Need Help? Call Now
The Reformation: Then And Now

Luther: The Wild Boar In The Vineyard

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 14, 2007

Selected highlights from this sermon

Martin Luther was studying to be a lawyer, but a lightning bolt struck nearby and terrified him. So he decided to become a monk. But as he took up their rigorous practices, he found no relief for his sin, guilt, and despair. 

It wasn’t until he was asked to teach theology from the books of Psalms and Romans that his eyes were opened. Luther began to cling to the gift of righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ and was born again. After this conversion, the world would never be the same. 

Well, tonight we’re talking about the Boar in the Vineyard, the wild boar, loose in the vineyard, namely Martin Luther.

This is what Pope Leo X wrote about Martin Luther back in 1520 as he issued a papal bull. The word “bull” has nothing to do with an animal. It has everything to do with a papal decree that was against Luther. And this is what it says.

“Arise oh Lord and judge thy cause. A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard. Arise, oh Peter, and consider the case of the holy Roman church, the mother of all churches, consecrated by thy blood. Arise, oh Paul, who by thy teaching and death hast and dost illuminate the church. Arise all ye saints, and the whole universal church whose interpretation of Scripture has been assailed.”

And then it goes on to list some of the grievances against Luther. And then it ends by saying:

“Martin Luther has 60 days to recant dating from the publication of this bull in his district. Anyone who presumes to infringe upon our excommunication and anathema will stand under the wrath of the Lord God Almighty, and the Apostles of Peter and Paul.             June 15, 1520”

And the author, as I mentioned, Pope Leo X.

Well, who is this wild boar, loose in the vineyard of the Lord? Who is this man who grew up in a lowly family, and yet ended up becoming so famous that more books have been written about him than any other man who ever lived except Jesus Christ and Paul?

Why is it that there are popes and emperors who are primarily known for their relationships with him? Pope Leo, for example, if you ask someone what he is famous for, he’s famous for excommunicating Luther. By the way, do you know what they did with this papal bull? I have to throw these things in because all of this time goes so quickly. The students took it in Wittenberg and they had a day off of classes, and they made fun of the papal bull. They burned all of the papal bulls that were available. They went through the town, and a chronicler said, “They did other things which college students do which we’ll not write about.” So college students have always been the same. And you go today in Wittenberg, and there’s a sign there where this papal bull was burned.

But who is this man? Well, tonight I want you to enjoy his story, and then we’re going to turn to the Scriptures to see what really changed him, and the sock that came unraveled, so to speak, after he made his great discovery. And tonight we will get into the great discovery. The great discovery.

Well, it was in 1505 that a young university student by the name of Martin Luther was walking along past the Saxon Village of Stutterheim when lightning struck him to the ground. “Help me, Saint Anne, and I shall become a monk,” he called out. Well, needless to say, he lived, and so to fulfill this vow, as well as to bring some peace to his troubled soul, he decided that he would leave the university in Erfurt where he was studying law, and transfer in the same town to the Augustinian Monastery.

At home he had experienced love and harsh discipline. He is reported to have said, “My mother tanned me, for stealing a nut, until the blood came.” His father, Hans, spent several days working in a mine, until he owned a half a dozen foundries. Like other peasant homes at the time, the atmosphere was rough, coarse and also devout. Prayer, strict morality, and loyalty to tradition was fervently enforced.

His early education was by rote, and discipline. By our standards it was very strict. Instruction was given in Latin, and those who lapsed into German were given the rod. Yet Luther came to appreciate his teachers. And later on his Latin is going to come in handy.

Even in his youth, he testified to having depression. There is a sense of existential despair as well as elation, and he experienced both. And so his theology eventually is going to be affected by this sense of despair, the sense of guilt that he found no cure for until he uncovered the Gospel.

In those days, there was no assurance of salvation. Students vacillated between dread and hope, between damnation and forgiveness, and you were told that if you believed that you knew that you had eternal life, you were guilty of the sin of presumption.

The fires of hell were stoked to remind the parishioners of the need for the sacraments. The fear led to despair. They were reminded that purgatory existed for those who were not bad enough to go to hell, but neither were they good enough to go to heaven.

I spoke to someone a few years ago who said, “As long as I can get into purgatory,” because the end of purgatory is actually heaven, once all the fire has burned out the sin. But if you go to hell, of course, there’s no hope. That is eternal.

Luther was terror-stricken at the sight of Jesus Christ as judge. He sought to lay hold of every means of grace that was available to him. And now in the Augustinian monastery, he was there because he believed that this lightning bolt had come to him from God, but also he was there to bring quietness to his soul, and to see whether or not he might be able to earn eternal life.

When his father heard that his son had entered the cloister, he was enraged. Later on, he was reconciled to his son. He was deeply disappointed that this brilliant son of his did not study law, because if he had, he’d have been able to make more money and to help the family. Luther, as the monks before him, prostrated himself on the steps of the altar there at the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, and when asked, “What seekest thou?” he answered, “God’s grace and mercy.”

The rigors of the monastic life were explained, which included the renunciation of self-will, the scant diet, rough clothing, vigils by night, labors by day, mortification of the flesh, the reproach of poverty, the shame of begging, and the distastefulness of cloistered existence. This was part of the way in which the flesh would be put to death and salvation would be achieved.

Another parenthesis. In Erfurt, when you go there you can see where Martin Luther (where all of the monks) said their vows. They actually said them on the grave of one whose name is Johannes Zacharias. Now that’s interesting because if you were here last time when we talked about the Council of Constance, he was one of the leaders in the Council of Constance that voted to have Hus put to death, and burned at the stake. So isn’t it an interesting juxtaposition of history that on the very grave where a leader in the Council of Constance is buried, it is there that a man lay down flat to take his vows, who would shake the church to its very foundations?

So, with God’s help, Luther promised to take upon himself these burdens. The choir sang. Civilian clothes were exchanged for the monk’s habit. “Hear, oh Lord, our heartfelt prayers, and deign to confer thy blessing on this Thy servant, that he may continue with Thy help, faithful in Thy church, and merit, eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So Luther was taken to his cell, and the habits, and the (What shall I say?) procedure of the monks was carried out.

Now, in those days, they must have gone to bed early because they were awakened at about two o’clock in the morning for prayers, and prayers and more prayers, and more confession and more prayers.

Now, the first Mass that he performed is very famous because of Luther’s feeling about it. He anticipated the first Mass but was hardly prepared for the terror which struck him as the bread and the wine were transformed into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. He knew that performing this miracle was the high point of priestly worship. Only the priests had such power. This lay at the heart of the distinction between the clergy and the priesthood. If you were a priest, you had the power to take ordinary wine and bread and transform them into the literal body and the blood of Jesus Christ.

Luther postponed the day of his first Mass so that his father could be present, and eventually his father came, and actually came with twenty horsemen, and brought a gift to the monastery, so his dad was beginning to be reconciled to his son whom he had no clue would someday be so incredibly famous.

Before approaching the altar, Luther received absolution for all of his sins. His vestments were carefully arranged and he took his place before the altar, and these are very famous words. Later on he talks about the way in which he felt. When he got to the phrase, “We offer unto Thee, the living and the true and the eternal God,” he related afterward, “At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself with what tongue shall I dress the majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince. Who am I that I should lift up my eyes to raise my hands to the divine majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles, and shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say, ‘I want this,’ or ‘I ask for that?’ I am but dust and ashes, full of sin, and am speaking to the true and the living God.” Only by fearful restraint was he able to complete the Mass. It was the same fear that the ancients had before the Ark of the Lord.

Now later on, Luther had a conversation with his father who was present, and his father was still angry, and said, “You learned scholar, have you never read in the Bible that you should honor your father and your mother? And here you have left me and your dear mother to look after ourselves in our old age.” Luther knew that the decision that he made was right and simply said to his father, “I can perhaps help you more with my prayers than I can if I were to earn money for the family.”

Luther told his father that he had been called by the voice of God in the form of a thunderbolt, and his dad replied, “God grant that it was not an apparition, an apparition of the devil,” and the day would come when Luther will wonder whether or not it was the devil that gave him that apparition, that lightning bolt.

Luther gave himself without reservation to all of the things that were required of him. In fact, he overdid them. If they were told to pray a half an hour, Luther would pray the full hour. If they were asked to fast for a few days, Luther would fast for a week.

In 1510, he made a trip to Rome to settle a dispute in the Augustinian Order. He and a companion represented Erfurt. A number of years ago, we were in Germany and then we took a bus trip all the way to Rome because we visited the city of Rome. And as we drove for what I remember to be a whole day by bus through hills and mountains and all that, I wondered how in the world did Luther and his companion ever walk that distance? Of course, you know, they stayed in various monasteries along the way, but I can tell you, no wonder it took them months to get to Rome and to get back. Those were very rigorous days, believe me.

When in Rome, and I’ll simply tell you the story, Luther was very disappointed in Rome because he thought that maybe in Rome he would find peace for his soul. So he visited all the important places. He said Mass in all of the important places that he possibly could, and he was shaken by the lax morals of the priests in Rome. He came back and said that if there ever was a hell, Rome was built on it. He said that he would take time saying Mass, and there were other priests behind him who would try to make him hurry up, and he would hear other priests sarcastically saying when they were going through the Mass, “Wine thou art, and wine thou shalt always be. Bread thou art, and bread thou shalt always be.” And Luther was just appalled at this lack of reverence.

He climbed the stairs that are today in St. Lateran’s Church, saying prayers on each one. When I was in Rome I noticed that those stairs are still...people are crawling up those stairs, particularly tourists, many of them Americans, and I took a picture of a sign that said, “If you say prayers on each of these stairs, you get so many days off in purgatory.” So those stairs are still there, believed to be the stairs of Pilate’s Judgment Hall. But, of course, that is superstition.

Now, after he got back from Rome, he was asked to teach in Wittenberg because a man by the name of Elector Frederick was beginning a university in the little town of Wittenberg, and he wanted this university to rival the universities in Halle and Leipzig, so Luther, being a brilliant man, was asked to come and teach philosophy. So he began to teach philosophy, but there was no hope for his soul. But it was there in Wittenberg that he met his confessor by the name of Johann von Staupitz. Luther says, “Were it not for Staupitz I would have descended into hell.”

Luther began to confess his sins to Staupitz, sometimes six hours at a time. This was the problem that Luther faced. Sins, in order to be forgiven, had to be confessed. In order for them to be confessed, they had to be remembered. If they were not remembered, they could not be confessed. And if they were not confessed, they would not be forgiven. The problem was he knew that he could not trust his memory so what he did is he would begin by reciting the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins just to jog his memory so that he could remember all of his sins.

And then after six hours of confession, he would go to Staupitz and say, “Staupitz, I really do think that I’ve overlooked something.” Could you imagine Staupitz’s response? How would you like to work with somebody like that? Staupitz was absolutely exasperated, and one day said, “If you expect Christ to forgive you next time, come in with something to forgive—murder, blasphemy, adultery—instead of these little peccadillos. Instead of these little sins, let it be a big sin, and then we’ll deal with it.” But Luther was a better theologian than his contemporaries. He understood that the issue was not whether the sin was big or little. He understood that one smidgeon of sin will damn you forever in hell. He understood that because the teaching of the church which is, of course, taught in the Bible, is that unless you are perfect you cannot get into heaven.

Tonight, I want you to know that if you’re here and you are not perfect and you die in your present condition, you will go to hell. Make no mistake. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that. Unless you are as perfect as God you will not be allowed into heaven. You will be damned.

So Luther sought perfection in all of these ways, and in addition to confessing his sin, he realized also that the situation was even more troublesome than he realized, that his whole nature was corrupt. So you see, his problem was this: Even if he remembered all of his sins, even if he confessed them all, today he took care of them, but tomorrow was another day with brand new sins. It was like trying to mop up a floor with the faucet running.

In German, there is a word for what Luther experienced. It is Anfechtungen. How can we translate that into English? It’s an existential sense of despair of soul. It is guilt. It is this alienation from God. And Luther was tormented. And perhaps I already mentioned to you he said, “Were it not for Staupitz I would have fallen into hell.”

So Staupitz tried to make it easier for Luther, and he said to Luther, “If you want to be saved, why don’t you just love God?” Luther said, “Love God? I hate Him. I hate Him.” How can you love a God who is prepared at any moment to damn your soul to hell? Luther began to study philosophy and theology, and discovered that one of the culprits in the church that had confused the issue was the great Dr. Thomas Aquinas, because Aquinas united the teachings of Aristotle and the teachings of Christianity. You know, if you’ve ever read Aquinas, you know that he always refers to the doctor or to the teacher. That’s a reference to Aristotle. It’s the bringing together of Aristotle’s philosophy and the Christian faith, and in that mixture, there is room for good works in the process of salvation, and one can never be sure that he has done his part.

Well, one day, when they were under the pear tree...and if you go to Wittenberg today you can go to the cloister, and you can go to the courtyard in the cloister. And you can visualize Staupitz and Luther under a pear tree. The pear tree is not there today, unfortunately, but the cloister is and so is the courtyard. It was under the pear tree [where] Staupitz said something to Luther that would change his life forever. He said, “Luther, in order to find rest for your soul, why don’t you begin to teach theology? Teach the Bible.” Luther said, “Teach the Bible? It will be the death of me.” He said, “I will die.” And he didn’t realize how right he really was.

He died in one sense when he began to teach the Bible because in 1512, he began some lectures on the Psalms. Now he began to study the Bible in earnest, and he gets to Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And he said to himself, “Why is it that Jesus experienced what I’m experiencing? Jesus experienced this existential despair, this alienation from God, this anfechtungen, this unsettled feeling that He was cut off from God. I can’t believe it. Jesus on the cross.” The light began to dawn that the reason that Jesus experienced that is because Jesus was dying for us, and bearing our despair. And then Luther, later on in 1515, began to lecture on the book of Romans.

And if you have a moment, take your Bibles and turn to Romans, chapter 1, and we’ll see what Luther discovered. Remember the background. You have to be as perfect as God to get into heaven. Luther discovered that despite doing everything that was required plus, he wasn’t perfect. He looked in his soul with a sense of honesty and saw all kinds of sin. I don’t have time to tell you all of the different ways that were offered to him of salvation. For example, there were those who said that if you could make one perfect act of contrition you could please God. But who in the world has ever made a perfect act of contrition? And you were supposed to love God, even if He were to send you to hell. In other words, it was to be a love that would not want you to get out of hell because then the love would be tainted. I mean there were all of these theories regarding what kind of love and what constituted a perfect act of contrition. Luther tried it all, and it led to more despair.

But in Romans, chapter 1, verse 16 he read that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is something of which we should not be ashamed. Verse 17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” Luther said the phrase that terrorized him is that phrase, “the righteousness of God,” because, you see, “if God weren’t so righteous maybe I could please Him. It’s His holiness that gets us into trouble.” And he read the phrase and was afraid of it. But as he looked at it more carefully, he said that the righteousness of God is revealed, and later on he discovered that the righteousness of God is credited to us, so he began to see that there are two aspects to the righteousness of God. There is a righteousness of God that belongs to God as the attributes of God, but there’s a righteousness also given to us as a gift of God it says in Romans, chapter 3, the righteousness which is a gift of God. And Luther began to think, “Wow. That is really something.”

So there are some people to whom God gives the gift of righteousness. You see, in those days, justification was taught that God is in the process of making us righteous. Now, of course God is in the process of making us righteous, but the view of the medievals was that if you go to the Mass, and if you do all the things that are required, righteousness is infused in you. And if you had enough, and remember nobody was sure that they did, you would go to heaven. But few did. If you did, you were declared a saint, but there weren’t many saints.

And so that was the view. It was a never-ending process. It begins with baptism. You go through all the sacraments. You end with the last rites. And if you do it all, you are never quite sure. You still may be in purgatory rather than heaven.

Now Luther is lecturing on Romans and he gets to chapter 4. “What shall we say about Abraham,” it says in chapter 4, and Abraham... (This is verse 3.) For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God and it was counted (or reckoned) to him as righteousness.” Now, said Luther, “I’m beginning to see something, that righteousness is not just something that God does in me, but there is something that God credits to my account on a legal basis that gives me the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and if I have the righteousness of Jesus Christ, I can go directly into heaven because God is pronouncing me to be as righteous as He Himself is. I have the righteousness, the only righteousness that God will ever receive, namely His own. And I’m looked upon as having it. It is reckoned to me. It’s counted to me.”

Well, Luther said, “Thereupon I was reborn, and it was as if I entered into the gates of Paradise,” that what we have, by faith, is a gift of righteousness. It’s a righteousness that we cannot earn. It’s a righteousness that we cannot attain to, and it is a divine righteousness, and there is a huge difference between human righteousness and divine righteousness, and all the human righteousness added together since the beginning of time will never change God’s mind regarding a single sinner. But the righteousness of God credited to sinful human beings means that we can now die with the assurance that we go directly into heaven. That’s why one of the first doctrines that Luther dropped was purgatory.

See, purgatory was based on the notion that not too many people are perfect enough to go directly into heaven, so the fires of purgatory purge them. But if I have the righteousness of Christ credited to my account, why then indeed, I can go directly from this life and be presented in the presence of God declared as righteous as Christ Himself is and I can have the assurance now of heaven.

You see, the Bible says, “God made him that is Christ to be made sin for us that we might be the righteousness of God in him.” Theologians speak about this as “imputation,” and there are two imputations. My sin is imputed to Christ, and His righteousness is imputed to me. Jesus got what He didn’t deserve, namely my sin, and I get what I don’t deserve, namely His righteousness. That is the Gospel, and it’s received by faith.

Now I want us to think about this a little bit. It happens to be one of my favorite topics, and it’s been years since I preached this sermon just on justification by faith alone in a morning service, but I need to do it. I should do it every year because it is the one doctrine that I think about every single day and it helps me every single day.

You see, the issue is the following. First of all, this righteousness has to be a gift because it’s a righteousness to which we can add nothing. It is the righteousness of God. So it’s not our righteousness mixed with God’s righteousness, coming up with some kind of a hybrid righteousness. No, no, no. It is the righteousness of God. Secondly, the issue is not the greatness of our sin, because God can credit the righteousness of Christ to a great sinner just as well as He can to a lesser sinner. Of course, it’s better to be a lesser sinner than a greater sinner, but at the end of the day, the real issue is not the extent of your sin. The real issue is the quality of the righteousness that has been credited to your account.

Because we have a radio ministry I received a letter from a prisoner who said, “I raped four women. Can I ever be forgiven?” Well, you know, there was something within me that wanted to say, “No. People like you should just go to hell.” And I would have been right in one sense. He should go to hell, but then I should have added, “And so should I go to hell” though thankfully, I’ve never done such a terrible thing.

We are all guilty, but I wrote back and I said this. “I want you to visualize two trails. One trail is very messy with ruts going into the ditch. And over here there’s another trail and it is so well traveled. When a blanket of snow comes (Let’s say 18 inches.) it covers both trails equally, and you can’t tell which was which. “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord, ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’”

The righteousness of Christ can be credited to that rapist in prison just as much as the righteousness of Jesus Christ has been credited to Billy Graham, to D.L. Moody, or to any one of us. It is the same righteousness and it covers despicable sins. That is the Gospel, so it is a free gift. It is unchangeable. It has intrinsic quality that you can neither add to nor subtract from. It is going to now become the basis for another Reformation doctrine, namely the priesthood of the believer, because now we all have equal access before God. There’s not a special way for the priest to get to God, and then another way for the rest of us to get to God. But we’re all coming as sinners on the same basis, so we have equal access to Almighty God. And it is the message that takes us all the way to heaven.

Let me ask you something. Was Luther saved when he was confessing his sins six hours at a time? No, and there are many people today in our churches that confess their sins regularly, and they are not converted for the same reason that Luther wasn’t. We can’t remember them all. Tomorrow’s another day. We only are saved when we see that Jesus Christ is our substitute, dying in our place, and we receive the gift of eternal life and His righteousness once for all that is credited to us. And that righteousness is ours even while we still struggle as sinners. That’s why Luther said that Christians are both saint and sinner. They’re both. And we are both saints and sinners. The righteousness of Christ credited to us.

The terrors of law and with God
With me they can have nothing to do.
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hides all of my sins from view.

My name is written on the palm of His hand
Eternity cannot erase.
Forever there it stands,
A mark of indelible grace.

How do you get to heaven? You get to heaven by recognizing that you bring nothing to the table except your sin. Somebody said, “Don’t I contribute?” I said, “Yeah, you really do. Your contribution is your sin.” (chuckles) That’s your contribution. God supplies everything. Everything is one-sided.

Luther says in his commentary on Galatians, that he thought of the righteousness of God as a passive righteousness where he says the flowers in the field cannot cause the rain, but they receive the rain that comes from above. And it’s not because they take their own righteousness, as it were. It is the rain that comes from God. In the very same way, it is the righteousness of God that is given to sinners that saves us. And assurance of salvation therefore comes to us. Assurance comes because we now are no longer dependent on ourselves. Our merit is found in Christ alone. We don’t have to merit eternal life. Jesus merited it for us, and we are saved totally on the basis of what He did. That is the Gospel.

Now, I was going to tell you that, after that Luther walked the half mile, and it is about a half a mile, from his headquarters there in Wittenberg where the university once was, and he walked to the Castle Church. And at the Castle Church, he nailed “Ninety-five Theses.” And the reason that he did that is that Pope Leo, back in Rome, needed some money. He needed some money because the tiers of St. Peter’s Basilica, that you see on the news all the time today, were laid but the project was unfinished. So the question is, “How do you get money?”

So Pope Leo (And there was a tradition that went along with this.) said that what we need to do is to sell indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper that you received that said you were free from the temporal punishment of your sins. It did not mean that you were necessarily guaranteed heaven. Eternal punishment was in God’s hands, but you could be free from temporal punishments, and here was the thing that was added by Pope Leo, that it not only apply to the living but also to the dead, because remember, purgatory was part of temporal punishment too. It was not eternal punishment, so you not only were able to receive an indulgence for your own sins, but for the sins of your mother and the sins of brothers and relatives, and so forth, if you paid some money.


Well, there was a man by the name of Tetzel. Tetzel came, not to Wittenberg, because Elector Frederick wouldn’t allow him there. But Tetzel came, and he began to preach. He brought a cross into the various marketplaces of the towns and set it up and said that this cross was of more value than the cross of Christ. He also said that if you pay a gift, you can get your friends and your relatives out of purgatory.

There was a little jingle that was played which, in effect, said, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs.” Now Luther thought that that was an abuse, and he wrote the “Ninety-five Theses.”

I don’t know how many of you have seen those theses. They are very interesting. I’ve read them several times, and I don’t have them here tonight, and I’m already overtime. But one of the things that I remember...I think it was number 38. I chose some of my favorites. I think it was number 38 that said this: “If the pope is really able to open purgatory, if he has that power, why doesn’t he do it out of pure charity rather than needing money to do it?” That was a pretty good thought. If you have the power to do it, why do you need to get paid to empty purgatory? And on and on it went. He didn’t think that indulgences were wrong. He just thought that they were being abused. It is only later as his theology began to develop, and it was later that after the “Ninety-five Theses” were posted that Pope Leo said regarding Luther (because word reached Rome regarding the theses which were originally written in Latin, translated into German, and then because of the printing press, spread throughout Germany...) Pope Leo said, “Luther is a drunken German. He shall feel differently when he is sober.”

You know, if at that point Pope Leo had said, “You know, we need to reform this” things might have been entirely different, but because he took such a hard line, Luther began to take a hard line, and that is how the Reformation began.

Well, next time I’m going to tell you the story of Luther at the Diet of Worms. I think that if we see video tapes in heaven that’s one that I want to see—Luther before Pope Leo and the princes of Germany, making his famous stand. But we’re going to discuss other doctrines, which began to develop as a result of this Reformation.

Well, now let me take just a moment to answer some of the questions from last week, and if some of the pastoral staff would go down the aisles just in case somebody has a question for tonight. Just in case. You could do that right now.


Question: Do you see a need for a similar reform today? If so, what do you think would be the nature of that reform?

Answer: I think we do. I think that what we need to do is to return to the Gospel. There is so much unclear Gospel preaching today. We’ve taken the cross of Jesus Christ and we have hidden it behind health and wealth and political agendas and all the rest. And what we need to do is to get back to the central issue: How do people go to heaven? And can you have assurance that you will go to heaven? So I think that the church does need reform.

Here’s an interesting one. If we accept the authority of the Jerusalem Council in Acts and the rulings of some of the early church councils, at what point would you say non-Catholics (I guess that’s us as Protestants.) break with the church councils?

Actually, I’m not sure. If you take the first seven councils of the church, I’m not sure that we as Protestants really strongly disagree with any of them because most of the councils have to do with the deity of Christ, and you have Chalcedon, the humanity of Jesus and the deity of Jesus. We buy into all of that. The dividing line comes this way. And I’m not sure that the councils deal with this specifically. I’m not up on all of them, but the dividing line is this: Is salvation a free gift to be received by faith, or is righteousness something infused in us through religious rituals? And that kind of becomes the dividing point, but most of us accept the creeds of the early church.

All right, this is written with perhaps just a touch of sarcasm.

Of all of the travesties of corruption throughout church history why do you think...let me reread this. This is a different question than I thought. The question is this: In light of the fact that there have been so many abuses throughout church history, why didn’t God treat all of these people who abused the church like He did Ananias and Sapphira and just simply end their lives?

Well, one reason is because some church basements may not be big enough for a morgue. I haven’t heard you smile yet tonight, so I had to throw that in. It seems as if God began the early church with His great emphasis on purity as a lesson about the need for honesty, and Ananias and Sapphira were deceptive and God smote them. Since that time He has not been doing that very, very often.

Do you have any questions that others have asked? There is one here that I perhaps should not bother with, though it is interesting. At what point in the history of the church did the teaching practices and theology go wrong?

Up until the time of Constantine, in about 312, that’s when he crossed the Tiber River and conquered Rome, the church had heresies, but basically the doctrine of the church was very much in line with what we call evangelicalism. It is true, of course, that there were those who spoke about the sacraments as containing Christ, as if Christ was at least really present in the sacraments and so forth. Sometimes baptism was confused because there are texts that indicate that baptism becomes necessary for salvation rather early on. But it was the time when Constantine took the church, and he began to appoint the bishops, and pretty soon you have the amalgamation of church and state. And that’s where you have the grand synthesis of pagan theology and Christianity.

For example, the Romans had a god if you were going to buy something, a god if you were going to sell something, a god if you were going on a journey. Those gods could not be brought wholesale into the church, but they were given the same responsibility as were given to saints. So if you were going to travel, what is it? Saint Jude. If you were going to sell a house it’s a different saint. We have some friends who buried a statue of a saint, a little statue of a saint in their yard when they were selling the house. I forget which saint it was, but saints then were given the same responsibilities as the Roman gods. So you have a synthesis because you have mass conversions, sometimes two or three thousand people were converted from paganism to Christianity in one ceremony, and as a result of that, many practices came into the church with which some of us have disagreement.

How then is the Catholic church’s teaching of righteousness different today?

I’m not entirely sure. Righteousness is still considered to be something that is dependent on human effort, and some of you who were reared Catholic can correct me on that if I’m wrong. But I’ve talked to enough and had enough experience to know that that syntheses of human works and divine works is still out there, and the whole uncertainty issue, the inability to be able to have assurance is there, too, because that goes along with it, because if salvation is ninety percent of God and ten percent of me, I’m never sure that I’m keeping my ten present end of the bargain. So there is always uncertainty. And I think that that uncertainty, by and large, is still there.

Okay. Why was there not a similar Reformation in the Eastern Orthodox church?

That is a fascinating question, and I’m not sure that I am capable of answering it entirely, except to say that Eastern Orthodoxy went its way after 1065. Hagia Sophia, when I was in this church in Istanbul a couple of years ago, I went to the western door because I wanted to stand where that delegation came in, and where they left, and they went back to Rome when the pope in Rome excommunicated the bishop of Constantinople, as the city was called at that time. And then the bishop of Constantinople tore the papal bull in two and let it blow in the wind and refused to accept the authority of the pope. And east and west had been drifting apart for a number of different reasons, and that was the final break. And later on, there were attempts to bring them together, but as time went on, that became impossible. Eastern Orthodoxy has some important differences with Catholicism, not only that they don’t accept the pope. They have icons, etc. and statues, and there are other doctrinal issues, but I cannot answer that question exactly, though there are Eastern Orthodox people today who are studying the Scriptures, and becoming more evangelical as they are doing it.

Like a woman who read the Bible through twice in one year said to me, and these are her words. She said, “You know, the Bible is not a Catholic book.” And many Catholics are studying the Bible, so there are great changes in the Catholic church. Don’t get me wrong. Great changes. But for some of us, we’d say that things aren’t there yet.

Do you have a final question? Oh, very good. James: Faith without works is dead, and you’re not justified by faith alone, but also by works, it says in James, Right?

That’s a very, very good point. Are all of these questions also? My, oh my. Sometime we should just have an evening for questions, and just simply say, “Tonight is question night.” And all of these questions are so excellent.

Here is a very quick answer. When you read the book of James, you discover that he is not using the word “justification” in the same sense that Paul is. He’s using the word “justification” in the sense of vindication. Your faith is proven. You say, “Well, how is that? Do you just do it arbitrarily because it fits?” No. If you read it, you’ll notice that he says, “Abraham was justified by faith when he offered Isaac up on the altar.” That means that Abraham’s faith was vindicated when he did that. You say, “Well, how do you know that?” It’s because in Genesis 15, before he offered up Isaac on the altar, before he did that, it says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness.” That was Abraham’s justification, not in Genesis, chapter 22, when he offered his son, but rather in Genesis 15. That’s where you find justification by faith in Abraham’s life. When he’s talking about offering up Isaac on the altar he’s talking about the word “justification” in the sense of vindication. Jesus used the word “justification” like that once in a while too. He says, “By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned." Are you telling me that Jesus is saying, “By your words you’re going to be justified in the presence of a holy God?” I don’t think so. What he means is, “By your words you shall be vindicated,” and in the very same way, “By your words you shall be condemned.” So you really read that passage with that little bit in mind and I will think that James does not contradict Paul.

Well, you’ve been delightful tonight, and thank you so much for your questions. Next time we’re going to talk about how the pebble fell into the lake, and how all of these ripples began to spread as a result of Luther’s Reformation, which some of us believe is really God’s Reformation ultimately.

Now, if you disagree with anything that is said tonight, that’s fine. You are welcome to come to Moody Church, and I hope you come back next week. And we’ll continue to dialogue about this important subject.

And by the way, are you here tonight, and you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior, and you have no assurance that you are going to heaven? The Bible says that if we receive Christ and His gift, we have the authority to become the children of God, to be those children. Assurance is yours if Jesus paid it all.

Let’s stand as we dismiss.

And our Lord tonight we want to thank you so much for grace that has been given to us in Jesus Christ, our Lord. We thank you today, Father, that we can be declared righteous by God. Thank you for the gift of righteousness which assures us a place in your kingdom. Thank you that in Jesus we are as perfect as you are. Help us today to walk in that truth, and to be fully satisfied with what Jesus did. We pray in His name, Amen.

Tell us why you valued this sermon.

Other Sermons in this Series

Related Sermons