Sermon for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

500 years. 500 years since Martin Luther discovered or re-discovered the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is just that, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the Gospel of Martin Luther. While we indeed give thanks for Martin Luther and his work of the Reformation, the Reformation is not about Martin Luther, contrary to popular thought. The Reformation was, is, and always will be about Jesus Christ.

What is that Gospel of Jesus Christ that Luther stumbled upon that made such a world-wide influence, continuing for the last 500 years and, God-willing, many years to come? “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Free. Set free. Acquitted. Absolved. Forgiven. Baptized. Worded. Bodied and Blooded. Saved. Freed by the Son of God.

What a Gospel nugget to find! That verse captures the saving work of mankind. It properly lists the subject of the verb as Jesus and the direct object as mankind. That’s the way that the verse has to be, because anything other than that is not salvation by Jesus.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Let that verse resonate again. It’s all about Jesus for you. Jesus does everything and you do nothing. Jesus’ holiness becomes your holiness. Jesus’ righteousness becomes your righteousness. Jesus dies and you live. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

Sadly, that was not the message one would have heard 500 years ago. You would have heard Jesus plus – Jesus plus your works, Jesus plus your actions, Jesus plus something else. But it can’t be Jesus plus because of what Scripture says. Paul, in addressing the Romans writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Works of the law means something that man does. Jesus tells us, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here’s the problem. We were perfect once but we aren’t perfect any longer. We lost that perfection in sin. So how are we expected to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? We’re perfect through Jesus and nothing else.

You might be thinking that I’ve gone too far, that I can’t say that you are free in Jesus. But I did and I must and I will again – “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” That’s not Martin Luther’s words or my words. Those are Jesus’ words. If Jesus said it, then who can argue that?

When you read Scripture the way that Scripture is meant to be read, that is, to believe every word contained, from cover to cover and in between, is the very word of God. And if God said it, then it is true, no ifs, ands or buts. This is the very Word of God, a Word that promises salvation to all who believe. But what should you believe? We believe that Jesus, the very Word of God incarnate, took on human flesh like you and I, lived and died, in order to set us free from the death and damnation brought about by man’s fall into sin. It means that Jesus declares you to be forgiven of all of your sins. It means that Jesus has declared you to be justified, that is, made right before God, our Father.

If we are free, then what about our sin? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Are we a slave to our sin or are we free? We are slaves to sin because we sin. That’s what Jesus says. We are slaves to sin and we die because of sin. But Jesus dies for you. He hangs upon the cross for you so that you are not a slave but you are free. He takes the sin of the world upon Himself. He becomes sin so that you may have life and have it abundantly in Jesus, the one who has lived and died for you.

Luther found this Jesus, the Jesus of the Holy Scriptures, 500 years ago. He needed this Jesus because he found that his works only drove him further away from the righteousness that God requires. He found that his works were insufficient for salvation because at his very nature, Luther was a sinner and Scripture told him that his good works, his righteous acts are nothing but filthy rags. And so if his good works saved him and they are filthy rags, then how could he be saved? After praying and praying and praying for God’s grace, Luther found the answer in God’s Word – For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For Luther, it wasn’t a matter of boasting about what he did to be saved – he just wanted to be saved! All he wanted was God’s grace and he couldn’t find it the way that the Church had told him. Rather, he needed to find it the way that God said it could be found – in Jesus.

Now it might sound like I’ve said Jesus a lot this morning, and that’s because I have. In fact, I’ve said “Jesus” 37 times and counting. And why is that? Why spend so much time on Jesus? It’s because Jesus is at the heart of the Reformation. It’s Jesus who does the work of salvation and not man. It’s Jesus’ words of promise that declare you free from sin and justified before God, not man’s words.

That’s what Paul tells the Romans: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” By Jesus’ crucifixion and death, by the blood that poured out of Jesus that washes over you, that’s what saves you. Can you be sure of that? Absolutely, because, once again, God’s Word declares it. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Your slavery to having to sin is over in the three magical words — “I forgive you.” The chains of sin break in the water, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The death and hell that you have coming for what you deserve has a remedy — “Take eat, take drink, the Body and Blood of Christ.”

So now you are free. You are forgiven free, freed by the Son. You are free to live a life that reflects who you are – a blood-bought and forgiven child of God. It is because of Jesus, the sun-darkened, hanging on the cross, beaten and bloodied, risen and living Jesus that has redeemed you. It is because of Jesus that the slavery of the Law has been removed from you and now rests upon Jesus. His death took the eternal punishment for your slavery to sin and in exchange has declared you forgiven by His grace and mercy shown to you.

You are free. You have been acquitted and absolved. You have been forgiven. You have been declared sinless in the eyes of God. Does it mean that you have stopped sinning? If it were only that easy. Rather, it means that God does not see your sin. Instead, He sees you as He sees Jesus – holy, pure and righteous. He sees you for who you are on account of Jesus: freed from your sin. So if Jesus, the very Son of God has set you free, you are free indeed! In the name of Jesus, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Reformation Day – “Gospel Freedom”

Texts: Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

f-28b-reformationGrace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The texts for the sermon are the readings appointed for the Festival of the Reformation, which were read earlier.

It’s a good day for you to be here, because do I have a deal for you! You can receive forgiveness of all of your sins, for now and for all eternity, for the low, low price of a few coins when you buy a sheet of paper! How does that sound for you? That was how salvation was granted, or earned, depending on how you wanted to look at it. Salvation was not something given to you by God; rather, it was earned by your works and your money; oh, and Jesus helps out as well.

There seems to be something amiss with that thinking: Jesus + my works + money = forgiveness of sins. There was a major flaw in the thinking of the Church. This thinking ran completely contrary to what is recorded for us in Scripture. For instance, we take verses from the Epistle for today. In Romans, Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Paul makes it rather clear that no human being will be saved by what they do or don’t do. This sounds so simple, and yet the Church neglected to hear what Scripture says. According to the doctrine of the papacy, your works made up for the short-comings of Jesus, because even though Jesus is indeed the very Son of God, He did not make full atonement of your sins and so you had to make up the difference.

This is not a comforting doctrine, but rather one that should put the very fear of God into a person. If it depends on my works to make up the difference of salvation, how many works do I need to do? The last thing that I want is to be lying on my deathbed only to find out that I am one work away from salvation.

What else does Paul say to the Romans? He continues by saying, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” I don’t know about you, but now I’m confused. Scripture clearly says that no works of the law will earn salvation, that salvation is achieved only by faith in Jesus Christ. Either the Church is correct and the Word of God is wrong or the Word of God is correct and the Church is wrong.

Looking again at our Epistle, Paul confirms yet again that we have no part in our salvation: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” If the Word of God says one thing and the Church another, which one is right and which one is wrong? That was the question that a young monk named Martin Luther asked. While he was a monk in the Roman Catholic Church, he came to realize that the papacy said things that were in line with the Word of God and at other times, things that were contrary. So to clarify, Luther did what anyone in the Church should have done and turned to Scripture for the answer.

Luther found that the Church had erred in its doctrine of salvation. Salvation could not be achieved by works. Salvation could not be achieved by money or pieces of paper. Salvation could only be achieved by Jesus Christ and He alone. It is by Jesus Christ and His perfect life, His all-atoning sacrifice upon the cross, His blood shed that forgives and His resurrection that gives to an individual salvation and nothing else. Despite all that the Church was teaching, Luther could not neglect the words of Scripture: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

As Jesus records in our Gospel from St. John, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” For all those early years in Luther’s life, what he thought was the truth was not. Luther needed the truth in order to be set free from sin and forgiven.

You need the truth in order to be set free from sin and forgiven. The truth is only found in Jesus Christ and what He has done.  The truth is that you have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because you have sinned, there is no way that you could keep the Law. Because you have sinned, there is no way that you could do any good work to earn your salvation. Instead, you “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus….”

Through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have been shown the truth. It is through that truth that God sets His people free, for it reveals Jesus and His work of salvation; through the Gospel He comes to a person and makes that person a believer in Him, Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. When a person believes in Christ, he is freed from being a slave to spiritual falsehoods, freed from believing in all that deceives and gives false salvation.

The truth will set you free. The truth is all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are all slaves to sin. What a comfort it is then to hear the words that end today’s Gospel. “The son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The Son of God Himself is the truth that sets us free. To know that truth, then, is to be set free from slavery.

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Freedom is ours as the Holy Spirit works through God’s Word, for only His Word brings freedom and life. Only through His Word does the Son set us free and if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Reformation – “Reformation” (Romans 3:19-28)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Epistle, which was read earlier.

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Holy Scripture is clear that works will save no one, yet throughout the history of the Church, salvation by works has been taught and continues to plague the Church today. 496 years ago, there was a man by the name of Martin Luther who challenged the Church and its teachings.

By simply nailing a document to the door of the Castle Church, Luther ignited a war, a war that, unfortunately, needed to be waged. In his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” or what we know as the “Ninety-Five Theses,” Luther challenged the Church and her teachings. He challenged whether or not an indulgence could free a person from purgatory. He challenged whether or not a person could find absolution through indulgences.

Luther took a stance on something that had come under debate, something that should have never come under debate: Holy Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church had taken Scripture and misinterpreted what Scripture said or did not say. One of the largest issues which Luther took head on was the doctrine of justification, or how a person is saved. According to the Roman Catholic Church, a person was saved by Christ and their works. Luther, in searching throughout the Scriptures, could not find the basis of that teaching. What Luther could find came from Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Luther could not find that teaching, and for Luther, he was convinced of one thing and one thing only – Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide: saved by Scripture alone, saved by grace alone, and saved by faith alone. Luther and the other reformers turned solely to God’s own Word. Their answers were not made up to make everyone feel good, nor were they guided by what most people believed, even if those beliefs were false.

As Luther studied the Scriptures, passages such as today’s text jumped out at Luther because he knew it was referring to himself. He knew that it referred to the German people. He knew that it referred to all people. Before God the judge, all mankind stands guilty of sin and liable for punishment because of their many transgressions. Luther knew this and this became a foundation to his theology.

What was confusing to Luther was that the Church taught that through Jesus Christ and your works, you would receive salvation. But how could that be when Scripture clearly says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”? For Luther, he saw that this contradicted the teaching of the Church and he deduced that someone had to be wrong. But the question was who: the Church or God? Luther knew that he had sinned, that he had missed the mark. Far from earning God’s declaration of righteousness, the Law only produced a clear knowledge in him of far he had missed the mark of the holiness God really demanded.

At the heart of the Reformation lied the question of salvation: are you saved by Jesus Christ alone or are you saved by your works? If it was the latter, Luther knew that he was damned because his works could never do enough. What about your works? Are they enough to earn you forgiveness in the eyes of God? Your works earn you nothing but damnation because your works cannot save you.

God declares a sinner not guilty of sin – not by what they have done but what Jesus has done for them. Free of sin, guilt, and punishment, the acquitted can enter the joys of heaven. This is the result of Christ and Christ alone, not the result of good works that we do.

As we celebrate the Reformation of the Church, it is not about starting a new church. It is not about wanting things our way. The Reformation was all about a return to the Scriptures, a return to what God had said and what He had not said. It was all about the work of Jesus doing everything for us, not about Jesus doing it for us with our help.

The avenue by which God’s declaration of “not guilty” becomes ours in faith in Jesus Christ, not by trusting in our observance of the Law or our good works to earn heaven. That is why Luther spoke out against the Church and wrote the 95 Theses. That is why Luther wrote pamphlet after pamphlet. The more that the Roman Catholic Church said that we had to do something to receive salvation, the more adamant Luther was in his writings against the Church, that salvation was from God alone and not from our works.

What a relief to know that my salvation is not dependent upon what I do! I know all the things that I have done wrong. I know all the ways that I’ve sinned. To know that through my own efforts I would receive salvation is a scary thought. There is nothing good about me. There is nothing redeemable about me, yet God has seen fit to extend to me the forgiveness of my sins, not on account of my actions, but on account of the actions of His Son, Jesus Christ. So it was for Luther, and so it is for you, as well.

Salvation is entirely a gift of God. A gift is something freely given, which the giver expects no payment. For the Christian, our salvation does not depend on us. How could a person accept that God sent His very Son to take on human form, to live a sinless life, to die for your sinful life so that you may receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, but, in order to receive that forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, you have to do something to earn it? That is not a gift, that’s some you have to earn.

What was at stake 496 years ago is still at stake today: salvation by Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. It is solely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ do we receive our forgiveness. God reaches down with His amazing, unmerited grace and makes our relationship with Him right and good. Nothing of our do we bring; only His unmerited love for us in Jesus, and Him alone, gives us that righteousness that we need for eternal life.

Christ alone is the heart of the Reformation. Christ is Scripture’s answer and God’s answer to the question of righteousness. Faith alone holds onto Jesus, onto God’s grace in Him. Salvation, by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, as found in Scripture alone, is the sole source of our forgiveness and the privilege of being called children of God. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

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Reformation–“Justified by Christ” (Romans 3:19-28)

F-28a ReformationGrace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon today is the Epistle, which was read earlier.

On the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. His purpose behind this wasn’t to start a new church named after him. The whole purpose behind the 95 Theses was to reform the Church and restore it to the teachings of the Scriptures. His sole purpose was to have the Church teach from the Scriptures and from the Scriptures alone.

As Paul begins this portion of his letter to the Romans, he addresses it to all of the Church. He is writing it to himself, the teachers of Christ and all of Christendom. As Paul speaks of the Law, he speaks of the purpose of it: to bring us to the full realization of our sin and the saving work of Jesus Christ. The Law speaks for everyone, not just the Jew but also the Gentile, the slave and the free. The Law makes us accountable to God. It points out our sin and our utter dependence upon the work of Christ and not that of ourselves.

Paul moves on to a very important point regarding the Law when he continues, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight….” For Luther, this was one of the striking teachings of the Church that was contrary to the Scriptures. The Church taught on account of the work of Jesus plus the good works that a person does, they will inherit eternal life, following time in purgatory, of course. Most people think that good people go to heaven or that being good will get you into heaven. If there is such a place called heaven, then we’ll all be there because we’re pretty good people. We’re not perfect, but we’re not horrible either. God doesn’t require us to be pretty good people. God requires us to be perfect people. This is what Luther was trying to attain in one way or another. He sought to confess all of his sins. He tried to do all that was required by the Law in order to be saved. In the end, Luther couldn’t be perfect. He couldn’t be pretty good. He realized exactly who he was: a sinner in need of Christ’s forgiveness. It would be on account of Christ and His work that would save Luther, nothing that Luther could do himself. The same holds true for you and me as well. Nothing that we can do will make us any holier in the eyes of God. Nothing that we can do will earn us one ounce of salvation.

Paul reveals a truth that many do not want to hear and most certainly do not want to acknowledge: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” We have missed the mark. God shows no favoritism in dealing with sinners. Those who are disobedient, that is, all of mankind, are under His wrath. Everyone receives the same punishment for their sins: death. No matter how you try to get around the issue, you are a sinner and you deserve nothing but death for your sins.

Praise be to God that Paul doesn’t leave us with the heavy-handedness of God’s wrath. What a miserable existence we would have if we were left solely to God’s wrath and judgment. Paul goes on to tell us that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus….” You have your salvation by God’s gift to you that comes in the form of His Son, Jesus Christ.

As we celebrate the festival of the Reformation today, we are reminded of what was at stake during this time. What was at stake was God’s Word. What was at stake was the salvation of the people. The Church at the time of Luther taught God’s Word plus the teaching of man. It was the teaching of man that worked against the Word. Man’s teaching tainted God’s Word. Man’s teaching confused God’s Word. Man’s teaching changed God’s Word. Man’s teaching contradicted God’s Word. If there is anyone who should be adhering to God’s Word, it should be the Church. Unfortunately, this was the one place where it was not.

As Paul teaches here in Romans, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” the Church taught that your salvation was found in the works of Christ and the good works that you do as well. Your salvation was found in the indulgences that you bought that would earn you time out of purgatory.

Only one could be right: God’s Word or the word man. That’s what the Reformation was about – a return to God’s Word as the authority for our faith. Everything that we have has been given to us. We have been granted salvation because of Christ. We have been declared righteous because of Christ. We have been ransomed and the ransom price was Christ’s blood shed for us. This is how God declares us to be not guilty, by the blood of Jesus and not by our works.

When Luther wanted to know what the true means of salvation was, he kept going back to the Scriptures, namely Ephesians 2:8-9 which said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is God who declares a sinner not guilty of sin. Free of sin, guilt, and punishment, the acquitted can enter the joys of heaven. This is a result of Christ and Christ alone. It is not the result of any works that we do, good, bad, or otherwise. Luther went back to the Scriptures and found that the answer to our salvation was singular and not plural. The answer was Christ. The answer is Christ. The answer will always be Christ. It is the righteousness of God through faith in Christ Jesus that saves and not the works that a person does or does not do.

There is nothing that any of us can do to gain heaven. Salvation is entirely a gift of God. A gift is something freely given, which the giver expects no payment in return. The Roman Catholic Church wanted to put a price tag on that salvation by indulgences and works. As we read the Scriptures, there is only one price tag for our salvation and that is the blood of Christ. It is the price that was to be paid for a gift that was to be freely given.

When one hears the teaching of the Church at Luther’s time, how could one accept it? How could you accept that God sent His very Son to take on human form, to live a sinless life, to die for your sinful life so that you may receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, BUT in order to receive all of this, YOU have to do something to earn it! That is not a gift! That is something that which you earn yourself. That’s not what the Scriptures teach. Unfortunately, that thinking is still well and live within Christendom today.

Salvation, by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, as found in Scripture alone, is the basis of our daily Christian life because that is what the Word of God teaches. The Reformation and the work of Luther was nothing more than opening the eyes of God’s people to His holy Word so we may see that this wonderful gift of faith is ours, not because of what you and I do, but it is ours solely because of what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has done for us. In the name of Jesus, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.