"Keeping the Central Teaching Central"
Festival of the Reformation (Observed)
October 26, 2008
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Nebraska
IN NOMINE JESU
It was 491 years ago this Friday that the teaching in our text was formally and forcefully asserted. On October 31, 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther posted his "95 Theses" upon the castle door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. At issue was how a sinner could obtain the forgiveness of sins, thereby being declared justified by God. The church, headquartered in Rome, had been adding its own, man-made, conditions and regulations to what Scripture has clearly taught. Rome has taught for centuries that one had to do something to earn his forgiveness, whether by praying to various saints, reciting various prayers numerous times, fasting, or something else. In Luther's day a sinner bought an indulgence—he had to buy his forgiveness from the pope, to whom he was to hold blind allegiance over against Christ. If one did not purchase an indulgence from the local bishop, a form signed by the pope, then he was not "officially" forgiven. The Roman church initially began the practice of selling indulgences to boost its treasury for the construction of a new basilica. The faithful were deceived into believing that they weren't forgiven if they didn't have that sheet of paper. They did not have the comfort of receiving the comfort of being forgiven by the Lord. They lacked the assurance that their sins were forgiven by God for Jesus' sake. Instead, they were told to do this, to pray that, and then their sins may be forgiven. Their souls remained burdened, their consciences terrorized. Many died not knowing if they were truly forgiven. Luther sought to restore the biblical teaching of justification by grace through faith, that God declares a sinner righteous by His grace through man's God-given faith in Jesus Christ. Luther desperately wanted the church to return to Holy Scripture as the chief basis of her teaching. Luther wrote and posted his theses for the purpose of promoting debate among the theologians of the day. Ultimately, the Roman church branded him a heretic, excommunicated and later condemned him. Luther refused to take back what he said because what he rightly advocated was taught in the Bible, namely that we are declared righteous—justified—by God in His grace through our faith in Jesus Christ, and not by our works.
This truth our Lord makes perfectly clear in His holy Word. He tells us even in the Old Testament book of Habakkuk that the righteous shall live by faith. But faith in whom? It is faith in the Messiah who was to come, who came in the person of Jesus, and who will come again on the Last Day to gather all the faithful to Himself. This is no ordinary faith about which we speak. This is a faith that relies solely on Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, who won for us complete forgiveness of all our sins. All the work that God required for our entry into heaven has been fulfilled in Jesus. All that God asks of us is that we believe in Jesus, confess our sins, and eagerly receive the forgiveness that Jesus won for us on the cross, fully relying on His work for our justification. God Himself even gives us this faith, sending us His Holy Spirit, that we would believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior and Lord. This central truth is the epitome of our beliefs, teachings, and confessions. It is our adherence to this truth of Scripture that separates us confessional Lutherans from all others who call themselves "Christian." Without this central teaching, our faith would be meaningless because Jesus' all-atoning death on the cross would also be meaningless. His death would be in vain, and we would forever remain condemned in our sins.
Unfortunately, so many sections of Christendom have clouded this truth from their members, not only the church in Rome. In fact, most have perverted it. They have attached good works as a requirement for our salvation. They lie to us and say that faith in Jesus is not enough, that we must earn our salvation. They take the verse from James out of context—the verse that says that faith without works is dead. They point to that verse and say, "Aha! We told you so. Faith is not enough; you must earn your way into heaven after all!" Yet, our Lutheran Confessions tell us, on the basis of Scripture alone (following the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture), that such an erroneous belief is an insult to Christ. It is as if one were to say, "I'm sorry, Jesus, but what You did there on the cross was a nice gesture, but it isn't enough. It looks like I will have to complete the deal for You," as if we were playing "Deal or No Deal" with the Lord. Not only is such a belief heretical, it is also idolatrous! It is putting oneself above God the Son, above the One who bore our sins and the sins of the whole world. A person in that situation becomes his own god and his own means of salvation. Jesus tells us in our Gospel for today, "Everyone who sins is a slave to sin." But, as St. Paul reminds us, "No one will be declared righteous in [God's] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." Everything we do apart from faith is nothing more than sin. The world may look what we do and call our works good, but if these are done apart from faith in Christ, then these are all sin and all for naught. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
We sin against our Lord when we don't fully rely on Him for our forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, when we don't completely look to Him for our justification. All of the false teachings that other so-called Christian churches have spewed forth have polluted our hearts and souls as well. How often have we heard the question, "If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?" This question comes from a popular evangelism program that has a flawed premise, for it places the responsibility of a person's conversion on the evangelizer, rather than letting the Holy Spirit do His work; it is based on the Law and not the Gospel. It terrorizes the hearer into thinking he is a sinner in the hands of an angry God, rather than hearing that he is a sinner redeemed by the blood of a gracious God. This was Luther's struggle while he was a monk until his abbot directed him to study Paul's letter to the Romans, from whence our text comes. So we have heard the question, "If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?" How often have we heard someone answer, "Well, I hope I do"? How often have we ourselves given the same answer? We have allowed the bad theology of others to become ours. A Lutheran pastor's greatest frustration has to be that many of his hearers will not listen to him when he tells them that Jesus paid the price for our sins and has paid our way into heaven. Oh, no! That just cannot be! I've committed some serious sins. I don't know how God can ever forgive me. We have listened to the devil's lies. Satan has been beating us down, terrorizing our consciences, seeking to trap us and keep us in his clutches. There is no sin that is so bad that God cannot forgive it. Abortion is not the unforgivable sin. Neither is theft. Neither is adultery. Neither is hatred. Quite frankly, neither is voting for a candidate who does not uphold godly virtues, or one who is incompetent, or one who is incompetent and ungodly—something to keep in mind as Election Day is nine days away. The only sin that God will not forgive is that of rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit; that is, God will not forgive those who refuse to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord.
"But now," Paul writes, "a righteousness from God, apart from Law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." The Law and the Prophets—the Old Testament—point ahead to Jesus. The Gospels announce Him. The Epistles point back to Him. The entire Bible points us to Him whom God the Father presented as a sacrifice of atonement. Jesus, our great High Priest, became the Sacrifice for our sins. He atoned for our sins; that is, He paid the price that we were supposed to pay. The Son has set us free. We are free indeed. We are not free to sin, but we are freed from its curse. We are freed because Jesus freed Himself from death's strong bands by His resurrection. Had Christ who once was slain not burst His three-day prison, our faith had been in vain, but now has Christ arisen! It is from the empty tomb that we can boast, not in ourselves and what we cannot do, but in Christ who has accomplished our salvation and won our justification for us.
When we confess our sins before God our Father, He looks at us, not as the naked, ugly sinners that we are, but through the blood of Jesus He sees us as saints and declares us forgiven for Christ's sake. He forgives our wickedness and remembers our sins no more. He justifies us. He declares us righteous in His sight. By this declaration, our heavenly Father has made us heirs of the promise of eternal life, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. It was reported by numerous news outlets that a judge in Wilber recently released two men from prison, overturning their murder convictions stemming from the murder of a Beatrice woman. These men were cleared on the basis of DNA evidence and now live as free men. Similarly, God has overturned our convictions stemming from our sins. We are cleared on account of the blood His Son shed for us from the cross and are free to live as His children. Yet, while the men freed from prison may well have only seen the DNA report that cleared them, we have heard the Gospel of forgiveness in Absolution, Pericopes, and sermon, and we will once again be given the body and blood of our Lord, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
God gives us a glimpse of eternal life in His Word, where our salvation is spelled out for us at the lectern, at the pulpit, and in our catechesis of young and old alike. We thank God that He has given us His Holy Spirit, that we may boldly confess the faith in all its truthfulness and purity, especially that we are justified by faith apart from observing the Law. We praise God that He has given us such great models of the faith as Martin Luther, who only sought to restore the Bible's true teachings to the Church, not to start his own denomination. We give God the glory for the bold witness of the Confessors of the Lutheran Church who worked with Luther during his lifetime as well as those who upheld the faith, giving to the Church the Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions, after the Lord called Luther home. We thank God for all the faithful pastors and teachers He has given the Church to teach His people His truth, for God would have all people be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth—Jesus Christ, our Way, Truth, and Life. We also thank God for all of you, the faithful who come to be fed on the Word of God, our mighty Fortress. "Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God" (LSB 155). Thanks be to God! Amen!
"Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen" (Jude 24-25). SOLI DEO GLORIA
Send Pastor Mark Schlamann an email.