After a moment more, in which I urged my visitors to read the book of Galatians to see the Bible's view about what happens when people depend on their own obedience, and a few minutes in which my visitors told me several times they weren't depending on their obedience but that their hope was that they could do what was pleasing to God by telling others about him, we cordially ended the conversation. I pray that I planted some seeds of thought in the minds of those two Jehovah's Witness members who are trying to build an eternal hope on their own works.
Our commemoration of Reformation Day is very much like that situation, though, isn't it? In the early sixteenth century, European Christianity had fallen on hard times. Many of the Christian scholars of the time were experts in what others had said about spirituality and life, but had never read and understood the Scripture. Christian leaders were using their positions of leadership for dishonest gain. The church heirarchy was hungry for power, including political power, seeking to unify the resources of Europe and the culturally Christian parts of Africa and the Middle East for their own ends, partially of bringing Christian faith to the world, partially of running a society according to their view of Christian truth. A few people, like Wycliffe in England and Hus, the Czech, had made some radical statements and tried to emphasize a reliance on what the Bible says rather than on sometimes contradictory statements from the Church. Yet their movements were put down. They were not successful, at least not in their own generations.
So on this day in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin, named after St. Martin of Tours, bothered by the practice of the day of rationing forgiveness, selling it rather than giving it out freely, decided to post some topics for open debate. Actually, he probably didn't decide to do it on this day. If you've read his 95 theses you can imagine they didn't just come to him in the morning resulting in his tacking them to the bulletin board in the afternoon. We don't know when he decided to make this move, but we do know that All Saints' Day, November 1, was a prime opportunity for debates and discussions. So it made perfect sense to post a list of topics on the church door, which was the equivalent of our public bulletin board, on the Eve of All Saints. That's what brother Martin proceeded to do.
Over the following thirteen years prior to the Diet of Augsburg, where the Augsburg Confession was adopted, Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic, released from his vows as an Augustinian monk, put under house arrest, and elevated by his followers as a genuine leader of Christ's Church. His foundational emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone, revealed by Scripture alone, with all glory going to God alone has been recognized as the battle cry of nearly 500 years of Christians
To this day we stand and boldly proclaim what we read in Romans 3. We are justified by faith apart from the works of the law. It seems so simple. Yet it is tremendously difficult for us to grasp. Just like the ladies I was talking with, if you had this conversation with just about anyone in our society, we uniformly seem to think that God's favor is gained by our obedience, that we do good things and maybe God will accept them, that we trust and then spend a long time obeying so that maybe God will grant us forgiveness. Just look around. Our world is full of a false gospel, a gospel that isn't a gospel at all (Galatians 1). We have this crazy idea, even within the Church, sadly even within some Lutheran churches, that the Bible is God's list of what we should do to be good and that if we do it well enough God might save us. This is no gospel at all! Yet it is the false gospel held by Luther's society and it is the false gospel held by our society.
What is that true Gospel? What is the genuine article? That's what the Reformation is all about. It's about a recovery of the proclamation of the true Gospel. And here is that Gospel. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, died for the sins of the world, for your sins and for my sins, and not only for our individual acts of sin, but also for our sinful condition, the sinful nature we inherited from our father Adam. Jesus, being the perfect man, was able to give his life as a perfect sinless offering on our behalf. He was acceptable in the eyes of God because he himself was God. He rose from the dead as the firstfruits of the bodily resurrection. He lives as a promise that by faith in his finished work we too will live and will rise to be with him. He, the just one, gave himself for us, the unjust ones. By our own work with our mixed motives we are only condemned, but we are freely justfied by the work of God. We are saved by the merit of Jesus Christ, working righteousness in us. This shows God's righteousness, because it demonstrates that God and God alone can create righteousness in sinful hearts, that which he does through the means of grace, proclamation of the Word, baptism, and communion, all things that God does in us.
So there we have it. That's the genuine article. That's the Gospel. It's short, sweet and simple. It's so simple that we easily overlook and reject it. But it's priceless. It's what we need. It is our only hope in this world and in eternity. We are saved by grace alone, appropriated by faith alone, with Jesus Christ alone as the object, revealed fully sufficiently by Scripture, to the glory of God alone. Yes, we are people of the Reformation. We are people of the Gospel.
Without any further ado, then, let us rise and confess this common faith we have received in the words of the Apostles' Creed.
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