The 25nd Sunday After Pentecost November 10, 2013
2 Corinthians 4:1-7
266(1-3), 262, 261, 266(4)
May the pure, life-giving truth of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, restored to the human race through the Reformation, forever remain for you your single most precious possession. Amen.
It is a mistake to act as though the Reformation is a once-a-year event that comes and goes with October 31st. Reformation is a way of life—an ongoing struggle against those same sins and errors that had so permeated the church of Luther’s day. So today we refocus on that great gift God gave to all mankind in the Reformation. The text for our ongoing celebration is found in Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth, the fourth chapter:
Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.
So far the very words of our God. We thank our God for Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone—for the assurance that these are not only verbally inspired words, but that they are to be the only sure and certain source of all that we teach and believe. With confidence in these the very words of our God, we pray: “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord, Your word is truth.” Amen.
There is a time for make-believe and a time for hard blunt truth. A young child crawls onto Grandpa’s lap and begs him to tell a story. That may be a good time for make-believe. A couple of salty old-timers are sitting on a front porch in rocking chairs swappin’ whoppers. That may be an appropriate time for make-believe. A young couple walks into their church, sits down in a pew on a Sunday morning, and prepares to worship and listen to the Sunday sermon. You tell me if that is an appropriate time for make-believe.
Make-believe has its place, but in church—in a worship service—is not that place. This is the time for truth. Fairy tales are as out of place here as a vegetarian at a Cattleman’s Appreciation Dinner. Distortions and half-truths are never appropriate here, especially when it comes to the truths that God restored to each of us through the Reformation. Here we will be reminded that like the Gospel itself, the Reformation was honest, decisive, and radical.
The earthly church of Martin Luther’s day was in dire need of reforming for many reasons, not the least of which was its lack of honesty. What exactly does that mean? It means that the religious leaders of Luther’s day were lying both to their people and to themselves. Stop and think about it for a minute. Indulgences? Really? Pieces of paper that you could purchase that would grant you forgiveness of sins? The problem was that not only was it utter nonsense, but everybody knew it. Church leaders and lay-members alike knew full well that you can’t buy forgiveness from a holy God with money. Virtually everyone involved knew better, yet they did it anyway. Again, why? Why carry on or participate in something that they knew to be rank hypocritical dishonesty?
The simple answer is that they wanted it to be true. The church leaders wanted the money that it brought in and the people wanted to be able to sin with impunity. It really didn’t go any deeper than that. It was darkness masquerading as light, vice trying to pass itself off as virtue.
Nor was this the only deception of the day. The greatest fairytale in Luther’s day was the Satanic heresy that man could earn God’s forgiveness for his sins by what he did or didn’t do. There were other lies—prayer to Mary and the other “saints,” the infallibility of the pope, purgatory, and the like—but the big lie was and is salvation by works.
We mention such things, not to point out faults in others, but to drag into the light the evil that resides in our own hearts. You and I have more than enough make-believe and dishonesty in our own lives. Dishonesty is alive and well also among us.
Is it honest, for example, to think of ourselves as mission-minded if we never give a personal witness of our faith to an unchurched stranger in our entire lives? Do we, as individuals or as a congregation, look outward or inward? In other words, do we look primarily to our own needs or to the critical spiritual needs of the unbelievers in our own community? Our Savior gave us our life’s purpose just before He left this earth: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Is it honest to imagine that we are doing a good job with that when we give it hardly a thought day-by-day? God be merciful also to us, dishonest sinners all.
What is perhaps most surprising about the make-believe that finds its way into our hearts and churches is the fact that such things stand in utter, stark contrast to the Word of God and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. There we find the ultimate in honesty. There we find no attempt to deny or downplay sin. There sin is acknowledged, and the cure is offered in the blood of God’s Son. There we find no attempt to style God’s Word to fit in with the declining morals of our society. We find instead the unashamed, straightforward revelation of the way things are. Paul says in our text: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” [v.2 ESV]
Such was the case during the days of the Reformation. Martin Luther was, more than anything else, an honest man. He honestly evaluated his own spiritual condition and acknowledged that there was absolutely nothing that he could do to undo, or to make up for, all that he had done wrong. That was huge, especially in his case, because virtually every single one of his teachers, every single religious leader of his day, was telling him in no uncertain terms that he not only could, but he must earn his own forgiveness.
Luther was also honest in that he allowed the Word of God to dictate what he believed, even when it flew in the face of what he had been taught since childhood. So it was that while all around him he heard that he must earn his own forgiveness, he rediscovered in God’s Word the declaration of God himself that Jesus had already earned that forgiveness for him. While his religious instructors were encouraging him to pray to Mary or one of the other saints, or go on a pilgrimage, or touch a sacred relic, he believed what the Bible taught—that “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
Today, just as in Luther’s day, you and I need to be absolutely honest. The stakes are too high for anything less. We need to be honest—with our neighbor and with ourselves—that Hell is a very real place and that every single soul who does not believe in Jesus Christ will certainly spend an eternity in that unspeakably terrible place.
We need to be honest—with ourselves and with our neighbor—that God Himself has determined what is right and what is wrong and that man’s personal opinions count for nothing in God’s eyes.
We need to be honest and open—with ourselves and with our neighbor—that there is only one path to Heaven, and that one path is, and will always only be, by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
We face other challenges today, as did Luther and his followers in the 16th Century. Not the least of our problems today is the growing opinion that true Christianity is supposed to be neutral, non-judgmental, and indecisive—in a word, weak. To the world we have allowed ourselves to be identified or defined as social welfare centers whose members and leaders duck and dodge if asked to take a position on a Bible teaching that has fallen out of favor with our society.
On the contrary, what strength, clarity, and decisiveness God granted the Reformers that they were able to take a stand even when condemned and threatened by both the church and the state—by church leaders and by secular leaders alike.
The Christian faith is certainly anything but indecisive or compromising. We strive in all things for Christian balance, but there is nothing weak in balance—nothing non-committal or lukewarm or indifferent.
The Reformation required drastic, decisive action which should not surprise us. Christianity itself, from first to last, was born of such dramatic events. Already in the Garden of Eden the tone was set. After man sinned, God cursed the ground and decisively and mercifully drove mankind from the Garden so that they would not eat of the Tree of Life and live forever in sin. When God saw that the world was too evil to survive, He sent the Flood and began over with Noah and his sons. When God began preparing the nation that would bear the promised Savior, He called Abram to take radical action—leave father and mother, house and home—and move to an unknown land. Down through the ages, men of God were called upon to carry out such measures, leading finally to the most extreme action of all: God was made man and lived among us. He, Jesus Christ, then offered His perfect life in an innocent death on the cross, all in an effort to save mankind from his own sins.
There is nothing whatsoever that is indecisive or lukewarm about any of this. “God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son…” (John 3:16). Think about that for a moment. There is nothing indecisive or weak in what God has done for us in connection with His Son, Jesus Christ. He sentenced His own Son to pay for our sins with His very life. Because of that, you and I stand holy and righteous in God’s sight. Your sins are forgiven! The act that won forgiveness was both spectacular and extreme.
Clearly, God the Father would take such an extreme step only if there were no other way for you and me to be saved. You and I wouldn’t sacrifice our own child to save someone else if there were another way—another “bridge across the valley.” How foolish and dishonest to imagine that God would. God the Father took such extreme action because there was no other way, for there is “[no] salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The Reformation was the epitome of “radical” in that it brought profound and permanent change. It, in effect, blew up over a thousand years of dishonesty and oppression. Again, there should be no surprise here. The Gospel itself is that way—God’s radical solution for mankind’s impossible, damning sin problem.
Nor was the decisive action limited to the death of our Savior. We have all received the gift of God’s Son through faith planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. There too drastic action had to be taken on our behalf. Our old passions had to be killed. Paul put it this way in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” The old me is to be no more. Once we lived to sin, now we are dead to sin. Once we lived to ourselves, now we live to God. Once we lived to play, now we live to serve. The change that conversion to Christianity brings is the very definition of drastic and radical. It not only turns us from death to life, it brings a permanent shift in emphasis and lifestyle.
Christianity is like that. Our text describes it this way: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [v.6 ESV] Note the dramatic contrast is these words. By definition, darkness and light cannot coexist—the one cancels the other. So too true Christianity can know nothing of compromise or coexistence with error, deception, or unbelief.
Imagine the enormous pressure on Luther, the lowly monk and priest, to vacillate, compromise, yield. He could not, would not, do so because he was an honest Christian man, and true Christianity knows nothing of such things. Yet it was not really Luther that held the line, was it? Our text tells us: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” [v.7 ESV]
This obviously represents great news for you. The power to stand against all opposition did not come from Luther, it came from Luther’s God. That same God, and therefore that same power, is there still today. Ask your God for a double portion of the Spirit that filled the reformers and know that through His Word He can and will work radically, decisively, and powerfully through you. May God so bless our ongoing reformation. 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.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.