My wife was cleaning off the table yesterday which was covered with grape and cherry tomatoes and I told her she should take the buckets she was filling to Trunk or Treat tonight and offer the children tomatoes which would be a trick and I would go wear a doctoral cap and robe dressed like Martin Luther, which I thought would be a treat, but she informed me that children don’t care for tomatoes on Halloween and would have no clue who Martin Luther was even on the 500th anniversary of a remarkable moment in history that changed my life and in some ways, how we think about and read the Bible and even this…how we understand salvation today…that we can’t buy justification or earn it or attach ourselves to it by the people we worship with…it is God’s work.
Martin Luther was a brilliant student of the Bible and a respectful skeptic of institutions, including churches. Luther was born only a few decades after the invention of printing, and though it took him a while to start writing, it was hard to stop him once he got going. Luther’s collected writings come to a hundred and twenty volumes. He translated the New Testament from the original Greek published in 1523, followed by the Old Testament, in 1534, translated from the Hebrew. It was unquestionably beautiful, graced with exaltation and simplicity. He said of his translation, “we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street,” and he ended up with something song like.
So let me tell you how Luther through the power of God’s Spirit working through minds, hearts, and technology, changed history.
I’ve come full circle. I was born into this church when it was located downtown. I remember as a child gazing at the burnished etched green copper of the Price Tower next door. Many years later, here are two thoughts burnished and etched into my spiritual consciousness from my early church years:
1. Holy Scripture is our road map
2. We were minimalists before it was fashionable…and it is fashionable to be simple now, two of my children don’t own vehicles, they live less cluttered lives with less stuff and my daughters favorite magazine is Real Simple.
Which describes me, it describes us…we are real simple.
I am staunchly non-denominational…I believe in locally autonomous churches…I grew up in Bible classes hearing the phrase speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent and “What does the Scripture say?” and “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.”
And it is because of this upbringing that I’ve always been fascinated with Reformation and Restoration and the idea of recovering something that was once pure and holy and restoring its finish and vitality and function. So Martin Luther has always been my answer to the party icebreaker question, “Name someone you would like to meet from history if somehow you had the chance to go back in time?” He was onery, bold, a writer of prolific scale, logical, courageous, a healthy skeptic who in some ways helped invent the idea of skepticism and empirical inquiry.
During the summer of 2014 our family visited our son Brandon who was attending the University of Hamburg School of Meteorology. In between driving the autobahn and exploring the ruins of medieval fortresses, I was sitting in this castle on the Rhine River looking at a map and saw the city of Wittenburg. I booked a room at the Luther Hotel in Wittenberg and told my family we were going to see a church door that I had always wanted to lay my eyes upon. They didn’t get it until I told them 2017 would be the 500th anniversary of something remarkable. Three years later, here we are.
This Tuesday is the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to that church door in Wittenburg, Germany. And while we costume and decorate and hand out candy this Halloween, many people will be unaware of this moment that helped change the course of history and brought a powerful recovery of the Gospel.
There is beauty in saying God’s word transforms us and sets us free and saves us by bringing us into relationship with the Master of the Universe not through magic but through God’s power and work told in words, beautiful words set in stark contrast to our brokenness and humanity. We are the church of the unadorned, and Christ makes us beautiful. We in the church of Christ have always called ourselves restorationists, keepers of the flame of the very Words of God and the beauty of Christ’s church set in stark contrast to our plain features.
And while we claim to follow the example of the 1st century Christians in our churches, much of the way we are and the way we adore Holy Scripture and the teachings of God go back to Luther’s simple but strange act of protest 500 years ago.
By writing 95 sentences and posting them on the bulletin board of the day, the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Martin Luther ignited the Reformation, and began a process that would break down the barriers that stood between the people and the knowledge of God and his freely offered grace.
Luther spent the years of 1515-1516 lecturing on the book of Romans which had a profound influence on his thinking. One could not be made right with God through the system of church sacraments. One could only have peace with God through Jesus Christ. The righteousness of a sinner comes not from within him, but from without him. Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life. He, in his life, achieved our righteousness. Then he died in the place of sinners. The righteousness a sinner receives is reckoned to him by grace alone, through faith alone, on the ground of Christ’s death alone, for the glory of God alone.
His study led ultimately to our ideas about going back to the Bible. And it led to 5 onlys…5 solas…Luther believed these 5 ideas were missing in churches of that time.
Soli Deo Gloria
In English we have:
1 Scripture alone 2 Grace alone 3 Faith alone 4 Christ alone 5 for the Glory of God alone!
The Bible was often the only book in the house and was widely used as a primer. More people learned to read, and the more they knew how to read the more they wanted to own this book, or give it to others. In his discussions of sola scriptura, Luther had declared that all believers were priests: laypeople had as much right as the clergy to determine what Scripture meant. With his Bible, he gave Saxony, and subsequently all nations the means to do so.
Luther’s belief that Scripture – not a church – holds ultimate authority to direct a person’s life pushed him to make the Word of God accessible to the common folks. He burst open the flood gates of love for and access to the Word of God at a time when preaching was in latin and liturgy was done in latin and 99% of the world could not read or understand what was happening. Because of this love for the Word, he pushed for every town to have a girls’ school so girls and women could learn to read the Word of God as well. By doing so, Martin Luther inadvertently spread literacy and education through his quest to get his followers to read the Bible—women as well as men.
We still experience the blessings of this because we’ve been transformed by God’s working and by Scriptures like:
2 Timothy 2:15 a worker who does not need to be ashamed who correctly handles the word of truth
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness
And we still examine Scripture and look up Bible passages the preacher uses in his sermon to make sure he’s getting it right. Martin Luther started a wildfire, or rather restarted the wildfire that began burning back when Christians became witnesses for Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and throughout the world…the magnificent rock of Christ thrown into the pond of the world as told in Acts, that rippled through the backwater towns and the city markets of the ancient world like a tsunami.
Luther’s conviction from scripture that salvation comes from Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone for the Glory of God alone also re-fueled the idea of the priesthood of all believers…including women and the poor and those who couldn’t read. He taught people that an organization or another person could not stand between themselves and God, and in this freedom, people experienced God’s grace in a new and powerful way.
So what does this mean for us? What does a Restoration church learn from the father of the Reformation, 500 years after his act of faith and rebellion?
First, let’s remember to thank God for people like Martin Luther and his contemporaries: John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and others who suffered much because of their love of God’s word and their belief that every person should have access to the Scripture.
Second, I’d recommend we all read through Luther’s 95 theses this week. There is a wealth of insight there. But here’s the main point I want us to reflect on this morning:
Our assurance of salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ! The Gospel is our very life. We need it for all time, for our past sins, for our present state, and for our future glory. Through Christ alone we have secured this Blessed Assurance for which we paid nothing.
The Gospel is so precious. Oh how we need to remember…even though we are full of guilt and condemnation, when we trust in Jesus alone for salvation, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us and we are then treated as though we have kept the whole law. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Through faith in Jesus we now have peace with God (Romans 5:1). We are no longer enemies of God, but we are now His children and friends, adopted into his family, called Beloved…vessels of mercy!
Finally, today may we have the same courage Martin Luther had: courage to stand upon God’s Word in the midst of ridicule, persecution, and pain. May Martin Luther’s conviction from 500 years ago be just as true for us today. In a time when we once again find ourselves facing a world and culture that is experiencing upheaval, we give Martin Luther the last word this morning:
Quote: I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me.”
Father: Thank you for the glory of simple good news Thank you for Ancient Words that are ever true Thank you for saving us and loving us and wanting to partner with us in this amazing journey that calls us home, yet declares not yet…there is work to do Thank you for giving us a lamp unto our feet and a light upon our path…give us this thought in our conversations, in our labors, in our play, in our life…it is for the Glory of God alone!