Reformation Sunday November 1, 1998
231, 261, 262, 463
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
The just shall live by faith. So far the Word.
In Christ Jesus, Who said, If ye abide in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
What special day is coming up this week? Most of us, if asked that question, would answer right away: “Halloween, of course—October 31st.” It’s a very natural reply. But we should remember that date for another reason. It was on October 31, 1517, that a haggard looking monk emerged from the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, Germany. In one hand he held a scroll, in the other he carried a hammer. He marched through the downtown streets toward the Castle Church. There he stopped, unfolded the scroll, and tacked it to the door. On the sheet of paper were written 95 points, or theses, directed against the Roman Catholic practice of selling “indulgences”. As you may know, indulgences were pieces of paper that promised the purchaser the forgiveness of his sins. The 95 Theses stood as a challenge to any and all comers to debate the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of God’s Word. People got excited about the theses, and copied them down. Within weeks, news about them had spread all over Europe. A fire was started that day that, by the grace of God, has never burned out. It was the beginning of the Reformation.
The monk, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther. This Sunday we remember the anniversary of the start of Lutheranism, the rebirth of true Christian teaching in a world that had fallen spiritually asleep. As heirs of the Reformation, today we consider a passage of Scripture that was a key factor in Luther’s bold stand against the church of his time. It comes from the prophet Habakkuk, chapter two, verse four: “The just shall live by faith.” Those 95 Theses were not the end of the story. Once word got out, Luther was ordered to take back his statements of faith…or else. Or else, said Catholic authorities, he’d be kicked out of the church, labeled a heretic, and burned. Luther faced a frightening decision. Should he risk his very life by holding onto his convictions? Could it possibly be that he was right, and the entire Catholic Church was wrong? It was when he was travelling to meet with the church authorities that he found these words of Habakkuk echoing through his mind, “The just shall live by faith.” En route to the meeting, Luther faced the option that confronts all Christians: will you live by what your reason tells you, or will you—as this passage says—live by faith? That was the question. That’s what convinced the Reformer to take his solid stand on God’s Word alone.
Once again, today, we celebrate our Lutheran heritage. And once again, it is decision making time. Is our CLC behind the times in insisting on the verbally inspired Word of God as the absolute authority in our lives? Are we wrong in holding tightly to our convictions and refusing to join in with false-teaching churches? Today I ask you to consider for yourself the same decision that confronted Martin Luther all those many years ago. Our theme today is…
Habakkuk says: “The just shall live by faith.” Those words don’t seem terribly crucial at first glance. Nobody here seems to be jumping out of their seats, at any rate. Perhaps you should be! But you know, it took even Martin Luther quite a while to grasp the full significance of these words. It might help our understanding if we state the negative of this phrase. Simply change three words and you have: “The unjust shall perish by his reason.”
That makes sense. And we’ve got a good example of it in the first person who suffered physical death because her reason got in the way of her faith—the matriarch Eve. Before her stood the simple word of God: “You shall not eat of it because in that day you will die.” But then reason came along, and with Satan’s prompting Eve thought, “No, death won’t really come. Besides, the fruit looks so good and who knows what great wisdom I might gain from it?” Eve chose to rely on her own human reason. She didn’t trust the simple words of God. The result—death entered into God’s perfect world.
The prophet Habakkuk was confronted with a choice too. He was informed that God would raise up the country of Chaldea and use them to overthrow the mighty country of Israel. That’s what God’s word told him. It was simple and to the point; take it or leave it. And Habakkuk took it. He made his decision on the basis of faith in God’s Word, and not on the basis of what his own human reason told him. Habakkuk didn’t sit and ponder the probability of whether or not this disaster would take place—he knew that what God says will happen will happen. Habakkuk didn’t say: “Now let’s see…Israel has so and so many men, and Chaldea has so many. According to my figures, we should be able to handle them with no trouble.” Habakkuk, instead, believed and acted solely on the strength of what God said.
The same two choices confront us today. Which will it be? The way of reason, or the life of faith? That question is still the deciding factor, just as it was for Luther. And I’d like to speak for a moment about one particular way in which the exaltation of reason is threatening the church today.
The true faith is under heavy attack these days—just as it always have been. Only these days, the attack comes not from the government or outsiders, but from within the ranks of the modern-day Christian denominations. Do you recall the story of the Trojan Horse? When the enemy couldn’t break through the walls at Troy they concocted the clever scheme of hiding their soldiers inside a huge wooden horse. Then they wheeled the horse to the city gate and fled in retreat, leaving it behind. Considering it a souvenir of war, the people pulled the horse into town and had a big party. When night fell, and everyone was drunk, the soldiers emerged and gained an easy victory.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s happening all over again in the church. Satan, our “old evil foe” still means deadly woe, and there are a lot of churches where he’s being ushered in right through the front door. There’s a big theological term that describes this. It’s called “neo-orthodoxy.” Put simply, it means “the new right way to God”…and it spells death for Biblical Christianity as we know it. It’s robbing what little of Bible truth is left in churches today. This movement rejects everything that man can not comprehend with his reason. To this category, say the proponents of neo-orthodoxy, belong such Biblical facts as the miracles of Christ and the foretelling of future events. They say that miracles are untenable and unthinkable to modern, sophisticated people. The story of Jonah and the great fish is like Cinderella and the pumpkin. They say the spiritual truths of God’s Word must be sorted out from the fairy tale miracles that don’t stack up to human reason. The raising of Lazarus from the dead, they say, is really on the same level as Snow White being awakened by the handsome prince!
Sadly, it is our children who are really bearing the brunt of this ungodly movement. They sit in classrooms where evolution is taught as scientific fact, and where you’re considered an uneducated fool if you believe the Bible account of a world created in six natural days simply by the power of God’s Word. There’s also a thing called humanism. Students in public grade schools, high schools and universities are, consciously or unconsciously, being sifted through a filter of humanism that says, “Man is in control. Man’s reason decides. Man is the final word.” Do you want to know why we have to hang on tight to our Biblical, conservative Lutheran heritage? Why we must take up shield and armor and sword? Because the age old passage that prompted the Reformation still calls us to today: the just shall live by faith. Either you take the simple Word of God as it stands and act upon it, or you do not. Today especially, we Lutheran Christians must live by faith. If we try to live by our human reason we will certainly perish, just as so many people around us are perishing!
God’s Word tells us that this world will end one day. For each individual, either heaven or hell will follow. But just try to prove that—to anyone—using human reason. It can’t be done. We live by faith.
Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac. It didn’t make sense. He lived by faith. Early Christians were threatened and persecuted by the governments of their countries; they lived and died by faith.
Luther stood before emperors and kings. His life meant nothing to them. And yet, so firm was his conviction in these words of Habakkuk that he defied the threats of the Pope by saying, “I will not recant. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” He lived by faith.
And you and I? If we made a graph showing how many people out of this world’s billions confess every word of the Bible to be God’s inerrant and inspired Word, we’d have to draw the graph on the wall…and then get out a magnifying glass to find the true believers! The percentage of the faithful, I’m sorry to say, would be so small it would hardly show up. But don’t think that tiny remnant isn’t important. Our resistance to the godless trends of the society in which we live is still vitally important
During the height of World War I, Winston Churchill was asked, “Sir, what are we fighting for?” To which he replied, “Stop fighting and you will soon find out.” A black pit of unbelief and chaos lies before us if we ever give up our fight for the Word. What are you doing to equip yourself and your children for this important fight? Does Christian education begin in your home and continue with regular attendance at church and Sunday School and Bible class…or are you by your actions saying, “It’s really not all that important”? Do you proudly stand up for your confessional Lutheran heritage…or are you by your words and actions telling your neighbors, “There’s really not all that much difference between us and you”? There is a difference—many important differences, in fact—and if you don’t know what they are you had better find out!
So often, we act as if we were somehow ashamed of our pure Lutheran faith. People bring up the topics they consider peculiar to our church, e.g. our insistence on Biblical inerrancy or close communion…or our unpopular stand against scouting and the lodge…or the fact that we refuse to join in the worship services of false teaching churches…and we are tempted to feel a little embarrassed about it all. Pardon me, but how stupid that is! Let THOSE people be ashamed who have compromised on God’s Word! Let THOSE people be ashamed who have given up the doctrines that the Bible clearly teaches! Let THOSE people be ashamed who have put themselves in the place of God, and set themselves up as judges deciding—according to their own human reason—which parts of the Bible are true and which can be discarded.
Do you remember the disaster that befell the space shuttle “Challenger” a few years back? That disaster was a wakeup call for NASA. It demonstrated in a horribly graphic way that there’s no such thing as an unimportant detail in a shuttle launch, not when lives are at stake. Even something as seemingly insignificant as a defective rubber O-ring can jeopardize the lives of the precious human cargo. In the same way, there’s a very good reason why we CLC Lutherans consider no Bible teachings to be insignificant. There’s no such thing as an “unimportant” doctrine—a doctrine that can be sacrificed or ignored for the sake of compromise. Why not? -Because of the precious cargo that lies at the heart of these Bible teachings: the Gospel!
We will never surrender a single doctrine that the Bible teaches! To do so might lead to the eventual surrender of the Gospel, which has been amply demonstrated by today’s liberal churches (even liberal Lutheran churches!) How could we ever do anything that might endanger the Gospel? It is our precious treasure! It’s the Good News that God’s Son has redeemed the world from sin, once and for all. It tells us that, because of Jesus’ redeeming work, nothing is now standing in the way of full forgiveness and acceptance by God. The Gospel tells me that I—yes, even such a wretched sinner such as I—have had all my transgressions atoned for by Christ Jesus my Lord. The Gospel tells me that, though I deserve hell, Christ has given me heaven!
No, it doesn’t make sense. It’s so unbelievable that the human mind could never grasp it with the powers of reason. If it were up to our human reason to comprehend the grace of God, we would certainly perish. But remember the words of Habakkuk: “The just shall live…by faith!” It is the faith that the Holy Spirit works in our hearts that enables us to comprehend this great salvation that our Lord has provided for us in Christ. It is our Spirit-worked faith that enables us to place our complete trust in Jesus for pardon, peace and everlasting life.
Living by faith works in every age. Why? Because the object of our faith is Jesus Christ. He came to be one of us, to stand in our place, to be our personal Savior. His holy life, death, and resurrection becomes our very own through faith. We believe that not because it’s reasonable, but because God said it. God’s Word is our foundation, and “Christ crucified for sinners” is the solid cornerstone of that foundation.
The concept of “life by faith” turned the Reformation world inside out. It turned Satan upside down. And life by faith always turns the soul…right side up. So we will continue to hang on to our Lutheran heritage. Right here on the Word we stand. We cannot do otherwise. God help us. AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.