Today, we celebrate 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.
Here is the reformation summarized by former Synod President Gerald Kieschnick.
- In the late 15th century the Catholic Church was afflicted by internal corruption.
• The sale of “indulgences” raised money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
• Indulgences made people believe deceased loved ones could be released from purgatory.
• The slogan was: “When a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
• Onto this scene arrived a troubled man named Martin Luther.
• Luther saw God as a God of justice and was tormented by unforgiven guilt and sin.
• In a thunderstorm during which Luther’s traveling companion was killed by a bolt of lightning, Luther exclaimed, “Save me, St. Anne. I will become a monk!”
• He survived, became a monk, but could find no peace with God through his own effort.
• Luther’s discovery of God’s grace came primarily from Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
• What happened next was an act of courage, motivated by what Luther had discovered.
• He boldly spoke biblical truth to the church’s power by posting his 95 theses, intended as an invitation for a debate on topics of faith and church practice.
• Pressure was placed on him to retract his criticism of church belief and practice.
• He refused to do so and was threatened with excommunication from the Catholic Church.
• Asked to retract his writings, Luther simply stated: “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason, for I do not accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
• Ultimately, Luther was excommunicated for refusing to retract his beliefs.
Luther began by criticizing the selling of indulgences. That transaction on the surface sounds like an excellent 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, yet, 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 major points with you. God used this colossal 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 that idea that Christ is not enough left many good faithful Christians feeling the weight of being inadequate.
You can hear Paul’s frustration with the Galatians who were so readily abandoning the biblical foundation of grace. The Galatians like Luther was 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?” Gal 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 obtain favor with God through works is the feeling of being mistreated. 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 more profound 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 connection, 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 explain God’s grace. An old Indian, after living many years in sin, was led to Christ by a missionary. Friends asked him to explain the change in his life. Reaching down, he picked up a little worm and placed it on a pile of leaves. Then, touching a match to the leaves, he watched them smolder and burst into flames. As the flames worked their way up to the center where the worm lay, the old chief suddenly plunged his hand into the center of the burning pile and snatched out the worm. Holding the worm gently in his hand, he gave this testimony to the grace of God: “Me. . . that worm.”
Forgiveness should be a straightforward concept, but it wages war against all mortal reason. Why would anyone give us anything for free? Something we didn’t earn, or buy or barter? God offers us forgiveness before we ask for it. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he lays out this grand image of the nature of God.
“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,…” Ephesians 2:4-6
God has an everlasting desire to keep us with Him for all eternity. The Almighty, knowing our weakness created a plan to rescue us from sin that was entirely independent of any efforts on our part. Thank God, we are not saved by the good things we do and fall from grace by the bad things we do. If that was the merit system, we were working under we would all be lost. God’s grace means salvation is completely apart from any virtue we may think we have garnered. Grace says that Jesus did it all for our sakes! Our salvation is a free gift of God.
So, if the Father of Lies, Satan, is trying to convince you that you are not worthy of God’s love, well you are not, and neither am I. But we are worthy of God’s grace, not because of what we may do but because of what Jesus DID for us on the cross. Jesus gave up His life so that God “…might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:7
God loves us so genuinely that He sent His son Jesus Christ to reach into the fires of hell and pull us out. He values our relationship so much that 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 all the lost sheep into the Fathers sheepfold. People matter to God. You matter to God!
If you are feeling lost or are experiencing a sense of confusion and “disconnectedness” in life, Jesus the Good Shepherd is seeking you. Jesus will not stop searching and with relentless grace won’t end until He finds you.
If your spirits are down, if you are feeling a sense of hopelessness, or if you are searching for joy, the God of comfort and life wants to connect with you. You can stop running away from Him and instead return to Him. He is waiting there for you with open and forgiving arms. Move into the waiting arms of your Savior the Good Shepherd. It is there that you will find the desires of your heart.
All people matter to God. All people are equally important to God. We have not only been found, but we are also redeemed. We are loved!
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 think 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.
Here is an interesting Reformation you may not know about Luther’s dream church and it’s not European. Read the link below: