This post is written by Jack Gross, a recent graduate of our Advanced Leadership Training program.
What phrase comes to your mind as you think of those moments when you suddenly come to understand something? You’ve spent your whole life looking at one side of a coin and just now you realize there is another side to that coin. Surprise! Do you describe it as a lightbulb going off in your head? A flash of insight? A watershed moment? Did it seem like you were peering through a newly opened door revealing a previously unseen vista, or that scales had been lifted from your eyes?
When something dawns on you for the first time, do you get that take-your-breath-away feeling? “Breathtaking” as an adjective is like “amazing.” It’s sort of like having a heart palpitation which catches your breath for a moment. New insights can be overwhelming!
I experienced that breathtaking feeling on a recent Sunday morning as Pastor Mike Yoder was giving his sermon about one of the “Solas” of the Reformation of 1517. It happened to me as he was speaking about a conversation Martin Luther had with a skeptic of the reformer’s insight into the doctrine of Sola Fide: faith alone. Yes, it’s true; I get excited by stuff like this.
Luther certainly got excited. He had experienced a watershed moment concerning the righteousness of God. Luther had hated that phrase, “the righteousness of God,” because he understood it to represent God’s necessity to punish the sinner, and Luther was acutely aware of his own sin nature. God’s righteousness, to Luther, was like sunlight at noon beaming on his own human depravity. Luther became obsessed about his personal inability to confess his sins enough and to do enough to receive forgiveness for all his sins. But then a light dawned on him as he read Romans 1:17 afresh:
Romans 1:17 For in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Luther wrote this reflection about that moment: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” 1
Luther had come to the understanding that, for him to be righteous, he had to accept something that was completely outside of himself—God’s imputed righteousness—and that he must accept it by faith. Faith was God’s requirement, not a man’s unceasing attempts to do enough on his own. Luther now understood that Jesus Christ had labored and that, in God’s view, the work concerning righteousness was complete. Jesus had paid the price once and for all (Hebrews 9:26). Imagine the joy Luther felt as this truth washed over him in wave after wave of grace!
Like seeing the other side of a coin for the first time, Luther saw God’s righteousness as a gift instead of earned wages. But Luther faced many a foe regarding his turn to God’s grace, away from the pervasive works-based system of the righteousness of his day. A skeptic said to him, “If this is true, a person could simply live as he pleased.” Luther said, “Indeed! Now what pleases you?”
It was then, during Pastor Mike’s sermon, in that moment as he quoted Luther’s words, that my breath was taken away. I closed my eyes and caught my breath as I tried to focus on the next sentences of Pastor Mike’s sermon. But, like ocean waves, that moment washed over me. “Indeed,” I asked myself, “now what pleases me?”
Was this a new “light” for me? No. I have read and pondered the first chapter of Romans many times, and I have thought about this quotation attributed to Augustine: “Love, and do what you will.” Rather than new knowledge for me, it was like waves of insight into the scope of the grace of God: how lofty His grace is to us and how effectively transformational the Gospel is to those who believe.
Romans 1:16 [The Gospel] is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
It’s being born again: new life. The shiny objects of desire which used to please suddenly appear tarnished compared to the pure grace and love of Christ. God’s power alters the believer’s desires so much that God’s pleasure is what matters most. Faith in God is not produced by me changing my own life; it is my response to the God who changes my life through the Gospel!
Luther preached an entire sermon about his response to the skeptic, “Now what pleases you.” The implications take my breath away. Anyone can come to Jesus and be free. Free from their own so-called righteousness. Free from their guilt. Free from the burden of plowing through this life alone. “Take My yoke upon you,” Jesus said, “and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). It sounds impossible. But, as Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
Luther’s critics apparently did not understand that the freedom offered by God is not a license to rest from doing right things, but rather an invitation to rest in Christ himself. It’s a fruitful kind of rest where His “yoke is easy and [His] burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). It’s resting in Christ as “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
It’s breathtaking. You think you understand something, that you’ve dropped the measuring rope into the deep blue sea quite a way. But then it becomes obvious that the depths there are fathomless. I can do what pleases me because, as I follow Jesus, my desire is His desire. Amazing.
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1 Luther’s Works, Volume 34: Career of the Reformer IV, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1999) 34:336–38