Summary: In this sermon, we see the outworking of the gospel in the life of just one man, Martin Luther.
In 1920 an English preacher named Frank W. Boreham published a book of sermons on great Bible texts. In each case, he linked a Bible text to the history of a great Christian man or woman. He called his book Texts That Made History.
An example of a text that made history is David Livingstone’s text—Matthew 28:20, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” This text was a great encouragement to David Livingstone as he preached the gospel in the heart of Africa where no European had ever been before.
John Wesley’s text was Zechariah 3:2, “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” The reason this text was so significant for John Wesley is because as a young child he was dramatically rescued from his home, which was on fire.
There are twenty-three sermons in this book, and Boreham published four more similar books in his lifetime.
Of all the texts that are associated with the lives of great Christians, none is as clearly associated with one man as Romans 1:17. And, of course, the man whose text it was is Martin Luther. Romans 1:17 says:
"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’" (Romans 1:17).
I propose that we study Romans 1:17 from the standpoint of Martin Luther’s life. Last week I noted that Romans 1:16-17 are the theme verses of this important letter. We studied these verses showing eight reasons why Paul could say (and all true believers can continue to say) that they are not ashamed of God’s gospel.
Today, I want us to see the outworking of that gospel in the life of just one man, Martin Luther.
I. In the Convent at Erfurt
Martin Luther began his academic career by studying law, which was his father’s desire for him.
But although he excelled in his studies and gave every promise of becoming successful in his profession, Luther was troubled in soul and greatly agitated at the thought that one day he would have to meet God and give an account of his life before him.
In his boyhood days he had looked at the frowning face of Jesus in the stained-glass window of the parish church at Mansfield and had trembled. When friends died, as during his college days two of his closest friends did, Luther trembled more.
One day he would die—he didn’t know when—and he knew that Jesus would judge him.
On August 17, 1505, Luther suddenly left the university and entered the monastery of the Augustinian hermits at Erfurt. He was twenty-one years old, and he entered the monastery, as he later said, not to study theology but to save his soul.
In those days in the monastic orders there were ways by which the seeking soul was directed to find God, and Luther, with the determination and force that characterized his entire life, gave himself rigorously to the Augustinian plan. He fasted and prayed. He devoted himself to menial tasks. Above all, he adhered to the sacrament of penance, confessing even the most trivial sins, and for hours on end, until his superiors wearied of his exercise and ordered him to stop confessing until he had committed some sin worth confessing!
Luther’s piety gained him a reputation of being the most exemplary of monks. Later he wrote to the Duke of Saxony:
"I was indeed a pious monk and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkery, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortification even to death, by means of my watchings, prayers, readings and other labors."
Still, Luther found no peace through these exercises.
The monkish wisdom of Luther’s day instructed him to satisfy God’s demand for righteousness by doing good works.
“But what works?” thought Luther. “What works can come from a heart like mine? How can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?”
In Luther’s anguish, God sent him a wise spiritual father by the name of John Staupitz, the Vicar General of the congregation. Staupitz tried to uncover Luther’s difficulties.
“Why are you so sad, Brother Martin?” Staupitz asked Luther one day.
“I do not know what will become of me,” replied Luther.
Staupitz said to Luther, “More than a thousand times have I sworn to our holy God to live piously, and I have never kept my vows. Now I swear no longer, for I know that I cannot keep my solemn promises. If God will not be merciful towards me for the love of Christ and grant me a happy departure when I must quit this world, I shall never with the aid of all my vows and all my good works stand before him. I must perish.”