On October 31, 2017, it will be the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was a world shattering movement that began with Dr. Martin Luther and his 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses. Luther began by criticizing the selling of indulgences. That transaction on the surface sounds like a great idea for the sinner. You get to buy forgiveness for an act you are going to commit or have committed. Luther was also insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory, which I would describe as a spiritual waiting room. The Catholic Catechism teaches that in purgatory one “undergoes purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”
The Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints was another major sticking point as it had no foundation in the gospel. The Protestant position would come to incorporate other critical doctrinal changes such as sola scriptura, (Scripture alone). Scripture alone is the belief that God’s word as contained in the Bible has supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. Every other writing is secondary.
And Sola Fide, faith alone. Faith alone is the key to the foundation of our Christian faith. We believe and confess that God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted and received through faith alone, and not based on good works.
The movement started by this monk is still a vital change today. God continues to bring new people to faith and transform the lives of His followers.
Today I want to cover two fundamental concepts with you. God used this massive shift in Luther’s understanding of how God operates to transform Luther and thus transform God’s Church.
The Weight of God vs. the Grace of God.
You can hear in Luther’s words just how deeply Luther felt the weight of God. How deeply he was tormented by his sins and how that sin weighs on the heart of the sinner.
“Though I lived as a religious leader without reproach, I felt, with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God. I did not love. Indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” Dr. Martin Luther
The quote points to just how deeply Luther felt conflicted with God. How Luther was keenly aware of his sinfulness and the impact of God’s judgment on him for his sins. According to the Roman Catholic Church, Christians had to earn the merits of Jesus’ forgiveness. Nothing was free. Christ’s death for them was only a starting point; there was much more the sinner needed to do to achieve salvation. That need to earn forgiveness lead to a deeper faith crisis. Now Christ’s death and resurrection are not enough. If that were the case, this uncertainty left many good faithful Christians feeling the weight of being inadequate.
You can hear Paul’s frustration with the Galatians who were eager to abandon the biblical foundation of grace. The Galatians like Luther were falling prey to the trap of looking to be saved based on their good deeds.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Galatians 3:1-4
When we approach the throne of God with only our good works to offer as a sacrifice, we quickly realize just how inadequate that appears before a perfect God. To offer our pitiful gifts to the God who created the universe seems quite small. So, Christians were never confident they ever could work off all their sins.
Deep down the human heart knows that we are born in sin and have no legitimate way to earn the forgiveness of those sins. The frustration that humanity has when attempting to earn favor with God through works is the feeling of being treated unfairly. Unfair treatment angers a lot of people, especially people like Luther who desperately want to play by the rules.
The Roman Catholic teaching struck a much deeper chord in Luther. It is part of human nature to long for the attention and praise of our fathers. This same desire extends to our Heavenly Father as well. According to the Church, Luther could never be sure he would receive that acceptance and love of the Heavenly Father.
The Grace of God.
The weight of God leads Luther to discover the grace of God. When Luther was hopeless, God opened the Scriptures to show him he was saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Luther came to understand, Jesus restored him to a right relationship with God. In this relationship, Luther was unconditionally accepted by the Father. And the beauty of the message of Jesus is so are we.
Hear Paul’s words to the Ephesians,
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast. Eph 2:4-9
Here is a moving illustration to further explain God’s grace.
During the building of the Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay, construction fell badly behind schedule because several workers had accidentally fallen from the scaffolding to their deaths. Engineers and administrators could find no solution to the costly delays. Finally, someone suggested a gigantic net be hung under the bridge to catch any who fell. Finally, in spite of the enormous cost, the engineers opted for the net. After it had been installed, progress was hardly interrupted. A worker or two fell into the net but were saved. Ultimately, all the time lost to fear was regained by replacing fear with faith in the net.
God loves us deeply and sent His son Jesus Christ to be our net. He values our relationship so much that God does not want us living our lives with the fear that Luther had for so long. God will not be satisfied with a surface connection. God desires to draw all people to himself for eternity. God sent Jesus to bring back the lost and straying sheep into the Father’s sheepfold.
If you, like Luther, are feeling the full weight of God in your life, know that Jesus took that pressure to Calvary’s cross on your behalf. If you still feel that something in your past is too big even for Jesus to forgive, know that nothing is too big that the blood of Jesus will not cover. Know this; Jesus will not stop searching for you. And with a relentless grace, he will find you.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030
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“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!" -John. 14:12-14
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