The monk who changed the world
On October 31, 2017 people around the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the day when a monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of his church in the little town of Wittenberg in what is now Germany. His message, though tacked to a door, went viral! It made its way around the European world and beyond. But why? Why has this moment become the symbolic beginning of a revolution and reformation that shook Europe and continues to be felt around the world today? Because Luther was posing a question, a vital question, perhaps the most important question of all: “How can I be right with God?”
We may not all ask this question in this way, but maybe you’ve wondered, “Am I a good person?” or “Have I lived a good life?” Most of us want to live lives that are happy and healthy, successful and significant. Martin Luther also wanted to know how to live well and that started with being right with God. The answer he found in the Bible is different from what most people and even many Christians believe. Upon finding it he felt, he said, as if he had “entered paradise itself through open gates.” What he found in Romans 1:17 has opened the door in my own life to great joy, deep security, and an increasing sense of mission and purpose.
The day I whispered in class
What does it mean to be right with God? We might think of what it looks like to be right with other people, like our parents, our employer, or our soccer team. I remember a day in school when we were learning new vocabulary words. As the teacher worked with a group of kids from the class to sound out the word, “himself,” I whispered it to them. The teacher heard me and, in that moment, I was no longer in right standing with her! Luther knew his sins created alienation with God far greater than my whispers with my teacher. What could he do to be right with God?
Let’s all swim to England!
We might be ready to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, but why can’t we simply resolve to do better and be accepted by God for our good intentions and for the good we do? Because, difficult as this is to swallow, God’s standards are like His character, flawless and perfect. Try as we might, we can’t attain to His perfection any more than we might all jump in the ocean and swim to England. Luther understood that he could never confess enough to get to the bottom of his sins or be good enough to make himself right with God.
The gift that keeps on giving
The good news that Luther rediscovered is this: you can’t make yourself right with God, but you can receive it as a gift. Romans 1:17 showed him that the righteous shall live by faith. He came to understand that he couldn’t become righteous by his achievements, and then live by faith, but that he became righteous by faith and then lived by faith. He explained that we simply extend an open hand and receive God’s gift of righteousness through faith in the perfect, righteous work Jesus did on our behalf at the cross where he offered up his righteous life to pay for our unrighteous sins.
This exchange, which the Bible calls justification, is the most amazing gift ever. For me, it roots my identity outside of my achievements, my possessions, or my appearance, and anchors it in Jesus Christ. It gives me hope for change, since God has already changed my status, making me right with Him relationally, now He is at working making me like Him in my desires, thoughts, and actions. It motivates me to reach out to others with this good news that they, too, can be brought into a right relationship with God not through their achievements, but through faith in Christ. May Luther’s discovery, and joy, be yours, too.