Recently I received an email along with a photo of a cute puppy. It read: “This is Buddy. I bought him as a surprise for my husband, but it turns out he’s allergic to dogs. So unfortunately I have to find a new home for him, and am wondering if anyone out there can help. His name is Allen. He’s 61, great at DIY projects, drives a nice car, and plans wonderful holidays.”
I liked this email because I found myself drawn into the predicament and was then delightfully surprised at the end. Similarly, when my life was first impacted by the Gospel in the early 1980s, it came as a life-transforming surprise that I had not seen coming.
Raised in a devout Catholic home in my native Scotland, I attended mass each Sunday morning and devotions each Sunday evening, served as an altar boy for several years, and attended Catholic primary and secondary school. At one point in my early teenage years, I considered going into the priesthood. I never dreamed that 40 years later I would preach at the Augustinerkloster in Erfurt, Germany, where Martin Luther had taken his vows as a monk and lived in the cloisters from 1505 to 1511.
My initial introduction to Martin Luther (1483–1546) was through Roland H. Bainton’s seminal work, Here I Stand. Within its pages I discovered that I had a great deal more in common with Luther than I had imagined.
As I lay awake at night reading I immersed myself in the life of Luther. It was not easy to separate the vast panoply of characters—cardinals and kings, peasants and priests, merchants and monks—while empathizing with those caught up in the rigors of monastic life, the liturgical straightjacket of the medieval mass, the sacerdotal practice of the clergy, the trafficking of indulgences, and the life-transforming truth contained within the doctrines of justification by faith and the imputed righteousness of Christ.
In later years I would come to appreciate the magisterial reformers’ emphasis on sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. But in those early days I felt as though I was walking alongside Luther while he discovered the heart of the gospel contained in the truth, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Over the last 38 years, I have thought about Luther many times; visited his birthplace at Eisleben, the cathedral in Erfurt where he conducted his first mass, and Wartburg castle where the disguised outlaw Junker Jorg would translate the New Testament into German; and spent a fascinating afternoon exploring his home in Wittenberg. Yet despite my historical fascination with Luther, the question uppermost in my mind is this: How does Luther’s influence inform and impact my ministry today?
Like most pastors, I spend time on a variety of issues: intermediate and long-term planning, budgetary issues, staffing quotas, leadership development for elders and deacons, pre- and post-marital counseling, hospital and hospice visitation, encouraging a thriving youth and children’s ministry, preparing and conducting funerals and weddings, and maintaining a radio and television presence—not to mention planning and preaching in three Sunday morning services. Yet without a focus on the centrality of justification by faith, all of the above activity would count for naught.
At the heart of Luther’s dilemma in the years leading up to the publication of his 95 Theses was the instrumental cause contained within the forensic nature of justification: How does a person become justified in the sight of God? Can an individual be certain of a relationship with Christ so that he can “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”?
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of such questions when they were raised by Luther in medieval Europe. Likewise, the importance of “justification by faith alone” continues to be of crucial importance today.
And as in Luther’s day, good theology inevitably makes its way into good hymnology, immersing congregations in reformation theology when they sing:
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For every sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.
Yet to trust in “Christ alone” as a direct result of the grace of God is only part of the picture. Grappling with a mature understanding of our union with Christ reminds us that we are also the recipients of the imputed righteousness of Christ, and underlines the centrality of the love of God at the heart of the atoning death of Christ, when “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Luther again highlighted the nature of justification when he reminded his readers in The Bondage of the Will (1525) that man is by nature sinful, and that we are lost (Lk. 19:10) and blind (Matt. 23:26) and dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), entirely incapable of contributing to our salvation. Luther emphasized that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8–9).
The primacy of this biblical truth directly impacted my approach to teaching through the book of Romans recently. I repeatedly emphasized that we consistently underestimate the power, significance, and gravitas of sin while consistently underestimating the power, significance, and gravitas of the transforming love of God. The scriptures are clear. Sin by its nature is enticing, deceptive, addictive, intoxicating, and tranquilizing. Only the emancipating, transforming power of the gospel can free the soul of the influence of sin, initiate spiritual life, and unite us with Christ.
It has been a long time since I first encountered Martin Luther. Yet in ministering to a generation addicted to Facebook, Twitter, and Google that searches for connectivity and intimacy through anonymity, my responsibility is to lovingly and graciously remind them that they are loved by a God who operates at levels of intimacy and connectivity that are eternal. Such love is far greater than they could ever imagine possible. I then trust the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit to apply the gospel and enable it to come as a life-transforming surprise to those who hear.
“Here I stand.” I can do no other!
The Reverend Dr. Richard Gibbons is chairman of the Theological Task Force of the ECO and Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ECO), Greenville, SC.