In Luther’s day the Christian church was a much different deal than it is today. While you and I live in a world in which Christianity is like ice cream, different flavors for different tastes, it was completely different 500 years ago. Catholicism was the only game in town. Plus, church and state were so closely mixed that the church at the time had significant political power in almost every town. Rather than a common understanding that God’s Word was to be upheld as the highest authority, at that time the pope was often given the last word. Not to mention the fact that Pastors in those days did little preaching, and there was almost no Bible study among the people.
Knowledge of the Scriptures was considered something for university professors, so parish pastors were best used for walking the public through mass and hearing personal confession. It’s no wonder the message of God’s work on behalf of the world through Jesus Christ had become frighteningly hidden. With the Scriptures largely unpreached, and the people mostly unaware, the focus shifted off of Jesus and onto us. That is, rather than a message of grace that glorified God’s Son, it became a message of works that put the burden of salvation on God’s people.
As we prepare to celebrate the Reformation perhaps we should consider how well we’ve personally absorbed and how we live out the gospel. Maybe we should take a little time to think about how our faith in Christ continues to impact our existence in this world. Are our efforts to be a decent dad, a patient mom, a good kid or a faithful Christian flowing toward our salvation, as if to secure it, or from our salvation, as a joyful response to it? These are good questions for us to ponder.
For Luther, such questions were essential for ensuring that the Church universal — and we, as the church local — are walking in the freeing light of grace, not under the evil burden of believing that God’s love is contingent on our works. And while some people might argue that such a Jesus-centered, grace-alone view of salvation could lead to lazy and licentious followers of Christ, Luther rightly proclaimed the opposite. In fact, he would later teach that such an understanding was key to what Paul referred to as works that give the greatest glory to Jesus!
In his work on the book of Romans, Luther writes: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all other creatures … without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him his grace.” For Luther, this message was so freeing, so wonderful and so good for the world that if it was being twisted, forgotten or fought against, something simply had to be said, even if that would get him in trouble.
Similarly, just as it was for Luther, sometimes there are moments in life when you just have to speak up. There are certain moments, certain situations where you think, “I know someone might be mad or disagree, but I just have to say something!” May we be a church that welcomes those moments when they arise in others. May we be people who can’t sit still in the face of injustice, error and oversight. Most of all, may the unwavering confidence we have in God’s grace drive us to do good, loving, selfless, joyous, Jesus-glorifying things. Let it free us to serve our neighbors, share our goods and, when necessary, speak our minds. Why? Because sometimes doing so can change the world!