Vol. 58 — No. 44 October 29, 2017
262, 264:1-4, 261, 264:5-6
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God and most merciful Father, we thank and praise You for causing the light of Your saving Word to shine brightly through the preaching and teaching of the Reformers. Grant that we may faithfully adhere to, defend, and proclaim Your gracious Word to the salvation of people everywhere and to the glory of Your holy name. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
In Christ Jesus, whom Martin Luther preached as our perfect righteousness and confidence before the holy God, dear fellow Christians:
In just a few days it will be October 31, 2017, 500 years to the day when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. With that seemingly insignificant act, God set in motion what we know as the Reformation. Throughout this year we have been noting the many blessings received through the Reformation, especially that greatest of all gifts, the news that Jesus is the Savior who once and for all has made peace between the world and God.
But what about the future? If Jesus has not returned before then, what will Reformation Day be like 500 years from now on October 31, 2517? This church building will have long since been torn down and forgotten. None of us will be here. Even the youngest infant among us will be praising the Lord in the glory of heaven. Our nation may not exist, at least not as we recognize it today. Will people 500 years in the future still remember the Reformation? Will they still thank God for it?
Reason would say, “Probably not.” By nature we quickly tire of the old and look for something new. The Israelites grew weary of manna from heaven and longed for the old life of slavery in Egypt. We look in our closets at this time of year and decide that, even though they are full of clothes, we have nothing to wear and need a new fall wardrobe. Even many who call themselves Lutheran today, argue that Reformation-era Lutheranism is showing its age and needs to be updated and rebranded for our Facebook age. “After all,” they might argue, “isn’t that what Luther pushed for—change? Didn’t he challenge the status quo?”
Luther did, of course, preach change, but not change for the sake of novelty or keeping up with the times. He urged “reform,” that is, the correcting of false teachings in the Catholic Church and a return to the truths God reveals in His Word. That’s evident from what took place about 3 1/2 years after the posting of the 95 Theses. Luther was summoned to the city of Worms, Germany to appear before the emperor and other high-ranking officials of church and state. When asked whether he would recant, Luther replied: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” Luther did just what the Apostle Paul urges in our text. He stood firm on the truth of the Word. He didn’t budge from there for the rest of his life. By God’s grace that is where the Lord calls us to stand as well.
“Once you were alienated and enemies of God,” Paul wrote. Luther knew exactly what Paul meant. God is absolutely holy. He cannot tolerate, overlook, or co-exist with sin. The soul that sins shall surely die, God warns. Luther knew that somehow he had to be perfectly holy in God’s eyes. He was taught that the way to accomplish it was by confession and doing penance. Luther gave his all to the effort. He confessed his sins and if he later recalled more sins, he confessed them too. To make up for his guilt, he whipped himself, slept in a cold, unheated cell without blankets, and fasted for days. He pushed himself to the point of death, yet found no peace.
The harder he worked to make himself holy, the more he saw how impossible the effort was. His despair and fear of God grew like a cancer in his heart. He saw God as a vindictive tyrant who made impossible demands just to punish those who couldn’t keep them. He felt hatred, not love toward God. He put his thoughts into a familiar hymn verse: Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay / Death brooded darkly o’er me / Sin was my torment night and day / In sin my mother bore me / Yea, deep and deeper still I fell / Life had become a living hell / So firmly sin possessed me. Luther always remembered what he had been and that gave him the keenest appreciation for God’s grace.
500 years later, do we remember? Our world downplays sin and even denies its very existence. It’s popular to believe that there is no absolute moral right or wrong and no accountability to God. Our culture likes to speak in terms of lifestyle choices and self-directed spiritual journeys. If it feels good, it must be OK. People speak of Jesus as though he were just another life coach who provides helpful tips for a fulfilling life. It’s not surprising, then, when people visit our church and take offense at the message that all people are alienated from God and His enemies because of sin. Caving in under the pressure, there are churches which don’t speak of sin at all. Their goal is to build people up and make them feel good about themselves. But decorating a prison cell and telling the inmates to ignore the bars, walls, and barbed wire doesn’t change the fact that they are still in prison.
Will we stand firm? We will if we continue to listen to the Word, not the world. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:22-23) “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John. 1:8) “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10) “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2)
Stand firm on the Word, because it alone is solid and unchanging. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) Remember what we were: dead in sin, hopeless, and helpless to do anything about it. Only then are our hearts ready for the news of salvation in Christ.
“Now he has reconciled you in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight.” There is no greater turnaround! What changed? Nothing happened in us. God didn’t “infuse” us with His grace to enable the sinner to measure up to His standards. Jesus didn’t coach us in how to impress God. No, it was not Christ “in us,” but Christ “for us.” Jesus reconciled us by becoming one with us and yet remaining true God. He lived up to God’s holy requirements in our place. Our thoughts are not always pure and directed only toward loving God and neighbor. But Jesus’ heart was filled with single-minded devotion toward His Father. We do what we should not and neglect what we ought to do. Jesus’ life led the Father to announce, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus fulfilled the law in order to give us the credit for it, and then He took our guilt upon Himself and suffered the full penalty of hell for all mankind. Our sin was charged to Jesus, while His righteousness is given to us. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)
That was a life-changer for Luther! For years he had been tormented with the thought that the “righteousness of God” could only mean that God would punish anyone who was less than righteous on his own. But then the Spirit led him to see that the “righteous shall live by faith.” By faith in Jesus, the worst sinner is seen by God as perfectly holy. Everyone who believes in Jesus receives the reconciliation Jesus won for all on the cross. “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) Now, instead of being alienated and cut off from God, we are His beloved children. We couldn’t be more pleasing to Him. God sees you as spotless because the holy Lamb of God washed you clean in His blood. No one, not even Satan, can accuse you before God’s judgment throne. “Who will bring a charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Romans 8:34)
Stand firm on Christ as the only Savior from sin. Cherish your reconciliation. In a world where people flock to new “spiritual paths” and believe they can map out their own spiritual journey to life and happiness, cherish Christ’s reconciliation. When work, sports, and the pleasures of life cause many to leave Jesus behind, let’s stand firm on the treasure of salvation in Jesus alone. As a church body may we stand firm on the Word alone, regardless of how unpopular it may be. May we not give in to the pressure to pick and choose what we are going to believe or to add to what God has told us in Scripture. Let’s stand firm, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
The Reformation was not complete when Luther died in 1546. It is still not finished. As long as the sinful earth stands, there will be an ongoing need to recognize the deadly nature of sin and error and to keep coming back to the truth of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed in Scripture alone.
Standing firm is a lifelong activity for the believer. The Lord doesn’t say, “Stand firm until you are confirmed,” or “"Stand firm until you leave for college or get married.” He says, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). It is heartbreaking when children fall from faith after confirmation or when a once steadfast fellow believer turns away from Christ because of the influence of professors, friends, or the world in general.
Paul’s message is urgent: “Continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, not moved from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” It is not just a danger for someone else. The devil is still the roaring lion restlessly on the prowl for an opportunity to pounce and destroy faith. We are no stronger by nature than others who have fallen, so what hope do we have? How can we fortify our children for life in a world growing more hostile to Christianity? The Lord doesn’t leave us defenseless. Look at Luther. He stood firm, not because of his own strength of will, but by faith. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) Luther immersed himself in the Word and through it the Lord renewed his trust, courage, and determination to stand firm.
Of all the events which transpired during the Reformation years, from the 95 Theses to Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms to the hundreds of sermons he preached, what do you think was the most important? I would say it was the translation of the Bible into German so that ordinary people could read and hear the Word for themselves. In that way the Holy Spirit reached thousands of souls bringing them to faith and preserving them in it until the Lord called them home. A couple hundred years ago during the westward expansion of our country, pioneer families would set out on the difficult journey across the plains to find new homes. They could take only a few essential possessions. Much had to be left behind. The one thing which many of those families refused to leave behind was their Bible. They treasured it as God’s Word.
Today we are incredibly blessed to have the Word in a variety of excellent translations available at a cost that few of us would see as an obstacle. We can access it on our phones and computers. We have pastors whom we can rely on for insights into the original Hebrew and Greek of Scripture. We have leisure time in which to read our Bibles.
But do we? From what I have heard, Lutherans in general spent more time gathered around the Word as congregations 100 years ago than we typically do today. And what about the Word in our homes? Do you spend more or less time today reading the Word and talking about it in family devotions than you did ten or twenty years ago? Our faith and stand on Christ will inevitably weaken if we don’t read and study the Word. Our families will not remain true to the Lord if we fail to lead them daily to the Savior. Our church body will go the way of so many others if we do not use the Word, train pastors and teachers to proclaim it, and build one another up with it.
A “reformation” we need today is to repent of our neglect of the Word, go to the cross for forgiveness, and pray for the Spirit’s encouragement to rededicate ourselves to reading and hearing the only message which saves. For if we continue in the Word, we will stand firm. God Himself will see to it. Paul urges: “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power…. Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:10ff.)
500 years ago Martin Luther stood firm on Christ and the truth of His Word. Because he did, the gospel has been passed down through the generations to us today. By God’s grace, we stand today where Luther stood. May the Lord through His Word preserve us, that we may continue to stand firm and steadfast, and eagerly proclaim the good news as long as the Lord leaves us here. Then we can be sure that 500 years from now there will still be people remembering the Reformation and saying, “Here we stand too!” Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, 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.