Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” These words go to the heart of the corruption that Martin Luther condemned during the days of the German Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Pope in Rome insisted that the truth was whatever he said it was. He insisted that the Church of Rome was the final judge of truth, especially the truth of what God said and what God meant. In a way both Jesus and the Pope claim to have the word of truth. Which should it be: the pope’s words or Jesus’ words?
Martin Luther made his position clear at the Diet of Worms. When the Emperor pressured him to retract his writings, he said, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.
“I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”
Basically, Martin Luther said that the word of the popes and church councils often contradicted each other. The Word of Jesus has, on the other hand, always been the same. It is trustworthy. It is established in both the blood of Jesus and the blood of the Apostles. People died and in their deaths the Word of God spread throughout the world. Luther based his teachings on the Scriptures, the Word of God … the Word that points to the forgiveness of sins bought by the blood of Jesus.
Later, in a sermon, Luther proclaimed that the Word of God was the true power of the reformation. He said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Word of God is the foundation of all Lutheran teachings. Lutherans believe that the Word of God is the truth. Lutherans simply believe what Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
If I were to use a cooking term, I would say that Jesus wants us to marinate in His Word … to soak it up … to make it so that God’s Word touches every part of our lives. He wants us to know His Word so that we know the truth that sets us free.
The freedom we receive from God’s Word is the freedom purchased by Jesus on the cross. It is freedom from sin, death, and the devil. It is freedom from eternal damnation.
The devil has always hated the freedom that God’s Word proclaims. He attacked it in Eden. “Did God actually say …” In Martin Luther’s day, the devil kept the Word of God out of the hands of the people by making it expensive because it was hand written, and by hiding it in a language that the common person did not know. Since the people who had access to God’s word didn’t share it accurately, the people were starved for the Word of God. This suited the devil just fine.
Then came the invention of the printing press. Books could be mass produced. The price of books came down. One of Martin Luther’s hopes was to put the Bible into the hands of the people. He translated the Bible into German and the average peasant could read it for himself.
Before Luther’s Bible came along, there were plenty of peasants who couldn’t even read their own name. When these peasants learned about Luther’s Bible, they learned how to read and within a year or two, they were debating theology with University doctors … and winning.
The devil hated this. German humanist Johann Cochlaeus complained that
“Luther's New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.”
With the invention of the printing press the devil has had to resort to other tactics. Today, Bibles of every variety are available on the shelves of bookstores everywhere. The proclamation of the salvation that Jesus earned for all people lies on the bookshelf for all to read. Sadly, most people do not bother to pick it up and read it. Most people own several Bibles, but they gather dust.
Think about this. Many men of God shed blood and gave their lives so that God’s Word could exist on paper. Other men were burned at the stake for translating this Word of God into the language of the people. In many countries, it was against the law to own a Bible translated into the common tongue. The Bible you hold in your hand is the product of thousands of years of blood, sweat, and sacrifice. Millions of sixteenth century peasants would have shed blood and given their lives just to lay their eyes on it. Jesus Himself states that this book contains the truth that will set you free. Christians in the Middle East who have had to watch ISIS soldiers behead their children long for the Word of God. What a blessing it is that we live in a country where we are free to study it on our own and with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. How tragic it is that many don’t take advantage of this freedom while they have it.
Even those who read the Bible regularly often read it as a guideline for living instead of the proclamation of salvation. They search the Scriptures to see what they should do instead of searching for what God has already done. They see it as a way to improve life instead of a way of salvation. Tragically, many people read the Bible and find the law, but remain blind to the Gospel.
Jesus said, [John 5:39] “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, [1 Corinthians 2:2] “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The Reformation that we celebrate today is about the restoration of God’s Word and God’s Word is about the Crucified Christ. This is the center of Lutheran teaching. Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. If all the teachings of the Bible were arranged as spokes in a wheel, the teaching, “Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins” would be the hub. Every other teaching depends on the teaching of forgiveness.
Martin Luther lived the first half of his life in absolute terror of Jesus the great and awful judge … the judge who would see his every sin and condemn him forever. Luther would later write, “I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ … with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.” It was only after he studied the Scripture for himself that the Holy Spirit showed him that the righteousness of God is a gift. He wrote, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God … namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” By translating the Bible into German, he allowed his fellow Germans to see that God is a God of grace … a God who sacrificed His Son in order to free you from your slavery to sin. It was the truth of the Word of Christ that freed Luther from the terror of his sin. It is the truth of the Word of God that offers that same freedom to you.
The church must be in a state of continuous reformation … a continuous return to the Word of God. Our old sinful nature continuously tempts us to leave the Word of God behind. If we do not continuously reform … if we do not continuously study God’s Word, then we will slowly, but surely drift away from the truth. We will drift away until we are no longer free. Those who refuse to abide in the Word of Christ will no longer be His disciples … they will no longer be free. It is only as the Holy Spirit continuously reforms us by the Word of God that we shall know the truth and be free … free to live forever in the grace of Almighty God. Amen
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