Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther’s Anxious Heart

I was given the honour of speaking at our 2017 Reformation Day chapel at Ambrose University. Here’s the text of my reflection. You can view the video here (my talk begins around the 22:00 mark).

My wife Colleen has been urging me to dress up like Martin Luther today for Halloween, so I finally agreed. I decided to dress like a middle-aged professor. Here it is!

Long before there was Halloween, of course, there was Hallowed Even, or holy evening, the day before All Saints Day—the day Christian churches in so many traditions remember those who have gone before in the faith—what Hebrews 12 would call that great cloud of witnesses.

Martin Luther as an Augustinian Friar, workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

But today, October 31, is special because it is the day which by common consent has come to represent the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—that revolution within Christianity sparked by Martin Luther, the German priest, an Augustinian friar, who you saw walking rather stiffly across the Playmobil video, and we’ve learned a little bit how he struggled against the sale of indulgences, which diminished the role of repentance among Christians, and how this eventually led to his excommunication and his outlawing, and how that eventually split Western Christendom into a whole variety of confessional and denominational expressions. And so most of us here today worship in churches that flow from Luther’s Reformation, and even if you worship in a Catholic church, your church too has been fundamentally shaped by Martin Luther and his work.

This morning, I want to talk with you about Luther’s anxious heart, and the central idea of the Reformation, which is the personal transformation of people–people like you and me—through the power of the gospel message—the good news of salvation—our reunion with God—through faith—a simple trust and acceptance of Jesus’ invitation to rest in him, to abide in him, to receive his love and acceptance.

So Luther: Martin Luther was born in 1483, into a “middle class” family. His father was a miner who wanted his son to better the family by becoming a lawyer. So when Luther became disenchanted with law school and then made a vow to become a monk in that famous lightning storm crisis, it took some time before his family could come to terms with that. Luther studied theology and soon rose in the monastic ranks, became a supervisor of various monastic houses, and a professor of theology in Wittenberg. He was bright and he was successful in that career.

Nonetheless, Luther was mired in an ongoing personal spiritual crisis. He was wracked by guilt, consumed by anxiety, and filled with frustration over his own sinfulness—or at least his own sense of sinfulness, and his inability to connect with God. As a monk, he was following the recipe set out by the medieval church for spiritual success. There was no better way he could ensure his salvation than by devoting his life to the church. Still, the harder he worked, the more he confessed, the guiltier he felt.

Here’s how he described his feelings about this in a document we often call his “tower experience,” his conversion experience, which probably happened around 1515, though he later dated it in 1519:

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

So even as Luther was raising his concerns about the problem of indulgence-selling, while he was overseeing other monks and nuns, while he was studying Scripture and teaching theology as a professor in Wittenberg University—even as he was doing these things, he was fighting for his own salvation. For me, that brings Luther down a little from the pedestal we sometimes put him on and makes him a bit more real, a bit more like me. He’s a somebody trying to find his way to God through the religious clutter and noise of his day.

Eventually—and this did not happen overnight; it took close to a decade—he found his answer. It was in the book of Romans, where he discovered in some new way that suddenly made sense to him the idea that God saves us by grace! Here’s how he described it:

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.

This new understanding of salvation by faith and grace transformed Luther’s life, and it took him from a place of bondage—he was anything but free—to a place of freedom, to a place where he understood, in the words of Bernie Van De Walle, who was talking about this last night in a conversation we were having with some other folks, to a place where he understood his union with Christ, in Christ.

And we see this in the two passages that were read to us. The passage in Romans 3 (see below) that reminds us that the law brings judgment, the law brings that sense of guilt, the law brings with it that anxiety, that frustration. But then, with that, there’s this new justice, this new righteousness that comes through Christ—through faith in Christ, for anyone who will believe. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All are justified freely by his grace.

This is a profound message of hope. It’s motherhood and apple pie for many of us. And yet I’ve been reflecting a lot on this lately, and I wonder—we live in an age of anxious hearts, not unlike Luther. You can’t open your social media feeds, you can’t read the digital newspaper, you can’t watch the evening news on TV (if you happen to be with your parents who watch the nightly news) without encountering stories of mental health crises of all kinds—of fears, anxieties, depression, and loneliness—and more often than not, these stories seem to revolve around young people. It’s as if we live in an age of anxiety.

Luther’s discovery of this central message of the gospel: the love of God expressed through Christ, given to us in salvation, freely by faith and grace, speaks directly to our anxieties—our wondering whether we’re good enough, or smart enough, or good-looking enough, or culturally fashionable enough to be accepted. Can we make our friends happy? Can we make ourselves happy? Can we make our parents happy? Can we make our God happy? Will they love us? Will they accept us? Will we accept ourselves? Will God accept us?

Luther’s answer to all this is a resounding yes. Here’ what he wrote in another passage (“What to Look for and expect in the Gospels”):

… before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize Him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ Himself, with His deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ Himself.

See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.

And this is what we see in the Romans 8 passage that was read to us (see below). If God is for us—and he is—who can be against us? What can be against us? God didn’t spare anything—he gave his son for us. He will give us all that we need. Who can bring a charge against us, if God has chosen us? God justifies us. No one can condemn us. Christ died for us. He rose for us. He lives for us. He is there as a gift for us. Trouble? Hardship? School pressure? Family crisis? Money shortages? None of that separates us from the love of God. And Paul declares that we’re more than conquerors through Christ who loved us.

This is why Reformation Day matters. This is why it is worth celebrating this 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s reforming work. This profound rediscovery of the simplest message of salvation—that Christ is a gift for us, an expression of God’s deep love for us, and that that transformed Luther! It made his heart happy, secure, and content. Isn’t that what we want? It’s no different today.

***

Romans 3:19-24 New International Version (NIV)

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:31-39 New International Version (NIV)

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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