Oct. 31, 2021 Reformation Day Today’s text is Romans 3:19-28.
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let’s be honest; in John’s gospel this morning, Jesus makes a challenging statement concerning the bondage of sin and the freedom from sin to be found in faith in him. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”.
The second part of his declaration is the very core of our theology; we are saved from sin, death, and the devil by the work of Christ on the cross. But the first part tends to be what many of us cling to, in what has been called Christian guilt. If we focus on the salvation portion of Jesus’ promise of freedom, we’ll find ourselves rather at ease and firmly ensconced in Lutheran dogma. But if we tend to place more emphasis on the “slavery to sin” pronouncement, we may find ourselves losing sight of the forgiveness portion of Jesus’ affirmation.
Our Lutheran confessions center on the salvation brought about by Jesus’ sacrifice and we are the beneficiaries of this doctrine of redemption; we are, “who the Son sets free”. But it was not always this way in the faith; for centuries the focus of Christianity was on sin and the need to strive to atone for one’s transgressions. The bondage to sin was not always thought to be fully outweighed by God’s granting of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice. This feeling of inability to be justified in spite of sinfulness was the driving factor behind Martin Luther’s search in Scripture to find comfort in Christ’s truth. He found himself crushed under the weight of his sinful human nature, and he felt that he could never live up to the standard that he felt was required to earn God’s love. His search took him to the book of Romans, and specifically the verses we read this morning. In them he discovered that he indeed wasn’t worthy of God’s love. And more importantly, he found assurance that he didn’t have to be. And here’s the true core of our faith, that he embraced and we hold fast to. “A person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law”. “Sola Fide”; Faith alone. And, this is why we celebrate the Good News of the gospel, and why we commemorate this day as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation; the date that an upstart young monk named Martin Luther nailed the list of his discussion points to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther was one of the great church reformers of the 16th century; note that the term used is “Reformation”, “Re-Formation”. The intent was to re-examine and make alterations to some of the practices of the church in the 1500’s that were thought by many to have drifted from Scriptural doctrine. The monk whose name appears in our bulletin, describing us as Lutheran was most concerned with those practices he saw as being contrary to biblical truth.
While Luther was primarily motivated by his own personal feelings of inadequacy and inability to please God, he also harbored great animosity toward the selling of Indulgences, that is, that one’s dead relatives might be released early from Purgatory if a fee was paid to the church. Yet, in keeping with the intention of examining and re-forming, his posting of the items he wished to discuss with his colleagues was meant only to serve as points to be academically debated. If he were doing this today, it would likely be handled as a Facebook post, opening the way for others to comment, and perhaps come to agreement as to what, if anything might be changed within accepted church customs and methods. But his 95 Theses exploded onto the scene, through the use of the printing press, recently invented and on-hand in Wittenberg. You might say his post went viral, as so frequently happens today.
And since Luther’s search for personal spiritual peace, along with the efforts of his contemporaries brought him to a true understanding of the Good News, the reformed church today owes him and others a debt of gratitude. And, as I mentioned, Romans 3, verse 28 was the pivotal sentence that convinced Brother Martin that faith, and its resulting justification cannot be earned; salvation is a gift offered by the unmerited grace of God. Luther expressed this through the five “Solas”, that are vital to Lutheran theological belief. Sola is Latin for “only”. Two of these Solas are, “the glory of God alone” and “Scripture alone”. These were foundational for Luther. But the three that are grouped together to form the basis of Luther’s theology as he understood it from Romans are; “Sola Christus” – Christ alone, “Sola Fide” – faith alone, and “Sola Gratia” – grace alone. On this day as we commemorate the Reformation of the church, we proclaim these as our belief that we are justified by the grace of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. This understanding comforted Luther, and should also reassure and encourage us. This proclamation that we are justified, that is brought into a righteous relationship with God, through our faith in Jesus Christ is the undeniable expression of God’s love for God’s people. And, like Luther we too are confident that we don’t have to do anything to attempt to secure God’s love for ourselves; by the grace of God we are loved, and God’s love will never fail. And this is indeed Good News, this is truly the Gospel of Christ.
So, what are we to do, we who acknowledge this as the basis of our faith, we who know with certainty that we are God’s beloved children through no action taken on our own? I submit to you that it has now become our mission to further reform the church. Those tenets that are central to the Christian faith are immovable, unchangeable, they must remain unaltered as the truth of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. The 10 Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer; these are what make us redeemed followers of Christ Jesus. But there is all the other “stuff” that has traditionally become accepted as being part of the church; the building, the way Communion is celebrated, whether hands are shaken as the Peace is passed, whether or not the local civic authorities mandate mask-wearing. We are being reformed constantly, often not of our own accord, in ways large and small. Covid has changed in many ways, the manner in which we gather for worship and fellowship, and how we answer the call to serve others. And, there are many ways in which we feel compelled to alter the things we do to better suit the world in which we live.
And, in the spirit of the great reformers of the past, and of Luther especially, let’s strive to keep open minds and hearts as we discern the changes that we make for ourselves and those that are thrust upon us. And most importantly, let us be willing to embrace those reforms that make the gospel more accessible to others, through our willingness to proclaim it through word and deed. As long we adhere strictly to the most valued aspects of our Lutheran heritage and belief, the other “stuff” we find ourselves dealing with might actually turn out to be good for the church after all. You never know, Luther had no idea his call to discuss the issues of his day would end up with us having his name on our church letterhead. Who knows where the issues we face today might lead?
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, we are thankful for the truth of your gospel, and we vow to ever hold your Word dear in our hearts. As we struggle to adapt to the changing world in which we live keep us mindful that while you are ever constant, we must remain open to those changes that expand your church and further the work of the gospel. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One in whose name we are justified before you. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.