Let’s see if you can finish this saying, “If at first you don’t succeed… try, try, try again.” Maybe you had a parent, a coach or a teacher that said something like to you, trying to encourage you not to give up on something that they thought you could or needed to learn to do – write your name, tie your shoes, shoot free throws, play an instrument. Those words can be encouraging, but they can also be devastating if you being told to do something that you just don’t have the ability to do. In many ways, that was a thought that dominated nearly the first half of Martin Luther’s life. But it didn’t have anything to do with Luther learning to tie his shoes, or play an instrument or study for school. No it was a thought that defined his religion and more specifically his relationship with God. And it was devastating.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, the son of a very devout Catholic family. Luther was baptized as an infant and attended mass each week with his family. As a young boy he received instruction in the teachings of the Catholic church. However, the more Luther learned, the more afraid he became. He was afraid of God. When he went to church and listened to the priest he repeatedly heard what God and the Catholic church said Luther needed to do in order to gain God’s approval. Yes, Luther heard about Jesus, how Jesus had lived a perfect life and suffered and died at the cross. However, Luther looked at Jesus as a standard that he knew he could never live up to. Luther was convinced that he was never going to be good enough to get into heaven.
Now please don’t misunderstand me, it wasn’t as if Luther wasn’t trying to do the right things. In fact, that was one of the reasons that he gave up a potentially successful career as a lawyer and became a Catholic monk. He hoped that maybe devoting his life to the work of the church would in some way win God’s approval and ease his guilt. But as hard as Luther tried, he realized how often he failed to do the right things. He went to his priest to confess his sins, hoping to find some peace. Sadly, what he heard was something like, “If at first you don’t succeed, Luther, try, try, try again.” Luther was told to try harder, to be better and try not think so much about his sin. Well that’s like telling someone not to think about food. What’s the only thing that you think about while trying not to think about food? Food! Well, trying not to think about his sin didn’t ease Luther’s conscience. It just made him more aware of his sin! What scared Luther the most was that he knew from the Bible that God punishes sin, and Luther knew he was a sinner. Therefore, Luther was certain that one day God was going to punish him for his sin. Luther did not see Jesus as his Savior, but as a standard that he could never live up to. Luther had a choice: He could give up and hope that he had done enough OR he could keep on trying. Luther kept on trying, trying and trying again, continually enslaved by fear and guilt.
While Luther’s story is certainly interesting, it’s not all that unique. It is in many ways the story of all humanity. By nature we feel that something is wrong in our relationship with God, that we have not lived up to God’s expectations. We feel guilt, that God is going to hold us accountable for what we’ve done wrong. It might be the result of realizing that you haven’t spent as much time with your children as you should have. Or maybe it’s the result of the damaging words that were spoken or posted after having one too many drinks. Or maybe it’s the unethical choices that were made to get ahead in a career. Our conscience barks at us, “Try harder! If you just did the right things you wouldn’t feel so guilty! Try harder!” And to some degree our conscience is right.
The Bible confirms our guilt before God in those words you heard at the beginning of this service, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Even as hard as we might try, we have repeatedly failed to meet the expectations that God has set for us. And the Bible clearly tells us what our failure deserves, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Like Luther, our sin enslaves us with guilt and fear. And we too face the choice: Give up and hope for the best OR try, try and try again to live up to those expectations of God.
Luther kept trying, and Luther kept falling short. He was living as a prisoner of guilt and fear. That’s when the Holy Spirit showed him the key that unlocked that prison door and set him free. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes; first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed.” (Romans 1:16,17). The key to freedom was the gospel – a gospel message that had been hidden behind the man-made teachings, traditions and demands of the Catholic church. The gospel was the good news of what God had done FOR Luther in Jesus. Jesus was not merely a standard to be lived up to. No! Jesus was the way that God made sinners right with him. How?
In Jesus, God provided the righteousness that sinners needed to be right with God. The gospel showed Luther that Jesus’ perfect was lived in Luther’s place. That Jesus’ death at the cross was payment enough not just for some or most of Luther’s sins, but for ALL of his sins. And here must have been one of the most freeing parts of that gospel message, “A righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17). Luther had grown up in a church that burdened its people with uncertainty and doubt concerning their status before God. It told them to try harder, to be better and do more. But the gospel message told Luther that Jesus was enough, that God had done it all, “from first to last.” Jesus’ righteousness was Luther’s not because he was a monk, or a dedicated teacher or a devoted Catholic. Jesus’ righteousness was given to him through faith - simply depending on what Jesus did for him. Salvation was his, completely unearned, undeserved, a gift of God’s grace.
God’s grace has done the same for you and me. That same gospel messages continues to set people free to this very day. And we need that freedom because guilt, fear and uncertainty still try to enslave us even as Christians. Does the devil ever come to you trying to get you to question if you’re good or done enough to warrant God’s approval and love. The devil is all too good at bringing to mind our sins of the past, those painful memories that are still all too fresh in our minds because of the people we hurt or disappointed, the damage we caused, the selfish decisions we made. The devil flashes those sins before us and questions, “And you think that God is going to love you after that? You can try hard, but you’re never going to be good enough.” And you know what? He’s right. We’re never going to be good enough to win God’s approval. But Jesus was. Jesus is good enough for me and for all. Jesus lived a right life for me. Jesus has taken the guilt and punishment of my sin as he suffered and died on the cross. Jesus is my righteousness which makes me fully worthy of God’s love and blessing. Jesus is more than enough. He is my Savior. That is the gospel message that sets people free and fuels our Christian lives.
You see, guilt can certainly motivate people to do things. The first half of Martin Luther’s life is a good example of that. He was a stellar Catholic because he was hoping to avoid guilt. But inevitably guilt motivation always leaves a person bitter, frustrated, angry and filled with resentment, feeling that there is always something more they could and should do.
What freedom to have the gospel motivating us and the lives we live. We don’t have to live our lives hoping that we’re good enough to one day get into heaven or wondering if we we’ve done enough. No. We are free to live our lives in gratefulness to a God who has already given us heaven, a Savior that has done it all. It’s kind of like being born into a wealthy family. What did you do to receive that wealth? You were born. Certainly nothing that you had a choice in. Nope. You were just born into that family and you get to experience all the benefits of the wealth that someone else worked so hard for. Through faith we have received what Christ lived and died for. It’s all yours. That is the freedom of the gospel message that Luther fought so hard for because he didn’t want people to live in that bondage of guilt and fear that had held him hostage for so long. He wanted people to know the freedom of the gospel, to live in gratefulness to a God who in Jesus had given sinners everything they needed to be right with God. Yes, “A righteousness that is by faith from first to last.”
You see, that’s what the Lutheran Reformation and being Lutheran is all about. It’s not really about Martin Luther. In fact, Luther wasn’t real keen on the idea of people even being called “Lutherans.” Why? Because he didn’t want people to lose sight of what it was all about. It’s all about the gospel – the good news of Jesus whose righteousness is more than enough to make us right with God. Amen.