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Faithing vs. Trying & Buying-Luther
February 13, 1977

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

We've been looking at some of the heroes and heroines of our faith. With each person we have lifted up one word by which to remember them and to remember something about them as they have contributed to our lives. Let's review. First one was Paul, what's the word? Faith. Augustine: conversion. Boniface: order. Ambrose: leadership. And last Sunday was Savonarola: perseverance. Some time ago, a woman told me that she appreciated these sermons because she'd been sitting here eleven years and never realized there were people in the windows! 

I wonder how many of you realize down at the bottom of the pulpit some words are written there? I would like a couple of volunteers like Glenda and Rhonda to come up and read the words that are written there. Calvin, Luther and one spelled z, w i n g l—Zwingli, Calvin Luther and Zwingli. I'm standing upon them. These are the reformers, the founders of the Protestant movement who led our church out of Roman Catholicism of the Middle Ages. We are still part of the Holy Catholic Church which we affirm in the faith, but we were separated from the Roman Catholic Church largely by these three men upon whose names I'm standing. The architect or whoever decided how this church should be put together, did a very interesting and very meaningful thing to put their names at the base of the pulpit. For one of the one of the important things that the reformers brought to our faith was the restoration of preaching, preaching back into the church, preaching back into the worship service, preaching in the language of the people rather than in Latin which no one could understand. The reformers preached. And in their honor, we preach, and largely what we preach has been given to us by the reformers, the greatest of which, and the most influential of which was Martin Luther. 

So today, we will look at Martin Luther. The word I would lift up to you for Luther is justification. Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Germany. He had an excellent education, receiving a Master's Degree in Law. Sometime after his graduation, he got caught in a thunderstorm that had a lot of loud noises and lightning. You people who have only lived in California don't know what thunder and lightning is. That little piddly stuff we call rain out here just cannot compare with what rain is really like. I imagine that 500 years ago, they were still mystified by the elements of the universe. There was a lot of superstition and a heavy thunderstorm with a lot of lightning frightened people. In this particular storm, Martin Luther was almost hit by a bolt of lightning. You probably remember the experience of the Apostle Paul when a blinding light came out of heaven. 

The lightning so affected Martin Luther that it brought him to the reality of his own death. He really faced the fact that someday he would die. His whole life flashed in front of him in that thunderstorm. And right there he vowed to God that he would serve him if he'd be saved from that storm. God saved him from the storm. Martin Luther kept his vows and he became a monk. He joined the Augustinian order, (remember Augustine's emphasis on conversion and personal experience). Luther became a monk in the Augustinian Order. After his training as a monk, he became a professor, a teacher, and a pastor. His personal struggle was for justification. He desired, he hungered, he yearned, he sought justification, which is the word he used from the Pauline letters in the New Testament. Martin Luther did not have peace in his conscience. He lacked the assurance that he was accepted by God. He lacked the assurance, the conviction deep in his heart that God had accepted him. He felt he was not worthy. He felt he was too bad. He felt he was such a sinner that God could not accept him. He was harassed by doubts of his personal salvation, he was harassed by doubts of his personal relationship to God, heaven, eternal life. He struggled for justification. 

All of us struggle for justification, one of the conditions of being born. It's true for us moderns, as for the ancients, that we hunger for and are driven to be justified. We want our actions justified. We want our ideas justified. We want our words, our behaviors justified, made acceptable, okay, vindicated. We desperately want the stamp of approval on us, that what we're doing is right, that we are justified on a deeper level than our actions and our ideas. We want our behavior to be justified on a deeper level. We yearn to have our existence justified, made right, made acceptable, okayed with that stamp of approval, that inner peace, that inner confidence, that inner assurance that my life is good, that I'm supposed to be here, that I am wanted, that I am needed. Modern people are driven, and drive themselves to be justified. 

The next level down from wanting our existence justified is the level of anxiety. Am I acceptable to God? Does God accept me? Does God name me as one of his own. A poor self image lay behind the pretenses, facades and masks that people put up who are in trouble. Most people who are having trouble getting it together in their lives—kids at school, or in the community or trouble with a law or trouble with failure push behind the pretense, push behind the manners, push behind what society expects of us, push behind the veneer and you'll find anxiety. I'm no good. I’m really no good and nobody wants me. I'm not acceptable. I'm not a worthwhile human being—a lousy self image. This is the level where Luther struggled for justification. 

The most important questions in life are being asked to you this morning. Are you justified? Do you feel justified? Do you have that inner peace, that inner confidence, that inner assurance that you are right with God and that you are right with the world? In other words, are you a Christian? I remember when I was about 10 years old, I was taken to an evangelistic meeting. I can remember the fear even now. When the preacher in his emotionalism asked all those who know they're going to heaven stand up, I didn't stand up. I can remember those anxious feelings. I could not answer the question—do I know I'm going to heaven? 

Do you know you're going to heaven? Do you know you're acceptable to God? Are you justified? The human struggle is to find justification. Where do we find it? How are we justified? Not by trying and buying, which is the lesson from Luther. Luther tried trying. He became a monk. He gave up the world, he accepted the ascetic way of life, he gave up luxury, he accepted the simple monastic way of life. He worked at it day after day to make his life pure and acceptable, to be good to his neighbors, to live by the golden rule. He struggled, he tried and it did not work. Trying to live a good life does not bring us justification. Trying to be good, righteous and holy does not give us that inner peace and assurance that we are where we belong. 

And buying doesn't work, trying to buy justification doesn’t work. The practice of the church at that time was to sell indulgences. It was a good way to raise money for the church. The Pope needed money to fight his battles at that time and a good effective way to raise money was by selling the forgiveness of God. People could buy indulgences, some kind of artifact. If they paid enough money, they could get an indulgence that would guarantee that their ancestors, their parents, would be released from purgatory and would go to heaven. You could buy indulgences for the dead to be forgiven. If you had enough money, you could buy an indulgence by the Pope himself that said your sins are forgiven forever. It was quite a racket. Martin Luther struggled with the practice. 

One day and night in 1517 he nailed on a church door at Wittenberg 95 arguments, most of which dealt with the practice of indulgences. The 95 theses created quite a furor throughout the church. A lot of debates were caused by that paper. He was called to several councils to speak, to answer for his attack on the church. The net result was he was excommunicated. Many of the people in Germany stood by him, separated from the church and formed the Lutheran Church. 

Martin Luther found out that you cannot buy justification but we moderns have not always learned this lesson. We still try and buy justification. But, you cannot buy it. You cannot buy off God. There's no amount of money. You cannot accumulate enough things. You cannot gather enough money, you cannot gather enough beautiful things, you cannot gather enough possessions. You cannot accumulate enough wealth to be basically happy, to have that assurance that you are okay. You cannot buy it. You cannot buy off God with any kind of bribery. And you cannot buy off God by trying to live a good life. The works of the flesh never make it for no matter how hard we try, no matter how active we are in the church, no matter how many committees we serve on, no matter how much good we do, we never make it. We never do enough. We're never righteous enough. We're never good enough. And we are our own most severe judge. Trying and buying do not work. 

Luther discovered justification is by faith alone. He rediscovered that great truth of Paul’s. Justification is by faith alone, not by works, but by faith. Trust that God loves you, trust that your life is acceptable to God, and entrust your life to God by faith alone. That's so hard to understand. It's so hard to believe that what I'm striving and struggling for in my life deep down for that inner peace, that inner confidence, that inner assurance that I'm all right, is by faith, is just by believing by believing that God accepts me as I am. By giving my life to God, by faithing, Martin Luther wrote, faith alone justifies. It brings the Spirit through the merits of Christ. Faith is a divine work in us which transforms us. Luther said that even faith is a gift from God. God even gives us the faith. So when you feel too weak, when you feel your faith isn't strong enough, when you doubt, when you wonder if there even is a God, on those days, when you just feel too weak and too inadequate, God gives you faith. Trust that God provides the faith. It is a gift. 

Trust then results in a life of good. Living a good life is a result of faith. It doesn't bring the faith. It's a result of the faith. This is so difficult to grasp. Let me give you three testimonies from other people of how they experienced justification in their lives. The first is from the famous author, Tolstoy.  “I have been thinking much about God, about the essence of my life. And as it seemed, only to feel doubtful, as to both the one and the other. And I questioned the evidence of God's existence. And then not long ago, I simply felt the desire to lean myself upon faith in God, and in the imperishable pneus of my soul. And to my astonishment, I felt such a firm quiet assurance as I had never felt before. So that all the doubts and testings evidently not only did not weaken, but to an enormous extent confirmed my faith.” He felt such a firm quiet assurance. 

Robert Raines described it this way,  “I'm a child playing hide and seek waiting for someone to find me, call my name and say you’r “it”. And you did it Lord. You found me hiding in the silliest, saddest places, behind old grudges, under tons of disappointments, tangled up in guilt, smothered with success, choking on sobs that nobody hears. You found me and you whispered my name. And you said, You're “it”. 

Jim Driggers wrote it this way in “Sawdust Salvation”. “Saved—It calls to mind tent preachers waving their scrawny arms, gilt-edged Bibles and testimonies of red faced people who describe how in a moment of despair, they turned to sweet Jesus (praise his name, amen). And how he saved them from the fiery pit. I can write it all off, credit it all to sheer emotionalism. But there was that point when I quietly and very much alone,  realized that I was not enough in myself to make it, no matter what I did, I would always fall short. And in that moment, I called on Jesus sweet Holy Jesus (praise his name, amen). I called on Jesus to take that gnawing emptiness deep inside me and replace it with his love and power; to lift me up, to help me stand. The heavens did not roll away. Visions of rapture did not burst on my sight. I heard no answers to my prayer, except that I was filled with a powerful love. I was able to stand, face the world and proclaim this love. My spirit was no longer bound, but was able to fly.” 

Justification is the deep assurance that you are justified, that your existence, your very being, your very life comes from faith, believing and trusting that God loves you, entrusting your life back to God as he gave it, as he called you to be you. We learn from Martin Luther justification is not by buying, not by trying, but by simple faith.

© 1977 Douglas I. Norris