“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point. –Martin Luther (1483-1546)
I recently attended a seminar where a missionary to Muslim countries was the speaker. He reminded us that Muslims don’t welcome Christian missionaries and they sometimes kill them. Given that reality, he often receives calls from concerned parents asking him to help convince their precious children to change their minds about going to those dangerous places. He told us he has one response for those worried parents: “I will weep with you but I won’t fear with you.”
On the surface, that response seems hard and insensitive. What lies behind such shocking words? He apparently believes in a sovereign God, who calls young people to missions and who controls the guns of radical Islamists. He believes that the Great Commission includes going to people who hate and kill Christian missionaries. He believes that some, even the young ones, will die as martyrs. But, ultimately and decisively, he believes that the greatest joy in life is to know Jesus Christ and to share him with the world, even if it means personal suffering and a short life on earth. It certainly brings home the importance of Jesus’ admonition for his disciples to count the cost before they sign on. [Luke 14:28]
The Gospel is at war with darkness. The friends of darkness hate the light and the light bearers. The more strategic the battle, the more fierce the battle rages. However, for all missionaries, the decisive conflict is not fought in foreign lands but in the human heart. Before we leave the shores of our homeland, we must be convinced of two things: 1] That we are engaged in life’s most glorious mission, worthy of our death; and, 2] That we have the necessary resources to enable us to complete our mission. That is why the Lord works in us to prepare us for the struggles we will face. It is imperative that we know before we go that Jesus has called and that he will go before us. We must be convinced that the battle is the Lord’s and that he will give us everything we need to fight and win in the darkest of nights. As one brave soldier once remarked, “Victory is impossible. Death is sure. What are we waiting for?” It is that kind of radical spirit, birthed out of a glorious vision of Christ that compels young disciples to leave all and risk death for the joy of proclaiming Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther had no idea of the anger that would be unleashed against him when he first nailed his 95 Theses to the wall at Wittenberg. He later wrote, “I entered into this controversy without any definite plan, without knowledge or inclination; I was taken quite unawares, and I call God, the searcher of hearts, to witness.” He thought that what he had discovered was so awesome and life changing, so beautiful and biblical, that the authorities would have to receive them with the same delight he had. He was wrong.
But, the Lord knew what was ahead. God always prepares his servant for what he has prepared him for. God often takes his recruits to the desert. Moses, John the Baptist, Paul and even Jesus, spent time in the wilderness before they began their public ministry. It is a place of testing and trial. I think Tozer was right when he said, “It is doubtful whether God can use anyone greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” It isn’t that God is mean or arbitrary. He places us in the dark so that we can see the true Light. He strips from us all that we find dear so we can discover the one thing that is ultimately precious. He removes all of our crutches so that we will place all of our trust in his arms. I think it is safe to say that the deeper the depths of our descent the higher heights will be our ascent. God had a greater task for Luther than he could have imagined. So, before he was sent, he needed to be convinced of the rightness of his cause and greatness of his God.
His training ground was in the desert of his soul. His fear of a righteous God and his knowledge of his own sinfulness locked him up in a dungeon of despair. The dread of a demanding God dominated him. He once commented, “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.” In desperation he fled to a monastery where he thought he could work his way out of the darkness of guilt into the light of God’s acceptance. He availed himself of all of the prescriptions and ceremonies of the Church. He went far beyond the other monks in self-degradation and self-flagellation, but could find no relief. “I saw that I was a great sinner in the eyes of God,” he wrote later, “and I did not think it possible for me to propitiate him with my own merits.”
But in this, or behind this, God was at work. One of his biographers described his ordeal like this: “God tried him in small things that he might learn to remain unshaken in great ones. Besides, to be able to deliver his age from the superstitions under which it groaned, it was necessary for him to first feel their weight.” Luther had to experience the full dread of his sin so he could experience the full delight of God’s salvation. He had to be fully frustrated by the superstitions of men so that he could fully appreciate the miracle of God’s grace. One passage set him free and sparked the Reformation. “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.” [Rom 1:17] [It was the same scripture that Jonathon Edwards claimed to be the basis of the Great Awakening].
This was the decisive moment of Luther’s life. What God did in him through that one scripture became the very soul of Luther’s theology and the force that gave him his passion. “It was,” comments one biographer, “his stronghold in every danger; the principle which gave energy to his preaching and strength to his charity; the foundation of his peace, the encouragement to his labors, his comfort in life and death.” He did not find God. God had found him. He didn’t attain righteousness by works. He was given righteousness by faith. The Lord who revealed himself through the Word was not only great, He was good. Luther discovered what the psalmist meant when he declared in the 23rd Psalm: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow [pursue] me all the days of my life.” God was for him! [Romans 8:31]
Suddenly, his eyes were opened and he saw the glory of God in the face of Christ. The Church that he loved and had devoted himself to, far from displaying the beauty of Christ, had hidden him behind the veil of traditions and rituals. Instead of offering freedom through faith in Jesus, it kept people bound to never ending works. He had been marvelously delivered through faith in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Now, he had a passion to spread and share that good news with all Christendom. The glory of God and the joy of his people were at stake. He would proclaim the truth even if it cost him his life. And, when his teaching was attacked by the Church and he was threatened with death, he replied:
“Well then. I Doctor Martin Luther, confess this article, that faith alone without works justifies before God; and I declare that it shall stand and remain forever in spite of the emperor of the Romans, the emperor of the Turks, and the emperors of the Tartars, the emperor of the Persians, -in spite of the pope and all the cardinals, with the bishops, priests, monks and nuns, in spite of kings, princes and nobles, -and in spite of all the world and the devils themselves; and that if they endeavor heads. This is the true and holy gospel, and the declaration of me, Doctor Luther, according to the teaching of the Holy Ghost.”
What can we learn from Luther’s struggle? First, just one scripture, set afire by the Spirit of God, can radically change the direction of our lives and give us an awesome purpose to die for. Second, when God wants to do a great thing through us, we should not be surprised by the heat he applies to us. Third, when we answer God’s call to go, we can be certain that he will see to it that we will have all of the resources needed to complete the task. Fourth, the joy and privilege of sharing Jesus with the lost trumps all tinges of trepidation. Finally, when the glory of Jesus Christ is at stake, we just need to go; we don’t have to come back. The root of our faith and our future is anchored deep within the faithful promises of our Lord, King Jesus.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot
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