himself – the sins of the world, that caused the Father to forsake his son.
So, understand that Luther is now wrestling with this text. He’s gaining a better understanding of what scholars call penal substitution. As he came to teach Romans, Luther wanted to understand Paul and his doctrine. So he studied hard. He prepared his lectures well. He contemplated each verse. I’ll let him tell you in his own words what happened:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God’, because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly and punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his 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 doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the justice of God had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…
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, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This is to behold God and faith that you should look up on his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on the curtain, as if a dark cloud has been drawn across his face.
Luther’s theological and spiritual state matured quickly as he learned more and more Scripture. He knew lots of Scripture, but suddenly, those passages became clearer. So incredibly liberating was this new state of being, living in the grace and mercy of God, that he was filled with a boldness to teach others about faith. Luther had his students and he preached regularly at two churches in town. He wanted them to know what he had discovered. At first, Luther had no intentions of reformation. He only hoped to help shape the clergy and the laity through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. But God’s Word is alive and active. It does its own work.
It was during these years that indulgences were being sold to fund St. Peter’s Basilica Rome. Begun by his predecessor, Pope Leo X found it necessary to continue the work. The old Basilica which had stood since the days of Constantine were condemned. Pope Julius II raised some funds, had the piers laid and then died. There stood this unfinished, unusable Basilica for the new pope.
Enter Leo X. At the same time, Albert of Brandenberg was attempting to secure some position by the pope. He was commissioned by the pope to sell as many indulgences as possible, to raise as much money as possible, with the hope that if he was successful, the position would be his. But, when Albert came to Wittenburg, he hit a roadblock. At the same time in Wittenburg, the man in charge there, Frederick the Wise, wouldn’t allow Albert’s Indulgences to be sold in Wittenburg because he was selling his own Indulgences, to fund his own pet projects.
You’re probably wondering what an Indulgence was. An Indulgence was a piece of paper one could purchase to lower the punishment for sins that one was expected to experience upon death. For Catholics, the good people who die go to heaven. Bad Catholics who died would go to Purgatory – a place between heaven and hell that one endured before getting into heaven. After paying for one’s sins, one could be released from Purgatory. Added to this, an Indulgence could also release loved ones who were in Purgatory. Albert had a pithy saying which helped his cause: As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs. The Pope had the power to send people there and to release them from there.
There was a lot of ugliness to it all. Luther spoke out against it all. He spoke out against the pope. He spoke out against Albert. If the pope had the ability to release souls from purgatory, then why would he be so cruel to keep them there? Besides, Indulgences only encouraged people to become complacent in their faith. That was precisely what Luther experienced. One day while walking outside the city, he came upon a man who was drunk. Luther confronted him about his sinful behavior. Without missing a beat, the man reached inside his coat and produced an Indulgence to atone for this sinful behavior.
Luther’s preaching against Indulgences was dangerous stuff, because Indulgences were big revenue. And if you want to upset someone in the church: mess with their money!
Well, I’m sure you know by now, the Catholic Church came after Luther. He was labeled a heretic. Luther would be excommunicated, but that didn’t matter to him because he understood the church of God to be presented much differently than the Catholic Church taught. Excommunication meant damnation. But, Luther knew that his salvation was based on his faith in the work of Christ – not the declaration of the pope.
Why do I tell you this? Well, there are four basic doctrines that we teach as Evangelicals and we owe this to the work of Luther.
Bruce Shelley, Professor of Church History at Denver Theological Seminary writes in his book entitled: Church History in Plain Language that Luther answered 4 questions that he took from four basic Catholic concerns and offered us new answers.
- To the question how is a person saved, Luther replied: not by works but by faith alone. Sola Fide.
- To the question where does religious authority lie, he answered: not in the visible institution called the Roman church but in the Word of God found in the Bible. Sola Scriptura.
- To the question—what is the church?—he responded: the whole community of Christian believers, since all are priests before God.
- And to the question—what is the essence of Christian living?—he replied: serving God in any useful calling, whether ordained or lay. To this day any classical description of Protestantism must echo those central truths.
Scripture/God’s Holy Word changed Luther’s life. Listen to what he says:
For as soon as God’s word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you, will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself . . . owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.
The tentacles of Luther reformation would reach far and wide, stretching across the continent of Europe and in 100 years come to the Americas, where you and I live out it’s impact.
- The Pulpit is central here. It is the place where God’s Word is exalted and preached. Have you ever been to a church where the pulpit is on the side? Now you know why we set up our Pulpit and Lord’s Supper Table the way we do.
- We no longer practice the 7 Sacraments, but rather, only two: The Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
Luther’s reformation would spread from Germany to France and England where things were already stirred up.
Conclusion: Lady Jane Grey: The ‘9 Day’s’ Queen
As the Reformation spread, there were battles to be fought. Literally. Whenever someone rose to power who favored Catholicism over Protestantism, then the whole country would become Catholic…or else. King Henry VIII had a wife of 18 years, but she produced no heirs for him – only girls. So he sought an annulment from the pope. He didn’t get it, so he broke with the Church of Rome and established the Church of England. England would move back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism over the next few generations.
You’ve probably never heard of Jane Grey. She was one of Henry VII’s descendants. Although she wasn’t directly in line to be queen, it was a possibility. And so, Jane became a pawn in the hands of those in power because of their money or because of their position. Her parents were really hard on her when she was young, forcing her to study very hard and enforcing harsh punishments for imperfection. Her parents wanted her to be queen so desperately. I think all parents want good things for their children, but as for Jane’s parents, there seems to be some arrogance and even wickedness in their plans. As a part of all the power plays, Jane was promised to Lord Guildford Dudley, a man she despised. But, her parents loved him because e was a man of considerable wealth, power and influence. And, he had the young king’s ear.
The King had died and left a young, sickly Edward VI on the throne. As this young king lay in the throes of death, the movers and shakers influenced King Edward to make Jane his heir to the throne. There were a lot of questions to who was the rightful heir. And although she was only his cousin, he had bequeathed the throne to her and to whatever male heirs she might provide in the future. Thus, she found herself to be the Queen of England. She didn’t want the throne, mind you. She never did. But it was now hers nonetheless. What helped her in that time of decision-making? What helped her to come to terms with something she didn’t necessarily want? It was her incredibly strong faith in God.
It is amazing to see how God had been at work in her life. For a period of time in her younger years, she went to live with the Queen, Katharine Parr. And so, Jane was educated in the King’s Court. She was incredibly intelligent. She learned both Greek and Hebrew and could read both the Old and the New Testaments in their original languages. You see, Catherine was a Protestant – one of those whose lives was touched by the Reformation overtaking Europe. And now, The reformation had touched Jane’s life and she would never be the same. Her love for God’s Word drove her faith. Her Bible of choice was the Greek New Testament.
So how opportune it appeared when she was placed upon the Throne as the Queen of England. Surely God was at work placing someone of great faith upon the throne. She, however, only reigned for 9 days: from July 10, 1553 to July 19, 1553. She is known as the Nine Days Queen. Her Cousin, Mary of Tudor, also known as Bloody Mary, organized a coop. Backed by an army, she moved in to take the throne from Jane. But Jane didn’t want it. So, she resigned her position and gladly handed over power to Mary.
Her nickname, Bloody Mary, was well earned. She put to death some 300 of her relatives who she thought might try to take the throne from her. She insisted that all of England recognize the Roman Catholic Church. Jane, of course, could not do that. She knew her Bible to well.
Bloody Mary sent her envoy, a Catholic apologist, to try and save Jane’s soul (or so he thought). Listen to Scott Hubbard’s version of events:
Queen Mary (aka “Bloody Mary”) had already signed her cousin Jane’s death warrant, but she sent her seasoned chaplain to see if he could woo Jane back to Rome before her execution.
A charged debate follows — Feckenham the Catholic apologist and Jane the Reformed teenager. He presses that justification comes by faith and works; she stands her ground on sola fide. He asserts that the Eucharistic bread and wine are the very body and blood of Christ; she maintains that the elements symbolize Jesus’s saving work. He affirms the Catholic Church’s authority alongside Scripture; she insists that the church sits underneath the piercing gaze of God’s word.
Martin Luther’s work had been spreading. It had touched Lady Jane Grey’s life: The Power of God’s Word. So much so did it affect her, that she was willing to die for what she knew to be Truth.
On the inside of her Greek New Testament, she wrote to her younger sister, Katharine: This is the book, dear sister, of the Law of the Lord. It is his testament and last will, which he bequeathed unto us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy… And as touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption. For I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life.
She was put to death as a heretic on February 12, 1554. She was confident and bold. She walked to the place where she was to die. She was blindfolded and reached out into the emptiness before her, groping for the execution block. Her last words were, “Lord, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” Jane Grey was only 17 years old.
Let me ask you: Has the Word of God had its impact on you? Do you make your decisions about what God is doing based on physical things? Money? Resources? People? Buildings? Positions?
- Let the Word of God reign supremely in your life and in your church. Let it be your guide and companion.
- Be reminded today that salvation comes only through faith in Christ Jesus and the saving work of the Cross. If you’ve been thinking that Christ plus anything will get you to heaven, then repent of that. Luther said: Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works. The idea is that when one has been changed by God, the works of God will flow from him naturally.
- What will it take for you to stand boldly for Christ and on His Word? Jane Grey amazes me when I think of her being only 17 years old.