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What Luther Says

SERMON: The Insanity of Luther

Sometimes we forget the awe and majesty that is characteristic of our Lord.

Sometimes we forget His utter holiness and what that really means.

I recently listened to a sermon by R.C. Sproul specifically on the holiness of God that was broken into 6 parts each about 30 minutes in length.

Mr. Sproul is a Reformed theologian and founder of Ligonier Ministries, and he shepherds St. Andrew's Chapel in Sanford, FL.

One of those parts was on Martin Luther titled "The Insanity of Luther" and I found it to be an accurate and rather timely message that I truly believe needs to be heard now more than ever during this irreverent "Jesus-Is-My-Homeboy" day and age. 

I'm also curious to get your feedback on this presentation, being a "new" Confessional Lutheran myself. In other words, do you find Sproul's account of Martin Luther to be accurate and his teaching to be true to the Word of God? After all, I'm sure you're well aware of the differences between us Lutherans and our Reformed brethren.


The Holiness of God examines the meaning of holiness and why people are both fascinated and terrified by a holy God. This series closely explores God’s character, leading to new insights on sin, justice, and grace. The result is a new awareness of our dependence upon God’s mercy and a discovery of the awesomeness of His majestic holiness. Dr. R.C. Sproul says, "The holiness of God affects every aspect of our lives — economics, politics, athletics, romance — everything with which we are involved."

Martin Luther -- "a wild pig" who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for...get this...fidelity to God's holy Word.

Obviously, I especially loved this segment of Sproul's teaching, because I found it to be quite inspiring as a Lutheran myself, but you don't have to be a Lutheran to appreciate this message, IMHO.

Why does the world deem Martin Luther to have been "crazy" or "out of his mind" though? I mean, after all, he did possess enormous awe, reverence, and even a healthy fear of God. Isn't that what we should be cultivating in our own lives (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; Ecclesiastes 12:13; 1 Peter 2:17). You bet we should!

Yes, Martin Luther is a hero of our cherished Christian faith -- not a "heretical wingnut" like the Catholic Church still believes to this day.

By the way, character assassination and name-calling is always a red flag, because it's typically what people resort to when they cannot refute one's arguments and claims with the Word of God.

Was Luther crazy? Was Luther right? Well, to answer that question, we need to consider the impact of Martin Luther's God-given life and ministry.

Martin Luther turned the world upside down in the sixteenth century by proclaiming the Pauline gospel. Luther, who was a professor of biblical exegesis for many years, slowly came to an understanding of the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17. For many years he believed that God’s righteousness was a divine attribute, so that the Pauline meaning was that God rendered to a person according to his works. In other words, Romans 1:17 referred to the judging righteousness of God. Through intensive biblical exegesis, both in Romans and the Psalms, it began to dawn on Luther that this conception of God’s righteousness was incorrect. God’s righteousness in Romans 1:17 was not his judging righteousness but his saving righteousness. The righteousness of God did not refer to God’s just judgment of human beings. Instead, it referred to God’s saving righteousness by which human beings were righteous in his sight. When Paul speaks of the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17, he has in mind the righteousness which is valid before God. The righteousness of God here does not refer to his just and impartial judgment of people. It refers to his saving righteousness by which human beings may stand before him as not guilty. This righteousness before God is not based on our works, nor can it ever be earned or merited. Righteousness which is valid before God is available by faith alone. Right-standing before God is obtained not by doing but by believing. It cannot be earned since it is a gift of God.

Luther warned over and over again that human beings were prone to legalism. Legalism exists when people attempt to secure righteousness in God’s sight by good works. Legalists believe that they can earn or merit God’s approval by performing the requirements of the law. Luther’s polemic against legalism was grounded in his exegesis of the Pauline letters. He drew a correspondence between the Judaizers of Paul’s day and the Roman Catholics of his. Just as the Judaizers believed that they could gain righteousness in God’s sight by the works of the law, so too the Roman Catholics of Luther’s day were attempting to secure righteousness by observing God’s commandments. According to Luther the legalism of the Judaizers had manifested itself in the theology and behavior of mainstream Roman Catholicism in his day. Many Roman Catholic exegetes insisted that Luther’s exegesis was mistaken. They argued that the works of the law in Paul (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) referred to the ceremonial law alone, and thus they deflected the parallel between the Judaizers and themselves. Luther struck back by arguing that works of law in Paul referred to whole law, both ceremonial and moral. Paul did not merely criticize the Judaizers because they wanted to impose the ceremonial law on Gentiles. He also attacked them because they compromised the fundamental truth of the gospel. The Judaizers were attempting to secure eternal life by virtue of their own works and goodness instead of trusting solely in the atoning work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. Their focus on good works inevitably led to boasting, for if eternal life is obtained by virtue of one’s good works, then the person who performs the good works deserves praise and honor for accomplishing such a remarkable feat. The true gospel, Luther insisted, is exactly the reverse. All the praise, glory and honor belong to God because he has effected our salvation. We can do nothing to merit or earn salvation. Faith gives glory to God because it receives the gift of salvation which he has provided.

This helps explain Luther’s uncompromising stance on the freedom of the will in his famous book The Bondage of the Will. Fallen human beings, according to Luther, are in bondage to sin. This means that they do not have any ability to do what is good in God’s sight. The idea that unregenerate human beings have the freedom to do what is good is a myth, explains Luther, for all people are slaves to sin (Romans 6). Slavery to sin does not mean that people are forced to sin against their wills. Neither God nor the devil puts a gun to our heads and says, “you must sin!” The slavery to sin which characterizes humanity expresses itself in a willing servitude to sin. When human beings sin, they simply carry out the desires in their hearts. Righteousness cannot be obtained by works of law because all human beings are born into the world as slaves of sin, condemned in Adam. They can never secure righteousness by performing good works, for they do not and cannot carry out the requisite works. As Paul said in Romans 8:7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (RSV). The idea that human beings can obtain righteousness by works is the highest folly since we are totally dominated by sin and cannot perform the works required for justification.

In his famous debate with Erasmus Luther also insisted on the reality of divine election. If human beings are slaves to sin and cannot do their own works, then the only means by which they can be liberated from the dominion of sin is God’s sovereign electing grace. Luther’s favorite verses in propounding this theme were Romans 11:5-6, “Thus therefore also in the present time a remnant has come about according to gracious election. And if it is by grace, then it is no longer by works. Otherwise grace is no longer grace.” We see from these verses that Luther’s theology of divine election was closely conjoined with his theology of justification. Righteousness cannot be by works, for if it is then salvation is no longer by God’s grace. And God’s grace manifests itself as an electing grace by which he liberates his elect from the bondage of sin. Luther did not defend the doctrine of election for philosophical reasons. He defended it because it was part and parcel of his theology of justification. The doctrine of election reminds us that our good works cannot merit right-standing before God. Our salvation is wholly due to his grace. And if salvation is ascribed to his grace alone and not our works, then all the praise and glory and honor redound to God. Human beings cannot boast before God that they have gained salvation by virtue of their good works.

Martin Luther is a more reliable guide in maintaining that there is one true gospel and that false gospels must be resisted.

-- Thomas Schreiner


Is your conscience held captive to the Word of God like Luther's was?

I pray that it is in all circumstances in this life and regardless of the personal cost.

Until next time, God willing, grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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