God’s people lay bound in chains – not literal chains, but the chains of captivity. Israel had sinned against God, and because of that, they had lost everything. They were far from their homeland, and it seemed as if they were far from God Himself. They suffered by day and wept by night until they despaired of ever being free again. They were dead, even as they were alive.
But God could never really give-up on His people Israel. He was their Father, and they were His own dear children. And so God would add another chapter to the story of their lives. From Jeremiah the prophet: “Proclaim, give praise, and say, “O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’ Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn.” (Jer 31:7-9)
We know that story. Truth be told, we know this is not just a story out of the Old Testament, this is our story! The events that God orchestrates are never just events in the distant past. All things, both living and historic, are things God has worked together for our good. God wants us to see ourselves in these events. Knowing how God has shaped our history shapes our thinking about God today.
So this morning, as we celebrate the Reformation, we once again tell the story of God’s greatest work since the time of Paul. The Reformation changed the world. But more importantly, it changed us. The Bible and the Reformation both tell the story of Christ, living, dying, and rising again for the salvation of the world.
You probably know the story of Luther’s early years. Luther was a faithful follower of the Medieval church. That is to say, he believed everything the church was teaching and preaching at that time. Luther believed everything the church taught about sin and damnation. Because of that, he lived in constant fear of his sin and damnation. Luther had been taught that Christ was a judge who would send him too hell for even the smallest of sins.
So Luther did everything he could to earn salvation. He became a monk, and then a priest. He confessed his sins each day for hours on end, begging for God’s forgiveness on his knees until they bled. But the church had no peace or comfort to offer him. Day and night, guilt was his constant companion.
It was during that time that Luther wrote these words from Hymn #556: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; death brooded darkly over me. Sin was my torment night and day; in sin my mother bore me. But daily deeper still I fell; my life became a living hell, so firmly sin possessed me.”
If Luther seems a little dramatic, remember that the only difference between us and Luther is that Luther had a keener sense of spiritual realities. It doesn’t seem fair that the Medieval church preached so much law and so little gospel but it served one purpose well – it made Luther keenly aware of his sinfulness and desperation before Almighty God. Luther didn’t say in one breath, “I am sinful,” and in the next breath say, “Yea, but I’m forgiven” like we do. We speak the confession in our worship service, but ignore the reality of how damning our sins really are. We don’t experience that ‘living hell’ that Luther struggled with every day.
By this time Luther had become a professor at the University of Wittenberg. As he was preparing to lecture on Psalm 22 intrigued him where it said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Here David was speaking of the same malady Luther was feeling – alienation from God. And, that this was God’s eternal plan for salvation. Once again, Luther writes: “God said to His beloved Son: It’s time have compassion. The go, bright jewel of My crown, and bring to all salvation; from sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death that they my live with You forever.”
Jesus faithfully obeyed His Father, and came to shed His blood on the cross. He suffered, died, and then rose from the grave, victorious over our sin, our guilt, and the power of death That was when Luther saw the true power of the Gospel for the first time. Jesus came to be our brother, not an angry judge looking for a reason to send us to hell. Jesus was someone Luther could trust. And when the pope, the emperor, and the Catholic church were all against him, Jesus Christ was there with Him.
Through Luther and his followers, – salvation by grace, through faith became the great doctrine of the Reformation. Salvation is not earned by our obedience and loyalty to the Pope and his church, as was being taught at that time. The Lutherans realized that are fully and completely forgiven because Jesus bore all of our sins and guilt on the cross. When you believe in Jesus, Jesus’ life story becomes our story.
The Reformation was all about restoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and it was wildly successful. Through Luther’s translation of the Bible into the language of the people and publication of his many writings, most of the Western World heard once again the gospel of salvation by grace through faith for the sake of Christ. And that same message, first articulated by Luther 500 years ago, remains the basis of the faith of some 422 million protestants in the world today.
Today, nothing is more important for us than the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. As Lutherans, You and I are heirs of the Reformation – we have been entrusted with the Gospel. For the sake of our children and every future generation, we must hold-on to the truth and proclaim it. We must never allow the Reformation to become just one more story from human history. We must continue to make it our story. The Reformation and the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ is who we are. Believing, teaching, preaching, and confessing salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is what we do. Amen!