It’s been 500 years now. 500 years ago today Dr. Luther was surely writing his 95 Theses. He was preparing to nail a copy to the university bulletin board known as the doors of the Castle Church and to mail a copy to his archbishop. He had no idea what would happen afterwards. He had no plans to call people Lutheran, let alone of such people celebrating something called Reformation Day. Why, he wasn’t even clear yet on what is “the everlasting Gospel.”
He knew people were doing themselves a spiritual disservice by buying indulgences from John Tetzel. They didn’t have to be utterly sorry for their sins. And it was Halloween. That’s just short for All Hallows’ Eve. The next day was All Saints Day, and it just so happened that the elector would have on display in Wittenberg’s Castle Church, dedicated All Saints Church, his massive collection of relics; looking at them would help you out in the afterlife, they said. Lots of important people would see it – he wrote it in Latin! So of course he nailed his theses there; how else could he stop people from buying those papers from Tetzel?
He wanted an academic debate. He did get debates, but the topics changed. It turned out his theses were only about a symptom, an effect. They hadn’t gotten down to the root cause. He came to learn from Scripture something he had never been taught: we are justified by Christ’s righteousness. What is that? We are justified because He died for us and paid for our sins. We are declared to be right with God because Jesus was punished for us.
Everybody wants to be justified, but who is doing the justifying? Am I justifying myself? Are others justifying me? Is God justifying me? Am I trying to be just in my own mind, before others, or before God? We all want to be right, and we don’t like being told we’re wrong. After all, if we’re wrong, we might not be just, and others might not be looking at us the way we want to be seen.
So people do their best to be seen as just. Our ancient pagan ancestors made lots of sacrifices to their gods in order to please them before faithful preachers preached the Gospel to them. People have devised all sorts of rules to keep or works to do in order to please God; Luther railed against this, yet we can still see this today.
This happens in civilization too. Some people make charitable gifts or do other good deeds not just because they want to help others, but because they want to look good, perhaps so we’ll listen to them, buy their product, or vote for them. Despots do everything it takes to make the people like them and not rebel. People do stuff for the sake of appearances.
It happens in another way. We make excuses. When we get caught doing something wrong, we’ll join Adam in the Garden of Eden and blame somebody else or our circumstances for causing us to sin before we ever say “I’m sorry.” We may even try to say that doing the wrong thing was actually the right thing to do. Some have even tried to claim that what God’s Word says about specific sins no longer applies to us because we’re a more enlightened age with a different culture.
All that means nothing to a changeless, holy God. When we go before Him it will not matter if people saw us as just. It will only matter if He saw us as just. No human can make God see himself as just. God has to declare it. So when He looks at us, how should He see us? Should He not see us as sinners deserving only His wrath and eternal damnation? Why? We do well to compare ourselves to the mirror called God’s Law. Have we feared, loved, and trusted Him above all things? Everything else simply reveals if we’re keeping this simple command. Have we always revered Him as the highest being by honoring Him with every second of our lives and avoiding what displeases Him? Have we always clung to Him and gladly devoted our lives to His service, wanting to be dear children who want to please their dear daddy? Have we always committed our lives completely to His keeping and relied on Him for anything we need?
How can we answer? We have to admit we don’t pray to Him, praise Him, or thank Him as much as we should. We aren’t always glad to hear or learn His Word. We know we angered our parents when we were young, and now we find it easier to make fun of government instead of to pray for it. We look the other way when someone needs physical aid. We find it too easy to not be pure and decent and too easy for spouses to mistreat each other. We may not even know how to help somebody improve what he has even if we wanted to, but we find it easy to believe the gossip and not defend people who are clearly being wronged. The bottom line is our hearts and minds are full of sinful thoughts and desires, and these lead to sinful actions. We are unable to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We are unable to get ourselves to look just, righteous, before Him.
And then the angel comes flying to say Fear God. Fear Him! Fear nobody else. There is no other God. Don’t worry about what others think of you. Only be concerned about how He sees you. Give Him glory, because His judgment is just. He does what is right. Do it because the hour of His judgment is come and worship Him. So what is the hour of His judgment?
It already happened. That’s why you should fear and worship Him. Luther did what he did because he was driven by the true fear and worship of God. That is given us by nothing else than the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ that is to be preached to all those who dwell on earth, of every nation and tribe and tongue and people. What is it? The hour of God’s judgment came when Jesus died on The Cross. There The God-Man redeemed us lost and condemned persons. He purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious Blood and with His innocent suffering and Death.
What is the judgment? God judges us not guilty of sin. His Son paid for all our guilt. He suffered everything we deserve to suffer for our sins. He did it so we would live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. He did it so He would be our God and we would be His people, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. His Spirit has called you to Him with His Gospel and is daily and richly forgiving all your sins and the sins of all believers. He will raise us and all the dead on the last day and give eternal life to us and all believers in Christ.
This is most certainly true. This is what Luther preached. In the end, those 95 Theses didn’t really matter. Things like the Augsburg Confession and the Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles and the Formula of Concord do. Sacred Scripture matters most of all. Today that’s what Luther wants us to remember. The message of Scripture is this: you are a sinner worthy of eternal death, but Christ our God has won for us eternal life by His Death and Resurrection. God grant that we remain faithful to all Scripture truth unto life everlasting.