Is it true that the only things that are certain are death and taxes? It would seem true in every age, but especially in the Middle Ages. It was a time where traditional values and certainties were being questioned. Where wars, plagues, famine and economic issues also contributed to the instability of the times—not unlike our own era.
Then there was the Church whose teachings did little to give certainty, in fact, they only added to people’s insecurity and fear. Many believed that this was deliberate so that people would become more dependent upon the Church and what it offered in order to gain salvation. Thus attendance at mass, confession and penance, the buying of indulgences, the adoration of relics, and the joining of monastic orders offered ways by which someone could increase devotion and gain sufficient merit for obtaining eternal life. But how much was enough?Where was the certainty?
Dr. Richard Bucher, in a message titled “Joyful Certainty in an Age of Uncertainty,” mentioned a popular catechism of the day first printed in 1470. Derek Kolde’s “Mirror of the Christian Man” went through 19 editions before the Protestant Reformation and was probably the most popular catechism of its time. Kolde said, “There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy. The first troubles my spirit, because I will have to die. The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when. The third troubles me above all; I do not know where I will go.” In a nutshell, these three things exemplified the uncertainty of the age and the struggle that confronted Martin Luther and everyone else who desired to obtain a gracious God.
Luther was a type-A personality who could not be satisfied with just doing the best he could. Whether it was the Holy Spirit or a rocky relationship with a demanding father (or both), he always questioned whether his best was good enough. He certainly did not feel righteous and the more he evaluated himself, the more sinful he felt and the more terrified he became of the wrath of God. Luther’s monastical superiors saw that while he exceeded all the requirements and became a priest in record time, yet this terrible uncertainty about whether he was truly acceptable to God was not normal. He was repulsed by himself; even his confession and penance were self-centered, designed to save his own skin from hell. So his superiors suggested he begin to study theology, which took him to the Scripture.
His study of the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans ultimately brought him to a place summarized by Romans 1:17: “The righteous one (the justified one) shall live by faith.” Luther began to grasp that St. Paul used a legal term “to justify” in order to describe what happens when a sinner exercises faith in Jesus Christ. The sinner receives a righteousness that is not his own, but is the very righteousness of Christ accepted by God as a substitute for the sinner’s unrighteousness. While the Church called this a legal fiction, Luther called it a sweet exchange; “Thou Lord Jesus art my righteousness and I am thy sin. Thou has taken on thyself what thou wast not, and given to me what I am not.”
Herein lies Luther’s certainty, and mine as well. When I believe my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship with God depends on my own efforts, the less certainty I have of my acceptance by God. Have I done enough? How can I be certain?
Listen to Luther: I am saying this in order to refute the dangerous doctrine of the sophists and the monks, who taught and believed that no one can know for certain whether he is in a state grace, even if he does good works according to his ability and lives a blameless life. This statement, widely accepted and believed, was a principle and practically an article of faith throughout the papacy. With this wicked idea of theirs they utterly ruined the doctrine of faith, overthrew faith, disturbed consciences, abolished Christ from the church . . . If everything else were sound there [in the papacy] still this monster of uncertainty is worse than all the other monsters. (Luther’s Works, 26:377, 386)
And this is our foundation: the Gospel commands us to look, not to our good deeds or perfection but at God himself as he promises, and at Christ himself, the Mediator . . . And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves, so that we do not depend on our strength, conscience, experience, person, works, but depend on that which is outside of ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God which cannot deceive. (LW, 26:387)
If [a person] senses that he is in doubt, let him exercise his faith, struggle against the doubt, and strive for certainty, so that he can say: “I know that I have been accepted and that I have the Holy Spirit, not on account of my worthiness or virtue but on account of Christ, who subjected himself to the Law on our account and took away the sins of the world. If I am a sinner, and if I err, He is righteous and cannot err.” (LW, 26, 379)
Thus I believe that the Christian can be certain of salvation when that certainty is founded on the promise of God and the work of Jesus Christ! I hope you believe that.
Next week we want to look at where good works fit into the life of the Christian. It may surprise you what we find!