In honor of Reformation Day, this week's column will depart from my series on the Ten Commandments. Next week we will continue the series by looking at the Fifth Commandment.
History is important. Without an understanding of the past, it is impossible to understand the present or to plan for the future. Recognizing that history is important, many Lutheran churches celebrated Reformation Day this past Sunday or will celebrate it this coming Sunday. Christians owe a lot to Martin Luther, even though they may not realize it.
Martin Luther was born at the beginning of the age of discovery--Columbus made his way to the New World just a few years after Luther was born. Martin Luther never left Germany, but he was a discoverer too. Columbus and those who followed expanded man's earthly horizons. Martin Luther expanded man's spiritual horizons--not by discovering something new, but by finding something which had been overlooked for a long time: God's way to heaven.
God actually gives us two paths to heaven. The first way to heaven is by obeying God perfectly in every thought, word and action. God gives his law in the Bible and commands us to follow it perfectly. Any disobedience means death--punishment forever in hell. As human beings, we have a sinful nature which has led us to disobey God since before we can even remember. As sinners, we can't get to heaven by obeying God's law. The Bible tells us that "No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law" (Romans 3:20). We are naturally disobedient toward God and deserve nothing but his punishment.
God's first way to heaven doesn't work for us. As sinners from birth, we have already ruined our chances of obeying God perfectly. But out of his love and mercy, God gives us another way to heaven. "A righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify" (Romans 3:21). Even though we deserved nothing but God's anger and punishment, God showed us his love by sending his Son Jesus. Jesus took our place. He suffered and died for us, to keep us from suffering for our sins. We deserved to have God declare us guilty of disobedience and sentence us to an eternity of suffering in hell, but Jesus took our place to rescue us from that death sentence. Because of Jesus' sacrifice for us, God declares us not guilty and opens the door of heaven for us: he promises us that we will come out of our graves just as Jesus did and will take our place in heaven forever.
Martin Luther had been taught that even though Jesus had died to pay for his sins, he still had to become perfectly purified if he wanted to see heaven. He believed that he had to work and suffer to pay for his own sins and to become perfect before he died. He felt miserable, because no matter how much he did for God, he never felt that it was enough to pay for any of his sins. He was right. We can never pay for our own sins or do anything to deserve God's favor.
Martin Luther's great discovery is that we don't have to earn God's favor or deserve God's forgiveness. The Bible teaches us instead that God gives his favor and his forgiveness to us as a free gift, apart from anything we can ever do. "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Romans 3:28). Since you can't ever be justified--declared righteous in God's sight--because of your own good deeds, the only way you can be declared righteous is through faith in Jesus, who suffered and died to pay for your sins. God gives you heaven not because you do anything to deserve it, but simply as a free gift. God tells you in the Bible simply to believe that Jesus has already earned it for you. Martin Luther discovered in the Bible that this is God's path to heaven. God gives you heaven as a gift, freeing you from the burden and misery of having to earn it for yourself and never knowing if you've done enough. Instead, you are free to serve and thank God for his grace. Celebrate the Reformation every day by making the Bible's plan of salvation a part of your life, by learning from God's Word, by thanking God for his grace.