I’m not sure you realize the enormity of it all. Martin Luther was just a single monk. He was well-educated and a professor at the University of Wittenberg. He was highly regarded. But he was still just a single monk and the institution he was challenging was enormous. The church of Luther’s day was larger and more powerful in his time than at any other in history. It built towering cathedrals; it controlled prince, kings, kingdoms and even the Holy Roman Emperor. Its reach extended across the entire Western world and there was no aspect of society it did not touch.
In those days, there was no such thing as an opposing point of view; there was no such thing as a voice of dissent. There was also no such thing as only going up against the church. To challenge the church was to challenge the state and it was also to challenge God too. And for publicly teaching contrary to the church, you could actually be burned at the stake. This is only 500 years old. At the very least, you would be ex-communicated and told your sins would never be forgiven and your name, even after your death, would bring social banishment upon your descendants for generations. This was the enormity of it all and you dare not oppose it. And with one or two small exceptions which were quickly done away with, no one ever did.
But Martin Luther just couldn’t let it go because the entire reason for the church coming into being in the first place was obscured. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which we heard read earlier, he tells us plainly, “For by works of the law, no human being will be justified in his sight.” We cannot be made right with God by anything we do or say or any actions that we carry out. This way of thinking is what’s known as the righteousness of the Law. People thought they could be justified before God by their behavior. That if you’re good enough in how you live your life, you will get into heaven someday. But this is impossible. You cannot perfectly obey the Law. You are a sinner. You will choose yourself over God’s external Law. And you can’t help it. Sin is a part of your heart and it has been that way since the Fall of Adam and Eve.
But Paul speaks of another kind of righteousness today, a righteousness of God apart from the Law, as verse 21 says. This is a righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. It is not an earned righteousness, but a borrowed one. It’s given to you by someone else like a person who shares their coat with you on a cold winter’s day. In this righteousness, you receive the reputation and the perfection of Christ Jesus, who sheds His blood on the cross to forgive you of all your sins. The righteousness of the Law was conceived of as being “earned,” but the righteousness of faith is given to you as a free gift. It comes to you through the Gospel, which is found in both the Word and the sacraments. These means bring us to Christ Himself.
And there is, of course, an enormity to it all of this too because believing in that message changes your eternal destiny forever. It involved God actually becoming a man so He could live a perfect life under that Law and then be sentenced to an unjust death in your place. Even though He was completely righteous
, Jesus was shamed as a criminal and as an enemy of God. But this act of love and sacrifice became the only way by which people could ever become truly righteous before God. There is no other religion, philosophy, way of life or teaching that could atone for your sins as this action of Christ does. Only through Jesus alone can you be saved and so yes, there is an enormity of it all.
And so for Luther to speak up and to condemn the church of his day and insinuate that even the pope himself can err was, in essence, to forfeit his life. For hundreds of years it had not been any other way. To go against the church, was to also to go against the established rule of the state and to go against the established rule of God Himself. No one dared. The consequences were too great and your allies would be too few if any at all. You would be just like Jesus going up against the Jewish religion of his day, which also was cooperative with the state. You would certainly be crucified/removed from the public sphere.
And so what good was a single monk going to do? How could he challenge the whole world? How could he challenge the system of indulgences and pilgrimages and relics? How could he hope to win against a pompous teenage emperor and a pope who loved to go on hunting trips to kill the wild boar? How could he hope to have any effect on the enormity of it all?
Romans 3:28 spoke to Luther. “For we hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Luther understood this to be Faith Alone. We hold that man is justified by faith alone apart from works of the Law. This verse dug its claws into Luther and it would not let him go. He had spent his entire life in the system of working hard and praying harder. If a monk would sleep on the floor without his blanket to mortify the works of the flesh, then Luther would sleep outside in the snow. If a monk would be diligent about confessing his sins to the priest, Luther would confess his sins and then run back to the confessional moments later to confess even more.
Luther bore the enormity of this system upon his shoulders believing that all of this was a reflection of the weighted expectations of God. God was to Luther, the greatest of all taskmasters. His expectations were constant and demanding. And Luther found no peace trying to serve this God. He found no peace in the God of the Law who demanded compliance and held you accountable for the smallest crumb of sin that fell from your table.
And so when Luther found out about the righteousness of God that came through faith alone, this enormous burden that he had carried upon his shoulders for so long was lifted. God was not oppressive nor was he the taskmaster that Luther had feared him to be. He was instead, the benevolent Father who gave His one and only Son to set the world free of sin and the demands of the Law. This God that Luther rediscovered did not wish to add to people’s burdens, but to lift them from our shoulders and show us that even the most insignificant person in this life was one who equally inherited the powerful gift of righteousness and grace.
Now even today, the divide between the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheranism has softened slightly. In September of 2011, then Pope Benedict traveled to Germany and visited the monastery where Luther was first ordained as a priest in 1507 . He gave a speech attended by representatives of the Lutheran Church in Germany in which he commended Luther’s passion and his quest to elaborate on the grace of God. In fact, earlier this year, the Roman Catholic Church actually gave its approval for a square in Rome to be named after Martin Luther. And so the Oppian Hill, which overlooks the Coliseum, is now called the Piazza Martin Lutero.
And we do, of course, rejoice and appreciate the lessening of divisions between Lutherans and Catholics.
If you read the Lutheran Confessions written even back in those days, they were always careful to specify the commonalities between Lutheranism and
Roman Catholicism as well as the differences
. At the same time, the differences have never been minor and the conversations between Roman Catholics and Lutherans continue still to this very day. And we thank God for that.
But for the enormity of it all 500 years ago, Luther was willing to testify. He would certainly give his life rather than hold his tongue about the exclusive and salvific enormity of God’s love and forgiveness. And so in the picture we see on the bulletin today, Luther gives his famous “Here I stand” speech. He can do no other, the consequences being what they will. Ultimately, Luther commends his welfare to God trusting that the one sent to bear his sin will one day resurrect his body whether it was to be a corpse or a scattering of ashes. With these words, this single monk upon the threat of death was confident that after his death he would stand once again. And 500 years later, we praise God that his words continue to stand among us even still. Thanks be unto God. Amen.