Vol. 58 — No. 40 October 1, 2017
32, 394, 389, 370
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Editor’s Note: The following sermon is from the Ministry by Mail archives, prepared by our first editor, Pastor Paul F. Nolting on the 450th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 1967. As is always the case with the Gospel of our Lord, the timelessness of this message rings true in 1517, 1967, and 2017. -NP
I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In Christ Jesus, who would have us certain of our salvation, Fellow Redeemed:
The last day of this month is the day that Dr. Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. That, in itself, insignificant act is taken as the beginning of the Reformation. It happened on October 3l, l5l7. That is 450 years ago. We would like to observe the 450th anniversary of the Reformation this month by meditating upon the blessings which the Lord restored to the Church through the Reformation.
After the sermon in each service we sing the words of David in the 5lst Psalm: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” The word translated as “right” means literally “steadfast, firm, constant, sure.” David had sinned grievously. He had been assured of divine pardon by Nathan, the prophet. But his sin and his guilt kept on bobbing up in his mind. His conscience tormented him. He felt the agony of his guilt in his mind and in his spirit. When he prayed, “O God, renew a steadfast, firm, constant, sure spirit within me,” he was praying for the certainty of his salvation. There is no greater need for the guilty sinner than the certain knowledge that his sin and guilt have been removed.
Before the Reformation the certainty of salvation was lost to the church. This was the basic problem. Certainly there were other matters that needed attention. Even the Catholic historians now freely admit that the Papacy had become morally corrupt and needed reformation. There were social problems, especially the insatiable greed of the Roman Curia for money, which manifested itself in the sale of indulgences to raise money to satisfy the extravagant appetites of the pope and his court. There was the political duel between the pope and the secular princes. The pope kept on trying to extend his influence over the state, while the secular princes were attempting to cast off the yoke of papal tyranny. All of these things and many others played their role, but the basic problem was the loss of the certainty of salvation for the individual sinner. How is the sinner saved? How can he become sure of his salvation? These were the questions that plagued the minds and consciences of men and drove Luther almost to despair until the Spirit of God opened his eyes and showed him the way to certainty in the matter of salvation. What Luther found for himself he shared with all who would have it—the certainty of salvation. Let us this morning examine how the certainty of salvation is lost to man and how it is restored, as we consider the theme:
Luther was troubled with the Scriptural concept, “righteousness.” Whenever he read that term in his Bible, he understood it to mean the righteousness that God demanded of him. God demanded of Luther that he love Him above all things. Luther found that he could not love his God above all things. So he began to hate his God because He demanded the impossible of him. He knew Jesus Christ only as a stern, heartless Judge who would condemn him to everlasting torment because he had failed to produce the righteousness that God demanded. Luther entered the monastery. He did menial jobs to humble his spirit. He fasted, he begged alms, he prayed, he tortured himself. He did everything the church of his day recommended to gain for himself the righteousness that he believed God demanded of him. But he found no peace, no comfort, no joy. Yea, he was driven to the verge of despair. Why? Because the church had lost the certainty of salvation. It directed the tormented, guilt-stricken sinner to his own efforts to secure his own salvation. The church recommended prayer, almsgiving, pilgrimages to Rome, penances, and above all entering the monastery as the best way to become certain of one’s salvation. Luther tried it all, but found no certainty.
Then one day the Spirit of God opened Luther’s eyes to understand that the “righteousness of God” in the Gospel is not the righteousness that God demands in His law, but is rather the righteousness that Christ worked out for us by keeping the law for us and by suffering and dying in our place. This righteousness God gives in the Gospel, and man receives it by faith. Luther tells us that when he made this discovery, it was as though scales fell from his eyes. He paged from passage to passage with a heart filled with joy, for he had found the certainty of salvation in the righteousness of Christ.
Centuries before the Spirit of God had led St. Paul to the same discovery. St. Paul had been a Pharisee and a strict one. No one could point a finger of guilt at him. He kept all the laws blamelessly. In so doing he thought that salvation was secure for him, while he was actually far from it. In his letter to the Philippians Paul tells us of his experience when the Spirit of God opened his eyes: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” Philippians 3:7-9. Paul found security and certainty of salvation not in himself and his own righteousness, but in the righteousness of Christ.
It was only after he had found that certain foundation for his faith that he could write those heroic words of our text. Paul was ready to defy anything and anyone, for he knew that he was saved, that he was a child of God, that he was an heir of heaven. His certainty of salvation breaks forth in these stirring words, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The love of God which He showed in sending His Son, the love of God which spared not His only-begotten Son, but delivered Him up for us all—that was the foundation for Paul’s certainty of salvation. That remains the only foundation for any man’s hope and certainty in the matter of salvation.
We should realize that the Church of Rome has not changed to this day. One of its chief characteristics is the uncertainty of salvation. I’ll never forget a conversation that I once had with a young Catholic woman immediately after a funeral in which we laid to rest a faithful member who died in the Lord. I mentioned, “The soul of this person is safe and secure in heaven.” The woman responded immediately with the question, “How can you be sure?” I told her that the certainty lay in this that the deceased’s faith had rested on Jesus Christ, who had lived, suffered, and died to remove that person’s sin and guilt and so had opened the doors of Paradise to him. The woman was subsequently instructed and learned to know that same certainty.
But the uncertainty in the matter of salvation continues as a distinguishing feature of Catholicism. People are still told to make satisfaction for their sins by going to mass, by praying the rosary, by going on pilgrimages, by doing works prescribed by the priest. If the account is not balanced at death, the soul goes to purgatory to suffer. Those who remain can help shorten the time of suffering by praying and having masses read, but they are never given the assurance that enough masses or enough prayers have been said. Always there remains the question mark. waver is there certainty of salvation, and there never can be certainty, for the individual is directed to himself rather than to the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
There are people who have a certainty of salvation, but that certainty is a disillusionment because it isn’t based on the love of God in Christ. I wonder how many of you are acquainted with the religious belief called “Universalism.” This belief contends that because God is love, He will finally save all people, regardless of how they live and regardless of whether they reject the Savior in unbelief. The higher and more popular form of this belief is that each individual should be faithful to whatever religious faith he has and God will be satisfied. That’s a rank lie. People who base their certainty of salvation on the hope that God is love and will finally save all are simply deceiving themselves and others. God is love, but He is also just. His justice demands punishment of sins. That is why He sent His Son to bear the punishment of the sins of the whole world. When anyone rejects the love of God revealed and sent to earth in the Savior, Jesus Christ, he has invited upon himself nothing less than the wrath of God.
The Lutheran Church is again losing the certainty of salvation. Some make faith a work and so end up with “faith in faith.” They believe that God demanded works in the Old Testament which have been done away with in the New Testament. They contend that the only remaining work is faith. But faith isn’t a work of man, but a work of God in man. It is not the act of believing but the object of faith saves. Faith saves only because it clings to and holds on to the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The Lutheran Church has also compromised its proclamation of the certainty of salvation by permitting its educational literature to be infiltrated with work-righteousness and by failing to warn its members against semi-religious organizations whose creed is salvation by character and whose certainty of salvation is the belief that “character determines destiny.” If the idea of work-righteousness gains the victory over grace in a person’s heart, so that he believes that his destiny is determined by his character, then his destiny is certain—hell and no other place! Either many Lutheran pastors no longer know truth from error, or they are afraid to proclaim the truth. Either or both are causing the Lutheran Church to lose the certainty of salvation which can be retained only when the teachers in the church direct the individual to rest his faith upon the cross of Christ and the empty tomb.
There are many Reformed people who emphasize the certainty of salvation without actually having it. These are the enthusiasts or the emotion-based people. Surely there is emotion in religion. Scripture speaks again and again of the joy of salvation. In our hymns we sing, “Hallelujahs,” or “Praise the Lord! I’m redeemed. I have been saved.” But when does this certainty become very uncertain? The certainty of salvation becomes extremely uncertain when it is based on the feeling of being saved or when it is based on an emotional experience or when it is based on some personal decision for Christ. All of these feelings are subjective. They are within the person. The certainty of salvation does not lie within us, but it rests securely on Christ. I am to find the certainty of my salvation not in any glow or warmth within, but without in the holy life of my Savior, in His bitter suffering and death for me, and in His glorious resurrection. I may go to the doctor some day only to find that my body is afflicted with cancer and that I have but a short time to live. That may bring fear and terror to my soul. If anyone in such a situation has based his certainty of salvation on his feelings or on some personal experience, he may well be driven to despair. But if the individual has based the certainty of salvation upon the solid Rock of Jesus Christ, his certainty will grow surer and firmer. Emotions deceive, moods vary, but the cross and the empty tomb remain. They give certainty, and they only!
What a blessing the Lord has given us by restoring unto us the certainty of salvation through the preaching of God’s love in Christ. There are many question marks ahead of all of us, but there is one coming event that is sure and certain for all of us—that we will, sooner or later, die. The only thing that will be important in that decisive moment is the question of our salvation. Nothing else will count. Our Lord Jesus has answered that question for us. He came to make salvation certain for each sinner. He accomplished that task. In Him, and in Him alone, there is certainty. Apart from Him is only doubt and damnation. God grant that the hearts of each of us be filled with that certainty so that we can say with Paul: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.