I was 32 years old. I was going through a major transition in my life. I was reconnected to a friend of mine through my roommate. He had gone to the same church that I had a few years earlier.
This friend was going through an even bigger transition than I was. We shared stories of our former church and what we were doing at that time. After an hour or so, we decided to meet on Friday night to read a book. He suggested Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will. I had it and always intended to read it, so it was a welcome opportunity.
Now, I was exposed to some John Calvin and Martin Luther at church we attended a few years earlier. I understood what the Gospel was. Even so, it wasn’t entirely clear in my mind. I had a sketch of the Gospel, you might say.
Reading Luther’s work seemed a little daunting, though. I had never really read a theological work from a major theologian before. I thought it would be technical and dry. That belief would be erased by the second page of Luther’s writing.
Luther wrote theology like a conversation or a story. His words came to life. I couldn’t believe it was written some five hundred years earlier.
Martin Luther wrote it as a response to Erasmus’ Diatribe on Free Will. Erasmus was a famous humanist of the day. He was a great intellect and scholar. Since Erasmus wrote it as an argument against Luther’s method of reforming the church, Luther wrote a public response. He evaluated Erasmus’ work on the first page of his introduction:
‘… your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having
defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an
indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in
ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should he carried in vessels of
gold and silver‘
If that was the first page, I couldn’t imagine what the other pages would say. I was hooked.
My friend and I continued to meet, Friday night after Friday night around a chiminea on a self-constructed porch behind my friend’s apartment. We talked for three hours or more each night, drinking a beer and smoking cigars. Sometimes, others would join us. It was probably the best time of my life.
Little did I know it at the time, but the more I read Luther, the more I changed. Luther was answering questions I had from my childhood upbringing in Roman Catholicism (since College, I had been a Presbyterian, a Baptist and a Congregationalist, in order) At one point, I looked up and said to my friend, “This is what I am!” If we stopped there, it would have been time well spent.
We finished The Bondage of the Will, and decided to continue on reading other authors. We read CFW Walther’s Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel which unlocked the Scriptures and taught me how to minister to people. We read Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross which further deepened my understanding of the Gospel. We read A Treatise on Good Works by Luther which taught that faith fulfills all of the ten commandments.
My friend talked about how this theology we were experiencing was life-giving. That is a great description. It wasn’t talking about the Gospel, it was giving us the Gospel! Since that time, I have sought out authors whose writings were life-giving.
Our friendship through this book fellowship grew. Eventually, he convinced me to go to the Lutheran church he was attending. I heard the Law and the Gospel proclaimed. I heard Christ crucified. Just as important as this, is what I didn’t hear. I didn’t hear that I was saved or even sanctified by my own works. I didn’t hear the “10 steps to overcoming sin”, or the “7 steps to a better prayer life”.
All of this transformational input lead me to enroll in a Lutheran University to get a master’s degree in Theological Research. I was further shaped by a theology that was Christ-centered and grace-oriented.
Eventually, my friend and I became Lutheran pastors.
Sometimes, I look back on those days sitting around the chiminea with my friend. I wish that every Christian could have the experience of the “Book Club”. I wish that every Christian could experience Martin Luther, C.F.W. Walther and Gerhard Forde in their own words. I wish that they could be given the key to understanding Scripture. I wish that they could hear Jesus is for them, like I did. I wish they could be set free.
I wish that I could experience those nights, once again. Looking at the fire, drinking a beer, smoking a cigar and talking about the Jesus who actually saves us. Experiencing that life-giving salvation all over again. I want to recapture that part of my life.
If I don’t, I will thank God for delivering me from confusion and a sketch of the Gospel to the Life-giving Gospel who is our Savior. I will thank Him for my friend who introduced me to a world I hadn’t known.
And, I will thank God for Martin Luther.
To the glory of His Holy Name,