Martin Luther's Highway to Heaven
Romans 1:16-17It is a mark of our changing times that many people have only a vague idea who Martin Luther is. Most of us have heard his name but we’re not sure where he’s from or what he did or when he lived. Some of us even get him mixed up with someone else. I would venture to say that most of us are aware of the fact that Martin Luther was a religious leader who managed somehow to get a whole denomination named after himself. And some of us are probably aware that Martin Luther had something to do with the Protestant Reformation. The musicians among us are certainly aware that it was Martin Luther who penned the words to the famous hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. But that’s about it.
October 29, 2006 is Reformation Sunday. It is always celebrated on the last Sunday of October because it was on October 31, 1517 that an obscure monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Historians tell us that Martin Luther had no idea that he would ever start a movement, much less a reformation, much less a denomination. When Martin Luther nailed his theses on the wall, he was simply following the accepted custom of the day. He was a young professor at the University of Wittenberg and the door of the castle church was like the University bulletin board. Anyone could tack anything up there for public comment and discussion. So when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door, he was simply doing what any young professor would do. He was putting forth his ideas for public consideration and public debate. From that day sprang forth a movement which would change the course of world history. When Martin Luther nailed those theses on the church door, he ignited a spark which burst into a flame which spread across Europe and which is still burning today. We call it the Protestant Reformation.
The 95 Theses
Those 95 theses were basically short statements condemning various abuses of the late Medieval church. The statements fell into three categories. First, Martin Luther condemned the Pope and other religious leaders for abuse of authority. Second, he condemned the church in general for the abuse of materialism. Third, he condemned the abuse of the system known as indulgences.
If you read the 95 theses today, they seem to be rather arcane and out of date and obsolete, which in fact they are. The things Martin Luther was writing about were burning issues back then, but most of those abuses have long since faded away. For the most part his 95 theses are just relics of history that are of interest mainly to biblical and historical scholars.
The True Treasure of the Church
But the most important thesis of the 95 still concerns us today. It is number 62–one simple sentence: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” That statement is still true, is still needed and still should be proclaimed from every pulpit across this land. For it is certainly true that the treasure of the church today does not consist in the wealth and pomp and grandeur and circumstance of the church. It does not consist in the beautiful buildings of the church. It does not consist in the wealth of the wealthiest member. The true treasure of the church does not consist in anything which may be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears or touched with the hands.
Martin Luther was right. The true treasure of the church and the only treasure the church has is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is primary and everything else is secondary. And that is why it is a terrible and dreadful thing when the church for any reason elevates that which is secondary over that which is primary, thus obscuring the gospel of Christ. That is what Martin Luther was trying to say back in 1517. That is what the Protestant Reformation is all about. He was arguing that the gospel is the center of the church and that the gospel is the primary truth of the church and that the gospel is what the church is all about and therefore anything, no matter how good and right, which obscures the gospel is wrong and bad and needs to be changed or removed.
A Monk’s Life
Martin Luther didn’t always see things so clearly. In fact it took him many years to come to that conclusion. I mentioned that Martin Luther was originally a monk. He was a monk because he joined the monastery at Erfurt in 1505 when he was 21 years old. He joined it because one day as he was walking down a road, a thunderstorm came up and lightning struck him, knocking him to the ground. Convinced God was speaking to him, he cried out to the heavens, “Saint Anne, I will become a monk.” So he left his wife and his livelihood to join the Augustinian monastery and entered into that rigorous life of a late medieval monk.
Life in a monastery meant getting up in the morning between 1-2 A.M. They would begin their day at that early hour with prayer and singing, followed by a time of meditation, followed by another time of prayer and perhaps another time of singing. Later they would have breakfast and then they would have morning prayers. After the prayers they would work all morning. After lunch came another time of prayer and singing followed by a brief nap. Then came more prayers and singing and meditation and the sacraments. After all that, they would have the evening meal after which they would have prayer again and singing again and then only later in the evening would they finally go to bed. It was a rigorous, difficult schedule. It meant that your life was filled with religious ritual, religious ceremony, the sacraments, penance and a lifestyle of poverty and austerity.
A Man In Search Of Peace With God
But Martin Luther was glad to accept that life style because he, like thousands of his compatriots, and like millions of people today, was looking for peace with God. He was looking for a way to have his sins forgiven. He was looking for a way to be justified and made right with the God of the Universe.
So he joined the monastery in order to save his soul. For years Martin Luther was a good monk in the Augustinian monastery. He kept the rituals. He kept the schedule. He wore the cowl and he truly believed that if he did that, eventually he would gain admission to heaven. I emphasize that he truly believed this because that is what the church taught. But in his quiet moments—-that we all have when we think about the things we have heard and learned during the day-—he knew that something was wrong. The thought that gripped Martin Luther, the thought that eventually struck terror into his soul, was the thought that up in heaven there was a God who was holy and good and righteous and how could he, a sinner, ever be reconciled to a God who was truly holy and good and pure and righteous?
So even though Martin Luther threw himself into his monkery and even though he became “a monk of the monks” and even though he did everything that his religion prescribed, there was this growing sense inside him that something was lacking. There was no peace in his soul. So at length, when he grew a little older, while he was still in the monastery he turned to the path of confession, for the church taught that if you wanted your sins to be forgiven they must be confessed one by one by one by one.
Martin Luther, with total seriousness of heart and purpose, would go day by day into the confessional and there to his fellow priests he would confess all the sins he remembered. Sometimes by his own admission he would spend six hours a day in confessing his sin. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to confess your sins but it’s not an easy thing to do because you usually confess the big ones really quick and then it takes longer to get the small ones. But if you are really, really dedicated you’ve got to reach inside your soul to find out all those small sins that are tripping you up.
If you try to do what Martin Luther did, you will truly discover what Martin Luther discovered. Trying to confess your sins in order to be forgiven will only lead you to despair and further guilt. Why? Because Martin Luther discovered that no matter how hard he tried he could not remember all his sins. There were some secret sins and some hidden sins and some forgotten sins that were buried deep in his subconscious. He knew they were there but he didn’t know what they were. And because he didn’t know what they were, he couldn’t confess them. But if he couldn’t confess them he could never be forgiven. Even though Martin Luther confessed and confessed and confessed he never found the forgiveness that he sought.
When he would go to his fellow monks for confession, they would listen to him talking about all those little tiny sins and they would say, “God is not angry with you. You are angry with God.” The head of his order, the godly Johann Staupitz would hear Martin Luther’s confessions and he would say, “Bring me some real sins to confess. If you’re going to take this much time you ought to have some real sins to confess. Don’t bring me these little peccadilloes.”
The Journey to Rome
Martin Luther couldn’t find the forgiveness that he sought. He found that the way of confession brought him no relief. And so he tried something else. In the years 1510-1511, he traveled to Rome. Rome in that day was the center of the religious world. It was where the Pope was. It was where the Cardinals were. It was where the great cathedrals were. It was all there. So Martin Luther made the trip to Rome thinking that perhaps in Rome, the heart of his faith, he could find that for which he was so desperately seeking.
When he got to Rome, he was sadly disappointed. First he was surprised, then shocked, then sickened. Coming from the simple, peasant religion of Germany to the full flower of religion in Rome was an enormous culture shock. What he saw there was a disregard for the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. He found priests who were so drunk they couldn’t finish the mass. He found other priests who would give 70-100 masses a day, just running through it as fast as they could. He found in certain quarters of Rome priests who had broken their vows of celibacy. He even heard that there were some priests who bragged that they were righteous because they confined themselves to women. He was scandalized by the veneration of relics—-the teaching that by venerating the relics of the early church you could release a soul from purgatory. It sickened him. His biographer Roland Bainton says that when Martin Luther got to Rome he concluded that “If there were a Hell, Rome was built upon it.”
“What If It Is Not So?”
Outside the building called the Lateran, there was a series of ancient stairs that had been transported from Jerusalem to Rome. Jesus had supposedly walked on those stairs outside Pilate’s hall. It was one of the holy sights in the city of Rome. The church taught that if you got on your hands and knees and crawled up the 28 stone stairs, and if you said an “Our Father” on each one of the stairs, by the time you got to the top stair you would have released a soul from purgatory. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would come and climb those stairs on their hands and knees. Martin Luther—now deeply, deeply troubled—more troubled than he had ever been in his life, thought perhaps that he should do that too. So he got on his hands and knees and crawled up those stairs, kissing each one as he crawled and saying “Our Father” along the way. When he got to the top he looked back at the stairway and asked himself a question, “What if it is not so?”
Martin Luther could not see how saying prayers over some stairs could have anything to do with a righteous and holy God.
He went back to Germany, now more troubled than ever before, and began to investigate the way of mysticism. At an earlier stage he had poured himself into his work doing all that he could. He hoped that by doing religious things he could commend himself to God. Now he went the other direction at the advice of his superiors. He began to investigate the love and grace and mercy of God. Their advice was simple. Trust in God. Steep yourself in him. Let yourself be enveloped by the love of God. Actually, that was not bad advice. It helped Martin Luther for a while.
But as he began to do that and as he began to study the life of mysticism, the question plagued his mind, What if God is not really righteous? What if God is not really just? What if there is some capricious Being in heaven who in cruelty sends some men to Hell and in grace picks out some for Heaven? Who could love a God like that? By his own admission he said, “Love God? I hated him.”
The Turning Point
The turning point in Martin Luther’s life came in the year 1515 when Johann Staupitz appointed him to teach the Bible. It was the event which was to change him forever. His superior despaired that Martin Luther would never find peace except and unless he went back to the source book of the Christian faith, the Bible. And so Staupitz said to Luther, go and start teaching the Bible. Martin Luther had never really been forced to study it for himself. Even though he had been in the monastery, the monastery was not really a biblical studies institute. It was the place for religious exercises.
Martin Luther took out his Hebrew and his Latin and his Greek and the church fathers and began to study the Bible. He was assigned first to teach the book of Psalms and then to teach the book of Romans and then to teach the book of Galatians. It was during those years of studying and teaching the Bible that he made the great discovery which was to change him and then the church and then Europe and then the world. One of the interesting things about Martin Luther’s life is that we don’t know when really the great change took place. We know exactly when and where he was struck by lightning in the year 1505, but we don’t know, because he never told us exactly, when or where or under what circumstances the great change came. We just know that in one of those years when he was teaching the Bible there was a tremendous change.
The Just Shall Live By Faith
It happened this way. Martin Luther was studying the Epistle to the Romans and he came to Romans 1:16-17, which in the NIV reads this way:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: First for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”If you have your Bibles open, circle three statements in those two verses because this is what Martin Luther was studying. “I am not ashamed of the gospel” in verse 16. And in verse 17 “a righteousness from God” and “by faith from first to last.” Martin Luther the monk became Martin Luther the Bible student. The torture of his soul and the years of self-examination finally brought him to Romans 1:16-17. As he read those words, it dawned on him at last: In the gospel the righteousness of God is obtained by faith from first to last.
As Martin Luther began to study, suddenly the light flooded in. Here are his own words:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the justice of God” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore, I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.This was Martin Luther’s Highway to Heaven.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sincere mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning. Whereas before “the justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 49-50)
What Did Martin Luther Discover?
So what was it that Martin Luther discovered? He discovered that in the gospel of Jesus Christ—that is, in the truth of what Jesus Christ accomplished in his life and death—there is a righteousness of God. It is fully displayed. And that righteousness he discovered within the gospel is made available by faith from first to last.
Martin Luther discovered something very important. He discovered that in this world there are two kinds of righteousness. First, there is the righteousness of man. The righteousness of man is that which represents the sum total of all his good works and all his good deeds and all his religious observance. Martin Luther suddenly came to realize that he had been trying to climb the ladder to heaven by his own works of righteousness and by his prayers and by his songs and by his pilgrimage to Rome. By climbing up the stairs on his hands and knees, he was trying to climb a ladder to heaven. But in that moment of revelation, he understood that the ladder wouldn’t make it. You start climbing up the ladder of religious good works and when you come to the top, you discover you’re still a million miles away from heaven. Down comes the ladder and you fall with it. So it is true of everyone who trusts in the righteousness of man.
Second, there is the righteousness of God found in the Lord Jesus Christ. This righteousness consists in what Jesus Christ did when he came and what he accomplished when he died and rose from the dead. This righteous-ness is not ours. It’s given to man by simple faith. All you have to do if you want the righteousness of God is to reach out with the empty hands of faith and cling to the Lord Jesus Christ. Just open your eyes and see before you the bleeding Jesus, dying on the cross for you. All you have to do is let go of all the other things you have trusted—your goodness, your merit, your success, your power, your money, your wealth, and even your religion. If you will dare to let those things go and come with your empty hands to the Savior, Jesus will meet you with open arms. If you will but reach out your arms, you can embrace him and he will embrace you. That’s how you receive the righteousness of God. It is by faith from first to last.
That’s what Martin Luther discovered. That’s what the Protestant Reformation was all about. That is his highway to heaven.
The Doctrine That Set The World On Fire
October 29, 2006 is Reformation Sunday. Where do we stand relative to what Martin Luther believed? The answer is simple. As evangelicals we believe exactly what Martin Luther believed 450 years ago. We believe it just the same way it’s found in the Augsburg Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism and the The Gospel of Jesus Christ and all the other evangelical statements of faith. We believe that when a person comes to the Lord Jesus Christ, he is justified not because of anything he has done. He is justified in the eyes of God because of what Jesus Christ has done. We are in the tradition of Martin Luther. We are Protestants. We are in the Reformed tradition because we believe in the great doctrine of justification by faith alone. That is the doctrine that opened the door of heaven for Martin Luther. That is the doctrine that set the world on fire.
It occurs to me that there are some people reading these words who are back where Martin Luther was in the beginning. You are trusting in your religion or you are trusting in your good works or you are trusting in your baptism. If you are trusting in religion or good works or baptism you are on the wrong road. You are on a road which does not lead to heaven. The bridge is out. It will collapse. You will never make it.
But there is much good news. You don’t have to go that way. God has already done everything necessary for you to go to heaven. He sent his own Son to die on the cross and he is willing to impute to you the righteousness of his Son and to declare you not guilty of all your sins–past, present and future–if you will reach out and embrace his Son by faith.
Are You On The Highway To Heaven?
Everyone is on one road or the other. You’re either on the highway to heaven by faith in Jesus Christ, or you’re on some other road which goes to some other place. Which road are you on?
The invitation is very simple. If you are on the road which leads to destruction—-the road of trusting in your good works, your church membership, your baptism and your religious observance, I invite you to leave that road and to join us on the highway to heaven. I invite you to join with us in following the path of Martin Luther and millions of others who have seen that the only way we can be declared right with God is by putting our trust completely in Jesus Christ and him alone. I urge you to join with us on the highway to heaven.
You say, is it possible? Absolutely. Run to the cross. Reach out your empty hands to Jesus Christ. Look up to the cross and see him dying there. Open your heart and your life to Jesus Christ and he will come in.
A Prayer For People Who Need To Do What Martin Luther Did
Some of you are trying to get to heaven but you’ve never found the right highway. You’re on the wrong road and you know it. You have tried religion and it doesn’t satisfy. You’ve tried being good and you can’t be good enough. You’ve been baptized but in your heart you know there’s got to be more. Oh, my friend, I urge you to come to the Lord Jesus Christ.
May I suggest a simple prayer for you to pray? Perhaps it will help you to form your words into a very simple prayer. Prayer isn’t magic, as Martin Luther himself would be the first to affirm. Even while I encourage you to pray this prayer, I caution you that saying words alone will not save you. Prayer doesn’t save. Only Christ can save. But prayer can be a means of reaching out to the Lord in true saving faith.
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. And I know that I cannot save myself. I turn away from my religion, from my good works, from anything good I have ever done and from anything good I will ever do. I know that in myself there is nothing good that I have done or could ever do that would merit eternal salvation. Apart from your mercy and grace, Lord Jesus Christ, I have no hope of heaven. I do believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sons and rose from the dead on the third day. I receive the free gift of your righteousness as my only hope of heaven. Lord Jesus, right now I trust you and you alone for my salvation. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for taking my sins away. I confess you as Lord and Savior both now and for eternity. Amen.
Did you pray the prayer? If you prayed it and really meant it, welcome to the family of God. Join with us now as we travel the highway to heaven.
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