From Death to Life: Martin Luther, The Mortician and The Messiah

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Last winter, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of Scandinavians, shuffling through a packed out eight-room exhibition in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The walls were lined with canvasses, sculptures, and artifacts. The gift shops overflowed with everything from The Complete Works of Martin Luther to beer mugs and T-shirts that read: “1517” and “I don’t always nail things to doors… But when I do, stuff happens.” Each room in the Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation exhibit painted a piece of the story of how God used the life and marriage of a runaway nun and a renegade monk to trigger a theological, political, and cultural revolution in Europe that would soon explode across the world.

What was it?

As we enter the 500th Easter season following the Reformation, student ministers still do well to ask: what exactly was it that shook the foundations of Europe five centuries ago? What was so revolutionary about the men of the Reformation and the Word they preached? What message did they herald that was so scandalous it would incite indignation from the priest and celebration from the prodigal? What is it that still liberates the prisoner and irritates the pretentiously pious? What could be so powerful that it would transform the world of art, the worship of families, the way we view scripture and salvation, and virtually every aspect of life in Europe and beyond?

Nothing other than the gospel of grace.

Reflecting on the transforming (or reforming) power of this gospel of grace through Luther and his generation, Robert Capon noted:

The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace—bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel—after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps—suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started.[1]

But God” (Ephesians 2:4a)

There are few places in Scripture where two words resound more sweetly in the ears of a saint once separated from God. At the beginning of Ephesians 2, Paul had just unpacked the reality of the human condition apart from divine intervention: dead.

Not wounded. Not bleeding. Not weak or frail. Not seeking or initiating. Not discouraged or depleted or debilitated. Dead.

And here’s the thing about dead people – they’re not seeking good advice. Funeral homes don’t contract counselors to console the corpses within their walls. That’s because a corpse doesn’t need a consultant or a crutch; a corpse needs a mortician to bury it or a Messiah to raise it. Lazarus’s greatest need in the grave was not guidance but grace. He needed the Word of the Savior to raise him from death to life – to penetrate his deaf ears and resurrect his lifeless body. Physically and spiritually.

So remains the greatest need of the students and families we serve.

Then we come across two words, six letters, and the single greatest announcement in human history: “But God!” Two words that transition us from “dead in sin” to “alive in Christ” (Eph. 2:1-5). Two words that are not uttered in wishful optimism, but anchored in time, space, and history – eternally secured through the crimson blood of Calvary and the vacancy sign that hangs above the rock cut tomb of the rich man.

Friends, the reformers didn’t launch a reformation. They heralded a message. They proclaimed salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. They declared the good news that grace alone radically regenerates rebels, relocating us from the realm of death in sin to resurrection life in Christ.

Beloved, we’ve been given a high and holy calling of which we are both unworthy and insufficient: to shepherd some of the most impressionable of God’s image bearers. And five hundred years demonstrates that more than just the 16th century church needs reformation. We all, prone to wander, have a heart-level tendency in our preaching and our practice to drift away from the grace of the gospel. It’s often tempting to look to the landscape of student culture and either despair or default to offering more palatable imitations that fail to save or sustain. Yet, praise God he has not left us to our own devices. Praise God that the gospel of grace is still bringing life where there is death, liberating the once dead to dance on grave clothes.

“But God.” For the struggling student. For the embattled pastor. For the exhausted parent. For the lonely. For the licentious. For the legalist. For the despairing and discouraged and downhearted. Take heart, brother or sister in Christ, for “…now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).

May we be shepherds who continually sing, speak, and celebrate the grace of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…”

Ephesians 2:1, 4-5

[1] Capon, Robert Farrar. Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace. Harper & Row, 1982.

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