He was born in November 1483, in the German principality of Saxony. His name was Martin Luther. From an early age, he exhibited intelligence and many talents. As time passed, he would become a great preacher, a theologian, and a musician.
These pursuits were far from his father’s intentions for young Martin. Hans Luther wanted the boy to become a lawyer.
That was the trajectory on which Martin’s life was moving until a shattering experience intervened. He was going back to the university he attended when a thunderstorm arose. A lightning bolt knocked Luther to the ground. Understandably terrified, Martin cried out to the patron saint of miners. “Saint Ann,” he said, “save me; I will become a monk.”
Luther was mistaken, of course, to trust in a saint instead of God. As one of our Read the Bible in a Year passages from last week, Jeremiah 17:7 puts it, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”
But who knows? If Luther hadn’t gone to a monastery, you and I, the beneficiaries of his rediscovery of Biblical truths that had been buried beneath traditions and power plays, might not be here this morning.
Nonetheless the new monk Luther was a disturbed young man. He saw himself as completely guilty and hopelessly condemned to an eternity in hell. He couldn’t imagine that God would ever forgive him. He was a mess!
Believing that a fully occupied life would crowd out Luther’s worries though, his superiors decided that Luther should study to become a doctor of theology. He would then teach at a new university being started in the Saxon town of Wittenberg.
At first, the new regimen of work, which included administering fourteen monasteries, pastoring a local church, and teaching at the new university, did nothing to change Luther’s loathing of God and himself.
But then, something happened to change Luther’s life--and history itself.
Like most seminarians and priests of his day, Luther had never studied Scripture. He did so now, as he prepared for the classes he was teaching. In the Bible, Luther found a God quite different from the one often preached in the Church of his day. He saw a God of grace and love...
- Who reaches out to His children,
- Who charitably understands their fallen humanity,
- Who forgives and empowers right living, and promises eternity to all with faith in Him.
- Who hates sin while loving sinners,
- Who lovingly calls all to repent for their sin and believe in His Son, Jesus.
Luther’s new understanding of God crystallized as he studied two verses in the New Testament book of Romans. Please pull out the pew Bibles and turn to page 648 to read them, Romans 1:16-17. They say:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel [that means, the Good News about how God sent His Son Jesus to die and rise so that all who believe in Him will not be eternally separated from God in hell, but live with God eternally], for it [the Gospel] is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it [that is, in the Gospel’s message about Jesus] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written [and this comes from the Old Testament book of Habakkuk]: "The just shall live by faith."Luther saw that righteousness is not some goodness owned by super-saints. Righteousness is having a right relationship with God.
Through Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, Christ gives righteousness to all who turn from sin and believe in Him. Christ does all this as a free gift.
The Bible calls this gift, along with all of God’s other undeserved blessings, grace.
Ephesians sums up the truth that changes the lives of followers in Jesus for eternity when it says, “by grace you have been saved through faith…”
As Luther grew in the confidence he had in the new life given to him by Christ, he grew bolder in sharing what he had learned from the Bible. On October 31, 1517, he posted 95 theses--or propositions for debate—on the church door in Wittenberg.
Luther’s theses challenged a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The Church then taught that there was a place called “purgatory,” a sort of holding room that the dead supposedly went to between death and eternity. Purgatory was supposed to be a place where people were purified for entry into heaven. Purgatory was purely a human invention. To raise money, the Church often authorized the mass sale of pieces of paper called indulgences. Indulgences allowed people to buy hundreds or thousands of years out of purgatory for loved ones or even themselves. (Depending on how much a person wanted to or could spend.) Luther was offended by this practice. It turned God's gift of grace for all who trust in Christ into a commodity to be bought and sold by human beings.
When Luther’s preaching and teaching against indulgences impacted the bottom line on their sale, the Church went after him. At a gathering in the German city of Wurms, before the emperor, Luther was ordered to recant, or repudiate, all of his writings. He refused. Ultimately, he came under what was known as an “imperial ban,” meaning that anyone who saw Luther was authorized to kill him on sight. Luther was labeled a heretic, a perverter of the Christian faith.
But Luther and those who came to agree with him remained steadfast in proclaiming the God we see in Jesus Christ, the God of grace and God of glory. Among Luther’s last words were, “We are all beggars,” an acknowledgement that none of us is better or more important than others in God's eyes and that all with faith in Christ are the recipients of God’s charitable gifts: forgiveness and new life. We cannot earn them, but thank God, He loves to give them to those humble enough to surrender to Christ! These are the central truths of God’s Word, the Bible.
Luther died in 1546.
We celebrate October 31 each year as Reformation Day because on All Saints Eve, Hallowed Evening or, as we call it, Hallowe'en, in 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses began a major reformation of the Church.
That reform movement goes on to this day.
We celebrate the Sunday closest to October 31 each year as Reformation Sunday.
I’m convinced that if Martin Luther were a pastor of our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) today, there would be some things he would celebrate. But I'm equally sure that he would also be agitating for reform within the ELCA and would be unpopular among many.
On one hand, Luther, who believed that the Bible contains God’s authoritative Word and was willing always to be shown what the truth is by Scripture and plain reason, would be delighted that, in accordance with the Scriptures, we ELCA Lutherans see women and men as equals and that women called by God are ordained as pastors among us.
But I’m sure that Luther would also look at Called to Common Mission, the agreement struck between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church-USA in 1999, and be appalled that people who call themselves Lutherans have accepted the belief that the words and actions of bishops—mere human beings—have as much authority as the Word of God.
He would look at the legalistic system we have in selecting voting members to our synod and churchwide assemblies and ask why we have replaced attentiveness to God’s Word with a Pharisee-like insistence on quotas.
I’m also certain that Luther would look at the many ELCA bishops, pastors, and seminary professors who reject the Bible’s teachings on things like Jesus’ virgin birth, on Jesus’ miracles, on Jesus being truly God and truly human, and on Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead and ask, “Why do people of the Reformation tradition no longer accept the faith of the Bible and of the Lutheran Confessions?”
Clearly, the need for the movement to reform Christ’s Church that began when Martin Luther posted those 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, has not ended.
As long as there are people within and outside the Church who believe that they can construct lives from fortresses of their own designs and efforts, in which they make people and things other than Jesus Christ the foundations on which they build their lives and hope for eternity, the Reformation must continue.
We must keep singing and continue to strive to live for the truth Luther summarized in his greatest hymn, “A mighty fortress is our God!”
Martin Luther learned and then taught from God’s Word that our relationship with God and our freedom from sin and death come only from the God of the Bible, the God ultimately revealed to all the world in Jesus Christ.
These gifts—relationship with God, freedom from sin and death—come to us freely from a God Who is not subject to our human authority or our puny religiosity.
They come to us from Christ alone, Who shows us that God isn’t our enemy, but our very best friend, and worthy of all our glory, honor, praise, living, trust, hope, obedience, and surrender.
Keep the Reformation Luther began going!
Keep turning to God’s Word alone, to God’s Son Jesus alone, to salvation by grace through our faith in Christ alone!
Then, pass the truth of grace alone, faith alone in Christ alone, and God’s Word alone as our guide in life, onto everyone you know. Amen!