Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Cultivating the Garden of the Church

Leslie Basham: Pastor Erwin Lutzer says there were lots of things to debate in the days of the Reformation. But he says, at the core . . . 

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: The issue always came back to this issue: What is our basis of authority? And Luther kept coming back to the Word of God alone as the basis of authority.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of A Place of Quiet Rest, for Tuesday, October 24, 2017.

We’re marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation next week. Have you ever wondered what the Protestants were protesting? And what does something that happened 500 years ago have to do with us today? To help answer those questions, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth invited pastor and author Dr. Erwin Lutzer into the Revive Our Hearts studio.

Dr. Lutzer was the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago for many years. Recently, he wrote a book called Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation. Let’s pick up where we left off yesterday. Here’s Nancy talking with Dr. Erwin Lutzer.

Dr. Lutzer: I was reading the book of Matthew the other day, which I’ve done many times, and I saw something for the first time. (You’ve had that happen, Nancy, where you see it and you think, “Well, I’ve read this before.”) I don’t know exactly the passage; I couldn’t turn to it unless I had a moment to do so. 

But Jesus said, “When you’re before people who are persecuting you and they’re calling you in, you don’t have to think of what you’re going to say. You’re going to be given wisdom.” And then, He said this, “You are doing this as a witness to them” (see Matt. 10:19). 

And it dawned on me that, even in martyrdom (and it’s easy for us to say, much more difficult if it were happening to us) the intention is to further the gospel and to be a witness to those who are killing you.

In France when martyrs were being taken to their death, the authorities—at one point—hired a band to drown out the singing of the believers who were on their way to death.

Nancy: Which speaks of the amazing grace that God gives to that person, in that moment, in that situation.

Dr. Lutzer: And you know, Nancy, we don’t need dying grace until it’s time to die, right? I remember a beautiful illustration. Corrie ten Boom as a little girl feared death. Her dad said to her, “Corrie, when do I give you a ticket when we’re going to Amsterdam on the train?”

She said, “Well, daddy, you give it to me just before I get on the train.”

He said, “Why don’t I give it to you before that? You don’t need it before that. In the very same way, Corrie, when the time comes to die, God will give you what you need. You don’t need dying grace until the time has come for you to die.”

So, that’s the way it is. That’s why these martyrs were able to go to their death with such confidence and without anger. Most of them died just like Jesus did, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It’s an amazing story, and it’s a story that is happening all throughout the Middle East today and in different parts of the world. Today, believers—many of them—are going to die for one reason, and that is that they belong to Jesus.

Nancy: And maybe equally—or more relevant for us who may not experience that kind of martyrdom—these people had grace to live against all odds and going against the flow of the religious culture of their era.

They had courage and conviction and steadfastness and didn’t buckle under the pressure. Don’t we need that in our culture today? You see the grace that God gave these men and you think, Lord, You can enable us to face the opposition that we’re facing increasingly today.

Dr. Lutzer: And we may be talking to people who don’t even have the courage to witness to their friends today. In other words, we have so bought into this idea that, “I don’t want to be offensive to people. I don’t want to offend them.”

Well, yes don’t deliberately offend them and don’t you be offensive, but unless you’re willing to offend somebody, you’re probably not sharing the gospel, because the Bible speaks about the offense of the cross!

And if American Christians, or Christians in any country, are not willing to bear that offense, how can we expect to see the kind of awakening that we would like to see in our countries?

Nancy: And this really was a spiritual rebirth. As you’re telling these stories, from back in the 1500s here, I’m reminded that this wasn’t pagan, ungodly forces (as far as what was considered in that day). This was religious persecution; this was the church of the era. 

Could you imagine, in our day, some of these same points of conflict or confusion that we need to address today? 

Dr. Lutzer: Yes, there are some parallels here, certainly, for us—even within our religious pluralism here. What you find is a lot of opposition from religious people to Christianity. We certainly find that.

What we have to learn is that in every era the gospel has not been popular. In other words, there always is opposition to Christ—more opposition to Christ than perhaps to any other religion.

We should expect that, because Jesus told us it’s coming, didn’t He? You know, “If they persecute Me, they’re also going to persecute you” (see John 15:20) And so, what we need to do is to recognize that, when we complain about what is happening in America (and I know there is plenty to complain about!), we are very fortunate, because we are not facing the same kinds of issues that they did back then. We do not have people being taken to the stake and burned because of their faith, but we need to understand that that was part of our history.

Nancy: We were talking last night, as you and Rebecca and I were together for dinner, about some of the ways that the gospel in our day—even in the so-called Christian faith—needs to be recovered, and ways that there are false gospels being proclaimed that we need to be aware of. Can you just touch on those?

Dr. Lutzer: Oh, yes, I’m glad to touch on it. First of all, let’s just look at the evangelical world. I think, for example, of a belief in evangelicalism today . . . what can I call it? “An overblown understanding of grace.”

Now, it’s wonderful, the fact that not only has God’s grace delivered people from their past sins, but also the fact that we can come to God every single day and that we are accepted on the basis of Jesus. That has been so liberating to many people who are bound in performance-based religion.

But today, what we find is, that there is a grace that is being offered to people who aren’t even sure they really need it. When we tell people, “God loves you unconditionally,” the person sitting in the pew may think to himself, Well, I’m sleeping with my girlfriend, but unconditional love means unconditional acceptance.

So, what we have is a view of grace that, in my opinion, is perhaps overblown and unbalanced. That’s a much better word—I like the word “unbalanced.” So let me quote the words of someone who said this: “Grace is not sweet until sin is bitter.” If we preach grace without preaching sin, we’re unbalanced in our theology. Now, that’s one way that I see that the gospel needs to be recovered, but there are others, also.

Nancy: And so, in our day, as we look at what’s going on in our culture, it helps us to look back into history—and particularly this Reformation era—and see the courage, the adherence to Scripture, the return to Scripture, and the clearing away of the clutter so that the pure gold of the gospel of Christ can shine forth. That’s what we’re really looking for.

Dr. Lutzer: It’s been my privilege to lead tours to the sites of the Reformation. If you were to come with me to the church in Wittenberg (the town church, not the castle church, but the town church), you’d see a painting by Cranach, and it’s a painting of the Reformers weeding a garden.

That’s a good illustration of the Reformation. It’s not as if the truths weren’t there. The church of the day believed in the divinity of Jesus, it believed in the inspiration of Scripture, but it had accumulated so many weeds that the true plants were finding it difficult to grow—and in some instances, the plants were actually choked by all of the weeds.

Nancy: And when the Reformers within the church did the weeding and had courage and conviction about that, the impact that was felt in the whole political system—the whole world system—was seismic! It was an earthquake, wasn’t it, that really just shook everything down to the core.

Dr. Lutzer: Exactly! Actually, what you have to understand is that Luther didn’t bring about simply a reformation of theology. It changed the map of Europe. It changed the alignment of countries. We have, for example, the Dutch Reformed (boy, are we going to get a chance to talk about all these things?), where did the Dutch Reformed come from? Well, they were influenced by Calvin, you see, and they broke away from Spain. And all of these things were generated.

Now, the Reformation wasn’t only theological; it had a lot of nationalism. There were plenty of people, in Prague for example as well as Germany, who wanted a reformation because they were tired of paying money to the Pope, and so forth, and all these taxes. So you have all of this nationalism and other motives coming into the Reformation.

But for Luther the issue was indeed very personal and very theological. Once he started that reformation, he was like a man pulling a stone out a mountain. He thought, I’m just going to pull this stone out, and he began an avalanche!

Nancy: You see the power of the Holy Spirit there, too. This was not something that mere mortals could have accomplished. You see the power of God in shaping and molding history—our history, the history of the church, the history of governments and the world. 

As we think about situations in our world that seem so hopeless—so deeply entrenched—wrong, unbiblical ways of thinking, it’s so easy for us to sit back and think, That’s just the way it is. We’re going to sit here and hold tight until the rapture! Right?

But to see the power of God to raise up human instruments, to use them—flawed as they are—to accomplish things that are humanly impossible . . . Doesn’t it give you faith to believe God to do something magnificent and needed in our day?

Dr. Lutzer: Luther did a lot of things. If you see all of Luther’s writings on a shelf, they would probably take up three feet. I mean, he dies at the age of sixty-two, sixty-three, but he said, “I did nothing! I just was here in Wittenberg, and I was sipping beer with Armsdorf (his friend) I just let the Word of God do the work!”

Well, obviously, he did an awful lot. But at the end of the day—to underline what you’ve said—it is the Word of God that does the work. Once the Word is loosed, and people are reading it and people are believing it, then it begins like ripples that get bigger and bigger—and the impact becomes huge!

Nancy: This is one of the huge things about the influence of Wycliffe, going back that hundred years earlier, is to get the Bible in the language of the people so they could read it for themselves.

We take that for granted! I have—what?—a hundred Bibles in my house (plus or minus) in English so I can read them. But this was not the case in that day.

Dr. Lutzer: Oh! You know, this is almost deserving of tears, because it wasn’t the case. Even Wycliffe’s translation was from the Latin Vulgate, which was a very imprecise translation at certain points.

So, we take it all for granted. We think, Yeah, we have these Bible in all of these different languages, and of course, all kinds of Bibles in English. That is something that we should fall on our knees and give thanks to God for, because that is unique!

Can I just mention one instance, to show you the importance of translation? The Vulgate basically said this: When Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), the Vulgate translated it, “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

So the whole doctrine of penance (and, of course then, you’ll also have the indulgences that accompany penance)—all of that develops throughout history: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Nancy: And that’s the Bible that the priests of the Roman Catholic church were using in that era?

Dr. Lutzer: Yes. Clearly what Jesus meant was “repent.” He wasn’t asking people to do something, as if that was the answer. They needed a heart change, and that came about through repentance.

And that’s why the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (and I know we’re not there yet, are we Nancy?) . . .

Nancy: We’re not. I guess we are now.

Dr. Lutzer: . . . says that the entire Christian life should be one of repentance. Luther was speaking about the repentant heart, not doing penance. But you can see here that translation is so hugely important.

Nancy: And to put the Bible into the hands of laymen, common people—just paint for us a picture of how dramatically impacting that was.

Dr. Lutzer: Well, first of all, the opposition was huge! That’s why the Bibles were burned when they were brought to St. Paul’s cathedral.

Nancy: We’re talking burned by church leaders, right?

Dr. Lutzer: Oh, of course—official Christendom. Absolutely. And the Bibles were burned because it was believed that if the laypeople have the Bible, they are going to come up with all kinds of various doctrines that are wrong. Luther was willing to take that risk; Wycliffe was willing to take that risk.

There is some truth to that, isn’t there? I mean, you give somebody a Bible, alone, and he’s starting to build his own theology; he can sure go wrong quite quickly. That’s why we have to look back over how some of the past teachers have interpreted it, and we learn from them.

At the same time, what Luther said was, “I want the plowman to be able understand the Bible. I want the woman who scrubs floors, I want her to understand the Bible. I want her to have a copy.” And that was absolutely revolutionary, and that’s why there was so much opposition.

But eventually that won out, and today we take it all for granted, because we all have our Bibles on our shelves—unfortunately, frequently not opened as often as they should be.

Nancy: I’m thinking of a story I’ve heard Dr. John MacArthur tell about a physician who came to his office.

Dr. John MacArthur: I had a man call me at my church. He said, "I have to see you right away. I'm desperate!"

I said, "Great. Come Sunday before the Sunday night service." He came at 4:00 and said,

"My name is Steve. I'm a doctor. I have some serious problems that you've got to help me with."

I said, "I'll do what I can."

He said, "You've got to know this. I'm Jewish, and I don't believe in Christianity. But I've been coming to your church for four Sundays."

I said, "Why?"

He said, "Because I have so many problems and some guy told me to come here. And all four Sundays you've been doing the series 'Delivered to Satan.'" Which is not seeker friendly, if you can imagine. "So, you were talking about me—I know I'm damned!"

I said, "Why do you say that?"

He said, "Well, I'm an abortionist. I kill babies for a living. That's my practice. Last year my clinic did nine million dollars in abortions. If a woman doesn't have a reason, I give her one to get her money—that's being honest. Furthermore, I divorced my wife and married my second wife, and now I'm living with a woman who is not my wife. I haven't got the courage to go back to my second wife, 'cuz I actually like her better. I just bar mitzvahed my two kids. I've been under psychiatric care for a year, and I'm facing backruptcy. Can you help me?"

I said, "No! Are you kidding?" How are you going to help a Jewish abortionist who is under psychiatric care. But I said, "I know someone who can transform your life."

He said, "Who?"

I said, "Jesus Christ."

He said, "Yeah, I thought you'd say that."

I said, "Well, look . . . if you don't want transformation, that's your choice. But if you are interested, I'd like to introduce you to Jesus Christ."

He said, "I don't know who He is."

I said, "Let's start with that." I reached over and picked up a Bible. I opened it to the book of John. I said, "See this book called John?"

He said, "Yeah."

I said, "You take this Bible with you. You read John every day, and when you know who He is, call me." Because these things are written that you might know, right?

You say, "What? No tapes? You just turned that guy over to the Bible? He'll get confused!"

The Word of God is like a lion. You don't need to defend a lion. You just let it out and it will be all right. 

So Thursday, he calls me. He says, "I've go to see you."

I said the same thing, "Come in Sunday at 4:00."

He walks through the door, doesn't even look at me. He's got this Bible in his hands. He walks by and sits down in a chair and looks up and says, "I know who He is."

I said, "You do?"

He said "Yep."

I said, "Who is He?"

He said, "He's God. Jesus is God."

I said, "Steve, you've got to be kidding me. You're a fifty-year-old man. You've been in Judaism all your life. This is Thursday from last Sunday. This is a big change." I'll never forget what he said.

He said, "He has to be God because nobody could do what He did, or say what He said, if He wasn't God."

He gave me back exactly what John said, "If you can't believe my Word, believe my works." He got it. By the power of the Spirit of God, He got it. Then he said,

"And do you know what else He did?"

I said, "No, what?"

He said, "He rose from the dead!"

Then I don't know why he said this, but he said,

"And he did it fast!"

It's like it struck him. It is fast; it's three days. But if you are reading, it's a minute-and-a-half of that chapter and He's out of there."

So I said, "Steve, so He's God, but why did He come?"

"He came to die."

"Why did He come to die?"

"He came to die for my sin."

"How do you know that?"

"You know, I found this book called Romans . . ."

He had read Romans.

The law of the Lord is comprehensive enough to totally transform the whole inner person. And I said, "Well, what does this mean in your life?"

He said, "It means my wife is meeting me for church tonight, and I've written this afternoon my resignation letter to the abortion clinic."

That's the power of the Word of God.1

Nancy: It’s the power, the sufficiency, of Scripture. You let it loose into your life, your children’s lives, your friends’ lives, your neighbors’ lives, and it has such power to change and convert! And this is what happened, wholesale, in the continent of Europe during the Reformation, as people began—for the first time—to be able to read the gospel. And those who couldn’t read, others read it to them in a language they could understand—the common ordinary language. This is what shook the continent and our religious structures to their core!—was getting the Word into their hands and hearts.

Dr. Lutzer: We’re getting ahead of ourselves here to Luther, but whenever he was in a debate, this was the big issue. For example, Cajetan—who was sent by the Pope to debate Luther—would say, “What about such things as the merit of the saints?”

You see, the belief was that there were some saints who had done more than they would have needed to, to get to heaven, and you could draw on their virtue, on their surplus—especially if you touched a relic or whatever—paid a gift.

And Luther would say, “Where’s that in the Bible?”

Cajetan would say, “It doesn’t have to be in the Bible. All that has to do is be church tradition and the Pope has approved it.”

So on and on the issue always came back to this issue: What is our basis of authority? And Luther kept coming to the Word of God alone. That’s why we speak about Sola Scriptura—the Scriptures alone as the basis of authority.

And that, of course, became the thing that cut the Reformation and ultimately loosed it from the traditional church. 

Nancy: “The entrance of Your words gives light” (Ps. 119:130). “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

I wonder, today—I think we need a reformation of a lot of things. We have the Scripture in our English language, but it seems like we need a reformation of really believing in the authority of Scripture, the sufficiency of Scripture, the power of Scripture in our own lives and in the lives of others, and to begin to weigh all these things that have (like barnacles) attached themselves to the evangelical faith today. We need to evaluate them and say, “Is that in the Bible? What does God’s Word say about that?”

We need to trust the authority of Scripture and then to trust that when we get it into people’s lives—children, adults, young people—this is the teaching of the Word . . . This is why at Revive Our Hearts there are a lot of topics, a lot of themes, a lot of things we could talk about, but we try every day to get people into the Scripture.

Some of you are involved in Bible Study Fellowship or community Bible studies or other outreaches. As you get into the Word and get other people into the Word, it changes your life. I’ve talked with people who didn’t know Jesus at all. Somebody took them to a weekly Bible study, where they started to just study God’s Word. And in time, the light came on!

The Holy Spirit empowered the Word. They were converted; they came to faith! Don’t underestimate the power and the importance of studying, reading God’s Word—getting into it, getting it into us, and sharing it with others.

It seems so old-fashioned. It seems hopelessly irrelevant today. Is the Scripture really sufficient to deal with the complex issues facing our world—and even the religious issues facing our world?

I think we’ve been intimidated to think we need something more than God’s Word for all the massive problems—the human problems, the psychological problems, the religious problems, the theological problems. God’s Word—it’s all there. It’s powerful!

As I read the story of the Reformation it gives me a lot greater faith in what God’s Word can do when it’s loosed in the hearts of people!

Dr. Lutzer: And if you reach an atheist with the gospel, don’t argue with him about the arguments for God’s existence. They become very complicated—and there are some answers for them.

Going back to your previous story about the gospel of John: Give them the twenty-one day challenge. Read one chapter of the Gospel of John a day and answer this question: Who does the writer of the Gospel of John believe Jesus was? In other words, you don’t have to believe anything at this point, just read it!

And, like one man said, “All of my arguments were like puffs of smoke in the presence of the Savior.” You get them into the Word; get them to Jesus as soon as you can.

Nancy: Well, we keep talking about Luther and some of these other names, and we keep saying that we’re going to get them—and we are—but I’m glad we’ve had this introductory conversation.

Dr. Lutzer: And it’s good that we introduce it this way, so that we get people who say, “Wow! I have to listen to the rest of the program!” That’s the idea behind all this.

Nancy: And tell others, some people who may not have any idea what this was all about. They may or may not know the gospel, but maybe they aren’t familiar with this part of our history. Let them know that over the next several days we’re going to be having this conversation with Pastor Erwin Lutzer, and we’re hoping it’s going to be very helpful and instructive and encouraging to the people of God and beyond that. 

Just a reminder that we’re offering a copy of Dr. Lutzer’s book Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation. That’s available for a donation of any amount to help support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts as we’re trying to get the Word, the truth of Christ into the hearts of women—not only in this country, but around the world.

When you make a donation, we’ll be glad to send you a copy of this book as our way of saying thank you for supporting this ministry. You can give us a call at 1–800–569–5959. Let us know that you’d like to give a gift, and that you’d like a copy of Pastor Lutzer’s book. Or you can visit us online at Make your donation there, and be sure to let them know that you’d like Dr. Lutzer’s book Rescuing the Gospel.

Be sure and join us next time for Revive Our Hearts as we continue this conversation and pick up with, “Who was this Martin Luther, and why does he matter? How did he come to have the gospel rescued in his own heart?”

Leslie: Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you cultivate the truth. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

1Audio of John MacArthur courtesy of Ligonier Ministries, from a Ligonier National Conference. Used with permission.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.