Reformation October 29, 2000


The Spirit of the Reformation: To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice

1 Samuel 15:22-23


270, 269, 262, 467

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

Then Samuel said [to King Saul]: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.” Here ends our text.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, “who was obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross,” Dear Fellow Redeemed,

Today is October 31. It was on this day in 1517 that a monk named Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Now it had long been known that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt, was teaching terrible false doctrine, and needed to be reformed. But in 1517 Pope Leo X instituted the practice of selling “indulgences,” and for Luther, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The selling of indulgences was a scheme the Pope came up with to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. All an indulgence was was a piece of paper. You handed over a certain amount of money, and the church would give you this piece of paper that said you were officially forgiven a certain number of sins. The more money you gave, the more sins you could pay for. And if this wasn’t bad enough, some people actually tried to pay for sins in advance; if they bought a big enough indulgence, they figured they were free to sin as much as they wanted in the future! Of course, this practice was nothing less than a hideous blasphemy against God, and Martin Luther realized it. And his 95 Theses, written against indulgences, was the spark that ignited the Lutheran Reformation.

To us modern-day Lutherans, the 16th century practice of selling indulgences seems outrageous—even laughable. Who would believe something as ridiculous as that? But we shouldn’t laugh. Believe it or not, a few months ago Pope John Paul II announced that the sale of indulgences will be reintroduced as part of the Catholic celebration of the year 2000. Most dangerous of all, however, is the underlying concept itself—the idea that you can disobey the Lord and then pay for it with some sort of outward sacrifice. Will a few more dollars in the collection plate make up for disobedience to God’s Word? The answer is no, and in our text for today, King Saul finds that out the hard way. Consider with me the theme:

The Spirit of the Reformation:

You know the whole story that our text is taken from. It was our Old Testament reading for today. The Lord had given King Saul a simple order: destroy the unbelieving nation of Amalek. And that meant every single Amalekite, and every single animal that belonged to them. So Saul took his army and fought against the army of the Amalekites. And the Lord gave Saul a great victory, just as He said He would. So far, so good. But when the battle was over, and all the attractive spoils of war were lying before his eyes—that’s when King Saul started getting a few ideas of his own.

Here was all the wealth of the Amalekites. Here were thousands of head of cattle and sheep. Alright, God had said to destroy everything, but still—what harm could there be in saving this valuable livestock? What would be so wrong about destroying almost everything, but keeping the best of the flocks and herds? So that’s what he did. “Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.—1 Sam 15:9.

God knew what Saul had done, of course, and He sent Samuel to confront the King with his sin. When he saw Samuel coming, Saul tried to brazen it out: “God bless you, Samuel! I’ve done everything the Lord commanded me to do!” The prophet replied, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” If you destroyed everything, Saul, then what’s all this baa-ing and mooing that I hear?

Well, Samuel had him there, didn’t he? All around him were the cattle and sheep that the Lord had told him to destroy. Saul couldn’t deny the evidence—he had disobeyed God’s Word.

You know, the only thing worse than committing a sin, is committing a sin and then lying about it. And lying to God about our sin is more than just wrong, it’s stupid. As if anything could be hidden from the eyes of God! John says that if we say that we have no sin, we’re only deceiving ourselves. That’s what the Law of God is for: when we get to thinking that we’re doing pretty good, and that we’re not really guilty of any “big” sins after all, God’s Law kicks in. It’s the voice of the Lord asking us, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” If you really love Me, God says, then why have you put other things in your life before your devotion to Me? Why have you taken My Name in vain? Why have you allowed lustful thoughts to linger on your mind? Why have you not kept My sabbath day holy? Why have you shown anger toward your neighbors and hurt them with words and deeds when I commanded to you love your neighbor? WHY HAVE YOU DISOBEYED ME??

God’s Law is like a straightjacket: it’s impossible to wriggle out of. The more we struggle to obey God’s Law, the clearer our sins become to us, and the more tightly they bind us. Finally, the Law shows us how completely helpless we are to please God on our own.

But Saul still felt that he had some wriggling room left. In fact, he thought he had the perfect excuse for his disobedience—he did it in order to serve God! “I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” You notice that he tries a little buck-passing here (“the people took of the plunder”). And anyway, he says, it was all for a good cause! We were going to bring the animals to the tabernacle of the Lord and give them to God as a sacrifice!

—Now, was that the truth, or just a lie that Saul came up with in a hurry to cover his tracks? We don’t know. And it really doesn’t matter, because there is no sacrifice, however valuable, that can make up for disobeying God’s Word. Samuel makes it clear: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.

It’s the same old problem, isn’t it? It’s the same error that ignited the Lutheran Reformation 482 years ago today—the idea that you can cover up disobedience by giving God a sacrifice. But you can’t bribe God. Whether we’re talking about Saul’s sheep and oxen, our own good works, or the check that we put in the Sunday collection plate—none of these can make up for sin.

All those many years ago, Martin Luther realized that there is only one sacrifice that could atone for sin—only one offering that could make up for our disobedience. And that’s the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The only way we can get the perfect righteousness that the Lord requires of us is by faith in our Savior. Where we have sinned, He was sinless. Where we have caved in to temptation, Jesus resisted temptation and overcame it. Where we have been unfaithful and disobedient, Christ was perfectly obedient—in our place. In fact, Paul says, Jesus took His obedience to the furthest extreme: “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.—Phil 2:8.

Today is Reformation Sunday. We Lutherans are today celebrating the greatest thing that came out of that tempestuous period five centuries ago: the rediscovery of the Gospel. What Luther proclaimed then is our greatest treasure now—the good news that Jesus’ obedience is OUR obedience. Christ’s perfection is our perfection; His righteousness is our righteousness, by faith. It’s right there in front of you, a gift free for the taking—so take it! God has already declared you “not guilty.” He has already invited you into His kingdom of grace. He has untied you from that strangling straightjacket of the Law, not by destroying the Law, but by fulfilling it in Christ. Because of what Jesus did for you and me, God has promised us eternal happiness in heaven. No conditions! No strings attached!

How can we possibly say thank you to the Lord for this wonderful good news? What can we do to show our love for Him? Well, one way we do it is by showing up here in His house to worship Him. And yes, another way we say thank you to God is by putting our offerings in the collection plate—by giving back to God part of the gifts He has given to us. But the message of our text for today is that to obey is even better than sacrifice. The best possible offering we can bring is to hear to God’s Word and joyfully live according to it! Once when a crowd was following Jesus, a woman shouted out to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!” But Jesus said, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!—Lk 11:27-28. King Saul did half of that, didn’t he?—He listened to God’s Word, but he didn’t carry it out. Well, let’s you and I show how grateful we are for God’s love by doing both halves. Let’s hear the Word of God and keep it, too!

Will it be easy for us to obey God’s Word in this world? No. It won’t be easy for us, any more than it was easy for Martin Luther. There were a lot of people in Luther’s time who told him not to make waves—that he should compromise a doctrine or two for the sake of unity. Just like our day and age: the other denominations would like us to overlook their false teachings so that we can all get together. And nothing gets people angry quicker than when you stubbornly refuse to overlook false teachings! But the Bible warns us that “…a little yeast raises the whole batch of dough.” Commenting on this verse, Luther said, “One article of faith is all articles, and all articles are one, and if one article is lost, gradually all will be lost.” Who is there who’s still standing up for that historic Lutheran confession these days? Quite frankly, it’s our CLC, and not too many others! We aren’t the biggest or richest church body in America, not even close; but that’s not really what matters, anyway. In God’s eyes, it’s obedience to His Word that counts. This is the true spirit of the Reformation: to obey is better than sacrifice!

No, it is not an easy task that we confessional Lutherans have ahead of us. But it is a joyful task, and one that brings with it a wonderful promise. For it is to believers like you and me that Jesus says, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.In His saving name, AMEN.

—Paul Naumann, Pastor

Sermon Preached October 31, 1999
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA

Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at