Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
The world of Martin Luther’s day and of our day are obviously quite different. His was a time dominated by princes and popes and the widespread fear of purgatory when you die. That’s why the indulgences being sold by the church were initially such a success. People were sincerely afraid of the judgment of God. Their worldview was very much focused on finding a way to be saved from the punishment their sins deserved. The promise that indulgences could free people from that was an appealing solution for many.
On the other hand, ours is a time dominated by notions of freedom and equality and the assumption that almost everyone will have a nice afterlife. Fear of God’s judgment isn’t what drives things anymore but self-fulfillment. The god most people conceive of today isn’t the God of the Bible, but just a sort of nice, generic, supernatural force. And while people certainly still may not like the thought of dying, the belief at least on the surface is that unless you’re a super evil person, you’ll end up in heaven. Isn’t it just standard conversation at a funeral to say that the deceased is in a better place?
And so we can be tempted to think that the things that Luther and the Reformation were about–things like sin and hell and the cross and reconciliation with God–while they may have been important at one time, really are no longer things we should focus on so much. The world has changed. Many think that we as a church need to move on to other things and address more contemporary and relevant questions.
But in truth what ails the church today is that the problem Luther faced has stopped being our problem. Technology may have advanced, times may have changed, but fallen human nature hasn’t. We need to learn to start asking the right questions again: How can we be rescued from the slavery of our sins and the bondage of death and the very real judgment of God? For Luther, the question was very personal: “How can a sinner like me be redeemed? How can I find a God of mercy?”
Don’t be drawn away by the self-absorbed God questions of our age: How can I find a God who can make my life better? How can God give me a life of purpose? How can I be happy and fulfilled? Do you notice in those questions, God is just a means to an end, just a way of getting where I want to be. But God is never merely a means to an end. God is the end; He’s the goal we seek, the God of mercy. Our desire is to be with this God. That’s what heaven is. He is Himself the fullness of the life that we’re looking for. Part of the problem, then, is that we’ve stopped asking the right questions. As one theologian put it, God’s Word isn’t about meeting our needs, it’s about giving us needs worth having.
Here’s the diagnosis of your need from God’s Word; from the Epistle: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Since God’s Law declares all to be guilty and condemned before Him, your greatest need is to escape that and be delivered from that. And the Law itself can’t help you. All the Law can do is point the finger at you and tell you to shut your trap. You’ve got nothing you can say in your own defense–no excuses, no justifications, no “but I did the best I could.” Just zip it, the Law says. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There’s nothing you can say to help.
In Luther’s day, the typical way to try to escape God’s wrath was through human effort, things like his duties as a monk, his life of self-denial, his attempts to list and repent of every sin in confession and do proper penance–but none of that satisfied him or gave him peace. For Luther had been given a gift by God: the gift of a tender and strong conscience. Today, we might call that a curse. The key to success in this world, and even sometimes in church hierarchy, is compromise. But with each compromise, the conscience is deadened a little, and God’s Word is set aside a little more. With each compromise you and I make, we have to tell ourselves, “The warnings of God’s Word don’t really apply to me.” Deluding ourselves that it is for a greater good, it is easy to set aside what we have learned from Scripture until it no longer bothers us at all. But Luther’s conscience wouldn’t let him stop being bothered. And that was actually good. For as Hebrews 12 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” These things are not trifling matters. The fact that we do not tremble more often at God’s Word is a sign of how we have compromised our own consciences, how much we have taken God’s Word of Law and Gospel for granted.
What made the Reformation finally occur was when the pure light of the life-giving Gospel shone through clearly and began to lift the burden of the Law from Luther. That didn’t happen through some mystical experience or an emotional conversion or a commitment to obedience, but through a rediscovery of the Scriptural teaching about God’s righteousness. And here’s what that teaching is: what God demands in the Law under threat of punishment, He gives by pure grace in the Gospel, as a gift. In the Law, God condemns our unrighteousness, but in the Gospel, God freely gives us His own righteousness. It is written in Romans 1: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” In other words, the Gospel makes known the righteousness of God, not as demands on you but as a gift to you. God isn’t saying, “See how righteous I am; now you better measure up,” but rather, “Here, take my righteousness, wear it as your own; it’s yours.” In His Word God reveals and gives you His righteousness, so that through faith in the Gospel, you are 100% holy and guiltless in His sight. These words of Scripture revealed the answer to Luther’s terrifying question: “How can I find a God of mercy?” It’s all there and given to you in Jesus, God’s mercy in the flesh.
St. Paul writes in the Epistle, Since, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Pay close attention to those words. You are justified freely by His grace, without any strings attached. That’s what grace is, an undeserved gift of love. You don’t have to justify yourself, look for loopholes, prove yourself, build yourself up by what you do; God Himself justifies you, He declares you righteous, He puts you right with Himself solely and completely based on the works of Christ Jesus His Son.
And here in particular is what Christ has done for you: the Epistle says that the Lord Jesus redeemed you. He bought you back out of your slavery to sin and Satan and the grave. He purchased you with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. He traded places with you and allowed Himself to be enslaved, captured and condemned as if He were the sinner, guilty of every wrong that’s ever been done and every failure to do what’s right. He took your place in the chains of death to set you free, so that you would take His place in everlasting life. Through His sacred death, Jesus broke your bonds and conquered your slave masters so that they have no eternal power over you any more. In the Son of God you are truly free–released, forgiven, alive. Jesus Himself said, “If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.”
That merciful release and freedom given only in Christ is what Luther needed, what we need, and what every age needs. It doesn’t change with the times; it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle ages or this postmodern age, this unchanging truth remains: God’s wrath against sinners has been completely turned away through the cross. This He did for you. God doesn’t hate you, He loves you in Jesus. He has chosen you as His own and brought you out of darkness, so that you may live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. You are no longer slaves, you are beloved children in the household of God. That’s the good news of the Gospel of Jesus.
So if we really want things to be put right again, with ourselves and with the church, and be renewed in our Christian faith, then let us always keep the Reformation question central to our own theology and belief: “How can I find a God of mercy?” And hearing the answer in God’s Word, that we are justified and declared righteous “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” alone, given by grace alone in preaching and the Sacraments, received through faith alone, then we will be on the right track. Then we will be freed to do truly good works–works performed not out of fear of punishment or to acquire our own salvation, but works performed in the sure confidence that we’re already saved in Christ, works done for the good of our neighbor as we live out the callings God has given us in the home and work and state and church. This is the Scriptural, Reformation flow of good works–not us to God, but God to us and then through us in love to the world.
One final thought: The Epistle reading said that boasting is excluded. That is important for us to remember at a Reformation celebration. It’s not just that we shouldn’t boast in our own good works (since it’s all from God), it’s also that we shouldn’t boast in our Lutheranism for its own sake in some sort of puffed up and self-righteous way. For then we’re denying our own confession of faith. We aren’t justified by being Lutheran. Martin Luther of course can save no one. We are justified by the holy cross, by faith in Christ alone–and even that faith is a gift of the Gospel. That’s where the focus must stay, always on Jesus and His Word. As it is written, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” For the Lord Himself says, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to Herman Sasse and his work, “Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” Part 2, The Lonely Way, and the Revs. William Willimon and Christopher Esget)