Why is it, after five-hundred years we are still impacted by the events of an obscure priest? Not we only, but people around the world?
A young German monk posted ninety-five points for debate on the church door of Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. He was not trying to destroy the Church, but rather was hoping by the posting of his theses to create a dialogue that would result in much needed changes. The matters of concern according to him were matters of love and forgiveness, but the reason he wrote them was because if these matters were not dealt with, it would “make Christians unhappy.”
Why, in 1934 did an African American pastor from Georgia travel to Berlin after making his dream trip to the Holy Land and become so impressed by this dead monk that he changed his name and the name of his five-year old son?
People sometimes think of the Reformation as little more than a five-hundred-year-old clean-up job on the Roman Catholic Church, which is quite misleading. It is deep in our blood today that the more attractive we make ourselves, the more loved and happier we will be. The Reformation is the story of one man discovering to his delight that with God, it is the other way around. ‘God does not love people because they have sorted themselves out: He loves failures. And that love makes them flourish.’
Such was the discovery of Martin Luther – “failing, broken people are not loved because they are attractive,’ said Martin Luther, “they are attractive because they are loved.” Luther soon wrote a booklet to explain his discovery: He called it, “The Freedom of a Christian.”
In it he said that the Good News he had found was like the story of a wealthy king (representing Jesus Christ) who marries a debt-ridden prostitute (representing someone who will trust him).
The girl could never make herself a queen. But then the king comes along, full of love for her. And on their wedding day he makes his marriage vow to her. With that she is his, and the prostitute becomes a queen. He takes and bears all her debts, and she now shares his boundless wealth and royal status.
It is not that she earned it. She did not become a queen by behaving royally. Indeed, she does not know how to behave royally. But when the king made his marriage promise, he changed her status. For all her backstreet ways, the prostitute is now a queen.
Just so, found Luther, the greatest failure who accepts Jesus Christ gets to share His righteousness and status. What happens is a happy status-swap: when Jesus died on the cross, He took and there dealt with all our guilt and failure; and out of sheer love He now shares with those who will trust Him all His righteousness and life. Jesus loves broken people and through His death on the cross for them, makes them attractive and beautiful in God’s sight.
It means, wrote Luther happily, ‘Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by Him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, which she may boast of as her own and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all His is mine and all mine is His.” Studying his Bible in his cell, he was struggling to understand what the apostle Paul meant to the Romans: “For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
What on earth could that mean? And what exactly is the “righteousness of God?”
Is it that God is perfect and I am not? So I cannot be with Him? That is what Luther had thought. But ‘I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives: by a gift of God.’
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 is received by simple faith or trust.
Here in the Bible, Luther found Good News: a kind and generous God who does not ask people to make themselves attractive before He loves them, but who loves first.
Instead of trusting in his own efforts to be good, Luther saw simply that he could accept God’s word of promise. Then all his struggles and anxiety could be replaced with happy confidence and peace.
‘Here,’ said Luther ecstatically, ‘I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’
In his biography of Luther, Eric Metaxes says that Martin Luther is known “principally for two iconic events that precipitated all else.” (First was the posting of the ninety-five Theses). Second was his “unyielding courage at the imperial diet (court/trial) in the city of Worms in 1521. It was there before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and an impressive array of German nobles – and perhaps most important before the pope’s representative, Thomas Cajetan – that Luther took his implacable stand…when he made it clear that he feared God’s judgment more then the judgment of powerful figures in that room…suddenly the individual had not only the freedom and possibility of thinking for himself but the weighty responsibility before God of doing so.”
We can see then what impressed Pastor Michael King from Georgia to change his name to Martin Luther King, as well as his son’s who became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr. “To his son’s dying day his closest relatives would still call him Mike.”