Reformation Sunday October 30, 2005
261, 260, 262, 283, [WS 2000 alt: 775, 781]
May the pure sweet truth of our Lord’s Gospel, restored to the human race through the Reformation, forever remain your single most precious gift. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
$17 million dollars—that is the figure that is given. It is the almost incomprehensible amount of money that was inherited by the young man who blew it all—every last penny! Today that vast fortune is no more. In less than two years it was spent and gone with absolutely nothing to show for it.
Names and places really aren’t important here, are they? We really don’t need to know who or exactly how. The fact remains that reasonable folks the world round are aghast and appalled when they hear that an ungrateful heir has squandered an inherited fortune on hollow, sinful pleasures. What a crying shame! All the hard work and self denial of previous generations are gone in just a few riotous months with nothing to show but the ugly effects of sin. No respect, no appreciation, just greed, self indulgence, and self love. This is the sad legacy of a squandered inheritance.
We can be quite good at recognizing and denouncing the problems that we see all around us. We have a bit more trouble when it comes to recognizing and admitting our own sins. So it is that we can identify and condemn the wasting of material wealth, but we have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that we are even now in danger of squandering our own spiritual inheritance.
When the Triune God through Martin Luther and other reformers restored the truth of the Gospel to His Church, each of us was given an immeasurably valuable inheritance. What has the Christian Church done with that inheritance? What have you and I done with that inheritance? What have we done and what are we doing with the life-saving message that we are saved, not by what we do, but by faith in Jesus Christ? What have we done and what are we now doing with the priceless information that Jesus has offered His life of perfection as a sacrifice on the cross, and that no payment of any kind is required by God to pay the debt of our own sins? What, in other words, are we doing with the treasures we have inherited from the Reformation?
To such questions we now apply ourselves on this Reformation Sunday. The text upon which we will base our answers is found in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans:
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. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
The Apostle Paul once wrote very bluntly to the Christians in Corinth: “Bothers, I do not want you to be ignorant…” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Isn’t that really what the Bible is all about? Mankind is born ignorant and must be enlightened by God the Holy Spirit before he can really know anything at all. By nature we could never know that faith alone in Jesus Christ saves. We could never understand and believe that faith in Jesus is now credited by God as the perfection we could never hope to offer him by our works.
Yet the biggest problem with an ignorant person is that he neither knows nor believes that he is ignorant. While that is certainly true in secular matters, it is doubly true in matters spiritual. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can even begin to realize just how spiritually ignorant we really are. As an antidote to ignorance, the Holy Spirit gave us the Bible—His pure and holy Word. In all of creation, therefore, there is absolutely nothing like the Bible—nothing. All of the combined wisdom of sinful mankind is suspect at best. Most is just plain false. The Bible alone is pure truth.
With this clearly in mind, can you imagine just how Satan must rage against the Word which God has given to mankind? It is through that Word alone that anyone at all can become “wise unto salvation,” i.e., go to heaven (2 Timothy 3:15). Take away the Word of God and mankind is forever doomed, for faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Cf. Romans 10:17).
Today we celebrate what we have come to know as the Reformation. With great sobriety we acknowledge that we are the heirs of the Reformation, for each one of us has inherited the truths returned to mankind through the Reformation: Faith alone! Grace alone! Scripture alone! Living as an heir, however, does not come without responsibility. To learn exactly what our responsibilities are, we are first going to take a look back in time. We are going to use history to teach us something about today.
First of all travel back about 1975 years. It is 30 AD and the Son of God has just risen from the dead and He has ascended into heaven. As you visualize this scene, let me ask you some questions to make a point. Was Jesus doctrinally sound? The answer is, obviously, yes. Were also the Apostles doctrinally sound? The answer, again, is rather obviously, yes.
Now travel forward from that point in time. The date is 1517—exactly 488 years ago. Gather round with the crowd of people trying to figure out the Latin words a monk named Martin Luther had on the previous evening nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. On the paper were 95 accusations of corruption leveled against the only Christian church of the day—the Roman Catholic Church. Even officials in the Church itself admitted that many, many problems existed in that church. They refused, however, to acknowledge the greatest sin of all: the false doctrine that mankind is saved, even in part, by his own good works.
The question that we ask ourselves is this: How did the Church go from the glorious days of Christ and the Apostles (when the Church possessed and confessed the Word in truth) to the Church of Luther’s day (where the Gospel itself had been all but lost)? What happened? What changed, and how did it change?
The obvious answer is that doctrine changed, and man was the one who changed it…but how? A study of Church history teaches us that Satan began his attack on the pure Gospel teachings of Christ and his Apostles almost immediately after Christ’s Ascension. The Devil’s attack was greatly aided by the fact that there was no New Testament yet in existence. Even those books and letters that had been written were not well distributed throughout Christendom, and all copies had to be made by hand. This left really only one wide-spread means to communicate the saving message of the Gospel: word of mouth.
Have you ever played the children’s game called Telephone? You get a bunch of young people in a circle (the more the better) and the first whispers a complicated message of some sort into the ear of the person next to him, and that person has to whisper it to the next, and so on, all around the circle. The last person says out loud what he heard, and it is usually nothing at all like the original message. This is something like what took place in the church down through the ages—only what happened in the church was no game. Nearly every single error, once it reared its ugly head, was repeated, perpetuated and intensified. Before long the very message of the Gospel itself had been so mangled and distorted that it bore no resemblance at all to what Christ had once so clearly taught.
All this happened while the New Testament was being written and gathered. One would think that when that great task had been completed, it would have put an end to the rampant heresy. One would think that a text like the one we study this morning would have snapped the church back into line because its description of the Gospel is so incredibly clear and precise. So one would think…one would be wrong.
By the time the New Testament came into existence, errors had become too entrenched, too engrained, too integrated into the very fibers of the church of that day. Satan was not about to yield the beachhead he had fought to establish within the visible church without a violent struggle.
This is the state in which Martin Luther and the other Reformers found the Church in 1517. Through these men God once again restored the truth of his Word to his children. What is more, this time he made sure that the Church on earth rested on three powerful and immovable pillars—solid rocks that could not, would not shift or change: Grace alone! Faith alone! Scripture alone! We had learned the hard way that following sinful men, rather than the Word of God, was a recipe for disaster.
The good news is that we learned not to do that. There is also bad news. Once Satan realized that he could not even begin to budge the three solid pillars upon which the post-reformation church was built, he realized that he would have to try something different. He apparently came to the conclusion that if he could not shake a church founded on the solid Word of God, then he would somehow have to shake or discredit that Word itself.
Here then is the desperate condition of mankind today. The Devil has succeeded in casting doubt on the Word of God itself. Though our forefathers cared deeply about every doctrine or teaching of God’s Word, most modern Christians care very little. Where centuries ago a Bible was considered a prized possession, now we have so many Bible lying about that they have become common—in the very worst sense of that word. Back when Bibles were rare, men and women were ready to die for their convictions—their belief that every single word in the Bible is truth from God. Today, on the other hand, men teach that the Bible says and means whatever you want it to say or mean. No doctrine is sacred and no word of God is revered as holy and without flaw or error.
Hear these sobering words and understand the tremendous danger in which the Christian Church finds itself today. We have been given an inheritance from the Holy Spirit through the Reformation, and the value of this inheritance is beyond calculation. We began this mediation by lamenting the fact that certain ungrateful individuals will, from time to time, squander entire fortunes that they have inherited. The Church has been given an inheritance of infinitely greater value, and yet Christianity today is in danger of squandering that most precious gift.
To all of this, by the grace of God, we say, “Not here, not today, and not us!” Here we will continue to revel in the profound and sublime message of our text: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” What perfect, holy, life-giving words of hope and comfort. All have sinned—that includes me. All have been declared not guilty (justified) and since God used the word “all,” then that also must include me. Because of what Jesus has done, I am not guilty in the eyes of God, my only Judge. Again we read, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Nothing that I did could ever pay the penalty for my sins, not even a part of what I owed to God. My faith, established and preserved in my heart by God the Holy Spirit himself, that faith God credits as righteousness; that is, when God sees faith in my heart, it is as if I had never once sinned. Indeed in His eyes I never have, since the last trace of each and every sin has been purged from my eternal record forever and placed upon Jesus Christ, who carried it to the cross.
God preserve these precious truths in our midst for this is the Gospel itself, the mystery of eternal life! To this end, each day, in every way, the Reformation must continue. Reformation is an ongoing matter of the heart. It is continually asking one of Luther’s favorite questions: “What does this mean?” Continually ask this question of yourself and your children. What does grace mean? What does justified mean? What does it mean that I am justified “apart from the deeds of the law”? Never allow that precious message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified to become dull and lifeless. In matters of doctrine, never yield an inch in even the most minute point. Spend time each day admiring and appreciating the gift you have inherited, and God grant that Christ Jesus, who is the very heart of the Reformation, might thus, to an even greater degree, be all in all to each one of us. Only then will we begin to be good stewards of the treasures of the Reformation that we have inherited. So help us God, who is indeed our Mighty Fortress. 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.