In recent weeks I’ve found myself reading more about Martin Luther, the great reformer of the sixteenth century.
I began reading more of Luther, again, because I picked up Eric Metaxas’ recent biography of the man. My understanding is that Metaxas isn’t looked upon too fondly within the scholarship world because of his writings and perceived errors. But I have to say he does tell a good biography. I’m about 200 pages in right now and the way he writes keeps you in the story. While some of his inaccuracies are something I’ll search out a little more later on; for the moment I’m enjoying his mix of personal interpretation and the life of Luther quite evocative.
In reading this biography though I’ve now moved into reading Luther for himself. This, of course, if the best way to read anyone. So in going to the man himself I’m working through his commentary on the Letter to the Galatians as part of my devotions (for a PDF version of this go here). And let’s be honest, reading Luther is even more evocative than reading Metaxas. The language, the criticism, the insight, the forthrightness of Luther’s writings. Wow. How great.
But lest this simply be an exercise in reading and analysing his writing there are particular aspects to Luther’s writing that are extremely helpful for the Christian. In particular, this early reflections on chapter one, with the focus on sin being dealt with by the cross is simply stunning.
I’m sure I’m not the only one that battles with sin.
And I don’t just mean the battle with daily sin, behaviour or attitudes that we fall into. I mean the realisation my sin is so great that it raises the question of assurance of true forgiveness. How can God truly forgive the attitudes and behaviours I have acted upon for myself, let alone those things toward others!?
I’m sure I’m not the only person that knows the depths of their own heart, the depths of their own sinfulness, and the holding on of sin of the past, the sin that isn’t easily forgotten.
O how great a sinner we recognise ourselves to be in light of knowing the glorious nature and holiness of God! And how regretful, unassured, and doubtful we find ourselves when these things are brought to light through the Spirit.
And then at the same time we find ourselves neglecting the true grace that is given by the Lord Jesus. In our pursuit for holiness, and our disgust at sin, we become so self-centred about it that we hold on to it; just so we can feel bad and guilty about such sin. This could be for days or weeks or months or years. How many of us are holding on to sin that has been forgiven? How many of us are holding on to sin that grace has already dealt with!?
Well, for anyone that is dealing with sin, in dealing with a conscience of guilt because of sin, then I think Luther helps us tremendously. In fact, I don’t know whether I’ve read a better few pages that]n his reflections on this.
Below I copy much of what he says while reflecting on the phrase, “Who gave himself for our sins” in Galatians 1:4. I hope you are as edified as I was in reading this. It speaks to the person dealing wracked with guilt because of their continual stumbles into sin and temptation. And it provides great encouragement to get up off the mat and endure in the Christian life assured of every single sin, no matter how great or small, has been dealt with.
Verse 4. ‘Who gave himself for our sins’.
Paul sticks to his theme. He never loses sight of the purpose of his epistle. He does not say, “Who received our works,” but “who gave.” Gave what? Not gold, or silver, or paschal lambs, or an angel, but Himself. What for? Not for a crown, or a kingdom, or our goodness, but for our sins. These words are like so many thunderclaps of protest from heaven against every kind and type of self-merit. Underscore these words, for they are full of comfort for sore consciences.
How may we obtain remission of our sins? Paul answers: “The man who is named Jesus Christ and the Son of God gave himself for our sins.” The heavy artillery of these words explodes papacy, works, merits, superstitions. For if our sins could be removed by our own efforts, what need was there for the Son of God to be given for them? Since Christ was given for our sins it stands to reason that they cannot be put away by our own efforts.
This sentence also defines our sins as great, so great, in fact, that the whole world could not make amends for a single sin. The greatness of the ransom, Christ, the Son of God, indicates this. The vicious character of sin is brought out by the words “who gave himself for our sins.” So vicious is sin that only the sacrifice of Christ could atone for sin. When we reflect that the one little word “sin” embraces the whole kingdom of Satan, and that it includes everything that is horrible, we have reason to tremble. But we are careless. We make light of sin. We think that by some little work or merit we can dismiss sin.
This passage, then, bears out the fact that all men are sold under sin. Sin is an exacting despot who can be vanquished by no created power, but by the sovereign power of Jesus Christ alone.
All this is of wonderful comfort to a conscience troubled by the enormity of sin. Sin cannot harm those who believe in Christ, because He has overcome sin by His death. Armed with this conviction, we are enlightened and may pass judgment upon the papists, monks, nuns, priests, Mohammedans, Anabaptists, and all who trust in their own merits, as wicked and destructive sects that rob God and Christ of the honour that belongs to them alone.
Note especially the pronoun “our” and its significance. You will readily grant that Christ gave Himself for the sins of Peter, Paul, and others who were worthy of such grace. But feeling low, you find it hard to believe that Christ gave Himself for your sins. Our feelings shy at a personal application of the pronoun “our,” and we refuse to have anything to do with God until we have made ourselves worthy by good deeds.
This attitude springs from a false conception of sin, the conception that sin is a small matter, easily taken care of by good works; that we must present ourselves unto God with a good conscience; that we must feel no sin before we may feel that Christ was given for our sins.
This attitude is universal and particularly developed in those who consider themselves better than others. Such readily confess that they are frequent sinners, but they regard their sins as of no such importance that they cannot easily be dissolved by some good action, or that they may not appear before the tribunal of Christ and demand the reward of eternal life for their righteousness. Meantime they pretend great humility and acknowledge a certain degree of sinfulness for which they soulfully join in the publican’s prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But the real significance and comfort of the words “for our sins” is lost upon them.
The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul “who gave himself for our sins” as true and efficacious. We are not to look upon our sins as insignificant trifles. On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so terrible that we must despair. Learn to believe that Christ was given, not for picayune and imaginary transgressions, but for mountainous sins; not for one or two, but for all; not for sins that can be discarded, but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained.
Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: “Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not imaginary transgressions, but sins against the first table, unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; and sins against the second table, dishonour of parents, disobedience of government, coveting of another’s possessions, etc. Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, and similar sins in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God.
“Because my transgressions are multiplied and my own efforts at self-justification rather a hindrance than a furtherance, therefore Christ the Son of God gave Himself into death for my sins.” To believe this is to have eternal life.
Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture. If he says, “Thou shalt be damned,” you tell him: “No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God’s fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure.” With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil’s craft and put from us the memory of sin.
St. Paul also presents a true picture of Christ as the virgin-born Son of God, delivered into death for our sins. To entertain a true conception of Christ is important, for the devil describes Christ as an exacting and cruel judge who condemns and punishes men. Tell him that his definition of Christ is wrong, that Christ has given Himself for our sins, that by His sacrifice He has taken away the sins of the whole world.
Make ample use of this pronoun “our.” Be assured that Christ has canceled the sins, not of certain persons only, but your sins. Do not permit yourself to be robbed of this lovely conception of Christ. Christ is no Moses, no law-giver, no tyrant, but the Mediator for sins, the Giver of grace and life.
We know this. Yet in the actual conflict with the devil, when he scares us with the Law, when he frightens us with the very person of the Mediator, when he misquotes the words of Christ, and distorts for us our Saviour, we so easily lose sight of our sweet High-Priest.
For this reason I am so anxious for you to gain a true picture of Christ out of the words of Paul “who gave himself for our sins.” Obviously, Christ is no judge to condemn us, for He gave Himself for our sins. He does not trample the fallen but raises them. He comforts the broken-hearted. Otherwise Paul should lie when he writes “who gave himself for our sins.”
I do not bother my head with speculations about the nature of God. I simply attach myself to the human Christ, and I find joy and peace, and the wisdom of God in Him. These are not new truths. I am repeating what the apostles and all teachers of God have taught long ago. Would to God we could impregnate our hearts with these truths.
Wow. What a great word.