For those who are tired of “trying to be good enough” – a brief lesson from history…
In 1522, Martin Luther used the title phrase, above, to help his fellow Germans understand the following biblical axiom: there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more; and there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less. Luther, using a little shock-value-phrasing, was saying it is not our sin (our bad habits, vices, slip-up’s, etc.) that keeps us from eternity with God (clearly, all Christians continue to sin after professing our faith). But, rather, it is one’s refusal to put one’s faith in Christ Jesus – and His work, alone, on the cross – that condemns one to eternal separation from God.
Living in a religious context that had, for 1000 years, taught just the opposite, Luther’s readers clearly needed to be shocked into biblical truth. For, in Luther’s day, the clergy taught that salvation was not free, but had to be earned. And since almost everyone, outside of clergy and royalty, was uneducated and unable to read Latin (the language in which the Bible of that day was used), everyone was forced to “take the preacher’s word for it.” As a result, religious corruption was widespread.
Not surprisingly, even Luther grew up believing the heresy that “salvation must be earned.” But, being highly educated (which included learning to read Latin) he was in a position to study what the Bible actually said. In doing so, he simply could not reconcile the “salvation by works” doctrine of his day with Paul’s words to the Romans: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:17)
Is it possible, Luther thought, that we can be 100% righteous in the sight of Almighty God….by faith alone? In Christ alone?? Perish the thought! But,…that’s exactly what the Bible teaches. And it shook Luther to his very core.
The story of the Protestant Reformation is fascinating, filled with intrigue, suspense, outlaws, murder, scandal and the like. It is quite sobering to read of the many who were tortured and burned alive at the stake for the sole purpose of purporting what the Bible teaches: that peace with God is a gift from God, alone – through faith in Christ, alone; and, being a gift, it cannot be earned, but must be received by faith.
The corrupt religious establishment had a good thing going. Common people had no idea what the Bible said so the clergy could dupe them into believing whatever the clergy wanted the Bible to say in order to further their own personal agendas – all at the expense of the common people. So, it makes sense why those like Luther – those trying to give the people a Bible they could, both, read and understand – were threatened with imprisonment, torture and death.
For example, Luther is famous for his courageous response to the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1521, after being brought to trial, ordered to “repent”, and to recant his “salvation by faith alone” doctrine, Luther, standing alone before the Emperor and, facing the threat of imprisonment or death, proclaimed his famous words, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything,… Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.”
If the spark of the Reformation began in Luther’s time, it was a raging inferno by the time John Bunyan was born. Some eighty years after Luther’s death, the Englishman, Bunyan, having been raised in the same oppressive religious culture as Luther, was, himself, trying to sort out the very theological dilemma (salvation by works vs. salvation by faith) that led Luther, and many others, to take their stand against the Roman papacy. Bunyan would later write, “[I was constantly in fear that I was not living good enough. God’s] sentence [of judgment] fell upon my soul… Then, I saw with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, is my Righteousness…I also saw that it was [nothing i did] that made my righteousness better; and [nothing i did] that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness (my right standing with God) was Jesus Christ, Himself! The same yesterday, today, and forever!”
Of note is that, like Luther and so many others before him, Bunyan soon found himself arrested and imprisoned. But, the gospel cannot be chained. And, while in prison, Bunyan penned his literary classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. Next to the Bible, no other book has been more widely read.
Richard Sibbes, who died not long after Bunyan was born – and whose sermons were instrumental in Richard Baxter coming to faith in Christ – was yet another of the many who continued to carry the torch of this biblical truth to the masses: salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone. Explaining that biblical Christianity cannot be reduced to a legalistic system of “do’s & don’ts”, he wrote that a believer’s first task should simply be “to warm ourselves at this fire of His love and mercy in giving Himself for us.” Scholar/author, Michael Reeves, agrees: “The solution to sin is not to attempt to live without sin, but [to embrace] the gospel of God’s free grace.” God will take care of our sinful habits as we learn to love Him, and His Word.
I share this window into history today because I see many (including myself at times) who still are under the impression that we can somehow “live our lives” into better standing with God. This, according to the Bible, is simply not true. Moreover, it’s a clever strategy by the enemy leading one into a most ugly state of bondage called “legalism.”
When I look at myself in the mirror each morning I see, in the words of Lloyd Christmas (Dumb & Dumber), “one pathetic loser.” :)) But, then I think about the very words that brought light – and liberation – to Luther’s conflicted mind. As a result, I am able to look into the face of the Accuser (satan) and, with the saints who’ve gone before me, proclaim, “I may be a mess; but, in Christ, I am a perfect mess. 100% righteous. 100% holy.”
“Be a sinner, and sin boldly,” Luther wrote. “But,” Luther continued, “believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For He is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [on planet earth] we have to sin… But, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. [Christ is the Lamb of God who] takes away [every] sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb!…”
Displayed in the image at the top of this post is the passage from Romans that drove Martin Luther to challenge the most powerful people of his time.
By grace alone. Through faith alone. In Christ alone.
Jesus loves you so much. He is enough. Lay aside your best efforts at “being good enough”, rest in the finished work of Christ, and “warm yourself at the fire of His love.”
Soli Deo Gloria, Nick