Reformation Sunday October 26, 1997
Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.
In the name of Christ Jesus, who gave us His Word that we are saved by grace through faith, dear fellow believers in Him, dear fellow redeemed.
In a couple of Bible classes during the absence of the pastor, two video tapes were shown to expose the error of the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness religions. We’ve heard a little something about these religions before. Maybe we know people who belong to one group or the other. There’s no denying that the Mormons, for instance, are very upright, moral, caring people. They usually make for good neighbors. But once you understand the basics of their religion, you can’t help but feel sorry for these people. They are caught in a belief system that will ultimately condemn their souls. Though there are many differences between the two, we can notice three things that the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have in common. They both require unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the leaders of the group. They both claim to have extra revelation outside the Bible (oddly enough, the revelation keeps changing). Worst of all, both religions put forth the idea of salvation through good works. They tell their people that the only chance of life after death is to be good and do good during their time on this earth.
It makes me grateful that you and I are Lutheran Christians. That is, we have come to know and believe the same doctrine taught by Martin Luther, as found in the Bible. But you know, there was a time when Luther had a similar problem that confronts the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness today. When he tried to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, he ran into the same three dilemmas we just mentioned. His church required unquestioning loyalty to the church’s leadership. His church claimed to have extra revelation beyond the Bible. And his church taught the error that salvation happens through good works. History shows that Luther escaped the darkness of error. God helped Luther to see the light of truth. God gave Luther the key to the Reformation.
We celebrate the Lutheran Reformation today, because it is close to October 31. October 31 was the day when Luther posted 95 statements of protest on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. These statements raised questions about the teachings of the Catholic Church. You have to realize that the Catholic Church was the only Christian religion available to the people at that time. Luther wanted this church—his church—to pursue the truth. And so the Reformation began, with the result that Luther was eventually excommunicated from the church. But it wasn’t because he was an unbeliever. Luther had discovered the Gospel, and the leaders of the church refused to accept what the Gospel said. Luther had found the real Christ. That was the key to his Reformation. Following in the steps of Luther, we find ourselves doing the same thing nearly 500 years later.
We call ourselves Lutherans because our doctrine is the same as his. Does that make it right? Wasn’t Luther just a man? That’s true enough. But if you examine the teaching that he confessed and compare it with the Bible, you discover that his doctrine was true to everything that the Bible says. So Luther’s doctrine was really God’s doctrine. That’s why we believe it. Luther searched the Scriptures and found the truth. God help us to follow the exact same pattern.
There’s no other way that we can identify God and have a relationship with Him. Jesus tried to impress this fact on the minds of His own people. He spoke to the Jews in our text and said, “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” The Jews could plainly see that Jesus was a man standing there in front of them. But they had trouble accepting that He was also the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior God promised to send. So Jesus directed their attention to several pieces of evidence. He held court with these people to show them that He was the Messiah.
First there was the testimony of John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) There was also the demonstration of divine power that Jesus showed when He did miracles in the sight of many witnesses. And most compelling of all, there were all the Old Testament prophecies. If the Jews did their homework and searched the Old Testament Scripture, they could distinguish what these prophecies were. By examining the life of Jesus, they could reach the only possible conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled all the prophecies and was therefore the Messiah portrayed in the Old Testament.
Ultimately it becomes the question that every person must face. Who is Jesus? How you answer the question will determine not only the rest of your life on earth, but also your existence after death. Luther never really knew the answer until he searched the Scriptures. The Bible showed a different picture of Christ than the one he had learned from his church.
That’s because the Church of Rome had kept the Bible a secret. Can you imagine such a thing? Only the priests and theologians were allowed to study the Bible. The people could not read it for themselves, because the Scripture was not translated into their native language. You had to know Latin before you could read the Bible. In Luther’s case this wasn’t a problem. He had the rare opportunity of going to school, which taught him Latin very well. During his college years, Luther decided to become a monk and a priest. As his education continued into seminary training, he was able to study Greek and Hebrew, which gave him the ability to read the Bible in its original languages. With great interest and untiring zeal, Luther searched the Scriptures from cover to cover. In the course of study, he learned a startling truth. He learned that the message of the Bible and the teachings of his church were two different things, not in agreement with each other.
Slowly but surely, Luther came to realize that the doctrine of his church did not come from God. It was the invention of men. It was based on the declaration of human authority. By searching the Scriptures, Luther discovered that this one Book was the only authority he needed to follow. Only the Bible can speak with the absolute authority of God Himself.
In our day it is still necessary to search the Scriptures. Luther’s example is very good to copy, because of all the benefits that it brings. Here we have the Scriptures in our own language. It offers a message that is clear and complete. Everything that God wants you to know is plainly stated. Best of all, the Bible meets and satisfies your greatest need.
When I opened the mail the other day, I saw an invitation from an ex-convict who is now a CLC Christian. He offers churches and schools the chance to hear him speak on the topics of drugs, crime, and gang activity. He tells a very compelling story. He claims that going to prison saved his life. He firmly believes that God used his time in jail to confront him with the Bible. While serving his sentence, the man searched the Scriptures and soaked in the message very deeply. The Bible, he says, gave him the answer to his guilt, the comfort for his fears, the hope for his misery, and guidance for his life. And to think that it took a prison sentence to make it happen!
It just goes to show: the Lord will do whatever it takes to drive people into His Word. Now Martin Luther was never arrested and put into jail. But his life, we could say, was a form of spiritual captivity. As he grew up, went to school, and offered his life in service to God and the church, Luther wrestled with the issues of sin, guilt, death, and judgment. More than anything else, he wanted to be sure that he could face God and not be rejected. When he looked for assurance, the church offered him nothing. They said to him and to everyone that no one could be sure they were saved. When Luther searched the Scriptures, however, he found the answer to his question. He discovered Jesus as the only Savior. That was the key to his Reformation, and the big reason why we follow Luther to this day.
The Christian day school students and I are studying Martin Luther in class. A few weeks ago, we read an interesting thing about his early life as a Catholic. Luther and all other Europeans were taught to think of Jesus as an angry Judge. They were told not to pray to Jesus directly, but rather to channel their prayers through Mary and the saints. Talk about distortion! Talk about darkness! These poor people didn’t even have the right view of Christ. He’s not a stern Judge, whose anger must be appeased. He’s the loving Savior, even as the Bible clearly shows in the Gospel.
Remember what the Gospel is. It’s the good news of the Bible. When the Law tells you what you must do for God, the Gospel tells you what God has done for you. When the Law shows you the major damage of your sin, the Gospel shows you the wondrous cure of God’s forgiveness. The Gospel shows you Jesus working as your Substitute. Here’s how it goes. Christ came down to this earth, took your place under God’s Law, and did everything for you that the Law required. The Law of God requires perfect obedience. Do we have this perfect record that God expects us to have? Through the perfect Substitute we do. Every good work that Jesus did, every act of obedience that He performed is credited to your account. The Bible describes it as righteousness that God has given to each one of us. The apostle Paul said in Philippians: “I count all things loss..., that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
The righteousness that we need to pass the judgment comes to us from Christ. Meanwhile, all of our sins, which rightly deserve God’s judgment, are transferred to Christ. He became accountable for what we did. He took the judgment for us. He suffered the penalty in our place, as our Substitute. He suffered not only the punishment of physical death, but also the torments of hell. It’s pretty amazing stuff!
Luther was amazed when he discovered this information. In one of his writings, he talks about the day when he first understood the meaning of the Gospel. He felt as though a great burden had been taken away. He felt the greatest comfort and relief, because the gates of heaven were finally open for him to enter.
That’s what the Gospel does. When the Law stirs up panic, fear, and despair, the Gospel comes with comfort, peace, and hope. Luther had no peace when he looked to the doctrine of the church. All they could give him was more Law, some of which wasn’t even true to the Bible. But when he found the real Jesus, his outlook changed dramatically. He knew that his sins were forgiven, free of charge, no strings attached. His fear of judgment dissolved when he understood that his guilt had been removed. We can relate to this, can’t we. We have sin too. We face the same problems of guilt and fear. But we learn from the Gospel that Jesus died for everybody. All the sins have been paid for. All the guilt has been removed. We too have been forgiven, free of charge, no strings attached.
It’s really the greatest discovery that a person could ever make. The trouble is—no one has the drive or the will power to find Jesus and trust in Him. God must exercise the power of His grace once more. God must bring Jesus to us, cause us to understand His work, and then give us the faith to receive the salvation that is offered. As Luther put it, “By grace alone; by faith alone; by Scripture alone.” That was the motto of the Reformation. That’s really the motto of Christianity. God help us to make it the motto in our own personal life. After all, look at the end result. When Luther found Christ, he found a great treasure. In Christ he had the hope of eternal life. By the grace of God, we too can have the same blessing.
When sin locks the door into heaven, Christ is the key that opens the door for all who trust in Him. By knowing the real Jesus, Luther found the certainty he was looking for. He knew that he would pass God’s judgment and live forever, because everything depended on Christ, not on him. Salvation is a free gift that is already earned for each individual. Do you want to be sure about going to heaven? Then look no farther than Christ. Was there any sin of yours that He didn’t die for? Was there any righteousness that He failed to achieve in your behalf? Of course not! If we stick to the truth of the Gospel and trust in that, we have the same assurance that Luther had. We have Jesus as our certain hope of life after death.
Finding Christ was the key to Luther’s Reformation in the 1500’s. It was the key that unlocked the prison of guilt and despair, the key that set people free, the key that opened the gates of heaven. Searching the Scriptures, discovering the Gospel, possessing the hope of eternal life through Christ—we use the same key as Lutheran Christians today. The devil will try to rob us of our treasure. Many churches will let go of Jesus for the sake of something else, some imitation, even the religion of saving one’s self. May God help us to avoid the same pitfall. May God keep us on the same path as Luther, so that we rely on Christ crucified and proclaim His message to the world around us. Amen.
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