This year there are a great number of events being held to remember the sacrifices made for us in battles of World War I, a war that has contributed much to the nation Australia is now. It is important that we remember those who sacrificed so much, particularly in the two world wars of the 20th century, for our today. However, there have been other ’spiritual’ battles fought in human history which have not just contributed to our present wellbeing but which have eternal consequences. Society generally ignores them but we do well to remember those who fought them for us. I think of the 4th century Egyptian bishop Athanasius without whom we would all be de-facto Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the 16th century English martyrs without whom we would not have an evangelical faith at . We should not take for granted the battles fought for our faith by such people to whom we owe so much. Another such figure is Martin Luther, the significance of whom was not just for the 16th century church of his time but for European, and therefore Australian history, and most certainly for the type of evangelical church we are part of today.
Luther was brought up a God-fearing man, in the full sense of the word, he was afraid of God. He was literally frightened into a becoming a Catholic monk. However, despite training for the priesthood, and becoming a theologian who taught theology to candidates for the ministry of the church, he remained terrified of God. Luther was terrified because he quite rightly understood, as many don’t, that despite hours of confessing sin, asking for forgiveness, no matter how many good works he did, he could never be acceptable to God by his own efforts, and he knew that he was under God’s judgement.
The church at the time largely taught that a person had to earn a relationship with God by what they did through practices that ‘earned’ merit with God. This type of false teaching has occurred in various places at various times and tragically still controls the thinking of many church members. Such practices included going often to Mass (Lord’s Supper/Communion), participating in the ‘sacrament’ of confession, by doing penance (things ordered by the priest to be done as acts of repentance). Also, sins could be removed by accessing the ‘Treasury of Merit’. This treasury was available in heaven because of the good works of Christ and the Apostles, and this ‘merit’ could be earned in order to remove some of the sins of the sinner. This in part led to the practice of ‘Indulgences’, whereby (for a monetary fee) the Pope could allegedly remove a certain number of sins from the person’s record, or reduce the time needed to be spent in Purgatory (the alleged place to work off our sins).
Luther eventually understood (and recovered for us) the doctrine of ‘Grace’. This doctrine is that our sins are removed not by anything we do but by what Christ has already done for us on the Cross, once and for all (1 Peter 3:18). This means that God declares us righteous (sinless in God’s sight) when the effect of Christ’s Crucifixion is applied to us; and that it is by Grace alone (God’s free unmerited gift) that we are saved.
It is as Luther started to come to understand that God is not just a God of judgement but also of Grace, that he began to challenge the accepted church teaching. This brought him into serious conflict with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church of the time. Something that those who fight for the truth of the gospel of Christ always face. Other examples being John Bunyan and John Wesley.
The practices of Penance and Indulgences are not much in evidence these days, but sadly however other (equally wrong) ways have been substituted for actually establishing a relationship with God. These include being a good moral person, doing good and charitable work, being a ‘respectable’ member of the community, being a regular church-goer etc. These all may be good things in themselves but we need to realise what Luther recovered for us, that no one can ever be good enough – we all fail God’s standard (Matthew 5:48 and Romans 3:23). It is only as we receive the ‘Free Gift of Eternal Life’ (Romans 6:23) which cannot be earned by us, that we are acceptable to God. Have you made this discovery yet?
It is distressing today, and far too common, to meet church members who still do not understand the central truth of salvation rediscovered and taught by Martin Luther 500 years ago and which has been fought for by significant Christians for 2000 years. The truth is that it is by confessing our failure to live God’s way (sin), putting our trust (faith) in and surrendering our life to Jesus, and asking God for forgiveness that we receive eternal life as a totally free gift that has nothing to do with how we have lived!
Let’s give thanks for those who have fought the battles of eternity for us, indeed it should be that ”We will remember them”. Let us also make sure that we have responded appropriately to the eternal truth of salvation by Grace that Luther fought for.