Sin was Martin Luther’s business. Not just because he was a priest. Not because he was supposed to know all the Bible passages about sin. Not because he was supposed to preach against sin. Instead of being an important part of Luther’s profession, sin had become for him a never-ending obsession.
He tried as hard as he could to stop sinning, but he couldn’t. He beat himself up, literally and figuratively, over his sin, but nothing he did could get rid of sin and its guilt. It was always there, accusing him, torturing him, condemning him.
“The best and holiest deeds must fail” (ELH 452:2). These words come from Luther’s hymn “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee.” It is easy to sing right past the words without thinking about what they mean. Do you get what Luther is saying about himself here? Do you realize that what he says about himself, he is also saying about you? Your deeds aren’t the problem. You are. It’s not enough for you to admit that your deeds have failed. God needs to lead you by the Law to take the next step—to swallow your pride and confess: “I have failed to keep it, I am a sinner.”
I don’t know about you, but I do not want to admit that. If a sinner like me has to compare himself with a sinless God, then I have no chance. Then I have no hope. Or do I?
You have probably heard someone say something to the effect that a person cannot recover from an addiction and get back on his feet until he has hit rock bottom. The same idea can be applied to the sinner’s relationship with God. When the Law stops us from making excuses for our sins, when it shows us that we have no hope of saving ourselves from sin, when it crushes our pride so there is no escape; then God gives us real hope in the Gospel.
Martin Luther’s hope—and ours—rest on God’s Word. The Word that describes God’s hatred of sin also describes God’s love for sinners. In one breath, God’s Word threatens: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a), but in the next breath, that same Word promises, “But the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23b). The Lord is just and punishes sin. The Lord is merciful and forgives sin. This is a paradox. It is a mystery, a divine mystery that can only be solved at the cross of Christ.
God’s Word says that the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The Son of God was born to a woman, to live a perfect life on this earth, to die a sacrificial death on the cross, to rise triumphant from the grave, to assure the repentant sinner: “Your sins are forgiven,” to give us comfort in this life, to give us the hope of eternal life.
By God’s grace, Martin Luther understood God’s Law and Gospel, and he confessed Christ as his Savior from sin. By the grace of God, so do we. Apart from God, life is hopeless, since “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Our trying to please God is a path leading to despair. But God’s mercy and forgiveness through Jesus, revealed in His Word, raise us from sorrow to hope. Through faith, Christ has opened to us the way to heaven.
Reverend Erich Hoeft