Luther wasn’t right to hate God, but He was right to fear God’s wrath. If you’re not in Christ, then you’re under God’s wrath, and God’s wrath is a terrible thing. To fall into the hands of the living God is a dreadful thing, Hebrews says. Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead. The earth swallowed up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The Red Sea smashed Pharaoh’s army. Snakes killed thousands of Israelites in the desert. That’s just earthly punishment.
Remember Jesus’ words: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Luther feared and hated this God. He feared hell, but as he recalled in 1545, he hated the God who didn’t just damn us to hell because of the guilt we inherited from our parents, but continues to damn us and vex us and pain us by threats of his righteousness and wrath, even in the gospels! “Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience,” he said.
What troubled Luther was that he saw only God the Judge, God the consuming fire, God the Righteous, God who demanded what we could not produce: righteousness, holiness, perfection.
This troubled Luther for years. He entered the monastery with this anxiety. He studied the Scriptures as a doctoral candidate and then theology professor and saw a God who, on the one hand sent Jesus to die for sins, but at the same time demanded more. As one Luther scholar put it, for Luther God’s saving work in Christ was an insignificant beginning to the work of our salvation. We have to finish progressing toward the perfection, holiness, and righteousness God demands.
To do this, people ran after merit with God. They fasted. They prayed rosaries. They entered monasteries. They said Masses. They paid priests to say Masses for them and for the souls of those already dead. Those with money paid for Masses to be said after they died. The pope sold indulgences to remit the earthly guilt of sins, and indulgence preachers said, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul to heaven springs!” The pope created purgatory as a holding pen for souls not bad enough for hell, but not good enough for heaven. He threatened souls with millions of years of punishments, but offered them ways to earn time off. People kissed relics for time out of purgatory and pilgrimaged to holy places. They prayed to Mary and Francis and George and Anne and Dominic and any number of saints to plead on their behalf to God. All things Luther did too. All useless.
Paul told the Romans, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” The more you do, the guiltier you feel. You work and work and work, and only see how much work is left. You sin. You fall short. You keep sinning. You keep falling short. Luther agonized over his backlog of prayer and Scripture reading, so he tried to catch up on weekends. He beat his body. He ruined his health, to get right with an angry God. And he hated God more. None of it justified him with God. It made him more aware of his sins.
No matter how good Luther got, no matter how good you get, it’s not enough. There’s always someone more faithful than you, more saintlike than you, more reliable than you. And beyond them stands God, the Holy One. The God who says, “Be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.”
How foolish to trust in masses, in prayers, in indulgences, in pilgrimages, in relics. How foolish to trust in anything you do. The Old Testament should have taught you this. God said, “I want your hearts circumcised more than your bodies!” God rebuked them for the self-righteous way in which they observed the Sabbath and fasting, all the while sinning abundantly the rest of the week. “You honor me with your lips,” Jesus said, quoting Isaiah, “but your hearts are far from me.” And then, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
As Paul said, we’re no different. “There’s no difference, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We invent our own ways of salvation. We rely on works and deeds. It’s the ever-so-humble sounding phrase, “I sure hope God lets me into heaven,” or the piously spoken comfort, “She was such a good person.” The Law accuses us and declares us unfit to do anything but shut up in the presence of God. The Law, deeds, works say nothing can be said to defend anything I’ve ever said or done. The Law says you can go to bed only with a troubled conscience.
Then Paul says, “But now.” Two tiny words. Six letters in both Greek and English. But they do for us what they did for Luther: they open the gates of Paradise. The Law damned us, not because the Law was unjust, unfair, unrighteous, or unholy, but because it revealed us to be so. It revealed the problem that required God Himself to come out onto the stage.
“But now, a righteousness from God, apart from the law has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” God gives what God demands. For years God seemed to be disregarding sin. It appeared that God had forgiven sin, because He appeared to leave so much of it unpunished. But this is not so. Death proves that God hated sin and continued to punish it. But with one death God proved just how righteous He is: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
“But now,” but now God turns our eyes away from ourselves and our self-appointed deeds, from our attempts to please Him by what we do and turns our eyes to Christ, to the wounds of Christ, to the life of Christ. Apart from the law. Justified freely. By his grace. By faith. Apart from works of the law. Paul says it over and over again so that we can’t miss it: God disregarded sins once – and still does – in Christ!
God the Father spent decades and centuries and millennia holding in abeyance that word of death spoken in Genesis 2, “The moment you eat of it, you will surely die,” not because He feared his own “or else,” but out of His great love for us. He disregarded the full punishment for sin for a time so that at the proper time, in the proper way, He could do what needed to be done: “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” As others have said, our forgiveness was free, but not cheap. It cost Christ His life. The just God did damn all sin, condemn all sin, pour out all His righteous anger: except He did it upon Christ and not me, not you. He sacrificed His Son, just as Isaiah said, “The LORD laid upon Him the iniquity of us all….It was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer.” Instead of me. Paul describes God’s blessed exchange: the righteous for the unrighteous, Jesus becoming my sin, and I, His righteousness.
But only by faith. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” “The one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” “A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
This is the big leap. It’s easy to trust in masses, pilgrimages, relics, prayers, rosaries, and indulgences. It’s easy to trust in something you can do, you can count, you can quantify. But to hear God say, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember your sin no more”? Oh, this is hard. I can barely forgive, let alone forget. And yet there stands before me the wounds of Christ, the sacrifice of atonement making me at one with God.
As Luther agonized over God’s wrath, the Lord sent angels to point him to faith in Christ. Another friar in the monastery told Luther to “hope in God.” He encouraged him to have faith in the absolution of sin spoken by priests in the confessional and liturgy. This same man pointed Luther to the Creed, where we confess, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I must believe, because I don’t always see it, especially as I still suffer. Finally, this same friar quoted to Luther the words of Bernard of Clairveaux, “But add to this that you also believe this: that through [Christ] your sins are forgiven you.” In the recently released Luther movie we see monk Luther cower in fear, terror, and anger in the corner of his cell. His dear friend, John Staupitz, points him to Christ on the cross, to the wounds of Christ, to the forgiveness dripping from his head, hands, feet, and side, and quotes Psalm 119, “Save me, for I am yours!”
Thus speaks faith. Apart from those words you have nothing and are nothing. You stand under God’s wrath still. But in those words you stand in Christ. God gave Christ to you and for you. Christ is God’s righteousness who gave Himself, the righteous one for the unrighteous ones, for us, once for all, to bring us to God.
Our boasting then, on this Reformation, isn’t in ourselves, in our faithfulness, in our Lutheranness. We boast in Christ, the wisdom, the riches, the righteousness, the holiness of God. In Christ God reckons us not guilty, because He was guilty for us. In Christ, God counts our sins against Jesus. In Christ, God disregards our sin once and for all. As Psalm 32 says, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.”
By faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit says that’s you. By faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit makes you that man. Faith comes from hearing the message. Baptism clothes you in Christ. His Supper marks you with those words that saved Luther and started the Reformation: “for you,” “for your forgiveness.” May that Reformation never end! Amen.