Reformation Sunday October 28, 2007
261, 260, 262, 283 (WS 2000 alt. 775,781)
May the fact of the Reformation fill you with confidence that our good and merciful Father will never abandon His Church, nor any one of you, His sons and daughters, who indeed are some of the very souls who make up that Church. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
We start today with a one question test: Aside from the Roman Catholic Church (whose actual beginnings are difficult to determine) and a few European universities, what is the oldest Western institution in existence today? The answer is: The Lutheran Church which on Wednesday of this week will turn 490.
There you have a hard cold fact. What will you do with it? How will you use it? You actually have three possible choices as to what to do with that history. You can choose to ignore it, you can choose to use it for a positive influence and guide, or you can allow your heritage to become a damaging, detrimental thing in your life. This third option—allowing history or lineage to become a detrimental thing—was demonstrated by the Jews in the Gospel lesson (John 8:31-36). The Jews showed that they put far too much stock in their ancestry dating back to Abraham. In their minds they needed no Savior because they were the historical sons of the patriarchs. They needed no message of Gospel because their history included Moses and the Law. They needed to have nothing done for them because they believed that in the past they had done enough for themselves. In other words, they used their history as their justification for rejecting the Savior.
You and I also have history but up until this point we have, for the most part, chosen at best to ignore that history and at worst to use it wrongly. You and I can trace our heritage back nearly 500 years. The question remains, what will we do with that information? How will we choose to use it?
What a waste it is that most of us today choose either to misuse or to ignore our glorious history, our heritage. The ecumania and non-denominationalism that are so pervasive today make it seem good and right simply to ignore the whole thing and to celebrate diversity on occasions such as this. But ignoring history helps no one, we cheat both ourselves and the rest of the world whenever we do so. There is a wealth of encouragement and comfort to be gained for the present in a study of the past, but it is not the kind of comfort or encouragement we might at first imagine. To this end we will examine our Lutheran heritage, Our Glorious History which is in reality a history of the grace of our God. The text that will guide our study 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.
So far the very words of God. It was on these very words that God’s Church was founded, having been recorded for us by the Apostles and Prophets. Even so we ought to highly cherish and carefully study these precious words. That is why each Sunday, in preparation for our study of God’s words, we pray as now, “Sanctify us through Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Dear fellow heirs of the Reformation, it is always tempting to employ new and innovative elements in our worship service on special occasions such as today when we celebrate the return of Gospel preaching and teaching through the Reformation. We tend, however, to resist such innovation, especially on this particular occasion, for fear that such would obscure rather than enhance the very thing we are celebrating. The Reformation was, after all, the return of the truth of God’s Word to His people on earth. That is why one of the three great battle cries or pillars of that Reformation was Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).
Therefore, rather than neglect the very thing we seek to celebrate, we again turn our full attention to nothing but the Holy Word of our God, and in our study today we cannot help but wonder how anyone could possibly misunderstand the incredible words of our text. It is beyond the understanding of the average Christian how anyone could claim to “believe in the Bible” and still not come away from a study of this text with a solid Christian faith, believing what is here so clearly stated. We are mystified by the fact, but we shouldn’t be. There is little doubt that Martin Luther read this section of Scripture dozens of times without the faintest idea of what it really said. He probably memorized most or all of it in the course of his studies, and still he failed to grasp its true meaning. How then was it possible that he, along with so many others (both then and now), failed to see and understand these words for what they so plainly say?
Understand that to answer this simple question is to unlock one of the great mysteries in the history of mankind, for to understand the answer to this one question is to understand the difference between life and death—Heaven and Hell.
The fact is no one can understand these words without the Holy Spirit working in him. That same Holy Spirit has told us in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural man (man in his unconverted, original state) does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” No amount of study, no depth of meditation, no lengthy memorization can make us truly understand and accept these words from our God. They quite literally make no sense to our natural, sinful Old Adam.
There is good reason for this. What we read here runs exactly contrary to the way things work outside of the realm of the Christian faith. In the world, a man can earn the praise and respect of other men by consistently obeying the law. In Christianity however, our text informs us that “by the deeds of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight.” [v.19] To be righteous in the world’s eyes a man has to either do something good or avoid doing something evil. In God’s eyes, a man must be unerringly perfect or he must obtain his pardon and perfection through the righteousness of another. Our text refers to the latter in this way: “the righteousness of God apart from the Law (not by deeds) is revealed.” [v.21] In the world whatever is valuable carries a hefty price tag. In Christianity we are declared, “not guilty” freely “by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” [v.24]
Luther did not initially understand these words because the Holy Spirit had not yet worked this blessed understanding in his heart. This brings us again to our questions about our heritage, our history. What is our heritage and what should be our attitude toward that history?
What is clear up to this point is that nothing that man does is worth very much. Our history then must be much more than a sense of pride about what we or any other human being (including Martin Luther) has accomplished. In fact there is absolutely no cause for pride in the role we have played in the history of this thing called “the Lutheran Church.” The Roman Catholic Church is older. The Mormon church is growing faster. There are congregations of non-Lutheran churches in this country that have more members than our entire CLC. These things mean nothing before God. Our text asks a simple question and then answers it for us: “Where is boasting then?” God’s answer: “It is excluded.” [v.27]
What great damage we do to the whole spirit of the Reformation when we try to find some credit for ourselves as members of the Lutheran Church. What, after all, were the three pillars of the Reformation? Grace alone. Scripture alone. Faith alone. Grace is God’s undeserved love for sinners. Scripture is the verbally inspired Word of God. Faith can be created only by the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Again, where is there reason to boast except in the Lord? He alone has made us heirs of heaven. We added no worthiness or merit. None at all. That is why when we look back upon our own history, our own heritage, we are to remind ourselves that ours is a heritage of grace. Ours is a history of God’s love and mercy. So our text concludes: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, apart from the deeds of the law.” [v.28] God did it all.
Now, since we know what our true heritage is really all about, what in the world are we going to do with it? Since we know that our history is in reality an example of how our gracious God preserves His own, day in and day out, how will we use this history to the benefit of all? You will remember that there are only three options open to us: We can choose to ignore this marvelous truth, we can use it wrongly, or we can use it rightly as a positive influence in a very negative world. Of course we want to use our history for good. First, therefore, we will use it for direction for the future.
If there was no reason for mankind to boast in the past, there will certainly be no reason to do so in the future. Satan has launched attack after attack against God’s Church. So many denominations have given up the battle and have traded the genuine Gospel for that cheap imitation where man believes he shares in both the work and the credit. Our text, quite literally, lays down the Law in this regard: “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.” [vv.19f] Since there is (and can be) no good thing supplied by man, we would be without hope had not this marvelous text come charging to the rescue. Since mankind was helpless, God himself “did the doing”: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed.” [v.21] Note this well. Man had done the sinning, but man could offer no payment, nothing to make it up to God. God Himself supplied what man could not: “a righteousness apart from law.”
Reformation is our special celebration, but what is the effect on the world around us. As far as the world is concerned, perhaps the single greatest turn-off connected with our celebration of history and heritage (any such celebration for that matter) is the exclusiveness they perceive. By celebrating one’s past you almost always create a barrier between you and others—“This is what we, not you, have done.” Dear Christians, know finally that if you are feeling this way about our celebration of the Reformation and the history of the Lutheran Church, then you are celebrating wrongly. Remember instead that ours is a heritage of grace—God’s undeserved love—not our own human accomplishments. Ours is, therefore, anything but an exclusive celebration. God’s justification of the world, His declaration of “not guilty,” includes every single human being. Hear again how our text includes absolutely everyone in both the good and the bad. First: “For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [v.23] That is the bad news—every single man, woman, and child is a partaker of sin and therefore subject to God’s condemnation. That too is a part of our heritage!
Now here is the good news. As many as “have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God,” this same number (all) “have been justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” [v.23,24] If you are a sinner, then know that God has accepted the death of His Son Jesus as payment for your sins. He has declared you, together with the rest of the whole world, “not guilty!” As many as have sinned, that same number have been declared “not guilty.” That, quite simply, is the key to Life itself, and it is the sum total of our celebration on this and any other day. This is our heritage of grace, and it, by God’s grace, includes us all. God has placed upon his own dear Son the sins of us all.
Our calling or great commission then becomes very simple. Tell the world one sinner at a time what God has already done for him. The message we proclaim is always the same and always applies: God, in Christ, has declared you not guilty. This historic promise stands true for all: “A man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” [v.28] Then rest assured that the same Holy Spirit who worked faith in the heart of Martin Luther and in all other Christians down through the ages, will also work saving faith in hearts today through your witness.
Our history goes back much farther than 1517 and the Reformation. Our heritage dates back to the Garden of Eden and the first Gospel promise. Glory then this day not in man’s accomplishments, for on our own we can manage nothing but sin and failure. Rejoice instead in your undeserved gift of eternal Life through our Lord Jesus Christ. That is your great heritage, your glorious history. 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.