As a young monk, Martin Luther hated God. “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God,” he wrote. Like countless others who doubted whether they had made themselves worthy of heaven, Luther shook with fear at the thought of how God might judge him. Until, of course, he began to understand that the gospel is not a message of fear and judgment, but of good news and great joy.
It was as if his whole world had flipped inside out. God, he saw, is not asking us to earn his love and acceptance in any way. God’s righteousness is something he shares with us as a gift. Acceptance before God, forgiveness, and peace with him can be received with simple faith or trust.
“Here,” said Luther ecstatically, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Luther had joined a monastery to do good works for God. But he came to see it is not God in heaven who needs our good works. It is people on earth. Luther therefore encouraged Christians, instead of retreating to monasteries, to go out into the world. Having been loved first by God, they could go out to love and serve others.
Through the Reformation, a tidal wave of social and cultural improvement was unleashed.
Bach: Composer of Joy
Take Johann Sebastian Bach, an ardent Lutheran all the way down to his tapping toes. When satisfied with his musical compositions, Bach would write on them “S. D. G.” for Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Alone”). For through his music he wanted to sound out the beauty and glory of God, so pleasing both God and people.
The glory of God, he believed, gratuitously rings out through sunsets, stars, mountain peaks and music, bringing joy wherever it is appreciated. And the enjoyment of those things can give people a taste of how enjoyable their Creator is.
God, Bach saw, is to be enjoyed. In fact, the deepest and most satisfying happiness can only be found in knowing God.
The Abolitionists: Crusaders for Mercy
Consider also those 18th- and 19th-century heirs of the Reformation who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. Perhaps best known are William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian, and John Newton, the ex-slave-trader and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” “God Almighty,” wrote Wilberforce, “has placed before me two great Objects, the Suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [i.e., morals].”
Wilberforce was strongly encouraged in his work against slavery by John Wesley, the evangelist and founder of Methodism, who wrote his last letter to urge Wilberforce on.
“Slave-holding is utterly inconsistent with Mercy,” argued Wesley. It is the exact opposite of the liberating kindness of God which had been trumpeted in the Reformation. Wesley therefore fought and prayed for the emancipation of both African bodies and souls:
O burst thou all their chains in sunder, more especially the chains of their sins; Thou Saviour of all, make them free, that they may be free indeed.
And his prayer was answered: the success of the abolitionists over slavery went hand in hand with a dramatic growth in black Christianity.
Shaftesbury: The Great Philanthropist
When William Wilberforce died in 1833, his funeral was attended by another heir of the Reformation, Anthony Ashley Cooper. Later titled Lord Shaftesbury, he would become known as “the great philanthropist.”
Trusting himself to God after reading the same book that had converted Wilberforce to Christianity, he had resolved “with the help of God” to devote his life “to pleading the cause of the poor and friendless.”
Which he then did with unstinting energy for over fifty years. Through Parliament, he fought the sale of girls into prostitution, outlawed employing young boys as chimney sweeps, established working hours to end the cruel abuse of poor manual workers, and transformed the previously disgusting conditions of London madhouses. He provided education, food, and housing for the poor — and the list could go on for pages.
Having experienced the loving compassion of Christ himself, he wanted to share it. After all, he said, “these social reforms, so necessary, so indispensable, seem to require as much of God’s grace as a change of heart.”
No man, depend on it, can persist from the beginning of his life to the end of it in a course of self-denial, in a course of generosity, in a course of virtue . . . unless he is drawing from the fountain of our Lord Himself.
For us today, the Reformation still has sparkling good news — news of an enjoyable and satisfying God. A God who lavishes his love on those who have not made themselves attractive to him. A God whose love can liberate the most broken and guilty.
What Martin Luther discovered in the Bible pulled him out of despair and made him feel he had “entered paradise itself through open gates.” Nothing about that message has changed — or lost its power to brighten lives today.