For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” [Romans 1:16-17]
In January of 2015, my wife and I traveled to Germany as part of the Bishops’ Academy, an annual continuing education opportunity for the bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Every three years we would do an international trip, and this one fell two years before the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So the intent was to familiarize ourselves with the roots of the event that revolutionized the Church beginning in late 1517.
Over the course of ten days, we toured the towns and villages where Martin Luther lived and visited in his day. It was quite a memorable experience to follow in Luther’s footsteps, to walk along the streets where he walked, sit in the classrooms where he studied at the University of Erfurt; where he taught, at Wittenberg; and to worship in the churches where he preached.
The one thing I could not do during that trip, as much as I would have loved to, was to get into Luther’s head and his struggles with God’s grace. You and I have had the advantage of years of the theology of grace drummed into our heads and (hopefully) our hearts, that we fail to appreciate how much Luther agonized over the feeling of worthlessness, of being such a sinner that he just couldn’t comprehend how God could forgive a sinner such as him.
Luther found his freedom in Paul’s letter to the Romans, specifically in verse 1:17, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” He described the breakthrough in the following words:
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. . . .[Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand – A Life of Martin Luther . Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.]
This discovery led to his posting the 95 theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, supposedly on the 31st of October of 1517. We must understand he was simply calling for an academic debate, nothing more. The debate never took place but the points that he made in the document – that we are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ – obviously sparked a flame that swept throughout Germany and the rest of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Reformation initiated a change, a new way of looking at faith. But it was not, and is not a one-time event. The Church is always reforming. The Church of Rome has re-formed down through the years to the point that in 1999, an historic document was signed between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In this document the two church bodies, while not totally erasing the division that exists between them, have at least agreed to a common understanding on this issue of salvation by grace alone. In 2017 the two church bodies had joint commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
And we as Christians are always reforming. Lent itself is a sort of reformation. It is a time to take the opportunity to know what it means to immerse oneself in God’s word – in the true treasure of the church, the most Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God. [Thesis 62]
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