Reformation Sunday October 30, 2016
262, 775:1-4 (Alt. 293), 266, 775:5-6
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ Jesus, fellow sons and daughters of the on-going reforming work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts,
“Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it!” So we were told again and again by our history teachers on the importance of learning the lessons of history. The lesson of the Babylonian Empire or the Roman Empire teaches us that no matter how powerful an empire may be, if it gets lazy and self-confident, it can and will fall. So, our history teacher told us, history is important and relevant to us today.
Today is Reformation Sunday. We have set aside this Sunday on our church calendar to talk a little bit about history. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses (or statements) on the church door in Wittenberg, in hopes of debating the unscriptural sale of indulgences. This was an historical event. Those hammer strikes sounded the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation of the Church. Both historians and theologians record the events that unfolded from there.
But why have a Reformation Sunday? What lessons are there for us to learn? Secular historians would say we could learn about abuses of power, standing up for what you believe in, or an emphasis on an individual’s freedom of religion. But the Reformation and the work of the Lutherans is much more than a cold history lesson, and much, much more than about just one man, Martin Luther. The Reformation still matters because the Gospel that was proclaimed is the eternal Gospel, whose target is the whole world, and which focuses on the final judgment. To guide us today, we turn to the Word of God as recorded in the Revelation of Jesus Christ, chapter 14, verses 6 and 7. This was the text that was used for the sermon of Dr. Johann Bugenhagen Pomeranus, for the funeral of Martin Luther in 1546. Hear now the Word of the Lord:
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (ESV)
So far the Word of God. May the we continue the Christian and Lutheran heritage of proclaiming, “Sola Scriptura”—Scripture Alone, for our lives and our teaching. May God help us. Amen.
When we think of the blessings of the Reformation that still affect us today, there are many. The fact that you have a Bible in your home which you can read, is one such blessing. Prior to the Reformation, Bibles were hard to come by, often so rare that they were locked up in university libraries. Furthermore, they were in Latin, a language that only the scholars could understand and read. But Martin Luther wanted the people to be able to read God’s Word for themselves and in the Wartburg Castle, he began translating the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into German—the language of the people.
Another great blessing is was the Biblical teaching that every believer in Christ is a priest before God. This is known as the “priesthood of all believers.” Prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church had been teaching that Christ gave only the Pope the right to forgive sins, and the Pope bestowed that power on his bishops, who in turn bestowed it on the priests. Furthermore, only the Catholic priests could rightly interpret and explain the teachings of Scripture. However, Luther rightly taught that each believer in Christ can go directly to God in prayer and understand God’s Word for themselves. Also, Christ has given each believer the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that is the power and authority to announce that someone’s sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake or that the unrepentant is “bound” to his or her sins.
We could go on to talk about the music of the Reformation, Luther’s emphasis on instructing they youth and his catechism. There are many, many more blessings of the Reformation that still flow down to us today. But there is one that rises above all the rest. One thing which in which all of eternity hangs in the balance. It is the answer to the question of the jailer in Philippi, “What must I do to be saved?”
Early in his life, Martin Luther struggled in his relationship with God. Luther wrestled with his guilt and looked for answers. He tried to do more good works to quiet his conscience. He tried, as his priests recommended, praying to Mary. But none of these things helped. He felt God was angry with him and there was no way out from under His wrath. He had come to see Christ as someone that was judging and condemning him for his sins.
What changed things for Luther? God’s Word changed it. While preparing for a lecture in Psalms, he struggled to understand Romans 1:17, where Paul writes, For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Here Luther began to find the help he so desperately had been searching for. Luther would later say, “I hated the expression ‘righteousness of God,’ since I had been instructed by the usage and custom of all teachers to understand it…as the ‘formal or active righteousness’ in which God proves Himself righteous by punishing sinners and the unjust… Finally, after days and nights of wrestling with the difficulty, God had mercy on me, and then I was able to note the connection of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel’ and ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then I began to understand that the ‘righteousness of God’ is that through which the righteous live by the gift (‘dono’) of God, that is through faith, and that the meaning is this: The Gospel reveals the righteousness of God in a passive sense, that righteousness through which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ I felt as if I had been completely reborn and had entered Paradise through widely opened doors” (“What Luther Says” #3905. Plass. CPH, St Louis, 1959).
Already in 1514, 3 years prior to nailing the 95 Theses, we begin to see the great blessing of the Reformation. It is the eternal, unchangeable Gospel which Scripture declares. It is the good news that sinners are saved not by their works, which the church and the religions of the world had been teaching, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Through faith in Jesus the believer is declared to be righteous in God’s sight, not by works. God gives the believer Christ’s holiness and His righteousness for our salvation. This is the chief doctrine of Scripture and the chief doctrine of Lutheranism.
This is the eternal gospel of which we hear in our text. It is as old as the Garden of Eden. After the fall into sin, God promised that HE would send One from the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness. Paul, in our Epistle lesson, emphasized this very point. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). This is what Scripture and our Lutheran confessions emphasize again and again—an eternal, unchangeable Gospel.
Article IV of the Augsburg Confession states, “Our Churches…teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.”
It is said that on this teaching, the Lutheran church stands or falls. But it is more than that, on this teaching eternal salvation stands or falls. If we are justified by what we do, then we all are eternally doomed for we could never do enough to satisfy our holy God. But thanks be to God that He justifies, declares us righteous, not by our work, but by faith in Jesus Christ apart from our doing. Only Christ can get us to heaven by what He has done. His righteousness is imputed or credited to us through faith. This is the message of the eternal gospel. And THIS is why the Reformation still matters.
In our sermon text, as the Apostle John sees this heavenly messenger with an eternal gospel to proclaim, pay attention TO WHOM he is to proclaim proclaiming it. “To those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” This is the next reason why the Reformation still matters today—it’s target audience is the whole world.
Why to the whole world? Because it was for the whole world that Christ came. “God so loved the WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son, that WHOEVER believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” Jesus said (Mark 16:15). There are lost sinners throughout the world who are crying out like the young Martin Luther and the jailer of Philippi, asking, “What must I do to be saved?” Therefore, this precious message of justification by grace through faith in Christ, which Paul preached and which the Lutheran confessors taught, this eternal gospel still matters today because there are still lost sinners in the world in need of Christ’s righteousness. Let us then loudly proclaim this eternal gospel. Let us be the angel of this generation, going to our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members, to all people who dwell on earth that righteousness is to be found in Christ Jesus alone.
Hear again what the angel proclaimed loudly, “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” The focus of the eternal gospel which the angel proclaimed is God. God’s work in saving us. Fear Him. Fear Him who is the righteous Judge, standing in awe that gave His beloved Son to save us! Give Him glory for His saving work. His Son has redeemed us! Worship Him, who is our Creator and Redeemer!
Do you find it curious that the angel says that the hour of God’s judgment has come? How can that be? Isn’t Judgment Day yet to come? Well, it “has come” in the sense that Jesus has come and judgment stands or falls on Him. His death on the cross proves that we could not save ourselves, otherwise Jesus would not have had to die. Whenever and wherever the eternal gospel is preached, the hour of judgment has come. Jesus Himself said, “He who believes in (God’s Son) is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). The hour of God’s judgment has come, and salvation stands or falls on Jesus Christ.
This too is why the Reformation still matters. There are still souls hanging in the balance. There are still souls that are condemned because they have not believed on the only begotten Son of God for salvation. Maybe they mis-believe that they can reach heaven by their good intentions or their sincere desires. Or maybe they are despairing because, try as they may, they, like me, know they are full of unrighteousness and have no hope of salvation.
The central message of the Reformation must still continue to ring out. CHRIST, CHRIST, CHRIST! HIS holy life is our righteousness. HIS innocent death is our forgiveness. HIS resurrection is our justification. Until the trumpet sounds on the last day, the eternal gospel MUST be loudly proclaimed for the salvation of souls. This is why the Reformation still matters and will matter until Judgment Day.
When we rightly view the Reformation, we see that it is not some cold history lesson, but the glorious work of God to bring out of the darkness His glorious work of redemption. The Reformation still matters because the gospel proclaimed by Martin Luther and the Lutheran confessors, is the eternal gospel. It is the good news of God saving us by the holy life and innocent death of Jesus Christ. This good news is for all the world, to be proclaimed until the Last Day. Therefore with the angel in John’s vision, we too loudly proclaim, “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” Thanks be to God. 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.