COMMENTARY: It’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation Day


Martin Luther is often depicted as a brooding, personally troubled man. The pictures of him show a square-jawed German with a grim mouth and a furrowed brow. Growing up in a Lutheran home, I was sure he had been a brave but angry man, nailing his 95 Thesis on the door of the church in Wittenburg and starting a religious revolution. Even his decision to enter the priesthood, a vow to St. Anne if she would deliver him from the fury of a sudden storm, seemed to be born of fire.

Luther is a frequently misunderstood revolutionary. Most modern scholars now are sure that he did not nail his

95 Thesis on a church door, but included them in a letter to his superiors. Reformation Day (Oct. 31, 1517) is not marked by an act of insubordination, but a request for meaningful dialogue. Luther, along with many other priests of the time, were concerned with the church’s selling of “indulgences.” These indulgences were believed to assure forgiveness for sins. Luther, who was not a simple monk, but a highly educated theologian who had studied the scriptures in their original Greek and Hebrew, could find nothing in the Bible to justify this practice. What he did find, however, empowered each member of the church to find and assure their own salvation.

Like many successful revolutionaries, Luther profited from being the right man at the right moment. His ideas came at an economically and politically advantageous time. Because of this, he had promoters and protectors; his ideas flourished and he became the center of a storm.

Whether or not Luther held prescient thoughts concerning the creation of a new branch of Christianity, he possessed amazing clarity when it came to the truth of the Scriptures. Centuries later, his message of redemption by faith in the grace of God is still the heart of Christianity.

In a complex world, where the word, “religion” has broadened to include many ideas, I find my belief in this mainstream, old-fashioned, almost, “vanilla flavored” Christianity to be an anchor of truth. When Luther spoke of grace, faith and scripture, he created an intellectual tripod upon which I can rest a lifetime of love, hope and tranquility.

On its surface, the Bible’s message is straight forward. God used the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ, to atone for the sins of all mankind. If we accept that sacrifice through faith in its reality, we are given eternal forgiveness through the grace of God.

To the world and the worldly, this seems almost too easy. If Christ died for our sins, and all we have to do to be forgiven is believe in that fact, then what we do seems to be irrelevant. We could live the high life, violate every commandment, indulge every vice and still know that we face no eternal retribution. Our earthly partners may find us to be reprehensible, vile, even criminal, but God would still welcome us with open arms because Jesus has paid the penalty. What a sweet deal! This could be the ultimate, “get out of jail free” card.

However, many ideas are simple only in their presentation. This concept of grace, undeserved mercy, starts bending your mind. It touches your heart, and, ultimately, frees your soul. Unconditional love is a powerful force.

Compare these two scenarios. In the first set-up you know you are capable of doing bad things and every time you get caught you are going to be punished. You figure there are a few times when you are going to get by with something, and a few times you are going to get caught. Life becomes a balancing act. In your mind, you are constantly gambling with the benevolence of some outside force. You try to pad your luck by building up a store of good works, but each deed carries the taint of self-service. The good that you do springs from fear of punishment, or some attempt to tip the scales of justice in your favor. You are hoping to bank some karma for an ethically rainy day.

In the second scenario, you know you are capable of doing bad things, but all is forgiven. There is no punishment — ever. You have been given a gift of forgiveness up front. There is no antagonist. No game. It is no longer you against, “them.” Since you cannot earn forgiveness it has been given to you, fully and freely. Now the good that you do is motivated by love and gratitude, not fear. There is no way that a person can accept God’s gift of grace without being touched by it.

The Bible does not contradict itself when it says that we are saved by faith alone, and then says that faith without good works is empty. These statements simply point out the truth of real faith. Acceptance of grace changes a person. It makes you introspective. It causes you to want to be a better person, despite your faults. Instead of wanting to win some celestial game of roulette, you want to return some of the love you have been given. You aren’t keeping score, you know you would lose; instead, you are living a life that shows gratitude for the gift of grace.

Christians aren’t perfect. They stumble, sometimes badly, but they have a conscience and feel the sting of contrition. They try to be better people. They try to atone for their misdeeds. When I understood this, I was forever free. I could try and fail, but each attempt at a good and gracious life became my personal hallelujah.

Martin Luther saw what God had laid out. Luther chose a hard path and made the words of the Bible available to all of us. It is all there: The words, the faith, and the promised grace.

Men have corrupted churches. They have corrupted religions. They have tried to corrupt the word of God. But God, himself, has never changed his love for us, or his plan for our salvation. My personal faith in this redemption frees me to be the best person I can with a full and loving heart.