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“And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God.”  (1 John 3:19-21)

It has often been noted that God began the 16th Century Reformation of His Church through one man’s struggle with his sinful heart. By every account, Martin Luther lived an outwardly moral life. Commenting on his time as a monk he wrote, “I kept the rule of my [monastic] order so strictly that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.”

However, Luther’s intense struggle to produce a righteousness acceptable to God only drove him to despair. In his biographical hymn he lamented, “Sin was my torment night and day; in sin my mother bore me.” (TLH Hymn 377:2)

Luther realized that his sin was not limited to his outward failings. The greater problem had to do with the very nature of who he was. He understood that sin is an inherited condition, and that within the human heart all manner of evil resides (Matthew 15:19). Luther suffered not only because of his sins of commission, but much more so because he realized that he was conceived and born in sin.

Many claim that if people would only follow their hearts, the world would be a better place. But that’s exactly the problem. People do follow their hearts. In Jeremiah we read, “The heart is deceitful above all  things, And desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9)

The heart’s deceit is seen in its propensity to think up ways to excuse and cover up its sins. Don’t we often dream up elaborate stories to justify our bad behavior? This only underscores how sinful the human heart truly is. It condemns us all the more.

While the sinful heart is a strong witness against us, there’s an even stronger witness in our favor, a witness that completely overturns the verdict of our hearts. That witness is God Himself. “For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.”

Luther pictured it this way: “Conscience weighs you down and tells you God is angry, yet God is greater than your heart. The conscience is but one drop of water; the reconciled God is an entire ocean of mercy.”

Not only is God greater than our hearts, He knows all things. He knows about our many sins, including the ones lurking deep within us. But God knows something else. He knows how to deal with our sin. He sent His Son to give His life a ransom for all. On Calvary’s cross Jesus made full payment for the sin of the world. When the Spirit led Luther to understand that salvation is a free gift through faith in Christ, he wrote, “I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

On Reformation Sunday we gather to rejoice in our God-given heritage of “Grace Alone! Faith Alone! Scripture Alone!” We praise God for the grace by which we have been given faith to put our entire confidence in God’s Word. In His Word we find a Savior Who, being condemned for us, took away the heart’s condemning power. May God give us a Reformation confidence—a confidence expressed by Martin Luther in the following hymn stanzas:

Though all my heart should feel condemned
For want of some sweet token,
There is One greater than my heart
Whose Word cannot be broken.

I'll trust in God's unchanging Word
Till soul and body sever,
For, though all things shall pass away,

(From the hymn “Feelings Come and Feelings Go,” by Martin Luther)

Many claim that if people would only follow their hearts, the world would be a better place. But that’s exactly the problem.

Michael Wilke is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Saginaw, Michigan, and president of the Church of the Lutheran Confession.