By Pastor Dean Haferman
485 years ago, on the eve of All Saints’ Day (a day we know as Halloween), October 31, 1517, a young Roman Catholic Priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, a list of 95 theses, or statements, and requested a meeting of the church leaders to discuss and debate the substance of these 95 theses.
At the time, Martin Luther had no idea what drastic changes this simple act would bring upon the church, but posting those 95 Theses began a chain reaction that resulted in the events that we know today as the Protestant Reformation.
And we Lutherans celebrate and observe this last Sunday in October as Reformation Sunday, the birthday of the Lutheran Church. Which is why the RED altar paraments, the color of Pentecost and special church events.
Who was Martin Luther?
Recently the Arts and Entertainment Network listed what they considered to be the most influential people of the past millennium.They are:
1. Johannus Guttenberg, for his invention of the movable-type printing press that made books readily available and affordable for the first time.
2. Isaac Newton for his work in science, physics, and astronomy.
3. Martin Luther, who brought religion and education to the common people, and is credited for laying the foundation of democracy. He translated the entire Bible into the German language, thereby establishing and standardizing the language for his nation.
4. The Wright Brothers – for their invention of the airplane and discovery of the principles of aerodynamics.
So, Martin Luther is a significant personality in our history. – – – Who is he?
As Lutherans, we know some information about him.What happened on that day 485 years ago when Luther posted the 95 Theses was simply the culmination of a long, personal struggle that had been fermenting within Luther’s soul and spirit for several years.
Martin Luther grew up in a day and age when the church pictured God as an angry, vindictive God.
God was believed to be watching over us, anxiously waiting for us to make a mistake so that He could then punish us with eternal suffering in hell.
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The Roman Catholic Church taught people to fear God in the worst sense of the word.And then the church used that fear to control the people, to get them to submit to church leaders and obey all the teachings and rules of the church.
And the church used that fear to amass tremendous wealth and power for the Pope in Rome and for the Roman Catholic Church, which was the only church in Europe at the time.
(Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that the Catholic Church of Luther’s day, and the Catholic Church today are very different. Over the past 485 years, the Catholic Church has gone through it’s own reformation, so when I talk about the Church of Luther’s day, it is not accurate to compare it to the Roman Catholic Church of today.There have been many changes and improvements, in both theology and practice.
There are still some issues and theological differences, but in fact, interestingly enough, just a few years ago on Reformation Day, representatives from the Lutheran and the Catholic churches got together to sign a document or declaration on our common understanding of justification by grace, the very thing that so strongly divided us at the time of the Reformation.. My own experience has been that in several ministerial groups I was a member of in different cities, I was more often in harmony with the local priests on some issues than the more liberal Protestants.)
Well, back to Martin Luther: – As a young man, Luther decided early on that he did not want to spend all of eternity suffering in hell, so he set out to make himself right and pleasing before God:
He left a promising future in law school and took on the disciplines of becoming an Augustinian monk. He continued his schooling and was ordained as a priest in the Church.
Later, he earned his Ph.D. in Bible and Theology, learning the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, as well as Latin. And eventually he became a professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, one of the new and upcoming schools of the Church.
But through all of this, Luther did not find what he wanted the most, – what he longed for and searched for: –peace with God and a sense of assurance and rest for his troubled spirit. It seemed no matter how hard he tried to be good and obedient to the commands of God and the Church, he discovered it was impossible.
No matter how hard he strived to do everything that a Christian was supposed to do, he realized that he was still a sinner. – – – And since God punishes sinners, he was taught, he could only see himself as condemned before God.
He reasoned, “God is holy and just. I am a poor, miserable sinner, no matter how hard I try.How can a holy God possibly love a sinner like me?” In spite of doing everything the Church said a person should do to win the mercy and love and forgiveness of God,
– – – for Luther, it was all to no avail.
He still saw himself as too much a sinner.He would spend long hours in the confessional, trying to remember every possible sin. And his frustration grew.
I suppose that Luther was simply more honest with himself than most of us are today. We tend to belittle and minimize our sins, as if they make no difference to God, as if God doesn’t care. Luther saw his sin for what it really was – that which separated him from God. – – – Which is why God hates sin so much.
Now remember, throughout all of this personal struggle, Luther was not a basket case. On the contrary, he was developing quite a reputation for himself as being one of the budding stars of the Church….
– – – an extremely intelligent and gifted person and a great scholar and professor at the university. He was highly regarded and respected. He was helping to give his school a prominent reputation.
One day in 1514, as Luther was preparing for a series of lectures on Paul’s letter to the Romans, he was reading and studying chapter 3, our Epistle lesson today, – a portion of Scripture that he had read many times before.
But this time as he read it, his eyes were opened, the light came on! As Luther describes it, “It was as though the gates of heaven were opened to me!”
Portions of Romans 3:19-28:“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified (put right with God) by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free!”
– – -Suddenly Luther saw and then knew the truth of the Gospel, and instantly was set free!
· He was set free from trying to make himself worthy and acceptable before God, something he could never achieve for himself, no matter how hard he tried.
· He was set free to simply rest in the grace and favor and love of God, – grace and forgiveness freely given to us because of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us on the cross of Calvary. Luther rediscovered the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. It had been there right in front of his eyes all along, but it had been hidden, – obscured, – covered by centuries of misuse and traditions in the Church.
And the truth of that Gospel is: we are not saved, we are not put right with God by:
· being good
· or obeying the law
· or going through all the outward rituals of religion
· or anything else we may try to do to make ourselves worthy before God.
No, we are saved solely by the love and grace of God freely and generously given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation comes to us as a free gift of God’s grace.
– – – All we have to do is respond to it. All we have to do is accept that gift in faith.
Faith is simply saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe. Yes, Lord, I receive Your gift of love and forgiveness and acceptance. Thank you, Lord, for loving and forgiving me in Jesus Christ.”
With this new-found discovery of the Gospel, Luther was eager to share it with the world.
Wherever he seemed to read in Scripture, “Justification by Faith in Jesus” seemed to leap out at him.The Bible was consistent in its message.God’s promise was real.
He thought that he would find a ready audience among the church leaders, but instead he was met with resistance and persecution.
The power structure of the Church could see that if this man were left alone to spread his teachings, they could end up losing their power and control over the people, along with great a great deal of wealth.
And so the church leaders branded Luther as a heretic and outlaw and tried everything they possible could to suppress his teaching.. He was wanted, dead or alive, and was kidnapped by his friends and taken into hiding in the Wartburg Castle.
And while there, he undertook the prodigious task of translating the entire Bible into the German language.
The Roman Catholic Church was not able to squelch Martin Luther. He was the right man for the right time, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and armed with the truth of the Gospel and the Word of God……
– – – and there is no greater power than that.
His proclamation of the Gospel resulted in the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of the Lutheran Church. And today, we as Lutherans, celebrate our 485th birthday.
And as Lutherans, we have the distinction of being the oldest and the largest Protestant denomination in the world today.
But sad to say, there are still many Lutherans, as well as many other Christians today, who continue to struggle and wrestle with many of the same doubts and questions as did Luther so many years ago.
What was lacking, what was missing in Luther’s life, and what he discovered in the Scriptures, – – – is the assurance of salvation.
He had found the certainty of the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ, the pure joy and thrill that comes in knowing, “I am a saved, loved, redeemed, child of God!”
– – – Luther discovered the true and radical nature of God’s grace.
There are so many portions of Scripture that makes this so clear: for example John 3:16-17… “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish, but has eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world!”
Can it be any clearer that that?
And yet today there are many, many Christians in Lutheran Churches and in all kinds of other churches who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that God raised him from death…
– – – but still continue to doubt, to wonder if they really are saved, who think that their salvation still depends on how good they are and how closely they obey the law and live by all the rules.
Now, I’m not saying that God doesn’t care how we live. Certainly God desires very deeply that we stay close to God and that we live lives of honesty, integrity, and obedience to God’s will.But how we live doesn’t save us. Jesus Christ saves us! That’s the Gospel!That’s the Good News that sets us free. We are saved by the grace of God through faith and trust in Jesus Christ.
If you get anything from this sermon this morning, I hope it is this:
It’s nice to know something about Martin Luther and the history of the Reformation.
But I would much rather that when you leave church this morning, you will leave with the knowledge and assurance and certainty:
· that God loves you, – He has chosen you,
· that by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, you are forgiven and made a child of God,
· that you might leave here truly knowing the joy of your salvation.
God had Jeremiah write in our OT lesson: “I will make a new Covenant with the house of Israel…..I will be their God and they shall be My people….They shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Because of Jesus, God has no record nor memory of your sin.
As Martin Luther read the Scriptures, he discovered the Gospel, and, as he put it, the “gates of heaven” opened to him.
As children of the Reformation, may we know that same assurance of God’s love and grace, and may heaven be opened for us!
It all depends upon Jesus.What He did, accomplished it all. Trust Him completely.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Copyright 2008, Dean Haferman. Used by permission.