“For freedom Christ has set us free.”
— Galatians 5:1
I was afraid of God. I saw God as a fierce judge. I concluded that I did not measure up to God’s goodness. I lived every moment in dire fear of going to hell.
That was my life.
That was my life from about the age of 6 until I was 19. At 19 years of age, I met the first active Lutheran I had ever known. He was a Bible college classmate. His name was Bill. Bill introduced me to the Lutheran Reformation and the writings of Martin Luther.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that began with the struggles and studies of that Catholic monk named Luther. Looking through “Lutheran lenses” my vision of Christianity and my view of God began to change.
A teacher reminded me. There was not just one Reformation. There were many. We have some close cousins in Reformation like the Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist Christians. The Roman Catholic Church also has undergone many kinds of reformation in her history since that time.
Some of the wounds from the Reformation era have healed. Today, we have formed good and healthy relationships with many of our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. I believe the heritage of the Reformation still resonates with people for a variety of reasons.
Through the ministry of literature, a ministry that was Luther’s great gift, I began to discover grace. I studied Lutheran writings. I learned that grace is God’s “unmerited favor,” God’s unearned love. I didn’t have to do anything to “earn” God’s love. God already loved me fully and completely. God is trustworthy.
The first thing I found attractive, as I read the life of Martin Luther, was that his struggle was very similar to mine. As a young man, he believed in repentance but he could never repent enough. He believed in God but God seemed like a harsh law-giver.
He believed in Jesus, but Jesus seemed more mad than merciful, more lawyer than lover. Later in his life, Luther reflected on his earlier feelings about God. “Love God? I hated him” are the words he used.
I understood Luther as I encountered his biography. I grew up with the same ambivalent feelings about God.
I discovered that God loved me with no strings attached. Faith is not my chore; faith is not something that I “must do” to be loved by God. Faith is a free gift from God.
That might sound like a rather dull discovery to a “cradle Lutheran” or to anyone else born in a church formed by the Reformation. But for a 19-year-old boy who was hooked on legalism and a strong focus on the more terrorizing texts of Scripture — Luther’s voice was the sound of freedom.
The voice of God was no longer an affliction; it was now a comfort.
I heard the voice of freedom and I never looked back. Well, I have looked back a time or two — but I never looked back with any desire to return to the muck and mire of legalism, the view that our relationship with God is primarily a relationship based on following laws, rules, and codes of ethics. The discovery that our relationship with God is based on love rather than laws was the discovery that set Luther free 500 years ago.
In my experience, that discovery began in 1976.
As a child, I often worked in fields that were thick with muddy clay. My father was a farm and highway drainage contractor. I learned some things in that line of work. Wet clay sticks to things and weighs them down. The wet clay stuck to my shovel and to my work boots. The end of any given day— in those muddy fields — brought the feeling of freedom.
I was able to knock the thick mud off my boots and my feet felt as light as a feather. I was free to walk, free to run and free to dance.
People ask, “What does the Reformation mean to you?” I answer: “The Reformation is the sound of freedom. It is the voice of freedom. It is the feeling of freedom.”
I am no longer facing an angry God who wants to throw me into hell for having a bad thought. I now trust that God loves me, cares for me, and wants me to love and care for others in the same way.
A wise man once said to me: “There are two ways to run. You can run to something or you can run from something. I have always found it is better to run to something.”
I keep his words in mind whenever I ponder my freedom in Christ. Am I running to something; or am I running from something? I think I know which option best fits the Reformation. I think I know which way Luther ran. I think I know which way God calls you and me to run.
To use Luther’s phrasing, the powers of “sin, death, and the devil” have been broken through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are now free to live and free to love.
The Rev. Larry Isbell is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Columbus. He can reached at email@example.com.