The Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost October 26, 2008
Included in the sermon as responsive readings
775 [TLH alt. 285], 266, 778 [TLH alt. 374], 759 [TLH alt. 387(1-7)], 262
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Most of us had no difficulty standing just a moment ago. We have good solid footing on a level floor and a pew back in front of us to grasp for additional support. But have you ever tried to stand up in a small boat? It tips and rocks with the slightest movement of your body and the ripple of the water. If someone were to push you, or if a gust of wind were to come along, it would be impossible to stay standing. You would lose your balance and fall overboard.
As we go through life, the wind is going to blow fiercely at times, and there will be those who will push and shove in an effort to make us fall. What we need then as individual Christians and as a congregation is solid ground underfoot which won’t shift and make us lose our balance. That is what made all the difference in the life of Martin Luther 500 years ago. He faced Category 5 hurricane winds of opposition from both the government and the church. He was pushed from all sides by the temptations of Satan and his own fears and doubts. At times it seemed as though he was all alone in storms he couldn’t possibly survive. Yet, he remained standing because of the solid ground beneath him. The bedrock of three unshakable truths enabled him to remain firm before the emperor and princes of the realm at Worms, Germany in 1521. When told to recant what he had written and preached, Martin Luther replied: “No, here I stand!”
As we approach the anniversary of the Reformation we will review those three divine truths which are the solid foundation of Christianity. They are: Scripture alone, Grace alone, and Faith alone. We do this, not only to see where Luther stood, but so that we, too, may not be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming,” as Paul wrote to the Ephesians (4:14 NIV). Rather, may the Lord work in us the same confidence and courage to confess, “Here we stand!”
To be sure of our footing, we have to know that what we are standing on is solid and true. But what can be counted on no matter what? Can health, job, family, human philosophy, our nation be relied upon in every circumstance? Any or all of those could be gone in an instant.
Luther was taught that there were three sources of absolute truth: Scripture, the church, and, in particular, the decrees of the Pope. People were not encouraged to read the Bible themselves, but were to simply obey what they were told by the church.
The Lord, though, led Luther into the Word of God and to the truth that Scripture alone stands head-and-shoulders above everything else. It alone is absolute truth because all Scripture is inspired, that is, “God-breathed” (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit Himself breathed into the writers of the Bible not just ideas and thoughts, but the exact words He wanted them to put down! That means there is zero chance of error. The Bible is the holy, almighty God speaking eternal truth to undeserving, mortal sinners like us. That realization caused Luther to cherish the Word above all else. It moved him to take on the task of translating the entire Bible from the Hebrew and Greek into common German so that all of his countrymen could read for themselves of God’s love and mercy. One lasting legacy of the Reformation is that we today have easy access to the Word of God. There are a variety of accurate English translations of Scripture. The Bible remains the number one bestselling book year after year.
But the Bible is also still being attacked. Even many churches discredit its truthfulness and say that, while it contains kernels of general truth, it cannot be trusted in every detail. Therefore, according to these churches, Adam and Eve were probably not real people and Jesus likely did not perform all of the miracles recorded in Scripture. But if some parts are not true, how can we be sure of any of it?
We don’t have to worry. God Himself tells us that the Word comes from Him and can be counted on in every part. Jesus says, “Your Word is truth!” (John 17:17). That’s it…end of subject…period!
May we take our stand on God’s Word alone. That means using it. Read it daily—God is speaking to you and your life. Study it—The Lord has so much to teach us for our comfort and encouragement. Take advantage of Bible classes—What better way to grow in faith and knowledge than to sit down together with fellow believers? Talk about the Word—Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that you have (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), for the Word of salvation is for all people. Be ready to say: “Here I stand!”
Responsive Reading: Psalm 119:103-105; 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Isaiah 40:8
P: How sweet are Your words to my taste,
C: sweeter than honey to my mouth!
P: Through Your precepts I get understanding;
C: therefore I hate every false way.
P: Your Word is a lamp to my feet
C: and a light to my path.
P: Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
C: All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,
P: that the man of God may be complete,
C: thoroughly equipped for every good work.
P: The grass withers, the flower fades,
C: but the word of our God stands forever!
In His Word God reveals His Law for mankind. He commands: “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). God’s standard is perfection. 80% is not good enough. 95% won’t do it. 99.9% is not acceptable to the holy God. “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy,” (Leviticus 19:2), He says. Falling short means condemnation, for the “soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20, et. al.). We can’t be saved unless we are righteous before God. The problem is that all people are born dead in sin and, therefore, cannot be right with God unless sin is taken out of the way.
Many people try to accomplish this through their own efforts. They try to make themselves worthy of God’s blessings: “I’ll do my best to be a good person. I’ll pray, go to church, be kind to others, and God will give me credit for it. I’m not perfect, but I’m not a bad person and hopefully He will see that I’m trying.”
Luther tried this approach too. He spent every waking moment doing good works. He tried to make up for His failings by brutally punishing His body, even to the point of endangering his life. But he discovered that measuring up to God’s standards is even more hopeless than standing up in a little canoe. No sooner would be begin to feel as though he were making progress, than he would falter in his thoughts, sin, and “fall overboard” yet again. The harder he tried, the more he saw that it was humanly impossible. How could a sinner ever make himself holy before God? Even the most gifted artist cannot produce a perfect vase using defective clay. We are spiritually “defective,” unable to do anything toward our own righteousness.
The Lord then led Luther to solid ground and the truth that we are saved, not by our works, but by God’s grace alone. God’s undeserved love is so overwhelming that He gives as a free gift the righteousness which He demands in the Law! Jesus stepped into our shoes and did everything needed for our salvation. We needed perfect obedience to God’s Law. Jesus obeyed for us. He loved God and His neighbor in every thought, word, and action so that we could receive the credit. Our guilt demanded punishment. Jesus took the penalty on Himself. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:10 NIV). In Christ Jesus God made peace between Himself and the whole world. When that truth reached into Luther’s heart, he said, “I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise!”
May we stand squarely on grace alone, just as Luther did. We have to be watchful, because the Devil, world, and our own flesh conspire to lure us into trusting in ourselves—what I want and what I can do. It looks so good for a while to set your own course and be your own person without regard to God and His Word, but it always ends in utter disaster. Righteousness before God is not something we earn or deserve. It is purely a gift of God’s grace. With the crushing load of guilt off our shoulders and with Jesus’ triumphant call, “It is finished!” ringing in our ears, let us stand and joyfully confess the truth of God’s grace!
Responsive Reading: Romans 5:6-8; 6:23; Ephesians 2:3-9
P: For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
C: For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.
P: But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners,
C: Christ died for us.
P: For the wages of sin is death,
C: but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
P: We were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
C: But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
P: even when we were dead in trespasses,
C: made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
P: that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith,
C: and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
The third truth on which Luther stood has to do with how sinners receive the benefits of all Jesus did for the world. Is there something we need to do so that we will be included in the Holy Christian Church? Is it a cooperative effort in which God does His part and now we must do ours? If that were the case, we would have a very shaky place on which to take a stand. Think about it. If your eternal future depended in any way on what you do, could you ever be sure? Wouldn’t you always have to wonder, “Have I done all I’m supposed to do? Have I done it well enough?” Conscience and the Law would always answer, “No, you have sinned. You are still lacking.”
The Lord in His Word, however, shows us that we are saved by grace through faith alone. He doesn’t say, “Whoever believes and does his part shall be saved.” He promises, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:15). Baptism, too, is a free gift of the Lord. When the jailer at Philippi fell down distraught at the feet of Paul and Silas and pleaded, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 30-31).
There are those who try to make even faith into a work we do. They preach, “Jesus died for your sins. Now it is up to you to make your decision for Him. Invite Him into your heart. Accept Him as Lord and Savior.” The truth is we can’t do even that much. “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Faith, too, is a gift from God for which we cannot take any credit. Luther sums it up beautifully in his Small Catechism: “The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in true faith.”
Let’s stand on faith alone. Thank the Spirit for working faith in you through your baptism. Thank Him for His Word by which He feeds and sustains faith. When you worry that perhaps your faith is weak, or you wonder whether you may have lost it entirely, don’t look inward for reassurance. Look to the Gospel of Christ! Go back to the Word. Read again of God’s love and His plan which He worked out perfectly through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Take in all the promises He makes to you. Trust what Paul told the Philippians: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 NIV).
Where do you want to be standing today…in a time of danger or sickness…when the winds of temptation howl…when life is turned upside down…when death approaches…on Judgment Day? In a leaky rocking rowboat, or with both feet planted firmly on solid rock? May we today and always stand where Luther did on those three unchanging truths of God: that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone as revealed in Scripture alone! Lord, here let us stand! Amen.
Responsive Reading: Romans 3:19, 28; John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 15:58
P: Now we know that whatever the Law says,
C: it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
P: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith
C: apart from the deeds of the law.
P: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,
C: that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
P: And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.
C: For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
P: I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.
C: And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom,
P: but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
C: that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
P: Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,
C: knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord!
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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.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.