When we know God has declared us righteous because of Jesus, we are consumed by a desire to share that truth.
On April 17, 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, a gathering of the most powerful people in the Holy Roman Empire. Since he had spent the previous 15 years of his life as a monk, he was unaccustomed to appearing before princes and lords. It showed. He failed to follow courtly etiquette. He spoke softly. When asked if he wished to retract anything in his writings, he seemed unprepared, requesting additional time to think.
What a difference a day makes! On April 18, Luther boldly took a stand. Encouraged by brothers in Christ the night before, the professor from Wittenberg clearly confessed his faith. If someone could demonstrate from the Scriptures where he had erred, he would immediately recant what he had written and would, as he said, “be the first to cast my books into the fire.” Otherwise, he could not and would not recant, because God’s Word had the final word in every debate. “I cannot do otherwise,” he said. “Here I stand. God help me” (Luther’s Works Vol. 32, pp. 111,113).
Love for the gospel
The trembling of the previous day was gone. Yet Luther continued to tremble. The trembling, however, was not because he feared being burned at the stake as a heretic. The Holy Spirit had worked in the reformer’s heart a different kind of trembling—a trembling before the Word of God. In Isaiah, the Lord says, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at my word” (66:2).
The Spirit had trained Luther to handle God’s Word with fear and trembling. He approached the Bible as a servant, not a master. Sitting in judgment on the Scriptures was not an option. What his Savior-God said, he would believe. What the Lord taught, he would teach.
What we want to concern ourselves with, above all, is preaching Christ crucified.
Luther reverenced every verse of the Scriptures because through the Word about Christ the Holy Spirit had broken through his darkness. The Spirit had convinced him that the gospel revealed the righteousness God gives to sinners through faith in Christ (Romans 1:17). Because Luther loved the gospel that had opened heaven to him, he opposed those who placed their ideas above what God said in his Word. Love for the gospel compelled the reformer to speak and write against the teachings of the Roman Church that contradicted the Scriptures.
Because Luther was by nature sinful —a fact he readily confessed—he no doubt harbored some inappropriate motives in his rejection of false teachings. Yet his intention in speaking against false teachings was not to prove that he knew the Scriptures better than others. His goal was not even to preserve pure doctrine for pure doctrine’s sake. Above all else, he was consumed with proclaiming the righteousness of Christ, which is received through faith.
Please don’t misunderstand that. Luther was no fundamentalist. He considered every teaching of God’s Word important. If God said it, then Luther would teach it, even if the teaching flew in the face of popular opinion. But all he did and said was in service to the gospel, by which the Spirit forms faith, forgives sins, and grants everlasting life. From painful, personal experience Luther knew that the only thing that speaks peace to a burdened conscience is the good news of forgiveness in Christ. He did not find peace in possessing pure doctrine but in the righteousness of Christ his Savior. The reformer recognized that his life with God depended not on his ability to express every doctrine of the Scriptures with perfect precision but on Christ’s perfect life and death for sinners.
Proclamation of Christ
Luther’s desire was that others would experience the peace that comes from knowing Christ as their righteousness before God. That’s why he spoke and wrote against false doctrine—he was consumed with proclaiming the righteousness of Christ.
That’s what we want driving us as well. It’s easy to become so consumed with ensuring that everyone confesses pure doctrine that we act as if life with God comes through purity of teaching rather than faith in Christ. What we want to concern ourselves with, above all, is preaching Christ crucified, the sinner’s righteousness, holiness, and redemption. We teach and preach everything God says in the Bible, without apology, because we tremble at his Word. We do so in service of a far greater goal than being doctrinally correct. We strive for pure doctrine because we are consumed with proclaiming the gospel of Christ’s righteousness, by which the Spirit grants life.
Maybe an example would help. A friend tells you that the Bible has mistakes in it because it was written by humans. You’re convinced she’s wrong because you know what the Scriptures teach. You even have passages ready to show her the error of her thinking: “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) or “Prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Since God gave the writers the words they were to write, there cannot be any errors.
What should be your goal in that conversation? I can tell you the goal I’ve adopted more than once: Prove her wrong (and demonstrate that I’m right). But there’s a better way to approach such a conversation. After all, there’s only one reason we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. It’s not because we are smarter or godlier. It’s only because the Lord graciously chose to reveal that to us and moved us to accept it. Think about how he did that. He led you to believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world—and your Savior too. Because you believe that Jesus is your Savior, you believe that the Bible is inspired by God and inerrant.
When we lose sight of the goal of pure doctrine—the salvation of sinners—we end up acting like the Pharisees Jesus had to rebuke. Pride in their purity of doctrine led them to be consumed with compelling people to conform, rather than pointing them to Christ. They lost sight of the heart of God’s Word and missed seeing Christ.
When the Lord enables us to see ourselves as he sees us, righteous through faith in Christ, then we no longer need to find our righteousness in the fact that we have pure doctrine. We won’t have to prove ourselves right and others wrong. Instead, astounded by the Lord’s grace to us, we will be consumed with proclaiming Christ’s righteousness to others. The righteousness we desperately need to stand before God on the Last Day, they need too.
This is the second article in a three-part series based on the 2021 synod convention essay.
Author: Earle Treptow
Volume 108, Number 12
Issue: December 2021