Martin Luther’s Highway to Heaven
October 20, 2017
He changed the world, but that wasn’t his intent.
He thought he was starting a theological debate.
Instead, he ignited a revolution.
It is a mark of our changing times that many people have only a vague idea who Martin Luther is. We know he was a religious leader who managed somehow to get a whole denomination named after himself. Some of us are aware that Martin Luther had something to do with the Protestant Reformation. Music lovers know that Luther penned the words to the famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
But that’s about it.
We need to know more about Martin Luther. When A&E compiled a list of the 100 most important people of the millennium, Luther came in #3, behind Johann Gutenberg and Isaac Newton, and just ahead of Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare.
What made this otherwise obscure monk from Germany so important? It happened because of what he did on or around October 31, 1517, when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. As a professor of theology, Luther intended to spark a debate about certain practices of the Catholic Church. Nailing his thoughts to the church door would be like posting an article on the Internet. He expected some pushback from his colleagues and perhaps some lively discussion. But he had no idea what was about to happen.
When Martin Luther nailed those theses on the church door, he ignited a spark that burst into a flame that spread across Europe and around the world. Luther’s bold act launched the Protestant Reformation. We’re celebrating its 500th Anniversary this month.
The True Treasure of the Church
Since Luther was disputing practices common in the 16th century, some of his points are of historical interest only. But the most important thesis still concerns us today. It is number 62:
“The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
That statement should be proclaimed from every pulpit. It is certainly true that the treasure of the church does not consist in buildings or vestments or cathedrals or any other signs of earthly power.
Martin Luther was right. The true treasure of the church is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything else is secondary.
That is what the Protestant Reformation was all about. Luther argued that the gospel must be the center of the church and anything that obscures the gospel is wrong and needs to be changed or removed.
A Monk’s Life
Martin Luther didn’t always see things so clearly. I mentioned that he was originally a monk. Luther joined a monastery in 1505 when he was 21 years old. The monks began their day between 1-2 AM. They started 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. Then 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 the evening meal, they would have prayer again, and later in the evening they finally went to bed.
A Man In Search Of Peace With God
Martin Luther followed that rigorous life because he, like millions of people today, was looking for peace with God. He was looking for a way to have his sins forgiven. He wanted to be justified and made right with the God of the Universe.
In the deepest sense, he joined the monastery to save his soul. For years Martin Luther was a good monk in the Augustinian monastery. He followed the rituals and kept the grueling schedule. He believed that by following the rules of the church, he would eventually gain admission to heaven. But in his quiet moments—the kind we all have when we think about the things we have heard and learned during the day—he knew something was wrong. Martin Luther struggled to understand how he could ever be made right in the eyes of a holy God.
Even though Martin Luther threw himself into his religion, and even though he became “a monk of the monks” and did everything his religion prescribed, he had no peace in his soul. 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.
With total seriousness of heart and purpose, Luther would go each day into the confessional where he would confess all the sins he remembered. Sometimes he spent six hours a day 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 it’s hard to remember all your sins.
If you try to do what Martin Luther did, you will discover what he discovered. Trying to confess your sins only leads to despair and further guilt. No matter how hard he tried, Luther could not remember all his sins. There were some secret sins buried deep in his subconscious. He knew they were there, but he didn’t know what they were. 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 he sought.
When he would go to his fellow monks for confession, they would listen to him talking about the guilt he felt, and they would say, “God is not angry with you. You are angry with God.” The head of his order, Johann Staupitz, would hear Luther’s confessions and he would say, “Bring me some real sins to confess. Don’t bring me these little peccadilloes.”
The Journey to Rome
His search for peace with God led him eventually to Rome, home to the Pope and the center of the Catholic religion. Martin Luther made the trip 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. 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 priests who had broken their vows of celibacy. He even heard that some priests who bragged they were righteous because they confined themselves to women. The veneration of relics from the early church 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?”
At the Church of St. John Lateran, Luther saw a series of ancient stairs that had been transported from Jerusalem to Rome. Jesus had supposedly walked on those stairs outside Pilate’s hall. 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 came to Rome to climb those stairs. Martin Luther—now deeply troubled—thought he should do that too. On his hands and knees, he crawled up those stairs, kissing each one 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 the forgiveness of his sins.
Back in Germany, Luther continued to struggle as questions filled his mind. What if God is not righteous? What if God is not just? What if he capriciously sends some men to hell and in grace picks out others 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 came when he began teaching through the Bible. He started with Psalms. Later he taught through Romans and Galatians. During those years of teaching, he made the great discovery that was to change him and then Europe and then the world.
It happened this way. As Martin Luther taught the Bible, he came to Romans 1:16-17:
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.”
As Martin Luther began to study, suddenly 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.
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, pp. 49-50)
(For a contemporary account of Martin Luther and the Reformation, see Rescuing the Gospel by Erwin Lutzer.)
Climbing the Wrong Ladder
Martin Luther discovered that in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the righteousness of God comes to us by faith from first to last.
After years of searching, he realized there are two kinds of righteousness. First, there is the righteousness of man, which represents the sum of all his good works and all his religious observance. Martin Luther realized he had been trying to climb the ladder to heaven by his own works and by his prayers and by his pilgrimage to Rome. But in that moment of revelation, he understood the ladder wouldn’t make it.
If you climb to the top of the ladder of good works, you’re still a million miles away from heaven. Down comes the ladder and you fall with it.
Second, there is the righteousness of God found in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s what our Lord achieved when he died and rose from the dead. This righteousness is not ours. We receive it by faith as a free gift from God. All you have to do is reach out with the empty hands of faith and cling to the Lord Jesus Christ. If you dare to let go of your good works and come with empty hands to the Savior, Jesus will meet you with open arms. That’s how you receive the righteousness of God. It is by faith from first to last.
That was Martin Luther’s highway to heaven.
The Doctrine That Set The World On Fire
Where do we stand relative to what Martin Luther believed? The answer is simple. We believe what Martin Luther believed 500 years ago. We believe that when a person comes to the Lord Jesus Christ, he is justified, not because of anything he has done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done. When Martin Luther discovered that truth, it opened the door of heaven to him.
That doctrine became the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation: Sola Fide, which means “by faith alone.”
Faith alone! Not by works of the law.
Faith alone! Not by obedience to the Church.
Faith alone! Not by human righteousness.
Faith alone! Not by baptism.
Faith alone! Not by good intentions.
Faith alone! Not by the sacraments.
Faith alone! Not by acts of charity.
Faith alone! Plus nothing and minus nothing!
Righteousness is what we need but do not have. Because God knew we could never be righteous on our own, he provided a righteousness that comes down from heaven above. It’s not earned or deserved but is given by God as a free gift.
Luther summarized the truth this way:
“The law says, ‘Do this!’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this man!’ and immediately everything is done.” (Cited by Erwin Lutzer, Rescuing the Gospel, p. 50.)
Some people reading these words 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. My friend, if you are trusting in religion or good works or baptism, you are on the wrong road. It will never lead to heaven. You will never make it.
But you don’t have to go that way. God has already done everything necessary for you to go to heaven. He will credit you with the righteousness of Christ 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 the road that leads to hell. The road of good works leads to destruction because you can never be good enough or pray hard enough or give enough money to have your sins forgiven. If you are on that road, it’s time to change direction and get on the highway to heaven. I invite you to join with us in following the path of Martin Luther and millions of others who know that the only way to be right with God is by trusting Jesus Christ and him alone.
You say, is it possible? Absolutely. 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.
Someone has summarized that truth this way:
Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
I risk my whole eternity.
The “life I did not live” is the life of Jesus and the “death I did not die” is his death on the cross. When we trust Christ, we are “risking eternity” on him. Being a Christian means trusting in Christ so much that you risk your eternity on what he did for you in his life and death. Trusting Jesus for salvation means to trust him so completely that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there. Are you willing and ready to do that?
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’ve tried religion, and it doesn’t satisfy.
You’ve tried being good, but you can’t be good enough.
You’ve been baptized, but you know there’s got to be more.
If that’s your story, I urge you to come to the Lord Jesus Christ.
May I suggest a simple prayer for you to pray? Prayer isn’t magic, as Martin Luther himself would be the first to affirm. But prayer is meaningful when it expresses the desire of your heart.
Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I know that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. Amen.
Did you pray the prayer? If you prayed it and really meant it, welcome to the family of God. Join us as we travel the highway to heaven.