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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A third world

As I said in my last post, Luther straddled two worlds all his life -- first, the world of the lower-class Germans who worked hard and lived in a mix of superstition and Roman Catholic religion that, at the time, was little better, dominated by saints and sacraments and little biblical spirituality. Second, Luther was clawing his way into the world of the university, the world of the educated middle class, the world of the thinkers and the shapers. All his life Luther lived in these two worlds.

But uniquely, Martin Luther shaped a third world. It started like this: Luther was sent to teach Bible at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, what is now eastern Germany. Teaching Bible in those days was not a prestigious post. Philosophy and many other disciplines were much more desirable, professionally speaking. Luther's mentor, Johann von Staupitz, ordered Luther to take up the post because Luther struggled mightily with his conscience, and Staupitz wanted him to know the love of God, the grace of God, in Jesus.

It worked. Shortly after Luther came to Wittenberg, around 1515 or so, he was preparing to lecture through the New Testament book of Romans. As he prepared for these lectures, Martin struggled and struggled with the phrase, "the righteousness of God." He read this phrase throughout the book of Romans and he could not make sense of why Paul seemed so thrilled about God's righteousness. To Martin, the righteousness of God meant that God was holy and righteous, and therefore had every right to smite sinners. Luther knew he was a sinner and so he lived in fear of the righteousness of God rather than love or gratitude.

Then one day as Luther was working through Romans chapter 1, he read verses 16 & 17, where Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and then for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" Luther pondered these words.

Later he said it was like the windows opened up and the sun came out and a fresh breeze blew into the room of the tower where he sat studying. In a flash he realized that it was not simply God's own righteousness that was being described here, but that the good news of the gospel is that God gives righteousness to those who believe, those who have faith, those who trust in him. It is this free gift of righteousness, given to the believer because of what Jesus did at the cross, that makes up the very heart of the gospel.

This moment is the heart of the Protestant Reformation. I know we generally mark the anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the University Church. However, Luther would never have written these 95 Theses -- could never have imagined them -- without this critical realization of what the gospel itself means. It is fascinating to read Luther's commentary on Romans, written while he prepared these lectures. In it you can see the implications of this realization beginning to work their way through his mind. In 1515 Luther's thinking was still very much in sync with the Roman Catholic Church, and he is only just beginning to start to think through how radical this new thought might be.

As he moves forward from this realization about the "righteousness of God," Luther becomes more and more radicalized. He moves more and more away from the self-reinforcing bureaucracy that had come to dominate the church of Rome at that time and begins to reimagine what a church based on the gospel might look like. To start with, you see him just starting to question some of the practices around him, especially in the Church to begin with. That was not unusual in those days; many people were calling for reform in various areas.

The reason Luther stands out from the crowd is that he became utterly committed to the truth that God saves us, not through a bureaucracy, but through his own work declaring us righteous. The church is not the agent of salvation but rather the result of it. So the church itself needs to be subject to scripture.

When Luther posted the 95 Theses on the church door, he was simply calling for a discussion about reform. But when the bureaucrats started to push back, Luther wouldn't back down like most people did. As his thinking and his writings grew, he called more and more clearly for a truly gospel-centered church, a church that lived out the plain words of the Bible in a simple, Jesus-centered way.

This is the third world that Luther helped create -- a word where the common person could read and interpret the Bible and hold the Church and her hierarchy accountable.   In the next post I'll show you a glimpse of yet a fourth world that Luther did not try to create, but certainly pointed toward.

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