Lots of people wannabe like Martin Luther. This time of year, and especially this year being the 500th anniversary of his 95 Theses, I do too.
I wannabe as fat as Martin Luther. "As fat as Martin Luther was a saying of his day inspired by the marked contrast between the lean, austere, monk- Luther whose body was emaciated by fasting, flogging, and religious devotion and the middle age, married Luther 20 years later (MacCulloch, Reformation, 139). The bulletin cover has monk-Luther, married-Luther, and mature-Luther.
His enemies meant "as fat as Martin Luther" as insult. The 1938 Catholic book The Great Heresies depicts Luther on the cover. The 2009 version has the young Luther posting his theses. The 2017 version has the fat Luther. It's a famous picture; used in our circles. However, when we use it, we see Luther, as he often is, holding a Bible. The Catholic book has the title The Great Heresies covering the Bible up completely.
I wannabe as fat as Martin Luther, and I want to get there the way he did. He stopped torturing his body with fasting and long prayer vigils to make himself worthy of salvation. He stopped thinking of prayer, worship, or good works as something he did for God. He stopped thinking that by whipping his body he could save his soul. He stopped thinking he had to or could appease a God who was angry with him for his many sins by making himself suffer.
You don't think that's anyone today, do you? You don't think people make themselves suffer in order to make up or pay for their sins? You don't think anyone today thinks that by making themselves miserable they can make God happy with them? Then you've never meant anyone consumed by guilt for a real or imagined sin. You've never meant someone who thinks that the only response to guilt over sin is to do something. And you don't see the perfectly logical connection between if sin is doing something wrong, then the answer to sin is doing something right.
That's where skinny, tormented Luther lived, and he was delivered from his self-imposed purgatory by the Gospel of Christ that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law. He was delivered from the law that starved him with you must not eat, touch, or taste if you want to please God, by the Gospel of fatness that is Mount Calvary described in Isaiah 25: "On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-- the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; He will swallow up death forever." Yes, I wannabe as fat as Martin Luther and die he did a starving beggar. More later.
I wannabe as fat as Martin Luther, and I wannabe as forgiven as Martin Luther. Forgiveness is the center of Luther's theology. He said that if a person doesn't believe their sins are forgiven by God for Christ's sake it doesn't matter what else they do or don't believe. "'Luther had only one phrase of the German Bible typeset in capital letters'": "forgives sins" (Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology, 78). You know he wrote the 95 Theses and if you read the blurb in the bulletin you know how doubtful he was about them. But did you know he wrote 5 series of theses concerning what he regarded as the central passage of the Bible? Romans 3:28: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Ibid. 155).
I wannabe as forgiven as Martin Luther. Listen to Luther recounting his sins in a 1537 sermon. "What does God regard, and what moves Him to be favorably disposed toward you and to remit your sins? Is He actuated by your sacrifices, your circumcision, the divine worship in your temple? No! Much less is He persuaded by my monasticism, in which I disgracefully squandered fifteen years of my life, wickedly crucified Christ, my dear Lord, with my blasphemous celebration of the Mass, and misspent the best years of my life to my own and other people's detriment" (LW, 22, 135).
He goes on to preach how nothing you could suffer, nothing you could do, nothing you could offer could cause God to put away your sins. No, He does it all by grace freely for Christ's sake. Because Christ lived the righteous life you can't and don't, God the Father sees all His Laws as kept. Because this absolutely holy Christ died the damned, guilty death you deserve, God sees your sins as all paid for. The Father's wrath against your sins was satisfied, put away, and put out not 500 years ago but 2,000.
When you find yourself pursued by the wrath of God, chased by the flames of hell, it is because you are insisting that your sins belong to you. You will take care of them. You will make up for them. You will do better next time, or you have an excuse for doing so poorly this time. Either way as long as you insist on keeping your sins to yourself, God's wrath will pursue you like an escaped prisoner. And you will hear the baying of the hounds till they chase you into your grave and it's too late.
I wannabe forgiven as Martin Luther, but where was forgiveness for him. Yes, it was earned 2,000 years ago by God the Son on the cross, and it was declared by God the Father to the world on Easter morning by the resurrection, but where was it for Luther in 1517 and you in 2017? In the Church, the Church, the Church. Luther is often "credited" with championing the right of private Bible interpretation. This in effect makes every man a church on to himself. No, Luther was a champion of the Church. To Her was entrusted the Gospel to be purely preached and the Sacraments to be administered as Christ instituted them.
Hear Luther's own words. "'I believe that the forgiveness of sins exists in that selfsame community, and nowhere else; outside of that community nothing can help, no matter how many and great one's good works might be, to accord one the forgiveness of sins. But within such a community nothing can bring harm, no matter how many, how large the sins, and how often one has sinned; this remains the reality wherever and as long as one remains in that same unique community'" (Short Form 1520, Peters, Creed, 287).
Hersey the Catholics cry! Blasphemy the Reformed cry! Martin Luther is saying you can live in your sins and die forgiven. Martin Luther is saying good works have no place in the life of the Christian. Martin Luther is saying you don't have to do anything to go to heaven! That last one is right, and I wannabe not only be as fat as Martin Luther, as forgiven as Martin Luther, but I wanna die as Martin Luther did: a starving beggar who shows up at heaven's gate with nothing in my hands and a wide-open mouth.
When we're talking about what saves us Lutherans say not a word about me, myself, or I. When we're talking about salvation we're talking about what God has done, does, and will do. Nothing about what we have done, promise to do, choose to do. We don't even talk about our faith. For while faith goes on in us. It's not our choice, decision, certainty. No faith in the holy life Christ lived in my place and in the guilty death He died for me is the free gift of God. Ephesians 2 says it's not from ourselves. It's the gift of God. It's created by the Holy Spirit; worked through the Means of Grace which are administered by the Church.
I wannabe as fat, as forgiven, and as free as Martin Luther. In one of his most famous writings Luther says, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all" (Freedom of a Christian, LW, 31, 344). Using only the first sentence free thinkers, revolutionaries, believers in absolute democracy have claimed Luther for their own. Using only the last sentence the champions of the Law, of sanctified living, of good works have claimed Luther for their own. No, confessional Lutherans "gotta roll on between the ditches."
Luther is really talking about the distinction between faith toward God and love toward our fellowman. Through the Faith, embodied in the true doctrine, the Christian is delivered once and for all from the devil, all other people, and even his own self. Faith is directed toward God not at all to men. Love, however, is owed toward others and makes us servants of them for Christ's sake. However, there is a distinction. Our love for others can never compromise or pollute the faith.
Hear Luther from a sermon preached months before he died. "I can tolerate your failings and bear with them, so far as your life is concerned, through love, as 1 Corinthians 13 says except with regard to faith, doctrine, and the Word. Love bears all things; faith, nothing at all. Doctrine cannot tolerate anything. [As the saying goes] Reputation, faith, and the eye cannot bear being toyed with'" (LW, 58, 240). This distinction between doctrine and life, faith and love, is fundamental to confessional Lutherans. We will not let ourselves or anyone else be free in regard to doctrine and faith, but in matters of love and life, we wish to serve.
Luther distinguished himself from Wycliff and Hus, the reformers that came 150 and 100 years before him, on this basis of doctrine and life. He said in 1533, "'Life is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life but about doctrine. Whereas Wycliff and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily its doctrine'" (Oberman, Luther, 55).
But if you really want to party later like it's 1517, party not on the basis of being right but being forgiven. Luther was asked on his deathbed whether he was prepared to die in the doctrine he confessed which he taught in Christ's name. He answered with a distinct Yes' (Brecht, Luther, III, 144). And then we come to the starving beggar Luther. His last words were "We are beggars, that is true.'" This didn't express resignation about his life's work (Ibid. 374-5), but how utterly dependent he was, we all are, on God for doctrine, faith, love, and life.
Party like it's 1517! Glory in the total forgiveness of your sins which you have because of Christ's holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Party like it's 1517! Rejoice in the free forgiveness of your sins. Party like it's 1517! Recognize this forgiveness changes you, rebirths you into a whole other reality where you have a God who loves and serves you so much, you can love and serve others. I wanna party like Martin Luther who said at the close of one of his most cherished works, "I have nothing and am nothing, excepting this. I glory in being almost a Christian" (Bondage of the Will, Cole tran. 391). Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
500th Anniversary of Lutheran Reformation (20171029)