500 Years Later: For Whom the Bell Tolls

There’s always great sadness when a friend dies, but especially when their death is viewed as an injustice. Plato recorded these final words of Socrates as his condemned friend prepared to drink the hemlock.

All of the wisdom of this world is but a tiny raft upon which we must set sail when we leave this earth. If only there was a firmer foundation upon which to sail, perhaps some divine word.

Although this death scene took place in the year 399 B.C., in far away Athens, the words of Socrates leave me with a sense of sadness, an “if only” lament that cuts to the heart. I wonder how many have traversed their final hours of life entertaining this melancholy thought, struggling to plant their spiritual feet on something trustworthy and true rather than wishful and waning.

About 1900 years later, another man anguished and fretted and agonized as he searched for that same foundation. Confession, good works, pilgrimages, self-flagellation, nothing brought peace or assurance to his troubled heart. In fact, his quest only broadened the gaping chasm that overflowed with angst and frustration and darkness, driving him to declare, “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”

That man was Martin Luther.

Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, marked by the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door, which served as a bulletin board of sorts. But there wouldn’t have been any Reformation if Luther had neglected his daily task of studying and teaching the Scriptures, the books of Psalms and Romans in particular. Just think, the very thing he was striving to discover—Where do I find a gracious God?—he would unearth in his dutiful preparations for his calling as a professor of theology. Isn’t this the way God often works in our ives, not in the glitzy and flashy and spectacular but in the hidden and modest and simple?

One day, while grappling with the Greek text of the Apostle Paul, God shined the light on the words just and justice, words that had previously filled the monk’s heart with terror. Luther explained it this way.

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one express, “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 faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer 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, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to be inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

At this point we could say the rest is history. Luther became a new man who loved the Gospel, loved his Savior, and loved the cross, “where righteousness and peace kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10)

To borrow the words of another theologian, Martin Luther “was a man stumbling up a ruined tower staircase in the dark, who, putting out his hand to save himself from falling, found he had grasped a bell rope and had unexpectedly sounded a peal that was now reverberating far and wide.” That bell pealed throughout Europe and then into Great Britain and finally over the ocean into the New World.

And today, October 31, 2017, the church of Jesus Christ celebrates the tolling of that bell as it continues to make its dulcet sounds around the world, declaring to those who have ears to hear—Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria.






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