Biography on Martin Luther

Bethlehem 2017 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders | Minneapolis

This year marks the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation, 1517 to 2017. My question is, what exactly are we celebrating? Just that we’re Protestants? What are we celebrating? You could say, “Well, we’re celebrating the recovery of the gospel.” Well, what specifically about the gospel was recovered? Or what specifically is at the heart of the Reformation that we’re celebrating? One obvious place to start would be the Five Solas. People talk about Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, and for the glory of God alone.

The Heart of the Reformation

I can still remember a talk that I listened to on a cassette in my car. Remember those, cassettes? It was in the year 2000, and it was from a pastor’s conference message back in 1999. James Montgomery Boice was speaking about the Five Solas. And he taught me that it wasn’t about two sets of opposites. It wasn’t that Protestants believed in Scripture and Catholics didn’t. It wasn’t that Protestants believed in Christ and Catholics didn’t, and so forth and so on. He said the Roman Catholics believe in Scripture, believe in Christ, and believe in grace. They even stress those things a lot, but never alone. That was the issue — alone.

So you had Scripture that the Catholics could stress, but it was Scripture plus tradition, plus the councils and the word of the popes. It was not Christ alone, it was Christ plus the merits of the saints added to the merits of Christ. It was not faith alone or grace alone, it was faith plus good works, and so forth and so on.

I want to say the Five Solas are not the heart of the Reformation, they’re like the body of the Reformation. There’s a beating heart that’s at the center of it. You could ask, “Well, what about justification by faith?” Clearly, that was recovered. Wasn’t that the doctrine that became like an open gate to paradise for Luther? Yes, certainly. Luther is perhaps best known for his recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith, a right understanding of the righteousness of God. But I think there’s something more central, and dare I say it, more beautiful than that. So I want to go specifically to a time and place, and in particular, a thesis.

The Heidelberg Disputation

This is from April 1518. This is what gets my vote for the theological heart and soul of the Reformation. The event has come to be known in the annals of history as the Heidelberg Disputation. Augustinian monks gathered together in the city of Heidelberg, talking about these Reformation theses. I want to go right to thesis 28. There are 40 of them. The first 28 are all theological. The last 12 are philosophical. So this is the capstone of the theological theses that Luther offers. Here it is, here’s the sentence:

The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

Do you hear what he’s saying? I believe this is the most beautiful thing Luther ever wrote. Luther loved contrasts. You have a contrast here between God’s love and human love. Human love is a reaction of attraction. You start with loveliness and then love comes in response. You look around and you see something beautiful, and then love comes — loveliness then love.

Divine love is exactly the opposite. It is love first. God isn’t, like in Roman Catholic theology as Luther said, looking around the mass of humanity to try to find the morally beautiful, and then he sets his love on them. It’s love first. He sets his love on the morally ugly, the ungodly, and then they’re loved. They’re loved because they’re loved, and then as a miracle, they become lovely. Here’s another way to say it.

Does anybody in here really think that Christ married us for our moral looks? Really? Never anywhere does it say anything remotely similar to anything like that. It says he loved us, how? He gave himself for our sins. That’s his love for us. Then and only then does Paul say, he gave himself then to sanctify his bride and cleanse her with the washing of the water of the word, to become holy and without blemish, to be presented before his Father. We are unlovely, and far before any of that — there’s no loveliness here — there’s love, so that we are loved, so that we become lovely.

Luther and the Love of God

Carl Trueman instantly became my favorite writer on Luther because he came to the exact same conclusion. We had a moment together. It was like C.S. Lewis’s idea of friendship, like, “What? You too?” Here’s what he said:

In fact, while the distinction between the two kinds of theologians has tended to grip the imagination of subsequent generations, the greatest thesis, the capstone of the whole Heidelberg theology, is arguably theses 28 . . .

And I just removed the word “arguably”. It is the capstone. He continues on in his book Luther on the Christian Life. In the next page, he says:

It is arguable that Luther never wrote a more profound or beautiful sentence than “the love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it.”

And he says this:

A moment of reflection indicates that it contains, in embryonic form, much of his mature Reformation theology. For example, given his position on the impotence of the human will, it is theologically necessary that God take the sovereign, unilateral initiative in salvation. Theologians often express God’s sovereignty and predestination in somewhat abstract terms. Here, Luther articulates the doctrine of God’s love that puts accent on the personal.

Can I just say this out loud to my Young Restless and Reformed brothers and sisters? I am so sick of people who talk about the sovereignty of God in cerebral terms, not personal terms, as if it’s just a focus on the choosing will of God. Where does the choosing will of God come from? It comes from the loving heart of God. That someone could somehow separate the choosing will of God from the loving heart of God is unthinkable. It doesn’t happen in God. He’s not divided.

We want to talk sometimes even in the church about the idea of unconditional love. We talk about that. We want to show unconditional love like God does. Why do we have such a hard time then with unconditional love leading to unconditional election? You can’t separate those. It’s right there.

The Bondage of the Will

Luther said this was the issue of the Reformation. He told Erasmus that. He said, “This is the cardinal issue. You alone have gone right to the heart.” He says this in his book, published in 1525, called The Bondage of the Will, which was a response to Erasmus, who wrote The Freedom of the Will. Luther regarded it as his best theological book, the only one in that class deserving of publication. So here’s what Luther said to Erasmus, who was always going here and there, saying, “What about this? Maybe this? Could it be this?” He said:

The Holy Spirit is not a skeptic. It’s not irreverent, it’s not inquisitive, and it’s not superfluous to look into these things. It’s essential for a Christian to find out whether the will does anything or nothing, in matters pertaining to eternal salvation. Indeed, as you know, this is the cardinal issue between us, the point on which everything in this controversy turns. For what we are doing is inquiring what free choice can do, what it has done to it, what is its relation to the grace of God.

If we don’t know these things, we shall know nothing at all of things Christian. We shall be worse than the heathen. Let anyone who doesn’t feel this, confess he’s no Christian, while anyone who disparages or scorns it should know he’s the greatest enemy of Christians. For if I’m ignorant of what, how far, how much I can and may do in relation to God, it will be equally uncertain and unknown to me what, how far, and how much God may do in me, although it’s God who works everything in everyone.

But when the works and power of God are unknown, then I don’t know God himself. And when God is unknown, I can’t worship him, praise him, thank him, or serve him, since I don’t know how much I should attribute to myself, or how much to God.

The Powerlessness of Man

The whole hinge of the Reformation is here. What about human ability? The Reformation was about the powerlessness of man to save himself. That’s what it was. It was about the powerlessness of the will to become or make the person morally beautiful. It wasn’t the Pope, it wasn’t purgatory, it was the powerlessness of the will. So Luther fiercely objected to Erasmus exalting the human will. It made him sick. He said things like, “Your language is so beautiful; it’s like you’re bringing me on a silver tray crap.” The content was horrible.

He made it seem to Luther like what we might think of at those bodybuilding competitions, where the bodybuilders are trying to impress the judges with their displays of strength. Erasmus wrote about the will that way, like we’re flexing before God, saying, “Watch the way I can overcome sin, God. Watch the way I can set myself free from the chains of sin. Look at this pose.” It’s a full-frontal attack on the freedom of God’s grace in the gospel. Here’s where Luther gets fierce. He hasn’t been so far, right?

I condemn and reject as nothing but error, any doctrine that exalts our free will, as being directly opposed to this mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. For since, apart from Christ, sin and death are our masters, the devil is our god and prince, there can be no strength or power, no wit or wisdom, by which we can fit or fashion ourselves for righteousness and life.

There’s not a runway here where we’re coming out before God wearing our righteous clothing, saying, “Look at me.” He continues:

On the contrary, blinded and captivated, we are bound to be the subjects of Satan and sin, doing and thinking what pleases him and is opposed to God and his commandments.

Does he go too far? Paul says to Timothy:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24–26).

It doesn’t sound very free to me. God’s glorious grace is at stake. Free will theology has fallen sinners brazenly break into the throne room of heaven, steal all glory from God, smuggle it back to earth, and share it with their sinful cronies. The Reformation is a gospel ambition for Luther and the Reformers to be on a mission to take all that stolen glory back and ascribe it back to God, saying, “This is yours. This was wrong for the Roman church to steal this from you. We have a glory ambition to bring it back and say, ‘It’s all yours.’”

The Root of Unconditional Election

His commentary on Galatians is probably my favorite of his commentaries. Listen to his comments on Galatians 1:1–12, which brother Mark preached for us. It says this:

I recall that at the beginning of my cause, Dr. Staupitz said to me, “It pleases me that the doctrine in which you preach ascribes the glory and everything to God alone, and nothing to man. For, to God — that’s clearer than the sun — one cannot ascribe too much glory and goodness.” This word comforted and strengthened me greatly at the time. And it is true that the doctrine of the gospel takes all the glory, wisdom, righteousness from men and ascribes them to the creator alone who makes everything out of nothing.

Therefore, when you think of a Reformation passage of Scripture, what do you think of? What’s an Old Testament Reformation text? Genesis 15:6 may be one. It says, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” That’s a good one. Or what about Psalm 32:2, which says, “Blessed is the man for whom the Lord doesn’t count iniquity.” That’s a good one. But what about Deuteronomy chapter 7:7–8?

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you . . .

See, he’s asking the question, “Israel, why did God choose you? Was it something about you? Was it that you were so numerous, you were so beautiful?” And he says, “No, it wasn’t because you’re more in number. You’re fewer. You’re the fewest of all people.” So why did he choose you? It’s because the Lord loves you (Deuteronomy 7:8). Why did the Lord choose you? Because the Lord loves you. Unconditional election comes from somewhere, it comes from unconditional love.

When you think of a New Testament, Reformation text, what do you think? You think of Romans 1:17, which says, “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Wasn’t that the gateway into paradise for Luther? Yes, it was Romans 1. What about Ephesians 1? “In love, he predestined . . .” (Ephesians 1:4–5). He didn’t choose the lovely; in love, he chose. What about Ephesians chapter 2?

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4–7).

Why are you alive? Why are you raised up? Why do you have the best future imaginable? You live because he loved. That’s why. You were not morally acceptable. You were a corpse. You were stone-cold dead at the bottom of the lake, part of the children of wrath. The only reason you’re alive is because he loved.

Experiencing the Love of God

This is too good to wait to apply later. Don’t think about this cerebrally, but experientially. So many people in their relationship to God have a mirror, and they’re constantly looking at themselves, “Does God love me?” And they look in the mirror, and they think, “Of course he does. I’m better than that person.” Or it’s the opposite. They ask, “Does God love me?” and they look in the mirror and say, “Of course not. I’m wretched. I’m ugly.” This says, “Does God love me?” and you throw down the mirror, raise up your arms, and say, “Yes! Look at Christ, look at his love. Look at where that came from. I can’t earn that. I can’t achieve it. I can only receive it.” And suddenly love is amazing.

I don’t struggle at all to believe that God sees all of me, all of my sin, everything that’s wrong with me. I don’t struggle at all to believe that. I sometimes struggle to believe that he sees all of me, and that all of him loves all of me.

Consider Jeremiah 32:41. Do you think that God tolerates you, or that he half-heartedly loves you?

I will rejoice in doing them good . . . with all my heart and with all my soul.

We sometimes talk about when somebody is totally engaged in something that all of their heart is in it, and that’s what it says about God’s love for you, his unconditional love — and therefore unconditional election — to bring you to himself. He’s all in with all of his heart. Not one drop of love is missing. So yes, we bask there and rest there.

And then, as you’re drenched in amazing, unbelievable love, you look at your neighbor who’s a Christian, maybe who irritates you, maybe who has a different skin color and is from a different background, and you say, “And he loves them the same.” If you don’t feel that equality, that unconditional equality of God’s love for God’s people, you don’t believe the gospel. You’re not keeping in step with the gospel.

So here’s my application, we believe in this conference, that we want this gospel to go deep and wide. We want it to go wide to all the unreached peoples of the world. But we also want it to go deep, because there’s not just unreached peoples in the world; I have unreached places in my heart that this word needs to reach. This gospel needs to go there. So what is the heart of the Reformation? The heart of the Reformation was the radical recovery of the heart of God. It was about understanding again why God loves, why God saves, why God chooses.

The Life of Martin Luther

Now, I just want to focus then on Luther’s life. Where did this come from? How did he see this? Steven Lawson says:

Luther was a towering intellect, a magnetic personality, and an enormous boldness to confront all the challenges of his time. He appeared on the world scene as one made for the battle. When the conflict raged the hottest, Luther stood the strongest.

I think that’s true. My man, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, looked at Luther and called him an ocean because of the enormity of his giftedness. I don’t think of him as much as an ocean, but more like a volcano that was always erupting in red-hot, biblical truth. So I want to look at his life that way, like the stirring of the volcano first, and then the erupting of the volcano, second.

The Stirring of a Volcano

From 1483 to 1517 the volcano was stirring. He was born November 10th, 1483. His father was a copper miner. His father pushed him to enter the legal profession. He was going to pursue that path at the University of Erfurt.

In 1502, at 19 years old, he received his bachelor’s degree. He didn’t have an impressive student status. He ranked 30th of the 57 students in his class. Academically, he did better in his master of arts, which he received in 1505, ranking second among 17 students. Everything changed that summer.

In 1505, on July 2nd, after only one month of legal studies, he was on his way home from law school, and he cried out in the midst of a lightning storm, as he was hurled to the ground, “Help me, Saint Anne. I will become a monk.” Saint Anne was the patron saint for miners, and his father was a miner. He feared for his soul, so he tried to save it by joining the monastery.

He kept his vow only 15 days later on July 17th, 1505. There were seven monasteries in Erfurt. He joined the most rigorous one. That tells you something about him. It was the Augustinian order of friars. He was 21 years old, and he had a singular focus on saving his soul.

He said:

If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy. When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost 15 years with daily sacrifice, torturing myself with fastings and vigils and prayers and rigorous works, like self-freezing, not having any blankets, and I almost froze myself to death, earnestly thinking to acquire righteousness by my works.

But he said It was like I was living in a dream, and that he had a real idolatry because he didn’t know the real Jesus. He just thought of him as that terrible, horrible judge sitting enthroned on top of the rainbow.

Ordination and Despondency

He was ordained to the priesthood April 3rd, 1507. He officiated his first mass the next month, and he almost ran away because he was so terrified by God’s absolute holiness. He taught philosophy for a couple of years, and then he was allowed to teach the Bible. Johann von Staupitz was his confessor, meaning Luther would make his confession of sin to Staupitz, and Luther would recount his sins sometime for hours at a time. Luther understood God required perfection, but he saw he could not possibly reach it.

So Staupitz thought, “I’m going to encourage him by sending him to Rome to be encouraged by all the sacred sights and venerating the relics of Christianity.” But that troubled him more because he saw all the corruption and all the abuses and all the superstition. He saw a rope that had supposedly been the rope that Judas was hung upon. He saw a piece, supposedly, of Moses’s burning bush. He saw the supposed chains of Paul. And to top it all off, the holy stairs — the stairs that Jesus descended after his trial with Pilate. They said they were moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and God would forgive the sins of those who crawled up the stairs on their knees, kissing each step. So Luther did it. He said:

At Rome, I wished to liberate my grandfather from purgatory. So I went up the staircase of Pilate, praying a Pater Noster on each step. I was convinced that he who prayed thus could redeem his soul. But when I came to the top step, the thought came to me, “Who knows whether this is true?”

He came back to Erfurt despondent, and he transferred, staying with his studies, to the University of Wittenberg. Two years later (28 years old now), he received his doctorate degree in theology. Staupitz gave him the chair of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg that he held for the rest of his life.

In the next 34 years, he taught Psalms, Romans, Galatians, then Hebrews, and the volcano began to smoke. It began to stir.

Outrage Over Indulgences

It really began to quake in 1517, when Pope Leo X authorized indulgences to be sold in Germany to help fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. An indulgence is a reduction of punishment for sin, granted by the church after a sinner makes a confession, or performs certain works or prayers. Here, they were financial, and Johann Tetzel was the greatest peddler of them, because he knew how to manipulate the masses so well.

He would enter town in a solemn procession. He would have the papal coat of arms, and the proclamation of indulgence upon the gold-embroidered velvet cushion. He erected a cross in the marketplace, but he didn’t preach the cross. He preached heaven, hell, and purgatory. That was the bad news. And then he went to the good news, not of Christ crucified, but of indulgences. He wasn’t even preaching salvation to those who were alive, but that people in purgatory, the dead, could get out if the people alive did something. He said:

Do you not hear the voice of your wailing dead parents, and others who say, “Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. And from this you could redeem us with just a small alms. And yet you don’t want to”? Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother says to the daughter, “We created you, we fed you, cared for you, left you all of our temporal goods. Why are you so cruel, so harsh, that you don’t want to save us, when it takes so little? You let us lie here in flames, so that only slowly can we come to the promised glory.”

And then he gives his famous line about the gospel of indulgences:

The moment a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.

News of this reached volcano Luther, and he erupted.

The Eruption of the Volcano

On October 31st, 1517, he nailed 95 statements, theses, to the door of Castle Church at Wittenberg for public debate, especially about the sale of indulgences. He had been studying Scripture and studying the languages, and he was looking at this and saying, “The languages are important here. You are interpreting this word that Jesus said, “repentance”, as “do penance”. That’s not what it means, it means repentance. It’s a different word.”

And so, his students took these theses to a printer without him knowing it, they published them, and they were distributed far and wide in Germany, and the whole country began to be agitated, discussing this.

Now here’s the eruption for the rest of his life. Pope Leo denounced these dangerous teachings, and summoned Luther to Rome. Luther didn’t want to go. So the Roman Catholic Church had the policy of all guns to the front against Luther. They thought, “Let’s bring them all here first. Let’s bring this distinguished Italian theologian to Augsburg. Luther can debate with him there, and he needs to recant.”

Luther refused to recant, and he said the Pope could err in his ecclesiastical pronouncements. He said that they have to be established by Scripture. The last guy that did that, John Huss, was executed. So Luther left Augsburg under the fear of death. But, in 1518, just when you think the volcano is really getting going, it becomes even more spectacular with red-hot biblical truth. He, in 1518, discovered this. He said:

I had indeed been captivated with ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then, there was a single word in chapter Romans 1:17, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that just stood in my way. I hated that word, “the righteousness of God”. According to what I was taught, it meant that righteousness by which God is righteous and punishes the sinner.

So though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God, with a disturbed conscience. I couldn’t believe that he could placate this, my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God, who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, saying, “As if indeed it’s not enough that miserable sinners eternally lost through original sin are then crushed by you, by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God just add pain to pain by the gospel, which threatens us with his righteous wrath.”

Brother Mark said, “Confusion about the gospel is barricading the emergency exit.” How confused was he that Luther thought the good news was God’s righteous wrath? He continues:

But at last, as I raged with this conscience, I kept beating upon Paul in that place, wanting to know what he meant. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of those words. It says, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed . . . As it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There, I began to understand the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith.

This is the meaning: the righteousness of God revealed by the gospel, by which the merciful God justifies us through faith. Here it was. I felt I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself through the open gates. Thereupon, I began to run through the other Scriptures from memory, and I extolled my sweet word with a love as great as the hatred I had before for the righteousness of God.

The Righteousness of God Through Faith

Luther discovered the love of God in the righteousness of God as the gift of God that made his heart burst. He came to see that a man is not saved by good works, rather the righteousness of Christ is imputed. He called it a “foreign” or “alien” righteousness, because it came outside of a man, not from inside.

So then he preached a sermon in 1518 or 1519, we don’t know when, called “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” He says this:

Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness, and all that he has becomes ours.

And he adds this:

No, rather, he himself becomes ours.

When you think of justification, are you thinking legal or are you thinking personal? His favorite analogy for justification, righteousness, and imputation, was the marriage, where somebody gets married and all that they have goes to the spouse, and all that the spouse has goes to you. He said, “This is the great exchange. Married to Christ, he gets all that I have, which is only sin, and I get all that he has, which is only righteousness, and better than forgiveness, better than salvation, I get him.” God is the gospel.

Further Disputations and the Papal Bull

Luther then was called to appear at Leipzig for another disputation, this time with the master theologian of Rome, Martin Eck, on the issue of indulgences and authority and infallibility of the Pope. Luther directly looks in his eye and says this:

Popes and counsels can err, Scripture can’t. Therefore, a single layman armed with infallible Scripture can reject what a fallible Pope says.

You can imagine this idea wasn’t very popular with Pope Leo. So on June 15th, 1520, he issued the dreaded papal bull, which was an edict that was sealed with the Latin word, bulla, a red seal, and it was basically a death sentence.

He said if Luther didn’t repent, he’d be excommunicated in 60 days, and there’s no salvation outside the Catholic Church, so he’s being eternally condemned if he doesn’t repent. Luther responded, not by cowering in a corner, but by erupting more, with three treatises that he published right in a row, one in July, one in September, and then one in November. My favorite of the three is The Freedom of the Christian. And he says this:

Even anti-Christ himself, if he would come, could think of nothing to add to this papacy’s wickedness. A man needs no works to make him righteous and save him. Faith alone gives all those things. All sin is swallowed up by the righteousness of Christ.

So he gave this papal bull in June. Luther didn’t respond until December, and when he did, he invited a crowd outside the city gates of Wittenberg and burned the papal bull. Historian Thomas Lindsay writes this:

It is scarcely possible for us in the 20th century to imagine the thrill that went through all of Germany at that point, indeed all of Europe, when the news spread that a poor monk had just burnt the papal bull.

They must have been thinking, “Can people do that?”

The Diet of Worms

Now all guns went to the front. They called in the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, to appear. And Luther was to appear before the imperial meeting at Worms. This is imperial now, like there’s going to be storm troopers or something here. They met at a town called Worms. It’s been called the Diet of Worms. Therefore, all the big guns are lined up, all the political and church powers of his day lined against him. Luther was shown a table, on which all of his books were, and it was not a discussion. The person says, “Will you recant, yes or no?” Luther thought it was going to be a discussion, so he asked for more time. The next day, reply he did. He said:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.

The emperor condemned Luther to death as a heretic. He was given 21 days for safe passage to Wittenberg, and on the way his supporters kidnapped him. They took him to the castle at Wartburg. He was given a new name, Friar Tuck. And what did he do there? Cower in the corner with his price on his head? He translated the entire New Testament into German. And he did it quickly. Just remember it was in April when the decree came for him to die, and five months later in September he had completed translating the New Testament. He wanted this book, “To live in the hands, eyes, ears, and hearts of all people.” Luther didn’t want to be the only volcano. He wanted a mountain range of volcanoes of the people of God, to start bursting out this biblical truth from the Bible.

Marriage and Luther’s Last Chapter

In 1525, three years later, he got married to Katharina von Bora, who was a former nun. He claimed that this marriage would upset the Pope, make angels laugh, and make devils weep, so he did it. It was a happy marriage, and it brought Luther six children.

In 1527, now, two years later, he started showing signs of wear and tear. There was tightness in his chest, dizziness, and fainting spells. To make matters worse, the Black Plague was spreading throughout Germany.

What does he do? He opened his home as a hospital for all those who are sick. His youngest son almost died because of it. So he was sick, dizzy, and he thought his son might die. What happens? Psalm 46 is his meditation, and he writes his most famous song, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. He thinks, “I’m going to keep going even though I feel so weak, because my God is so strong.” Good thing God was so mighty as he was growing weaker and weaker.

Every conflict now left him weaker. He had acid stones, severe arthritis, heart problems, and digestive disorders. He would famously boast about how loud his farts were, and how many towns over could hear him when he broke wind. Everyone feared he was going to die. Then in 1537, he recovered and he kept working till 1541. He broke again, and looked like he would die. God raised him up and he kept working.

Finally, the day came on his deathbed, one of his friends came to him and said, “Do you still believe everything you’ve written?” He said, “More than ever.” His last recorded words scribbled on a piece of paper, “We are beggars, this is true.” He never got over the fact that he was unlovely, that he was beggarly, and that love produced such a gospel ambition with such gospel sweat. It changed the world.

He passed through the gates of paradise February 18th, 1546. His body was moved to be buried to the Castle Church at Wittenberg, where he had nailed the 95 theses, and his body is buried under the pulpit where he preached.

Lessons from Luther’s Life

Here’s my question: how do we apply this? How do we be like Luther? There are certain things I wouldn’t commend to you. You know what I’m going to say about that. But the one that I really want to focus on is what I learned when I went through the Luther Exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I was just thrilled. I mean, I was trying not to geek out on my wife, as we were going through. I was like, “There’s his pulpit,” and I was kind of shaking a little bit. And then I said, “And here in this glass thing is the earliest copy of his hymn.” And she says, “Wow, this is amazing, you’re geeking out.” And I said, “I know.”

I got to the last display, and I started crying. There were two manuscripts. One was thin, and it was something about how the Jews could come to their Messiah and be saved. And then after it, written later, there was a thicker book on the Jews and their lies, how they’re hated, how you’re justified in stealing their property and persecuting them. Guess how that was used in Germany later?

I struggled with his antisemitism for a long time. Somebody I read that was helpful said that he believed it against his better judgment. And his line in the book was, “At the end of the day, Luther had blind spots, and it’s a good thing that justification by faith is true, because if it’s not Luther’s in trouble.” And that’s true of all of us. That was his line. I believe it’s true, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Preach Like Luther

Here’s where I think we can be like Luther, I want to ask you to think like Luther, preach like Luther, and sweat like Luther. We’re going to go really fast through this.

Number one, think like Luther. What Luther stressed was the externality of the truth of God, because externality was essential for its purity. Here’s what I mean. He stressed first, the external written word. He wrote articles that were to unite the political and military alliance of the Lutheran princes, and here’s what he wrote about Scripture:

We must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace, except through or with the external word . . . The Spirit of God and the word of God are tied together like this.

He saw the inseparable connection, and he constantly called the written word “the external word” to emphasize that it’s objective and it’s fixed. It’s forever existing outside of ourselves. It’s unchanging, and therefore, it can’t be twisted. The Pope can’t come above it and chain it down, and the fanatics can’t come alongside it and add to it saying, “I heard the Spirit say this.” We can only come underneath it and bow before it. Its externality, its being outside of us with real words, is essential to keep it pure.

And then he stressed that the incarnate Word is also external. Here’s why you need to keep those together. This is what John Piper said in his biographical address:

Without the book, there would be no blow against the money changers, the indulgence sellers. The incarnate Word would be everyone’s clay toy.

So precisely for the sake of the incarnate Word, Luther exalts the written word, the external word. Do you see what Piper’s saying? He’s saying you have to keep them together, and the external word does not shackle the incarnate Word; the external word keeps the incarnate Word, Jesus, from being shackled. It’s not the Jesus of your imagination, it’s not the Jesus Calling that you feel; it is the Jesus of the Bible, and they can’t be twisted.

Learning God’s Love from the Cross

I used to have this little bendable Bugs Bunny, and depending on how I felt as a kid I put his leg out this way or head back this way. Jesus isn’t like that. He’s not a Gumby, bendable figure. You keep the written word and the incarnate Word together externally, so that there’s purity. Keep them pure.

This is what Luther says:

This is why I’m so earnest in my plea for you to learn the true and correct definition of Christ, on the basis of these words of Paul.

Paul said he gave himself for our sins. If he gave himself into death for our sins, then he’s not a tormentor. He’s not one who will cast down the troubled. He will raise up the fallen, bring propitiation and consolation to the terrified. Otherwise, Paul wouldn’t say, “He gave himself for our sins.” He’d be lying if he said that. If I define Christ this way, if I define him correctly, if I grasp the authentic Christ, if I truly make him my own, then I take my stand with him. There’s no fear here, just sheer sweetness, joy, and the like, and it lights a kindle in me, it shows me the true God, and the true love of God.

What Luther believed was that you can’t look at the way the world works and extrapolate from that the way that God loves. In the way the world works, you’re rewarded for good behavior, and you’re punished for bad behavior. So Luther said that the Roman Catholic Church is going around taking that principle of reciprocity and applying it to God and thinking the more good we do the more God loves us, the more bad we do, the less God loves us. And Luther said that you don’t go to the world to see the way that God works, you go to the cross to see the way that God works. And it’s utterly counterintuitive.

Luther said:

He’s not righteous who does much, but he who without work believes much. The law says, “Do this,” but it’s never done. Grace says, “Believe in this and it’s finished.” The gospel must first expose the human tendency to try to be right with God through self-righteousness before it can create a new reality of being clothed with Christ.

There’s no confidence in ourselves before God. Otherwise, you slip back into thinking that you’re crocheting for yourself a very nice covering of righteousness, which is like a patchwork quilt of menstrual cloths. Our righteousness is as reliable as leaning upon a spiderweb. He said:

The word of God is living. It has arms, it grabs hold of me. It has feet, it pursues after me, and always reminds me why God loves me. And it’s not because of me.

Preach Like Luther

So if we are to think like Luther, how do you preach like Luther? Here’s what he says to all of you who preach the word:

Your task, oh preacher, is to make sure that you’re faithful to the text, faithful to the proclamation of that gospel, faithful to set forth the whole counsel of God, then step back and let it happen. I don’t have to persuade people with my techniques to get them to respond. I preach the law, I preach the gospel, and the Holy Ghost attends the ministry of that word to bring forth the fruit.

Here’s what you do. How do you preach Christ? Here’s what he says:

It is beyond a doubt that the entire Scriptures point to Christ alone. If you take him out of the Scriptures, what will you find left in them? This is preaching: the gospel is Christ coming to us through the sermon. Preach the gospel, because that’s how Christ comes to his people. That’s how the shepherd shows up to shepherd the sheep. Preach the gospel, preach Christ.

This focus on Christ made the Gospels the focus of his sermons. We often think of Luther as Galatians and Romans. There are only 30 recorded sermons from Romans, and over a thousand on the Synoptic Gospels, and hundreds on just the Gospel of John.

For example, from 1531 to 1532, he spent 18 months preaching John 6, 7, and 8. He preached more on the Gospel of John in one year than he did on Romans in his lifetime. Here’s what he said:

Preach Christ always, the true God, the true man who died for our sins, rose again for our justification. It may seem to you a limited and monotonous subject likely to be soon exhausted, but I testify we’re never at the end of it.

The Word of God Does the Work of God

In his last sermon, here’s what he said:

The hearers must say of us, “I don’t believe our pastor, unless he tells me of another Master, the one named Christ. To Christ he directs us. What Christ’s lips say, we will obey. We will obey what our pastor says, insofar as he takes us to the Master and Teacher, the Son of God.

So preach Christ. And then he says, “Trust the Spirit.” Luther did not try to get a calculated response with his gestures; he regarded it as an intrusion into the word of God. There was sometimes humor, but there was never levity or anything calculated to produce laughter. He says, “Faith is produced and preserved by preaching why Christ came, and what benefit it is to accept him.” Luther regarded faith as a great miracle. When the centurion had his servant healed, Luther said, “There are two miracles happening there, and Jesus says the centurion’s faith is the greater one — the miracle of faith that happened.” Here’s what Luther really believed about the Bible. See if you believe this.

Luther reached a do or die moment in the year 1522. The Reformation was ready to crash, in kind of a topsy-turvy way, or it was going to remain. There had been a political revolution by Carl Statz and Zwingli against Roman Catholic iconography. He felt the moment. If Frederick the Wise withdrew his support because the Reformation became a political overthrow, then the whole thing was going to be shut down. So Luther had been traveling. He came back to Wittenberg, and he literally preached the Reformation back on course. Here’s what he says about it, as only he can say it:

I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. Yes, I opposed indulgences, I opposed all of the papists, but never by force. I only taught, preached and wrote God’s word. Otherwise, I did nothing. While I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends, Philip and Amsdorf, the word so greatly weakened the papacy, that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing, the Word did everything. I just taught and preached, and wrote, and then drank beer, and God did everything.

Now hear me carefully about this. You don’t have to be an Acts 29 preacher to follow Luther in this. It turns out that I get a firsthand, front row seat, to see that when you faithfully preach the word, like John Piper, it doesn’t matter the alcoholic beverage. I saw John Piper and the effects of him preaching faithfully at Bethlehem. I saw the Reformation that happened, and after he preached, he and Tom Steller just drank Diet Coke. It turns out that the content of the beverage you drink doesn’t matter as much as the Bible that you preach. You just keep preaching, dear friends. God does the work. Do you believe that? Do you give the text a voice, or do you think you got to give it a makeover, some standup routine?

Sweat Like Luther

I’m going to close with this. I had 10 pages on sweat like Luther. Here’s what I mean. Luther said spiritual sweat is the greatest sweat, because it’s not just physical in the study, it’s spiritual as well. You have to learn the languages, he said, or else the gospel is going to be lost, like it was when people translated “repentance” into “penance”. Every generation needs the languages, so it’s worth the sweat. He said it’s worth the sweat to keep beating on the Bible, like he did with Paul. It’s worth it to keep sweating. He said he was lecturing on Ecclesiastes, and he kept beating on Solomon knowing he must yield. But then his gospel ambition caused him to be a preacher, like no preacher that I know.

He was a professor, but he preached every two days, on average. He preached over 7,000 sermons between 1510 and 1546 — a sermon every two days. This was in addition to his lecturing to all of his discourses with political people, like Frederick the Wise. It doesn’t matter how tired he was, whenever he opened a Bible, he was energized. And I fear, dear friends, that in our generation of gospel-centered belief, of recovering Young Restless and Reformed people, I see a focus on the centrality of the gospel, but I don’t see the same gospel ambition and gospel sweat to bring this to the nations, to understand it in the study, to bring it to the people.

Lightning from the Pulpit

Here’s my closing admonition. The gospel is utterly different from the way anything else works in the world with reciprocity — “We’re going to treat you the way we’ve been treated, reward you according to how you’ve done.” Luther said the whole of the world works like that reciprocity, and it’s like the black backdrop. The gospel alone talks about the grace of God, which stands out like a lightning bolt against that black sky.

And I want to ask you, how many times does the lightning strike from your pulpit? How many times in your counseling is there a flash of lightning about the gospel, about this counterintuitive, unbelievable way that God’s love is different from human love? I don’t just want an occasional lightning flash from this conference when you go back to your church; I want a lightning storm across this country as we preach the gospel, and then drink whatever you want, because you believe that God’s word will do God’s work.

I wonder where some of you are today. If you’re in a similar crisis at times with Luther. I’ve talked to so many of you who have lost a job, or are on the brink of a major decision, or are suffering. Luther wrote a song for that. I want you to hear it again. Psalm 46:1–11:

God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
     though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
     though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
     the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
     God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
     he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
     the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
     how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
     he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
     he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
     I will be exalted among the nations,
     I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
     the God of Jacob is our fortress.