by Tyler Arnold
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” -John 8:31–32
Sometimes we forget that even the great champions of the faith — our heroes — got it wrong. Such was the case with Martin Luther. Yes, even Luther got it wrong.
When Luther was a young Augustinian friar he was obsessive about confessing his sins. To him, God was a vengeful judge and His wrath would surely be shown to such a poor miserable sinner as himself. For this reason, Luther confessed his sins incessantly. In fact, his Father Confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, quickly became fed up with Luther’s painstakingly long and detailed list of sins. Sometimes Luther confessed his sins for six hours straight, often repeating the most menial details. This prompted Staupitz to tell Luther to go away and come back when he had much bigger sins to confess. I suppose listening to such an exhaustive list of sins borne out of a great fear of God’s wrath is enough to leave anyone blurry-eyed and exhausted.
Luther got it wrong. He misunderstood how to be free. Yes, this champion of the faith, the Great Reformer, a man of great piety and intellect, at one time thought that he could free himself through what he was able to accomplish. He struggled with what to do with his own doubts because he knew he could never be good enough and worthy of God’s mercy, grace and salvation. And, what is more, he knew that life in the monastery was designed to free him from temptation, to keep him so busy with work, prayer and song, that there was no room to fall into the worldly traps that would surely entangle him if he stuck to his original plan of becoming a lawyer. However, Luther discovered that the more he tried to be holy, the more he realized how unholy he was. The more he attempted to clean out his sinful heart — the more furniture he moved — the more dirt he discovered. His imperfection before a wrathful God became knots that bound his heart with great fear, and he had no idea how to untangle them.
Luther could not find the freedom he desired through his imperfect efforts. Instead, he found bondage at the hands of an angry God who demanded more of him than he could possibly give. Luther got it wrong. And, if we think our efforts are able to earn freedom for our souls, we too get it wrong.
Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” According to Jesus, freedom is found in the Gospel … which makes us Christian disciples … which gives us knowledge of the truth. Notice that freedom is not given in human works, through six hour confessions. It’s not given through the fear of whether we’ve moved every piece of furniture to clean every nook and cranny of our sinful hearts. It’s not given through our worry about how big our faith is or how that faith wavers in the face of danger or discord. Freedom does not come through our strained attempts to keep the law perfectly, but rather through the Gospel that places hope in the perfect work of Jesus for sinners.
Reformation Day reminds us that the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross sets us free. If we think we can somehow earn this freedom, we get it wrong. But Jesus got it right. And, eventually, so did Luther. With all faith and trust in Christ alone, so do we.
The Rev. Dr. Tyler Arnold is senior pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, Platte Woods, Mo. He is also a collegium fellow for DOXOLOGY – The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel.