Monday, January 31, 2011

Mining the Archives: Luther Gets Saved in Habakkuk

The book of Habakkuk, a small book of prophecy tucked toward the end of the Old Testament, was written in about the 7th century B.C. Six hundred years later, it was instrumental in the writings of the Apostle Paul, and some 1,500 years later, in the life of the great reformer, Martin Luther. The following is adapted from a  sermon Pastor Mark gave as part of a  sermon series series on the prophetic book in 2003.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
Habakkuk 2:4

A lot of pastors are in ministry trying to pay God back rather than just trusting Jesus. Martin Luther was one of those guys: his incentive for ministry was to pay God back. He was going to study theology, and he had the mind of an attorney.

Luther tries God v. man

Luther saw God as a judge and as a prosecuting attorney. He saw himself as a defense attorney. He realized that God’s case against him was that he’s a sinful man unfit for heaven and forgiveness. So he picked up ministry, he picked up the Scriptures, he started to study, trying to find a way to defend himself against this case that God has made against humanity.

He came to the conclusion that God has an airtight case: we’re all wicked. That’s the only thing that is absolutely provable in Christianity is the evil of the human heart. That’s why we lock our doors. And that’s why we have jails. That’s why we have attorneys. That’s why we have prisons. That’s why we are reticent to even extend a hand of friendship to a stranger because we know not whether they are a friend or foe.

Luther said, “You know what? God’s case against humanity is a winner. We’re bad. And especially if God is judge, can’t lie to him. And if God is prosecuting attorney, you’re not gonna beat him. There’s no way out.” So he decided was he was going to study the Scriptures and find all the things that God wanted him to do, and then he’d do those so God would like him.

The Pursuit of Perfect Penance

And he tried really hard. Really hard. Harder than any of us. He became a priest, which meant no wife, no sex, no kids.  He actually went that far. He became a monk and a pastor and a professor of theology. He said, “Not only that, since sin requires punishment, I’ll punish myself. I’ll sleep on an uncomfortable bed or the floor. I’ll eat terrible food or starve myself so I rack my body.” And he actually did have intestinal problems for the rest of his life. “I’ll avoid all worldly pleasure. I won’t laugh. I won’t have a good time.”

And this guy was so racked because he was such a clever and clear-thinking mind. When it came to the Scriptures he realized that, in light of God’s Word, he was doomed.

What the monks would do usually is they would send the men into confession with a priest. And you would go in to the priest and you’d tell him all your sins, and then he would absolve you and proclaim forgiveness upon you, and they’d go do their work as monks. (We Christians do the same thing except for our priest’s name is Jesus. He’s our high priest. We go to him and confess our sins, and he died for them and he pardons us and grants us forgiveness.)

Confess? Yes. Hoe? No.

The problem was Martin Luther would be in there all day, every single day. He realized that even the way he confessed sin was a sin, so he would confess his sin and the way he confessed his sin. And then he realized that the motive for confessing his sin was a sin. So he would confess the motive and the mean and the sin. Right? Because it’s not just doing the right thing. It’s doing the right thing in the right way for the right reason. And the other monks thought, “He must be lazy, trying to get out of the work. He goes in there and prays all day so he doesn’t have to go out and hoe the garden.”

Finally, the priest said, “Enough already. Can’t you be in denial like everybody else and just go hoe the garden? Everybody else is in denial. Can’t you just say, ‘Well, I had a bad thought and we say blah, blah, blah, now move on?’”

Luther said, “No. I was reading the Scriptures and it says, ‘Be perfect.’ It says, ‘Do everything.’ It says, ‘Obey God.’ It says, ‘Motives count.’ It says, ‘Method counts. Everything counts.’ I’m not making it.”

And Luther became so depressed that he was almost at this place of suicide and coming apart. And then something amazing happened.

Martin Luther’s room while in exile at Wartburg Castle

The German Theologian Reads the Turkish Apostle Who Reads the Judean Prophet

He was studying the book of 
Psalms, and it brought him back to Romans 1:17, where Paul quotes Habakkuk, which led him all the way back to Habakkuk 2:4. Over 2,000 years after it was written, that same little verse that exploded for Paul, exploded for a guy named Martin Luther.

Luther writes, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness, which the merciful God justifies us by faith. As it is written,” he quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “he who through faith is righteous shall live. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and have entered paradise itself through open gates. Here a totally other face of the entire Scriptures showed itself to me.”

Martin Luther got saved in Habakkuk 2:4.

The Reformation Takes Form

And out of his understanding came what we call the Reformation, the cleaning up the understanding of the gospel and the recognition that “I don’t save myself. Jesus saves me. I don’t need to be good. Jesus was perfect. I don’t need to please God. Jesus did on my behalf. I don’t need to work my way to God. God has humbled himself and come down for me. I just need to trust him, and he will take away all my sin and he will love me and forgive me and adopt me into his family.”

“He will then give me a new heart. He will give me a new life. He’ll make me a new creation. And then all these Scriptures that I know are good I will begin to live in accordance with those Scriptures by grace because it’s grace that saves me and it’s grace that empowers me to honor God, through the Holy Spirit that the Son of God will send into me so that it’s no longer I who live, but it’s Christ who lives in me and through me and often times in spite of me. And then God gets all his glory and I get my redemption and I trust him, not me, and it’s about him, not me, and he’s God and I’m not.”

And 2,600 years after Habakkuk writes this little verse it’s still working because God said it. That’s how God still transforms and loves and heals and forgives and redeems people.

God says, “Know who I am. Don’t fight me. Trust me. And once you have, keep trusting me until you see me, and then your faith shall be sight.”

At this point, I call you all to response.  Last week a number of people came to Christ in this church. They stopped worshipping themselves and started worshipping Jesus.

If you’re a non-Christian, that is what you need to do: Your trust needs to be in Jesus, not yourself. His death, burial and resurrection, not your morality or spirituality or sincere or insincere attempts. You recognize your sin. You own it, you name it, and you ask Jesus to forgive you, and he will. And you trust him and belong to him and walk with him. And he will give you the grace to become the person that he intends for you to be. He’s good from beginning to end.

There is a wealth of resources in the  Mars Hill media library, including  over 500 sermons preached at the church, some dating back to 2000. Many of the sermons don’t have video, much less a  sleek intro video with scored backing track, just grainy, scratchy audio of a younger Pastor Mark. But the truth of the gospel and the relevancy of the teachings last. So, from time to time, we’ll repost bits from those archived sermons here on the blog so that they can be useful to you in your discipleship. (And because we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for over a year now—with another year to go—it’s good to shake things up and learn something from a different book every once in a while.)

Originally Posted at On January 30th 2011

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