We have been speaking a lot about the Reformation and people like Martin Luther over the last couple of weeks. And rightly so, because this year marks 500 years since that famous moment Luther nailed his 95 theses (the theses challenged the then catholic theology and set the reformation into motion). I have had the privilege of studying Reformation history at Bible College during this semester as well! And one of the beautiful things I’ve enjoyed about Martin Luther is his concern for Christian liberty or freedom.
You see, the people in that day lived during a time of great anxiety. It was a time of crisis. There were agricultural failures and food shortages, the infamous ‘plague’ was spreading and people found themselves in very uncertain times. They became fearful and pessimistic! In fact, nearing the end of the 1400’s (Martin Luther nailed his theses in 1517) a poet named Jean Meschinot said this:
‘O miserable and very sad life! … We suffer from warfare, death and famine; Cold and heat, day and night, sap our strength; Fleas, scabmites and so much other vermin make war upon us. In short, have mercy, Lord, upon our wicked persons, whose life is very short.’
The people began to interpret their hardships as the judgement of God. And instead of helping people understand these times Biblically and pointing them to the unconditional love and acceptance of Jesus through the gospel, the church unfortunately added to people’s angst. The central problem of the then church’s beliefs can be summarised by the following phrase, ‘do what lies within you’ or ‘do your very best’. This belief simply served to pile more anxiety on the people’s shoulders. Why? Well this theology promoted striving. If believers really did their ‘very best’ then God would give them a bit more grace each time to do better. The problem was that they never knew if they had done enough! In a time of crisis, they were thrown back on their own resources, and had to use their own moral muscles to make themselves acceptable in God’s sight. This was soul-crushing for the more sensitive among them.
Martin Luther, in fact, was one of these more sensitive Christians. He never knew if he had done enough. Luther went to great lengths to ‘do his very best’ for God and this is what he said about his time as a monk: ‘I almost fasted myself to death, for again and again I went for three days without taking a drop of water or a morsel of food. I was very serious about it’. His anxiety led him on a quest for God’s favour until he came to realise the liberating biblical truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Martin Luther, through his study of the Bible, was liberated from a burdensome system of good works. And he began to liberate the common Christian by removing the unnecessary and unbiblical religious burdens from their shoulders.
Not only did Martin teach that Christians could be made right with God by putting their faith in Jesus alone (Romans 5:1). He sought to give liberty to Christians on all issues that the Bible had not spoken on, or indeed, anything that was plainly unbiblical. He helped free the common pastor from having to live a life of abstinence. In other words, he insisted that it was more than OK for them to get married, it was good (Genesis 2:18)! He insisted that people did not have to buy indulgences to secure merit with God – they had everything they needed in Jesus (Ephesians 2:8). People did not need ‘saints’ (the ‘super-Christians’ of the past) to intercede for them, Jesus was their ever-present intercessor (Hebrews 7:23-25).
These are the kinds of things I love about Martin. He fought to liberate the common Christian from a burdensome religious system. The gospel frees and liberates us from the weight of ‘performance’, from having to do our very best in order to get into God’s good books. The gospel points us to Jesus – the one who said, ‘it is finished’ (John 19:30)! We can lay our burdens at his feet and receive his peace because he dealt with our ultimate burdens at the cross – he defeated sin and death! He has set us free to live a life that doesn’t lack good works, but a life that does them out of a heart that worships God for his great grace towards us. Praise God for his immeasurable love!
Be at peace church,
P.S. Do you want to learn more about Martin Luther and the Reformation? We will be playing a newly made and highly-acclaimed documentary on the screens at church on Wednesday night the 13th of September. Here is what the makers have to say about it: Discover the story behind the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation. Told through a seamless combination of live-action storytelling and artistic animation, Martin Luther's daring life is presented in extensive detail while still making the film relevant, provocative, and accessible. Book the 13th into your diaries.