Today, on this festival of the Reformation, I stand before you to preach salvation by grace, through faith, on account of Christ. As St. Paul puts it, "The righteousness from God which is by faith."
The human temptation is to ask, "Why? Why preach grace AGAIN? We already heard this one, Pastor. We are saved by grace. We are righteous in Christ. We get it. Move on to something else."
My friend the righteousness of faith is not merely a piece of knowledge. This righteousness is the heart and center of all Christian life, and it must permeate everything the Lutheran Church does and says.
Even if we believe in Christ, we must still hear it preached, because there will always be a part of us that hates grace and despises faith.
This part of us is called self-righteousness. There is self-righteousness in all of us. No matter how hard we fight against it, it is always in us. Even Doctor Martin Luther struggled with self-righteousness, as he said, "For fully twenty years I myself have now preached and practiced [grace] with studying and writing. Therefore I should, in fairness, have come out of it. Yet I always feel the old, tenacious, vile habit. I want to haggle with God and bring something along so that He has to give me His grace in return for my holiness. It just does not seem right to me that I should rely so entirely on nothing but grace. And yet it should and cannot be otherwise. The mercy seat alone must have value and permanence, for God Himself has set it up."
Self-righteousness proclaims that we have something to offer God. But in reality, St. Paul tells us that our righteousness is not by works. By works of the Law, no mean shall be declared righteous. In other words, before God, our own righteousness is nothing.
Because there is always this part of us that wants to boast of its own righteousness, therefore we must diligently train ourselves and unceasingly beat down our self-righteous flesh. We must lift up before our eyes the words of Paul: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
So we are never done preaching listening to grace.
May we be trained to listen to the Gospel with repentant ears! May we always think the worst of ourselves, but think everything of God and His grace. If we do not, then we risk the idolatry of self-righteousness. As Luther wrote: "Self-righteousness is the bitterest blasphemy against God. Therefore, let no one think that Christ said without reason: 'The tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.' Because they live in coarse sins, they are humbled and acknowledge that they are sinners. But these others are constantly beginning new battles with which to attack grace and defend themselves."
May we all see ourselves as no better than tax collectors and harlots. Our sainthood is only in Christ, not ourselves.
Our battle to see ourselves as sinners and God alone as righteous is an uphill battle. We have not only our self-righteous flesh, but also the devil and the world urging us to rely on our own goodness. As Luther also wrote: "The entire world is scrambling after personal righteousness and does not want to be saved by a righteousness that is alien [that is, outside of us]. This [seeking after personal righteousness] is the devil! For God has made a different arrangement. Our Adam is tickled only by personal righteousness."
With so many forces pushing us toward self-righteousness, it is no wonder that there are so many Christian denominations. Every denomination, so long as it has some claim to the name Christian, has some form or scrap of the Gospel They say that we are saved by grace. And yet, works of the Law find a way to sneak in somehow. Somehow, the merits of Christ are limited, so that we must supply the rest. Somehow, faith becomes a human work by which we earn salvation. Somehow, the sacraments are denied, because who can believe that we are given forgiveness through them? It always comes down to a difference in grace.
Even though so many denominations are founded upon a denial or limiting of grace, still, people want to believe that it does not really matter. People so often say that differences in denominations are unimportant. But saying that is to say that GRACE is unimportant. When self-righteousness dilutes the pure teaching of the Gospel, then souls are endangered, because we can only trust one righteousness: either our own, or Christ's. If we try to hold both, then Christ will slip away, because His righteousness allows no room for our good works to earn anything. As soon as we claim merit in ourselves, no matter how small the merit is, then we take away the merits of Christ.
That is what the Reformation is about: keeping grace pure and untainted by self-righteousness. Indulgences, penances, abuses of the Mass, the papacy, the invocation of saints: All these detract from grace. On the other hand, to remove practices merely because they seem catholic also detracts from grace, because it removes the sacraments and the liturgy and holy absolution, all of which are vehicles for grace.
Therefore, hold on tightly to the Gospel of grace, which is the righteousness of God, by faith, apart from works of the Law.
This Gospel is free to you, and freely given in the Means of Grace, which are God's Word and Sacraments. So I declare to you what God has declared in Christ Jesus: You are righteous. Not just a little righteous, or partly righteous, or even mostly righteous. You are completely righteous with the righteousness of God Himself. Through Christ, you are in perfect harmony with the will of God. You are judged not guilty of any sinful crime whatsoever. Although you have sinned in thought, word, and deed, God has not judged you according to your self and your works, but according to the absolute holiness of Jesus Christ. By the declaration of the Almighty Judge, you are the righteousness of God.
As Luther rediscovered, the righteousness of God is not His harsh justice by which He punishes sinners. Instead, God's righteousness is what He gives away freely to us sinners. His justice chooses to view you through the Cross. There, His Son's precious Blood was spilled for you. That Blood is so powerful that you rightly entrust your lives to it. You put your faith in the Blood that quenches the fire of God's wrath against sin. The Blood of the Atonement pays the price of God's justice, so that you, even you who are a sinner, have all your sins covered up. Your sins are hidden by the Blood of Christ so that God sees those sins no more. The Blood is the justice of God.
Now there is no room for boasting in yourselves. It is not so much that pride is sinful, and so you must avoid it. More than that, you avoid boasting because every good gift you have is from God. Your righteousness is by faith in Christ - so how shall you boast in yourself?
Instead, boast in Christ. You are nothing. He is everything. Exalt Him for His holiness and His death and His Resurrection. Praise Him for His Blood and Atonement. Glorify Him because through His Cross He has declared you righteous in God's sight.
To God be all the glory. He alone is the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Let all mankind be humbled before Him, for salvation is from Him alone.
In His Name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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