October 31, 2007

Martin Luther and the Rediscovery of Grace

In July 1505, a careless and superstitious German college student was traveling through the countryside in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and struck the ground so near him that it knocked him off his feet. Frightened and superstitious, he cried out “St. Anne, save me and I will become a monk!” Two weeks later, having survived the storm, he kept his vow and entered the monastery. His name was Martin Luther.

As is the case when you enter the monastery, Luther had a lot of time to think about himself and about God. And the more he thought, the more he realized just how short of God’s standard he fell. He began to hate himself for it. And, in a desperate attempt to make things right with God, he dove head-first into the strict life of the monastery. He read and prayed laboriously. He spent hours in confession, desperately trying to remember every sin he had ever committed—and ended up hating himself even more because he could not remember them all! He fasted constantly, sometimes for days on end. He sometimes disciplined himself by spending freezing winter nights sleeping in the cold with no blanket. He would later say, “I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”

Despite all his efforts, Martin Luther could find no peace with God. He was terrified of God and saw Him only as a Judge, eager to punish. Historian Bruce Shelley describes Luther’s first service of the Mass like this:

In the midst of saying his first Mass, said Luther, “I was utterly stupefied and terrorstricken. I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God?’ No amount of penance, no soothing advice from his superiors could still Luther’s conviction that he was a miserable, doomed sinner. Although his confessor counseled him to love God, Luther one day burst out, “I do not love God! I hate Him!”[1]

Now why did Martin Luther come to a place where he hated God? Why did he feel so condemned and so unloved by God? The reason is because, all his life he had heard much about God’s righteous judgment on sinners. But he had never heard that God is also the One who freely forgives. He had never heard that forgiveness of sins was an absolutely free gift! Everything that Martin Luther had ever been taught by the priests led him to believe that it is up to us to get right with God by virtue of our own good works…and Luther found himself completely unable! So, he was undone. And he hated this God whom he believed was so exacting and so unmerciful!

Perhaps this is the position some of you are in this very moment: hoping to get right with God through being good, and finding yourself incapable of being good! You are frustrated. You feel like God will never be satisfied and you will never measure up. And you find it very difficult to love a God like that!

If that is where you are, I have good news for you. After ten years of struggling, Martin Luther finally found hope and forgiveness. And he found it in Romans 1.16-17 where the apostle Paul writes:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first an also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, he who is righteous by faith shall live.
Luther discovered two important things as he studied these two verses:

1.It is the “gospel”—the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection—and not our good behavior, which “is the power of God for salvation.” We are saved by Jesus’ good works, not our own!

2. This salvation is available to “everyone who believes.” Or as verse 17 puts it, “He who is righteous by faith (as opposed to good works) shall live.” We become right with God, not by doing good works, but by believing in God’s Son!

Now, do you know what happens when we discover God’s mercy and grace toward sinners? Let’s let Luther describe it. Upon discovering the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus, He said: “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise!” When we realize that God wants to give us salvation as a free gift; and when, therefore, we stop trying to earn God’s favor, we gain peace with God. We no longer hate Him. We no longer see Him as our Condemner but as our Friend. We walk through open doors into paradise! That will happen for you today if you will but believe in God who saves the ungodly!

That is what happened for Martin Luther. And when he published his discovery on this date—October 31, 1517—God used this rediscovery of God’s free gift of salvation to begin a spiritual revival in which thousands of people found the same peace that Martin Luther found; the same peace that I hope each of you will find and share with others. Let’s pray that this would happen for someone today…

[1] This quote, the other quotes in this section, and the specifics of historical detail come from: Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. (Dallas: Word, 1982), pages 238-239.

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