Exactly five hundred years ago an event rocked Europe – an event even bigger than Brexit! When an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther hammered his 95 theses onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, he started a sequence of events that would re-shape the spiritual and political map of Europe. On October 31st 1517, the Reformation had begun.
The recent invention of the printing press ensured that Luther’s protestant ideas spread far and wide, influencing church leaders and political rulers right across the continent. Our very own Church of England was created in this period, and owes its birth just as much to the ideas of the Reformation as to Henry VIII’s marital difficulties!
Over the next three weeks our Sunday sermons are going to remind ourselves of three big ideas that came out of the Reformation. Three big ideas that drove Martin Luther and his fellow reformers – men like Zwingli and Calvin on the continent, and Cranmer and Tyndale here in England. So next week we’ll see why Holy Communion is the Lord’s Supper not a sacrifice, and in a fortnight we’ll look at the ‘authority and supremacy of Scripture’.
But today I want us to begin by looking at salvation by faith alone – in many ways, the biggest idea, the greatest discovery, that Martin Luther made. So let me pray before I begin: Heavenly Father, help us to understand the truth that we are saved by faith in Christ alone. Help us to see it Scripture, and to appreciate how precious it is. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
- Luther: In search of salvation
As a young man, Martin Luther was a man with a problem. In fact, it’s a problem we all have, but one he was especially sensitive to. Luther’s problem was his guilt before God. He had a very troubled conscience, a strong sense of his own sin. He was very fearful of facing the anger of a righteous God when he died, and he even admitted to ‘hating’ God, because he was so scared of him.
Luther lacked what theologians call “assurance”. Assurance is a sense of being right with God. A sense of being saved. Assurance is knowing you are forgiven child of God, destined for Heaven. Having assurance is a truly glorious thing.
Our Bible reading from Romans 3 this morning is clear that we all need salvation. Everyone in the world needs to find forgiveness and assurance, not just Luther. As it says in verse 23 today, we have “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.
As a young man Luther expended every effort to try and gain salvation. In 1506 he gave up a promising career in law to become an Augustinian monk, and then devoted himself to his monastic duties with great fervour. He fasted, prayed, did penance and spent hour after hour in confession – but he still lacked a sense of salvation, he still sought an assurance of God’s forgiveness.
Even a pilgrimage to Rome failed to salve his conscience. If anything, Luther’s experience of the wider Church only reinforced his unease. He saw that the medieval church was very effective at making money, especially through the sale of ‘indulgences’ (passports through purgatory). But the medieval church was unable to offer people the assurance of salvation that Luther so desperately sought. The medieval church claimed to preach the Gospel, but to Luther and many others, what it said didn’t sound like good news.
The breakthrough for Luther came when he went back to the Bible. Because in 1512, aged just 26, Luther was appointed a lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Wittenburg. As he studied the Bible, especially Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther made a remarkable discovery about the way of salvation. Salvation, he came to realise, was not something we could ever earn – but a gift. It was not something we could buy, like an indulgence, but something simply to be received by faith – by faith in Christ alone.
It seems the penny really dropped for Luther in 1519. In that year he describes the ‘eureka’ moment when he realised that assurance was achievable – the moment when he truly understood salvation by faith for the first time. He wrote that: “All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.” Assurance had arrived, the secret of salvation had been re-discovered after centuries of church neglect.
- Salvation is a gift of God
Its not too long ‘til Christmas now, is it, and no doubt the more organised among you are already buying Christmas presents for your family and friends. And when you eventually hand over your gifts to them on Christmas morning, I assume you won’t expect them to write you a cheque or give you a cash payment for your present. That’s not how gifts work, is it. A gift is an act of grace, something given without expectation of payment or reimbursement. A word of thanks is usually all we ask in return.
Luther’s great discovery in Romans 3 and elsewhere is that salvation is just such a gift. God’s forgiveness and friendship is offered to sorry sinners like Luther, you and me as a free gift. That’s the gist of verses 21 and 22 of our passage this morning. Let me read them again: “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.”
What the apostle Paul is saying here is that sinful humans can only be made right with God at God’s own initiative. The only way God can declare us “righteous”, the only way he can give us his forgiveness and friendship forever, is as a gift from him. No human can become righteous by our own efforts, our attempts to be self-righteous will never succeed. On our own, we can’t erase our guilt before God. We need him to do it for us.
In the apostle Paul’s day, many of his Jewish contemporaries mistakenly tried to get right with God by their own efforts. They would try to follow the Law of Moses to the n’th degree, observe the Sabbath and submit themselves to circumcision to try and earn God’s favour. But it never gave peace. It never gave them assurance of salvation.
In Luther’s time, 500 years ago, he and many others tried all sorts of religious practices and acts of self-denial to try and become righteous before God. To try to “justify” themselves in his sight. But pilgrimages and penances, confession and fasting, all failed to do the trick. Luther knew from his own bitter experience that they could not cleanse a guilty conscience before God.
In our own day, people try to become self-righteous in all sorts of ways don’t they? So many people mistakenly think that things they do can put them in a right relationship with God. So many people think that they can earn God’s forgiveness and friendship by the number of church services they attend, the amount of money they give to charity, the time they give to good causes. All those things are good things, but Romans 3 says they don’t make us right with God. That right standing can only be received as a free gift, never earnt. As verse 24 puts it, we are “justified freely by God’s grace”.
- Salvation is received by faith in Christ alone
Last week my doorbell went more times than I can remember, as we received various packages from Parcelforce, Amazon, DPD and Yodel. (I suspect someone in my family is spending too much time online shopping, but I’m not going to name names!). But what struck me is that each delivery driver wanted me to receive their delivery in a different way:
- One just asked me my name and handed their parcel over.
- One wanted me to sign my name on his ipad
- Another wanted a traditional signature with a pen,
- And another simply asked to scan a barcode.
You see, in life we receive different things in different ways. There are different ways we take hold of things that are offered to us. So how do we receive God’s gift of salvation?
The answer Luther saw in the Bible is that we receive salvation through faith in Christ. In other words, we are saved by believing and trusting in Jesus and what he’s done for us. Today’s reading is quite clear on this, isn’t it? In verse 22 it says the righteousness of God is “given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe”. And again verse 26 says that “God justifies those who have faith in Jesus”.
Martin Luther came to see that when a person puts their faith in Jesus a great swap takes place. A wonderful transaction occurs when we first believe in Jesus – because we receive his righteousness and he gets our guilt. When we put our faith in Christ his perfection, his purity, is credited to our account. When God the Father looks at a Christian believer, he doesn’t see our sin – he sees his perfect Son.
The other side of this great swap is that Jesus receives our sin. Our guilty burden is transferred to him – its put on his shoulders. So that when he died on the Cross he took the punishment we should have faced. He bore the penalty that me, you and Martin Luther all deserve because of our sins.
You see, the Cross is God’s way of simultaneously condemning sin whilst showing grace to sinners. It’s the way God shows his righteous justice, and his righteous mercy. This is what Paul is trying to explain in verses 25 and 26 of our passage today. Let me read the key parts again: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement – he did this to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
Conclusion – Christian faith changes lives!
So as I finish this morning, I hope we’ve seen that salvation is entirely a gift of God. Luther’s great discovery in Scripture is that faith is key to being saved from sin. It’s the only way we can be forgiven, justified and counted righteous in God’s sight.
When Luther saw this to be true it changed his life, his career and the course of history. Luther’s great discovery gave him the assurance and peace of mind he had been looking for all his life. It turned his fear of God into love and gratitude towards God. It made him realise why the Christian Gospel really is good news to be shared. It drove Luther to dedicate his life to serving the Lord Jesus who had laid down his life for him.
Its my hope and prayer that salvation by faith alone has the exact same effect on us today. As we believe it and truly take it to heart;
- I hope it gives us the same joy, contentment and assurance that Luther experienced.
- I hope it gives us the same feelings of love and thanksgiving to God that that one German monk felt five hundred years ago.
- And I hope it gives us the same urge as Luther had to serve Christ and share the good news of the Gospel.
You see, Martin Luther’s Christian faith changed the face of Europe and saw millions come to Christ. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our faith today changed the face of Gidea Park and saw many people become believers in Jesus? Let’s pray that will be the case: Father, thank you that you offer us salvation by faith in Christ alone. Help us to have the same faith, contentment and courage as Martin Luther, so that your Gospel of grace may be heard in Gidea Park and beyond. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.