When they are on the goggle box, we all love court room dramas. And our next turning point in the Reformation has one. It happened during a legal sitting of the Holy Roman Emperor who was the overlord of broadly the Low Countries, Germany and Spain. For, you see, Martin Luther had been called before this diet to make his case in 1521. He had been promised safe passage there but this had been breached in the previous case of Jan Hus and he rightly could fear the flames of a heretic’s death. So in his first appearance at the diet of worms – yes the schoolboy howler of the diet of worms, he was naturally very nervous. And so when he was asked to recant his views, he must have been strongly tempted to do so. Yet he managed to ask for a night to think it over. The emperor granted that and next morning he returned with renewed courage. In fact, he stood his ground of basing his theology on the rational discovery of truth through Scripture. Albeit probably he did not use the words later put into his mouth – here I stand, I can do no other. Nevertheless, it was that stance which was the starting gun for the reformation.
But what were these views that a devout man would risk the funeral pyre for and spark a European conflict of such dimensions that were not paralleled until the 20th Century? Moreover, what is the relevance of Luther’s theology today?
Well, without troubling you with a history lesson, Luther was reacting to both the thinking and practice of the church of his day. In general terms, the church considered that while we needed God’s help to get into a right relationship with him, some seeds of goodness lay within us. It’s a bit like serving a long prison sentence and then being given the generous offer of paying a large fine to be released. You dig out the old credit card and pay up from your own financial resources. Luther however, had a life long struggle find his wallet. In other words, year upon year, he fought to come up to the righteous measure of God; to meet God’s unwavering law as he saw it. But he felt a constant failure and feared God’s wrath at not being able to find any goodness within himself. Then he chanced on our Romans reading from today. He came to the conclusion, that nothing we can do can give us the right relationship with God.
But don’t worry – Luther knew a man who could. And that man was Jesus of Nazareth. For it is Christ – who is external to us – that supplies all that is needed to get right with God – to be saved in the parlance. Returning to our prison analogy, we would be released not by our own payment but because the fine had been paid by someone else on our behalf. All that we would need is faith – faith in the man who had bailed us out – faith in Christ Jesus.
Well, assuming we too want to be in the right relationship with God, what did Luther mean by faith?
Certainly, he meant more than what many people claim is their faith today. Since, we can all hear the facts of Jesus’ life; listen to his words and even marvel at his needs. Yet unless somehow we actually go beyond an intellectual acceptance of Christ’s life and death and resurrection it is not saving faith. Instead, we must integrate the person beyond the parables into our heart of hearts. And we do that best by coming to complete submission; submitting to the truth that Jesus was born for us personally and submitting to he who alone who puts us right with God on an individual level. Put simply no church or minister can do that for you- only you can give in and find the living and saving Christ for yourself.
However, it goes beyond even that. For faith, to Luther, also meant trust. Now I don’t know about you but I am a nervous flyer in commercial aircraft. Pilot a glider or a light aircraft I can do – but when I enter the door of an airliner I feel the same as Luther at his can of worms. In other words, I have faith that the Boeing 737 before me can take me to London but I still have to have the faith to get into the contraption. So too it is with saving faith. We must not just believe that Jesus can get us right with God, we need also to rely that he has done so. That means taking risks in that faith. It means get out of the boat and walk impossibly on the water in that faith. It means truly living each day in that faith.
But Luther didn’t even stop there. Since for him there was a third and final aspect to being saved through faith. Because he saw faith not just putting us right with God and giving us a new dimension to living. Rather he saw faith uniting us with Christ. In his words faith bring union between Christ and the believer.
And that is pretty powerful stuff. This is the idea too of Paul that we heard of in Galatians. For, through faith, we cast aside slavery to rules and regulations, required practices and things we must do to get in with God. Through faith we forget worrying when we do fail. Indeed, through faith we will fail less often. Because through faith we are not just wiped clean and set free, we are adopted into the family of God. And it is as his heirs alone we inherit a forgiven life eternal.
C S Lewis once wrote – In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know I am a very nasty man. I look at some of the things I have done with horror or loathing. Well, deep down I suspect most of us feel something like that from time to time. For that is the very nature of our mixed up humanness. Yet Luther, even if we spoke nearly five hundred years ago, shows us the way out of that pit of despondency. For, he said – have faith and invite Christ into that dark inner place. Countless Christians since have trusted rightly in that presence of Christ to get them through of the mess, over the chasm and out of the boat. And even in these Godless days, Christ still says to you and me; come brother, come sister – I will make you right with God – I will make you free – Indeed, I will make you forever.