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LUTHER’S CONVERSION

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached on Reformation Sunday Morning
at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles, October 25, 2015

“As it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).


Some may ask why I am speaking on Martin Luther (1483-1546). Let it be clear from the outset that I am a Baptist, not a Lutheran. Regarding the nature of the church I am a Baptist, not a Lutheran. Regarding baptism I am a Baptist, not a Lutheran. Regarding the Lord’s Supper I am a Baptist, not a Lutheran. Regarding the nation of Israel and the Jewish people I am a Baptist, not a Lutheran. These are important points – and on every one of them I disagree with Luther and stand with the Baptists. Yet I deeply appreciate Luther’s clear, Biblical teaching on justification by faith in Christ alone. I am not speaking of all modern Lutherans. I am speaking of Luther himself. He was one of the great Christians of the ages.

Luther stands out in history as a very human figure, a man of his time, sometimes crude and obstinate. He did not always see things clearly. He continued to believe the Roman Catholic doctrine of “replacement theology,” that the Church completely replaces Israel. This Catholic doctrine led him, late in life, to make harsh statements against the Jews. But Richard Wurmbrand, a converted Jew who became a Lutheran pastor, once told me, very simply, “I forgave him.” Pastor Wurmbrand knew that Luther was a man of his time, as all of us are today. Later history will show that we have many imperfections today – especially regarding the soul-damning errors of “decisionism,” which are as hellish as the deceptions of medieval Catholicism.

Yet in spite of some “blind spots” Luther had extraordinary gifts. Spurgeon was the greatest Baptist preacher of all time. He extolled Luther and often quoted him (see two of Spurgeon’s sermons on Luther, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume XXIX, pp. 613-636). Spurgeon said, “The chief testimony of our great Reformer was to the justification of a sinner by faith in Jesus Christ, and by that alone.” Many times Luther saw the heart of theological questions – and expressed his thoughts with great originality and force.

Justification is the most important point of all the doctrines of salvation. Without being justified a man is doomed to Hell! A man can be right on the church, right on baptism, right on the Lord’s Supper, right on Israel – and still go to Hell because he is not justified. On the other hand, a man like Luther, though wrong on those and other points, can be saved if he has been justified by Christ. That is why Spurgeon called justification “the crown jewel of the Reformation,” for justification is the most important doctrine. Luther called justification by faith alone “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” Without justification no one can be saved! On this most critical of all doctrines, I stand with the Great Reformer. I stand with Luther on justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone! That was Luther's main theme – and I agree with him completely on it!

“The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

How did Luther come to understand this text? Spurgeon tells us of Luther’s conversion,

      I would sum up and illustrate this teaching by mentioning certain incidents of Luther’s life. Upon the great Reformer gospel light broke by slow degrees. It was in the monastery that, in turning over the old Bible that was chained to a pillar, he came upon this passage – “The just shall live by his faith.” This heavenly sentence stuck to him: but he hardly understood all its bearings. He could not, however, find peace in his religious profession and monastic habit. Knowing no better, he persevered in penances so many, and mortifications so arduous, that sometimes he was found fainting through exhaustion. He brought himself to death’s door... and he went on with his penances, seeking rest, but finding none...[later] the Lord wrought him a full deliverance from superstition, and he saw that not by priests, nor priestcraft, nor penances, nor by anything that he could do, was he to live, but that he must live by his faith [in Christ]. Our text of this [morning] had set the [Catholic] monk at liberty, and set his soul on fire.

[“The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).]

When Luther finally understood that text he trusted Christ alone. He wrote to his mother, “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” Spurgeon said,

      No sooner did he believe this than he began to live in the sense of being active. A [priest], named Tetzel, was going about all over Germany selling the forgiveness of sins for so much ready cash. No matter what your offence, as soon as your money touched the bottom of the [collection] box your sins were gone. Luther heard of this, grew indignant, and exclaimed, “I will make a hole in his drum,” which assuredly he did, and in several other drums. The nailing up of his theses on the church door was a sure way of silencing the indulgence music. Luther proclaimed pardon of sin by faith in Christ without money and without price, and the Pope’s indulgences were soon objects of derision. Luther lived by his faith, and therefore he who otherwise might have been quiet, denounced error as furiously as a lion roars upon his prey. The faith that was in him filled him with intense life, and he plunged into war with the enemy. After a while they summoned him to Augsburg, and to Augsburg he went, though his friends advised him not to go. They summoned him, as a heretic, to answer for himself at the Diet [Imperial Council] of Worms, and everybody [told him to] stay away, for he would be sure to be burned [at the stake]; but he felt it necessary that the testimony should be borne, and so in a wagon he went from village to village and town to town, preaching as he went, the poor people coming out to shake hands with the man who was standing up for Christ and the gospel at the risk of his life. You remember how he stood before that august assembly [at Worms], and though he knew as far as human power went that his defence would cost him his life, for he would, probably, be [burned at the stake] like John Huss, yet he [acted like a] man for the Lord his God. That day in the German Diet [Court] Luther did a work for which ten thousand times ten thousand mothers’ children have blessed his name, and blessed yet more the name of the Lord his God (C. H. Spurgeon, “A Luther Sermon at the Tabernacle,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Pilgrim Publications, 1973 reprint, Volume XXIX, pp. 622-623).

“The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

My first encounter with Luther was in a Baptist church in the early 1950’s. One Sunday night they showed a black-and-white movie about him. He seemed like a strange figure from the past, who had nothing to say of interest to me. The movie seemed boring and long. I wondered why my pastor, Dr. Walter A. Pegg, even bothered to show it. I should add that today I have a completely different view of this great movie. I love to watch it now! Click here to see a scene from this film.

My second encounter with Luther came much later, after I was converted. I read about John Wesley’s conversion experience, in which Wesley said,

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and had saved me from the law of sin and death (John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, third edition, Baker Book House, 1979 reprint, volume I, p. 103) .

This made an impression on me, because I knew that Wesley went on to be one of the most powerful preachers during the First Great Awakening. Wesley was converted while listening to Luther’s words on justification by faith in Christ.

Still later, I learned that John Bunyan, our Baptist forefather, read Luther when he was so remarkably converted, “Expanding his study of the Scripture with writings of Martin Luther” (Pilgrim's Progress, Thomas Nelson, 1999 reprint, publisher's introduction, p. xii). Bunyan went on to become the most widely read Baptist author of all time!

John Wesley, the Methodist, was converted by hearing Luther’s words. John Bunyan, the Baptist, was helped in his struggle for conversion by reading what Luther wrote. I thought that there must be a lot of good in Luther after all. I found that the Book of Romans was at the heart of Luther’s message. Luther said,

This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and it is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes (Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans,” Works of Martin Luther, Baker Book House, 1982 reprint, volume VI, page 447).

Why do I think Luther is important today? Mainly because he takes us back to the Book of Romans, and shows us so very clearly that Romans “is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel.” That is what we must hear again in these evil days of “decisionism.” More than anything else, we need to return to the Book of Romans! The Catholics of Luther’s day had forgotten the core message of Romans. The “decisionists” of our day have done the same thing. They may read Romans, but they don’t benefit from it. That is why “decisionism,” in so many ways, resembles Catholicism. The Catholics said, “Do this and live.” The “decisionists” say, “Do this and live.” But Romans 1:17 says,

“The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

Take notice of Romans 3:20.

“Therefore by the deeds of the law [saying a sinner’s prayer, raising your hand, going forward, asking to be forgiven] there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

Luther said that you must not think the law teaches what to do or not to do. That’s the way human laws work. Human laws are fulfilled by good works, even though your heart may disagree with them. But God judges by what is in the bottom of your heart, and for this reason, God’s law gives its demands to the inmost human heart, and cannot be satisfied with good works, but rather condemns works that are done otherwise than from the bottom of the heart, as mere hypocrisies and lies. That is why all men are called liars, in Psalm 116:11, because no one can keep God’s law from the bottom of his heart, for every person dislikes that which is good and has pleasure in what is bad. If, then, there is no willing pleasure in what is good, then your inmost heart does not want to do good. It dislikes the law of God and rebels against it. Then there is surely sin, and God’s wrath and punishment are deserved, even though, on the outside, you seem to have many good works. You are actually condemned by God’s law, because your inner heart rebels against His law with all its might.

But the laws of God were not given to justify you, or save you. Read Romans 3:20 again, out loud.

“Therefore by the deeds of the law [or works] there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

You can try to be as good as possible. But God doesn’t look at you outwardly. He looks on your heart. And there He sees rattlesnakes and poison spiders, and much rebellion and sin.

“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight…” (Romans 3:20).

The more you try to obey the law to be saved, the worse off you will be. This was true in Luther’s conversion experience, and also in Wesley’s and Bunyan’s conversions, as they tried desperately to become justified by “being good.” But the law goes much farther than that. It probes your heart to see the dreadful reality that you have sinned in heart and mind against a Holy God. Notice the last words of Romans 3:20,

“For by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

You must become “disgusted” with yourself – the sinfulness of your heart!

But God has given a cure for souls that are trying to be saved. The more they struggle to overcome their sin, the deeper they are dragged into sin. Hasn’t that been your situation? The harder you try not to sin, the worse sinner you inwardly become – pushing away Christ’s wonderful cure for sin, and trying to establish your own goodness by “rededicating” your life, “going forward,” saying a “sinner’s prayer,” learning more about salvation, and many other works of the law. But nothing that you learn, or say, or do, or feel can give you peace with God, who knows the sinfulness of your heart and mind.

What the law could not do for you, grace, through “faith in” Christ's Blood can do for you. Only in the Blood of Christ can you find redemption from your sins and the propitiation of God's wrath. He died in your place, to pay for your sins, and His Blood can cleanse you from all sin! Christ Jesus paid the full price for every one of your sins on the Cross.

Then what is left for you to do? The answer is given in Romans 3:26,

“That he [God] might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

Believing in Jesus. That is the whole answer to a lost person’s struggle, trying to live a better life by keeping the “law,” and making various “decisions.” Throw out your good works and “decisions,” and psychological self-analysis, and throw out your boasting over being better than others. You simply cannot be saved that way.

“[God is] the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

Have faith in Christ’s Blood, shed for you on the Cross, now translated into Heaven, where it is ever-fresh, capable of cleansing all sin. Have faith in that Blood, even the Blood of Christ, and you will be saved! Dr. Chan, please lead us in prayer.

If this sermon blessed you Dr. Hymers would like to hear from you. WHEN YOU WRITE TO DR. HYMERS YOU MUST TELL HIM WHAT COUNTRY YOU ARE WRITING FROM OR HE CANNOT ANSWER YOUR E-MAIL. If these sermons bless you send an e-mail to Dr. Hymers and tell him, but always include what country you are writing from. Dr. Hymers’ e-mail is at rlhymersjr@sbcglobal.net (click here). You can write to Dr. Hymers in any language, but write in English if you can. If you want to write to Dr. Hymers by postal mail, his address is P.O. Box 15308, Los Angeles, CA 90015. You may telephone him at (818)352-0452.

(END OF SERMON)
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Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Mr. Abel Prudhomme: Romans 3:20-26.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“For All My Sin” (by Norman Clayton, 1943).