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Rescued From Despair

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 30, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

The slightest smidgeon of sin will banish you from the presence of God forever. Martin Luther understood this and spent hours each day confessing his sins. But he ran into a quandary:

Sins, in order to be forgiven, had to be remembered.
If sins aren’t remembered, they can’t be confessed.
If sins aren’t confessed, they can’t be forgiven.
And what if there are things that God considers sinful but you aren’t aware that they are sins?

Luther eventually connected the dots, and in this message, Pastor Lutzer takes us through the passages in the book of Romans that led Martin Luther to saving faith in Jesus Christ—and the start of the Reformation.

In July of 1505, a 21-year old university student was walking along near Stoddard Heim, Germany, when he was overtaken by a thunderstorm. He was struck to the ground by lightning and cried out in his terror, “Saint Ann, save me and I shall become a monk.” It is indeed interesting that the man who called out to a saint to save him would eventually repudiate the idea that we should pray to saints, would become a monk, eventually renounce his vows of monasticism and would in turn become one of the most famous men in all of history. More books have been written about him than any other man who has ever lived except the life of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul.

I have Catholic friends who say that Martin Luther was a turncoat. He was a man with many flaws and he began what is known at the Protestant Reformation because of some personal grievances. If you are looking for a man with flaws, indeed you should look Luther’s way because he was a man with many, many flaws. I most assuredly do not agree with everything that Luther taught, or everything he said or did, but at the same time, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, or whether you are a Mormon, a Hindu, a Muslim–whatever your religion is, you and I need to appreciate the struggle that Martin Luther had and how it was eventually resolved.

Luther struggled with what is known in German as unfestungen. That’s an interesting word to translate. Sometimes it is translated depression or it can be also translated guilt–a sense of alienation from God, a disconnectedness, a disquiet of spirit. I sometimes call it a kind of existential despair. He wondered how he could please Almighty God, and so in honor of his vow there in the thunderstorm he enrolled in the Augustinian Monastery in Erfert, Germany. And he was there in the Monastery and he was living there. And in the monastery you can see that there is a very beautiful church attached to it with beautiful windows. And it was in this beautiful church next to the cloister that Luther would prostrate himself on a slab of stone, and there he took his vows of celibacy and vows of poverty and obedience. And because I have the privilege of leading tours to the sites of the Reformation, every time I do I reenact the event personally for all of the cameras and all of the tourists that come along with us on the tour.

Luther took those vows and he was terrorized by God. He saw God, unlike us moderns, as very, very holy, and so when he performed his first mass, he trembled, fearing that God might strike him down. About his first mass behind the altar, later he said these words: “At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, ‘With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I that I should lift my eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? The angel surrounds him and at his nod, the earth trembles, and shall I, a miserable little pigmy, say I want this or ask for that? I am but dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.’”

Luther availed himself of all the things that were available there in the monastery in terms of the disciplines of the Church. Nowadays it’s not possible for tourists to actually see the place where Luther lived. It is a room but I call it a cell. You can see it through a lattice, so to speak. But I’ve been in that room, and it is solid stone floor and stone walls. Luther slept without blankets so as to put to death the movements of the flesh.
He sometimes fasted so long that there were people who thought that he might die. He begged for his food to humiliate himself. And in those days it was clearly believed that you had to be perfect to get into heaven. But the question was, how is that kind of perfection attained and what do we need to finally do to know that we’ve satisfied Almighty God? It was believed that if you were in a monastery you had a better shot at it. You maybe had some special consideration, but Luther knew no peace because no matter what he did he didn’t know whether he had done enough.

In those days it was believed that there were at least two kinds of Christians. There were the saints who maybe got to heaven directly after death, but the common person didn’t do that. The common person died with too much sin for heaven, so purgatory, it was believed, is a place where one would be able to eventually be purged well enough and thoroughly enough to enter into heaven, but nobody knew how long purgatory was or how torturous the process might be.

Luther took advantage of the sacraments of the Church. Of special consolation to him was confession. Sometimes he would begin his confession period to Staupitz, his confessor, and he would begin by reciting the seven deadly sins, and the Ten Commandments to jog his memory, and then the confession would begin, one time lasting seven hours. And then Luther would say to Staupitz, “You know, I think we have to meet again because I forgot something.” Staupitz became so exasperated he said, “Luther, the next time you come to confess let it be for some big sin, like murder or adultery or blasphemy, but not for all these little peccadilloes, these little, little sins.”

Luther was a better theologian than his contemporaries and he realized that the issue was not whether or not the sin was big or little but the real issue was whether or not it had been forgiven, because Luther understood, as we moderns do not, that the slightest smidgeon of sin may banish you from God’s presence forever, and Luther got that. The question was how do you do this? But you see, he reached an impasse. Sins, in order to be forgiven, had to be remembered. If they were not remembered, they could not be confessed, and if they were not confessed they could not be forgiven. So the question was could he trust his memory? And then the issue was even deeper than that. The question was what if there were some things he did that God considered to be sin but Luther didn’t recognize them as sins? What then? And then when he looked into his heart he realized that his problem was even so much greater than all that. He realized that his whole nature was corrupt and that he was a sinner, and didn’t merely commit sins but was a sinner. Even if he remembered all of his sins, even if he confessed all of his sins, tomorrow would be another day, and that tomorrow would be fraught with more confession, because more sins would be committed. And the question was perhaps like mopping up a floor with a faucet running. The question was, “When does this all end, and when can I have assurance that I have done enough for God?” Luther was in despair.

Now it so happened that in the year 1511 he was transferred to Wittenberg where there was a new university. And so he went there to Wittenberg where the university was to teach philosophy, and there, as you enter into the university, there is a door, and if you were to look out the door you’d see a courtyard. And it is there where Staupitz came to visit him, and said, “Luther, why don’t you teach the Bible here at the university?” And so Luther began to teach the Scriptures, and that’s when some of the light began to dawn, so rather than teaching philosophy he began to lecture on the book of Psalms and he came to Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Now said Luther, “Why is it that Jesus himself experienced this sense of alienation, this entfremdungen? Why is it that Jesus went through this? He experienced what I have experienced.” Ah, the light began to dawn. It was for him that Jesus experienced that.

And then he was lecturing on the book of Romans. In Romans 1, where he began lecturing, he noticed that it says very clearly in verse 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness.” But notice verse 17. It is there where we should begin. “For in it (that is in the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, the righteous shall live by faith.” Luther trembled when he came to that word righteousness–the righteousness of God because his whole point was if God wasn’t as righteous as He is, I have a better chance of meeting his demands. Luther said, “Love God?” He said, “I was terrified of God.” How can you reach the demands of a God who has righteousness as one of His attributes?

So Luther began to struggle with this and then he came across the words in chapter 3 of the book of Romans. You’ll notice it says in verse 24, “We are justified as a gift by his grace.” Luther began to ponder these things and in chapter 4 it says that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness. Abraham received a gift of righteousness. So Luther said, “Day and night I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God (which terrified him) and the statement “The just shall live by faith.” And he said, “God’s justice is the righteousness by which in sheer mercy he justifies us through faith.” And Luther said, “When I understood this I felt myself to be reborn and enter into the gates of Paradise.”

What Luther discovered that had been lost throughout the centuries of tradition is that we are saved by the righteousness of another. It is somebody else who gives us righteousness we don’t have. And it is received by faith. What he learned was that there is an attribute of God called righteousness, but there is also the gift of righteousness that God gives freely to those who believe the Gospel.

No wonder Luther felt as if he had entered into the gates of Paradise. His search was over. But meanwhile in Rome, there was a pope by the name of Pope Leo who needed some money. Saint Peter’s Basilica, that you see on the news, had been started actually a number of years before, but the huge tiers of the Basilica were still upright and the Basilica was unfinished. So what Leo decided to do was to issue a new proclamation of indulgences. Now indulgences had been sold for centuries and indulgence was a payment that you would make. It could be a work, but then obviously it also became a gift that you could give. It could be a monetary gift that would actually shorten the length of time that you would experience the temporal consequences of sin.

I emphasize temporal. For example, indulgences would never keep anyone out of hell because those were eternal consequences. But indulgences would help in that it would shorten your time in purgatory. Indulgences were sold but this time with a new twist. You could buy not only an indulgence for yourself and your family, but you could also buy an indulgence for those who had died who were presently in purgatory. So across the river from Wittenberg there was a man by the name of Tetzel, selling indulgences, and Tetzel would say to people, “Listen to your mother who is in purgatory as she is saying, ‘Can’t you just give a few duckets (as the coins were called in those days) and I would be out of this fire?’” And so people gave a lot of money. They bought these indulgences and people from Wittenberg went to hear Tetzel and came back and actually said that they had found an indulgence, and had purchased an indulgence for sins they had not yet committed but were intending to commit. And when Luther heard that, he was very angry. At that point he was not against indulgences. He was against their abuse, so in anger, Luther walked the half-mile from the university to the Castle Church there in Wittenberg, and he had walked there many times because it was the university church. And when you go into the Castle Church today you discover it’s the place where tourists go. The inside of the sanctuary is very beautiful. It’s been my privilege to be there many times and to give a lecture on the Reformation there. Luther is buried there in the Castle Church, but what we must understand is that it’s not just the inside of the church that is important to us. Rather, it is the door that is outside the church that we should focus on, because what Luther did was he actually took 95 theses that he wrote out and he put those theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg.

The original theses were written in Latin. In fact, today on a metal door you have all of them inscribed in Latin, and these were taken and they were translated into German and they spread throughout Germany. He was challenging the abuses of the church. Today above the door you can see a fresco of Luther and Melanchthon bowing before the crucified Christ. As a result of this, Luther became famous, and this became a string of events that ultimately resulted in what we call the Protestant Reformation.

Now we must realize that the real message of the Reformation was this, that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, He was made sin for us, the one who knew no sin, it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21. So there were two transactions that happened at the cross. The first transaction was that our sin was credited to Christ. The Bible says that our sin was laid upon Him, and it’s very clear He had no sin in Him because He Himself was spotless and sinless, but our sin was laid upon Him and He became legally guilty of your sin and mine, and other sins that are horrendous and grossly evil. He became legally guilty of that. No wonder it was Isaac Watts who said, “Well might the sun in darkness hide and shut its glories in, when Christ the great redeemer died for man, the creature’s sin.”

So the first transaction was that our sin was laid on Christ. But then the other transaction is that His righteousness is connected to us. It is given to us as a gift. We become the righteousness of God in Christ. So you can say really that there were two things happening at the cross. The first is that Jesus was getting what He didn’t deserve, namely our sin, and in turn, we were getting what we didn’t deserve, namely His righteousness. We were getting His righteousness by faith. We are saved by His righteousness, His merit entirely, and not our own. This righteousness has several characteristics. First of all, it obviously is a free gift. The book of Romans, it says these words at the end of chapter 6: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Now just think of it reasonably. It has to be free. Can you imagine us as sinners buying our way into heaven and giving God something that He thinks we could do in exchange for His righteousness? Absolutely not. We’ve already learned in the book of Romans that we are tainted, and even our best of works are tainted. Even participating in sacraments or doing good deeds, which in themselves may have some value, all of our works are tainted, so if we’re going to receive righteousness it has to come from God untainted by our own sin, and it has to be given to us as a gift.

Luther said it’s like the parched ground. He said that it can’t insist on rain coming, but when the rain comes, it falls on the ground and that ground can be hard, or it can be soft. And it is a gift from above, and the Bible says that God covers our sins. So He can cover one sinner’s sin just as much as another, and what this really means (and you’ve heard me say it a number of times, but you’ll probably hear me say it a number of times in the future) is that the real issue is not the greatness of our sin. God actually can save big sinners, criminals if you please, if they transfer their trust to Jesus Christ, because no matter how great our sin is the merits of God in Jesus Christ are above that sin. So listen to me carefully. Nobody listening to me today can say to me, “Pastor Lutzer, I’ve sinned too much for God to forgive me.” I’d say, “Believe His promises and go for it, my friend, because Jesus died for some mighty big sinners.” (applause)

So, first of all, it is a free gift. Secondly, we discover in the text of Scripture that not only is it a free gift but it is given equally to all who believe. You say, “Well, where is that in the Bible?” Well it says in Romans 3, “It is given to all who believe,” and obviously there’s only one kind of righteousness, and that’s God’s that is being given as a gift. It is righteousness that cannot be improved upon, it cannot be made any better, and so this righteousness is given equally to all who believe.

So you know this division between the saints who had righteousness, and there were some who believed that the saints had more righteousness than they needed to enter into heaven, and that you could actually draw on their treasury of merit, as many people did in medieval times. All that needs to go because the righteousness of God is given to all who believe. That’s why one of the first doctrines that Luther no longer believed in was purgatory, because you see purgatory says that very few people (certainly not people like us) would die with enough righteousness to enter into God’s presence. But if the righteousness of God is given freely as a gift to all who believe, and if that righteousness is as holy as God Himself is, if that’s the case, why then, when we die we go from this life to the next without having to pass GO, without having to receive $200 without going to jail, or purgatory because we die as righteous as Jesus is and when we arrive in heaven we are welcomed as if we were Jesus, saved totally and completely on the basis of His merit alone. (applause)

You see, it was this that led to what we call the priesthood of the believer, and in Wittenberg there are two churches. There is the famous Castle Church, the Church of the Reformation, but there is also the town church, called Town, because the people from the town would go there, and it is there within the church on Christmas Day in 1521 something happened that had not happened for centuries in the churches of Europe.

Two things: first of all, the liturgy was said in German. It was the first time a whole generation of Germans heard the words, “This cup is the cup of the New Covenant in my blood. This drink in remembrance of me.” It was the first time they actually heard it in German, the language they could understand. But there was something else that happened within that church, and that is that not only was the liturgy in German, but now people were able to participate in the cup and also the bread together, because now everyone was a priest before God and therefore the common person had just as much access to God Almighty as anyone else.

Now mind you when this happened on Christmas Day 1521 Luther wasn’t there. Luther was holed up in the Wartburg Castle because, you see, the Emperor had said that whoever finds him could kill him, so he was hiding there for ten months in a room in the Wartburg Castle. And it is there that Luther translated, among many other things (he wrote all kinds of books), the Bible and translated it from the original into German. He did the entire New Testament in something like about twenty weeks. Can you even imagine that?

And so he eventually translated the entire Bible, including the Old Testament, and that of course took years. Luther wanted the common person to understand and to read the Bible. That was very important to him, so holed up in that particular room that’s where he began his translation. He said he wanted Moses to speak such good German that the Germans wouldn’t even know that he was a Jew. Luther put the Bible in the hands of the German people.

Now think of the impact of this. Let’s fast-forward. Centuries later up in Canada my parents who were of German descent were reading to us as children every morning before we went out to work or school. They read to us from the German Bible, and if you were to open the German Bible, as I did as a child, you would notice there: “Based on the Martin Luther Translation.”

It is impossible for us to over exaggerate and to overemphasize the impact that Luther had with the many books and hymns that he wrote, and the translation of the Bible into a German that the people could understand. He said, “I want the scrub woman to be able to pick up the Bible and read it.”

Now there’s something else about the righteousness of God and that is it is given to us permanently – permanent acceptance before God. Now I have a question I’m going to ask you and I want you to answer this, because for some of you your eternal salvation could rest on how you answer the question I am going to ask. And the question is simply this: When was Luther actually converted–born again as Jesus said we must do if we intend to enter the Kingdom of God? Was it at his baptism? No, baptism didn’t do it. Was it during those times of confession–the hours and hours of confession as he tried to wrack his brain remembering every sin he had ever committed? Was that the time that Luther actually was converted? No. You don’t get saved by confessing your sins, because if you simply confess your sins without understanding the Gospel, it’s something that you do once, and then you return again and again. But you have no assurance that you’ve ever done enough or that you’ve confessed enough. No, it’s not then. Today millions of people in America will be attending church and they will be confessing sins and they will leave through those church doors as unconverted as Luther did as he confessed them for hour after hour back in Erfert.

What is going on here? Well, you say, don’t you believe in the confession of sins? Yes, we as Christians confess our sins but that’s not how you become a Christian. Luther was right. You can’t remember all of your sins. You can confess them one day. You return the next. You’re not sure if you get them all and you don’t know where you are at. What the Gospel says is this: that what we need is one act that permanently settles our relationship with God and it doesn’t happen simply because we remember all of our sins, though we do, of course, have to acknowledge that we are sinners. And it is that one act by which we become children of God forever and our destiny is finally and totally settled and we become God’s children. And then we are born again, and after being born again, we then belong to the family of God. You’ll notice what the Bible says so clearly in the book of Hebrews in one of the most beautiful passages that you could ever read or meditate upon. Speaking of the Old Testament, the writer says, “And every priest stands daily at his service offering repeatedly the same sacrifices which can never take away sins, but when Christ has offered for all time a single sacrifice….”

Luther pointed out that Jesus is not re-sacrificing again and again. He offered a single sacrifice for sins. He sat down on the right hand of God, waiting from that time until His enemy should be made a footstool for His feet. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” For one time! When Jesus died on the cross, He doesn’t have to die again. That sacrifice is sufficient and when you place your trust in Jesus, your sins legally, past, present and future, are forgiven.

How many of your sins, by the way, were future, when Jesus died? All of them! In the very same way, we must understand that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was so expansive, so well-accepted by God, the Father, that if you believe in Him, you become a child of God forever. Now within that context, of course, confession now becomes important because that maintains our personal relationship with God and keeps the issues clear between us.

Maybe I can give an example. What if Rebecca and I had adopted a boy into our family and he were to say to us, “Now that I am your child and the adoption is secure, does that mean that I have to keep re-upping my adoption by constant confession of my disobedience?” And we would say, “No, we don’t want you to be disobedient. We do want you to confess to us and be reconciled to us, but your stature in this family is secure, and immutable,” and that’s the way it is when we believe on Jesus.

Now I can imagine there’s someone here (I see what your mind is thinking) who is thinking, “Oh, isn’t this nice?” I’ve had people say this to me. They say, “Well, you know, isn’t this nice? You know, what this really means is that I can just believe on Jesus and live like the devil. You know, I can just go out and I can just commit murder.” If you are saying that today, I have a couple of things to say to you as I look into your mind.

Number one, thank you for thinking that, because that is the natural response of somebody who finally believes that salvation is a free gift. But number two, I would also say that you are tipping your hand here and I almost certainly can tell you that if you are thinking that way you have never been born again of the Holy Spirit. You have never trusted Christ in the way I have described.

It would be something like our son, to use the analogy again, whom we adopted, coming and saying, “Well, now that I belong to you I can just go out and murder somebody and I’ll still be your child. Right?” Come on! Yeah, I get what you are saying, namely you are understanding that our relationship with you is immutable, but is this the response of someone who has been welcomed into a family and loved and redeemed in the family of God? I don’t think so.

So as you think about the freeness of the gift, remember this, that it is indeed free to those who transfer their trust to Christ alone– ot Christ and my sacraments, not Christ and prayers, not Christ and vigils, not Christ and all these good deeds. Those flow. Good deeds flow from our relationship with Christ, but it is to see the merit of Jesus as being complete and total. That’s why we even sing, “I need no other argument, I need no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me.” That is the Good News of the Gospel. And I encourage you today, if you have never trusted Him, or thought you have but you really haven’t, to rush to Him in faith.

Do you remember in the Old Testament there was a plague that God sent to the people-the Israelites–because of their disobedience? The Bible says that there were snakes, yes serpents, which went among the people and bit them and many people died. So Moses cries out to God and says, “God, what shall I do? These people are dying,” and God says, “Here’s what I want you to do. Take a pole and on it put a brass serpent and I will work it so that there will be a miracle that will take place. If somebody looks at that pole in faith, I’ll heal them and I’ll keep them from the plague.”

Centuries later Jesus was talking to a man by the name of Nicodemus who came to Him by night and said, “What shall I do to be born again?” and Jesus said, “Unless you are born of water and wind (those are two symbols of the Holy Spirit: water – cleansing, wind – power) you will not enter into the Kingdom of God.” And so, in order to get his point across Jesus said this: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so shall the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” All that was required for those people in the desert was to look up in faith.

Sometimes I hear people preach the Gospel and they say, “Why don’t you give your life to Christ?” Well, I understand what they mean, but when you understand the Gospel, you realize that it’s not a matter of you giving God anything. You come to receive. You come as you are to receive. As the hymn says, “Just as I am without one plea,” but you come to receive. You don’t come to give. Oh, I know giving your life to Christ is important, especially after you believe, but we come and we bring nothing to the table except our great need.

Luther put it so beautifully. He was a very witty man, but he also had very pithy sayings in the process. He said this basically is the Gospel, and I don’t think I could summarize it any better than this. He said, “Oh Jesus, I am thy sin; Thou art my righteousness.” That’s it! “I am your sin. That’s my contribution. Your contribution is that you give me the righteousness that I receive by faith.” That is the righteousness of God.

Of course Luther lived centuries before this poem and it’s one of the few that I know by memory. But my, how he would have rejoiced in it and agreed with it.

The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do,
Because my Savior’s obedience and blood
Hides all of my sins from view.
My name on the palm of his hands
Eternity cannot erase.
Forever there it stands,
A mark of indelible grace.

That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (applause)

And that is the story of the Reformation.

Have you trusted Christ as your Savior like that? It’s so simple and yet, oh, is it hard. All the objections! You mean this is all I have to do? And isn’t there more for me to do? You mean I can just… I have to humble myself and say that Jesus has to do it all. It’s so simple and yet so very hard to do but there are some of you to whom I am speaking and God is working in your heart and showing you exactly that this is what you must do because the despair in your heart is a good sign to show you your need of a Savior who covers your sins, who changes you within and makes you a member of God’s family forever.

Will you join me as we pray?

Father, we thank You today for the gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ, and we pray for all those who have never really trusted Him this way. They’ve trusted Jesus, plus a whole lot of other things. Help them to see that Christ raised, risen, and glorified, died for sinners just like us. We thank You for the gift of God.

And now, before I close this prayer, all those who are listening (and you may be listening on the Internet or by radio, in addition to the many who are here today), where are you in your relationship with God? The turmoil within you–do you realize that that may be God speaking to you and telling you it’s time to believe on Jesus, leading you in the path of Luther’s recognition that the Gospel is the answer and Jesus is what you are looking for? You talk to Him right now. You tell Him that you believe on Him.

Father, we pray that your Holy Spirit who has been given to your people and through your Word and through the Gospel may bring about conviction and understanding. Overcome all the resistance that some may have to see the completeness of the work of Jesus on our behalf. And we thank You that because of Him we can sing that it is really well with our souls. We move from despair to wellness. In His name we pray, Amen.

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