This message was preached as part of a series in which we looked at what the books of the New Testament say about “the Kingdom of God.” Since the focus is really on Martin Luther, I’ve made “Learning from Martin Luther the main title, with “The Kingdom of God: Romans and Galatians” being given as a sub-title.
Justification by faith – This is a useful summary of the central message of Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians. This gospel teaching is the exact opposite of the way many people think about Christianity. So often, Christianity is confused with morality. What is a Christian? Many people will say to us, ‘It’s someone who tries hard to be good. It’s someone who lives a decent, respectable, law-abiding life. It’s someone who helps his neighbour and gives to good causes.’ This is not, however, the way in which the gospel answers the question, “What is a Christian?” The gospel tells us, ‘It’s a sinner who has seen his need of Jesus Christ, and has come to him, in faith, to receive the forgiveness of sins, new life through the Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life.’ To understand the gospel’s answer to the question, “What is a Christian?”, we must stop looking at our own religion and start looking at Christ’s salvation.
One man who will help us to see, more clearly, the gospel answer to the question, “What is a Christian?” is Martin Luther, the Lord’s servant in the 16th century revival, which we call ‘the Reformation.’ Martin Luther was, and still is, a prophet of God, speaking to the whole church. In his own day, he was, like Joshua, a man who led the people out of the wilderness and into anew world of God’s blessing. Luther’s main concern was to preach Christ. He was a man who brought the gospel to the church of his day. He is still a man whose testimony promises to bring a deep spiritual revival to the whole church in our generation, if we are ready to hear from and willing to learn from this mighty man of God.
What does Luther have to say to today’s church?
* We can learn from his deep spiritual experience: “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
– He was declared righteous through faith in Christ (Romans 5:1).
– He was at peace with God through faith in Christ (Romans 5:10.
– He rejoiced in Christ and his salvation (Romans 5:2).
This righteousness, peace and joy cannot be found in religion. It is found in Jesus Christ.
* We can learn from his unyielding commitment to the authority of Scripture as the Word of God and his deep concern that the church should be reformed according to the teaching of God’s Word. Through his study of Scripture, Luther had been gripped by Christ and his gospel. His only concern was to share Christ with his church. In his preaching, teaching and writing, he proclaimed the Word of God, seeking, in everything, to echo the words of the apostle Paul : “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of of God for salvation for every one who has faith” (Romans 1:16).
This was Paul’s testimony in his day. It was Luther’s testimony in his day. It’s to be our testimony in this generation.
Luther’s concern was not with himself, but only with Jesus Christ. Like Paul, Luther had this ambition – “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Luther was not concerned about what people said about him, but he was deeply concerned about what they said about Christ.
To those who slandered him, Luther had this to say, “Whoever will, let him freely slander my person and my life. It is already forgiven him. God has given me a glad and fearless spirit which they shall not embitter for me, I trust, not in all eternity.” (James Atkinson, Prophet to the Catholic Church, p. 7).
When the gospel was at stake, things were entirely different. Luther would not be moved. He was unashamed of the gospel. He proclaimed the Word of God with boldness. Concerning himself, he stressed that he was nothing and that he himself had nothing to offer. He stressed that, if the church is to be reformed, it must be the work of God, and not the work of man. In this respect, Luther echoed the teaching of the apostle Paul who insisted that it is “not I but Christ” (Galatians 2:20). This is how it must always be – “not I but Christ.” If the work of God is to be done in our day, it must be “not I but Christ.”
To really appreciate the power of Luther’s testimony, we need to understand his background, the background against which the grace of God broke, so powerfully, into his life, setting him free from bondage and filling his heart with the joy of God’s salvation. Luther was brought up in an atmosphere of superstition. At the age of 22, he “came to believe that the only way open to him to find the meaning of life and to give himself to God was to become a monk” (James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism, p. 54). After his conversion, Luther would speak critically of the “sham humility” of the monks. He called it “monkey business” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 54). During this period of his earnest seeking for God, Luther spent a month in Rome. This was, for him, “four weeks of steady disillusionment” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 64). He continued to seek for God. He refused “to be satisfied with half-truths.” He refused to be intimidated by the authority of the church. He was seeking for God. He did not find God in the confessional box, but God found him when, as Luther studied the Word of God, the light of God poured into the soul of this earnest seeker for God.
The letters of Romans and Galatians were of great significance in the spiritual experience of Martin Luther. From Easter 1515 to September 1516, he lectured on Romans. From October 1516 to March 1517, he lectured on Galatians. In preparation for these lectures, he studied the Scriptures into the long hours of the night. As he studied the Word of God, he came to see that he was a sinner and that he could not save himself. Only Christ could save him. This is how Luther describes his conversion: “When I realized this I felt myself absolutely born again. The gates of paradise had been flung open and I had entered” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 77). The most important thing we must observe about Luther’s conversion is this: the new birth came about as a result of the Word of God, breaking into his heart and life. This is, also, how it is with us. The new birth happens to us, as we receive the Word of God with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour.
In his lectures on Romans, Luther says this, “The sum total of this epistle is this: it is to tear down, and to pull out, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness as man understands them” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 112). He emphasizes the way in which faith in Christ arises in the heart: “As long as I recognize that I cannot be righteous before God … I then begin to ask for righteousness from him” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 114). Concerning the false teaching regarding salvation by works, Luther points out that “men abused their knowledge of God by attempting to draw nearer to him through their good works” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 159). Concerning the gospel of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Christ, he says this: “In Christ crucified is the true … knowledge of God. ‘No man comes to the Father except through me.’ ‘I am the door’ … ” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 159). Concerning the way of faith in Christ, Luther distinguishes between “two ways of believing. One way is to believe about God … I believe that what is said of God is true … The other way is to believe i God … I not only believe that what is said about him is true, but put my trust in him, surrender myself to him” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 88). Luther emphasizes that “faith is the ‘Yes’ of the heart … I say ‘Yes!’ with the full confidence of my heart” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 89). He helps us to understand what faith is not as well as what faith is. What faith is not – this is what Luther says, “repeating what others have said: I believe that there is a God. I believe that Christ was born, died, rose again for me, But what real faith is, and how powerful a thing it is, of this they know nothing” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 112). here is how Luther describes true faith: “The true faith is the heart’s utter trust in Christ” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 112). This faith is the result of God’s working within us. To have this faith is to be blessed. To be without this faith is to be cursed.
In Luther’s day, this gospel teaching created great controversy. Luther stressed that he had not created the controversy. It was the Word of God. Luther had simply proclaimed the Word of God. He had taken his stand upon the Word of God. Luther said that his books were to be judged by one Book, the Bible, God’s Word. He said that, if he was to be “refuted from the Bible, he would be the first to cast his books into the fire” (Birth of Protestantism, 201). He insisted that he would stand by his teaching unless he was “proved wrong on the basis of Scripture” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 202). Luther was not a stubborn man. He was a man who took his stand upon God’s Word. He could not and would not retract his teaching because he knew that it was the truth of God’s own Word. As Luther proclaimed and defended the gospel message, he was profoundly aware that the Reformation was much larger than Martin Luther as an individual: “When asked to recant, he … argues that his individual retraction would achieve nothing, for the Reformation was a movement much larger than himself and were he to be destroyed the movement would go on and countless others would rise in his place” (Birth of Protestantism, p. 212). It was a matter of great sorrow for Luther to find the gospel being resisted and attacked by religious yet unbelieving men. He took encouragement from the knowledge that this is the way it was with the prophets and the apostles, and this is the way it was with our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Luther was dying, three times he murmured the words of John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This was the foundation of his whole life. He was then asked the question: “Wilt thou stand by Christ and the doctrine thou hast preached?” He answered, “Yes”, and then he passed from this earthly life into the heavenly glory of God’s Kingdom” (Birth of Protestantism, pp. 330-331).
Philip Melanchthon , a younger man than Luther, was also one of the Reformers. When he heard of Luther’s death, he recalled the passing of Elijah from this earthly life. The work of Elijah was to be carried on by Elisha. The work of Luther was to be carried on by others. If, in our generation, we are to carry on the work of the Lord, we, like Luther, must learn, from the Word of God, the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Like Luther and Paul, we must be unashamed of the gospel of Christ, which is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith in Christ.
God is looking for men and women who will allow the gospel to go deep down into their hearts, men and women who will rise to the challenge of bringing Christ and his gospel to a needy world. May God help us to be such men and women.