This past Sunday at Living Shepherd we focused our attention on the Lutheran Reformation. We heard Martin Luther express in his own words how time spent in God’s Word changed him.
Here’s an example. Martin Luther had always been taught that the righteousness of God referred to those aspects of God that prove he is righteous or simply “right.” So, if God says to human beings, “Be holy as I the Lord your God am holy,” (Lev 19:2) and also clarifies that the “soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20) and then also further clarifies what he means by that in Mark chapter 9 when Jesus says that sinners will be “be thrown into hell, where “‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”—If God himself says these things, then when he carries them out, he proves that he is right or righteous.
As a young man, monk and then priest in the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther was well aware of God’s command to be holy—just as he was well aware that God threatens every sinner with death and hell. These truths sharpened Martin’s conscience so much and increased the guilt he felt over his own failures so much, that he actually began to detest the concept of God’s righteousness. And for good reason right!? For so long, to Martin Luther the concept of God’s righteousness spoke to him one message and one message alone. “Martin, God would be right to send you to hell.”
And God would be right in sending Martin Luther to hell—just as he would be right in sending you and me to hell. Not one of us is holy. Not one of us is perfect as God demands. These things are true. We call them God’s Law. God’s Law is all the portions of scripture that clearly point out God’s demand for us to be a certain way—that then clearly point out we aren’t that way—that then show us we deserve hell for our failures. Martin Luther knew God’s Law. He was well aware of his failures and the knowledge of his failures and the fate he deserved brought him nothing but anguish and despair.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever looked at your failures and felt nothing but anguish and despair? Maybe you made a plan. Maybe you made a plan that was going to improve your life. You were going to get up every morning one hour earlier. Why? So you’d have more TIME! Maybe it was supposed to be extra time so you could work out, or clean the house, or get some extra office work done. Whatever the case may be, this plan, was going to change your life for the better. But then you got three days in and you didn’t get up on time. You tried harder on day four and got up, but then on day 5 you failed again. By week two you had all but given up. Your failures were very clear to you. You felt bad about it. And that was a failure to obey your OWN laws. Then you go to church on Sunday and you hear about God’s laws. You hear God say you should never let anything become more important than him in your life. And you hang your head in shame as you realize your “plan” for a better life had become way more important to you than God. You’re reminded of all those other laws too. Laws that point us to the way we are to treat our neighbors. We are to love them more than ourselves. That means we won’t hate, lust, steal, lie or covet. And we hang our heads in shame again, as we think about all the times we’ve hated, lusted, stolen, lied and coveted—most of which had occurred within the last 24 hours.
I’m guessing you can relate to how a younger Martin Luther often felt. The problem was this. Martin Luther knew only one of God’s messages in the Scriptures—the Law. And his knowledge of God’s Law shaped the way he read the rest of God’s Word. So much so that certain portions made no sense to him. Romans 1:16, 17 is a great example. In them the Apostle Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.””
Martin Luther knew the word “gospel” means “good news.” And so Martin Luther also knew the Apostle Paul wrote that he was not ashamed of this “good news” because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. The problem for Martin Luther came in when Paul gives his reason as to why this gospel is “for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Here’s his answer. “For in the gospel a righteousness FROM God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: (in the Old Testament) “The righteous will live by faith.”
For so long, Martin Luther had no idea what that passage meant because he only understood the “righteousness of God” in one way—that which proves God is righteous! The verdict of death and hell for every sinner! And of course that is not a “good news message!”
And so Luther dug and dug into the rest of scripture. As he did he came across Psalms like the one we’re focusing on today. Old Testament sections of God’s Word that lead him to see that the reason he didn’t understand passages like Romans 1:16 and 17 was because he didn’t understand what the gospel is!
Take a look at Psalm 31:1-5—one of the Psalms that helped Luther finally understand the Gospel.
“In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. Free me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth.”
That’s King David speaking. And what does he say? “LORD! Rescue me! Redeem me! Rescue me from the punishment I deserve on account of my failures! Redeem me! Ransom me! Purchase me! Make me your own! These are not the pleas of a man relying on himself in any way. In fact these are the pleas of a man who knows he CAN’T rely on himself in any way. A man who relies on the LORD his saving God, and on the LORD alone, because he knows the LORD God IS his rock and refuge! This is ALSO proof of God’s righteousness! Yes, God IS proved righteous when he condemns the sinner to death and hell because he had clearly stated that is what the sinner deserves. But God had also clearly stated that he doesn’t want to carry that verdict out! He had also clearly stated his promise to save all people from that sin! And so by saving all people from their sin God would also prove his righteousness!
King David knew his sin. He also knew his righteous God had promised to save him from that sin. And so for King David, while the threat of death and hell for sinners like him remained true, his God’s promise to send a Savior reigned supreme in his heart. Nothing—no amount of sin or guilt could trump his God’s promise to save.
Finally, God lead Martin Luther to see the faith that sustained Old Testament believers like Abraham and King David. Ultimately, it was this beautiful, simple trust that God had the power to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:21)
As he studied the rest of Scripture, God lead Martin Luther to see—not something new—but something that had been there all along. The GOSPEL! The Gospel is the beautiful truth that God promised to save ALL people from their sin—a promise that Old Testament believers relied on completely! The Gospel is the equally beautiful truth that God kept his promise to save all people from their sin when he sent Jesus.
Jesus came to be the righteous rescuer and redeemer that King David was praying for. Right before Jesus died he uttered the Greek word tetelesthai–which is often translated “It is finished,” but literally means “paid in full.” The punishment Jesus endured on that cross did redeem all people. His righteous, innocent blood was the ransom price for all people and Jesus paid it. Jesus rescued all people from their sin when he finally gave up his spirit and died. As God himself tells us “the wages of sin is death.” Jesus was righteous—perfect. But God placed the sins of the world on him—and so he died. But that’s not where the story ends! Jesus rose from the dead. You see, ultimately the death Jesus experienced was punishment for the world’s sin. But, the fact that Jesus came back to life proves those sins are gone forever! Jesus’ resurrection proves you are forgiven!
By the grace of God and through time spent in His Word, Martin Luther came to know these truths which had always been there. The God Abraham relied on—the God King David relied on—the God Martin Luther came to rely on—is the God you and I rely on. 100%. There is nothing left for us to do. Thanks to Jesus we are rescued! Thanks to Jesus we are redeemed! Thanks to Jesus we are righteous! This gift is ours through faith (See Romans chapter 4. Specifically verses 23-25). Through faith in Jesus, we stand before God as holy and righteous, just as God demands!
And so while we do thank our God for men like Martin Luther who taught and preached the truth of God’s Word, what we’re really thanking him for is the truth of his Word—the beauty of his Gospel that's always been there!! What a blessing to know it. What a privilege to faithfully share it!
Blessings on your weekend!