Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation
Revelation 14:6-7 + Romans 3:19-28 + John 8:31-36
The Lutheran Reformation of the Church was about nothing more and nothing less than the Truth, the very truth that Jesus spoke about in our Gospel, the truth that makes men free. The Lutheran Reformation was about telling the truth boldly, telling the truth courageously, telling the truth steadfastly, no matter what the consequences might be, because the truth makes men free, but error is poison for the soul. The Reformation was about standing up to popes and rulers and church councils and declaring that they were not telling the truth. It meant turmoil in the Church and turmoil in society. It meant men like Martin Luther risking their reputations, their careers, their livelihoods and their lives. And it meant congregations all over Europe having to choose between the glory and prestige of Rome on the one hand, and the humble teaching of a German pastor on the other. What could cause men to take such a stand? What could move congregations to follow them? Only the power of the Truth and the strength of Spirit-worked conviction.
The truth of the Reformation fills the Book of Concord of 1580 and many, many other writings from that era as well. But it has been neatly summarized in three simple phrases: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura. By grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone. That is the Truth in which the heirs of the Reformation abide.
SCRIPTURE – THE WORD OF GOD
We’ll begin with Scripture alone, the Word of God, because that’s where we learn about the grace of God toward the human race and the faith by which sinners are justified before God.
Jesus spoke in the Gospel “to the Jews who had believed Him.” How had they come to believe Him? By hearing His Word. They had heard from the Holy Scriptures that the Messiah was coming to save them from their sins and to bring sinners into His eternal kingdom. They had heard Jesus’ word calling them to repentance and faith in Him, the promised Messiah—the Christ. And by the power of the Holy Spirit who is always at work in the Word, they had believed Him.
Now Jesus says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What does it mean to “abide” or to “remain” in Jesus’ word? It means to go on hearing it and to go on believing in, depending on it, hanging onto it for dear life. It means to stick with what Jesus says, no matter what anyone else in the world might say. It means to stay firmly rooted and planted in Jesus’ word, not as a part of your life, but as the very source of your life, for now and for eternity. Those who abide in Jesus’ word are truly Jesus’ disciples. They are the ones who know the truth. They are the ones who are set free.
But you know how crafty the devil is. He is constantly casting the Scriptures into doubt, always sending people back to their own reason and strength, back to their own human philosophies and traditions, in order to obscure the light of the Holy Scriptures, to keep men captive in his kingdom of darkness, or to bring the children of the light back into his darkness.
But the Word of God, the Word of Jesus, the Word of the Gospel will never be silenced. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus said, but My words will never pass away. The light of the Gospel will never go out. And for those few, for us few who believe God’s word and promise, the Gospel is still the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
The Reformation principle that Luther helped to restore was “by Scripture alone.” By Scripture alone God has revealed Himself and His saving purpose and plan to mankind. By Scripture alone we learn to know God the Father, and Jesus Christ, whom He sent. By Scripture alone the Holy Spirit teaches us the truth and enlightens our hearts to believe in Jesus. From Scripture alone all doctrine is to be drawn. And by Scripture alone we judge all doctrines, to see which are from God and which are from men. Men can err. Popes can err. Councils and theologians and priests and pastors and seminaries and synods can err. But the Word of the Lord remains forever.
BY GRACE ALONE
Jesus promises that those who abide in His Word will know the truth, and that truth centers around God’s grace in Jesus Christ. By Grace Alone, another Reformation principle.
Grace is God’s free favor and love toward mankind. It’s God’s willingness and desire to be kind and good and merciful to those who do not deserve it. Grace, by definition, cannot be earned, cannot be purchased, cannot be bought. Grace is always a gift, intended for those who can’t earn it, which is why no one who tries to earn it will ever receive it.
That was the case with the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel. When Jesus promised that those who abide in His Word will know the truth and will be set free, they answered Him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” You see, Jesus was offering them a gift, the gift of Himself, the gift of His sacrifice as payment for their sins, the gift of His righteousness as the replacement for their unrighteousness, the gift of freedom from slavery to sin, death and the devil. He was the Son of God, the Son in the house who has the authority to set the slaves free. He was offering it as grace to needy sinners, but the sinners who stood before Him didn’t view themselves as needy sinners, didn’t view themselves as slaves who needed to be freed. And so they remained slaves.
That’s why the Apostle Paul spends about two whole chapters in the Epistle to the Romans demonstrating from God’s Law that all flesh, all people, Jews and Gentiles, are sinners, condemned by God’s Law to death and sentenced to suffer God’s righteous wrath for all eternity. The whole purpose of the Law, the main goal of the Ten Commandments is so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Why, then, does God justify anyone, if no one deserves it? Why, then, did God send His Son to redeem the lost and condemned human race, to be the propitiation, the sacrifice whose blood paid for all sin and whose righteousness satisfied the righteous requirements of the Law for all sinners? The answer is grace, grace alone.
Luther fought the battle against the Roman papacy defending “by grace alone,” because the papacy had turned grace into an infusion of power into people making them able to earn God’s forgiveness and to merit eternal life. People do the same thing today when they think they are somehow worthy to be God’s children, worthy to be in heaven, deserving of God’s love and favor. But we hold to the Reformation principle that all people are, by nature, damned sinners, not worthy of a single favor from God, much less the free favor of eternal salvation and blessedness won for us by Jesus Christ. Sinners are saved from damnation, are justified, are made heirs of eternal life by grace alone.
That’s the reason why God saves and justifies sinners. How, then, are sinful human beings saved? How does God apply grace to people and to whom is it applied? How are sinners justified—counted righteous by God? You know this Reformation principle very well: Sinners are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
That’s what Jesus had been repeating over and over and over throughout the Gospel of John. You’re probably most familiar with what He says in John chapter 3: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him 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.
It’s what Paul says throughout Romans 3, 4 and 5. The righteousness of God is not something we have to perform. It’s a promise that God makes and that faith receives. In the Gospel, God promises righteousness to all and on all who believe in Jesus. God promises to consider righteous the one who has faith in Jesus, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. This faith God counts for righteousness in His sight.
And when God counts you righteous, tell me, what good thing can you possibly lack? If God counts you righteous, then what does it matter if the whole world thinks badly of you? If God counts you righteous, what does it matter if you are rich or poor or smart or simple or famous or a nobody, if you have lots of friends or not a friend in the world? You have Jesus, His blood, His righteousness, His place in God’s household, His love, His friendship, His power, His strength and His promise to see you safely through this valley of the shadow of death into His eternal mansions. That’s what you have by faith, my friends. See what a precious gift faith is!
Faith was under attack at the time of the Reformation. Rome taught that sinners are justified by faith plus works, with the emphasis on works, and so no one could be sure if he had enough works, and so no one could be sure he had any of those blessings that God promises. But Luther taught the simple truth of Scripture, that sinners are justified by faith alone in Jesus, apart from the deeds of the Law.
You know all too well the battle that we have fought here and that still goes on throughout the world, the battle to preserve this saving truth that faith is the how of justification, that sinners are justified by faith in Christ Jesus and in no other way, certainly not by works, and certainly not by the absence of faith.
Many Christians through the ages have shed their blood defending this simple truth. Many Lutherans have faced homelessness and imprisonment and the sword for taking a stand on the Reformation principles of grace alone, faith alone and Scripture alone. Shall we be less willing than they to take a stand? Shall we be content to hide out and escape persecution and trial and hardship by keeping our mouths shut, by going along to get along? May it never be so! God has graciously preserved His truth among us and will preserve us still, if we abide in His word. Even that is beyond our capability, but God is faithful. His Spirit is powerful and will continue to strengthen us through Word and Sacrament in every trial, in every hardship, in the face of every challenge. And so we pray with Luther and also sing, Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word, as we abide with Luther and with the apostles and prophets and with all the saints in heaven and on earth in the truth of Jesus Christ, in the truth of the Reformation: by grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone. Amen.