It is fitting to begin this sermon for the Observance of Reformation Day with words written by Dr. Matin Luther: "A pious man sins in all his good works." That statement does not seem to make sense. If a man is pious, and if his works are good, then how does he sin in those works? So we might well ask Dr. Luther, if he were here, "What does this mean?"
Luther might answer something like this: A pious man, that is, a Christian, needs forgiveness, not only for the actions that are obviously sins, but even for those actions that seem to be good, since those works are contaminated by the unwillingness of his rebellious flesh.
This is one of the hardest truths of Scripture to understand. By our senses and observation, it seems that some of our deeds are good, some are evil. But to say that all human actions are sinful goes against our senses and reason. Yet we must insist upon this truth, for it is plainly spelled out in Scripture, as it is written in the Prophet Isaiah, "All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags."
When this truth went astray in the Roman Church, they fell into all kinds of error. If sin does not pollute our good deeds, then we may earn favor before God, and do penance for our sins. Then the Eucharist may be offered as a good work toward God. And so forth. Error upon error.
But this sort of error is not unique to the Roman Church. Also the radical Reformers like Zwingli and Calvin fell into this error, as well as their modern-day spiritual descendants. If sin does not make us unclean by nature, then baptizing infants is unimportant. If our human reason is not soiled by sin, then we may also come to faith by our own decision and choice.
These things are not a matter of indifference, but they lie behind the entire Reformation of Dr. Luther. We need Christ and His Blood and His Cross precisely because we are unable to do good works before God at all. Sinful mankind is incapable of obeying the Law of God freely and willingly. And any good work done unwillingly deserves no praise.
We do not, by nature, have a free and willing spirit of obedience. Thus the so-called "good deeds" that we perform have no merit before God. God does not want superficial and external obedience. Instead, He wants the obedience of a cheerful spirit of giving. Our sin-stained nature is incapable of this.
When God gives us His Commandments, we must confess that we have not kept them. In fact, God's Law can only multiply sin in us.
But the Holy Gospel dethrones sin. It casts down the trespasses that try to rule over you. The Gospel tramples sin underfoot by the weight of the Cross. Sin is drowned by the Blood of Christ, and swallowed by His death.
The Gospel does what the Law cannot. The Law cannot give you life. The Law cannot renew or regenerate you. Only the Gospel does. In other words, obedience to the Ten Commandments cannot turn you into God's people. Only Christ and His divine work for you makes you right with the Father. It is not the Commandments of God that create a change in people, but the holy work of Christ in the forgiveness of sins.
As God declared through the Prophet Jeremiah, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it." It is not you who write His Law on your hearts by cleaning up your act. No, God has written His Law upon your hearts, because He desires willing obedience from His people.
This is only possible because Christians do not live under the threat of the Law's punishment. Christ Jesus took all the guilt and pain you deserved upon the Cross. You need not fear any punishment from God, because you are forgiven in Christ.
So not only are you redeemed from all your sins by the power of the Gospel, but also God has given you a new life of obedience. Now you have the desire to obey God. Even though you are still sinners by nature, weighed down by your sinful flesh, yet you are also set free by God's grace to offer your lives as living sacrifices. You are at the same time both a sinner and a saint.
I don't think Christians appreciate this aspect of the Gospel as they should. How can anyone fully take in the wonders of the new life that the Holy Spirit is working in you through the forgiveness of sins? There is a whole new man inside of you, a man created not by your will power or natural desires, but an alien man born in you by Baptism and the Word. The Spirit has begun to restore the image of Christ in you, which was lost in the Garden of Eden. Now there is a desire in you to please God, as there was in your first parents, Adam and Eve, before they sinned. As they were created with God's Law in their hearts, so the Law is written in the heart of each Christian.
Therefore, you have a whole new nature. It is far different from the old man of corruption and death. You have a new man created in the image of the Lord of life. Christians according to their new nature gladly and willingly do the will of God, just as a tree because of its good nature bears fruit.
All this is the gift of God, and a wonderful and glorious fruit of the Gospel's work in you. After you have been justified and reborn by faith, you begin to fear and love God, to pray for and expect help from Him, to thank and praise Him, and to obey Him even in your afflictions. You begin to love your neighbor because your hearts have spiritual and holy impulses. Christ has earned this new nature for you, by His perfect obedience and submissive death. He has given you what you could never create by yourselves.
What a wondrous and rich life you have received from God! How marvelous are the gifts that He gives to those reborn in water and the Word! This is the New Covenant, the New Treaty binding you to God. The Old Covenant of the Law failed because there was no willing obedience in God's people of Israel. But the New Israel is built upon the New Adam, Christ. So the New Covenant cannot fail, because the Covenant is not built upon your obedience at all, but upon Christ and His Blood. The Blood of the Lamb seals the Covenant forever. The Blood of the Lamb has removed your sins that would destroy the Covenant. And the Blood of the Lamb renews you in new life with the Law written upon your hearts.
For it is Christ who is Yahweh Himself, who spoke by the prophet Jeremiah to declare the wonders of the New Covenant of grace, a promise that could not fail. Christ, who is Yahweh Himself, declares today by His own powerful Word: "This is My Body, this is My Blood of the New Covenant." Christ, who is Yahweh Himself, declares to you today, "I forgive you all your wickedness." As He declares, so it has been done, and He remembers your sins no more.
This New Covenant IS the Christian religion, which is not like the religions of the world. All other religions, of whatever name or form, are delusions that cannot save. They have no right to stand up beside Christianity and claim to have equal validity. All other religions try to find man's righteousness within himself and his works. But Christianity places all righteousness in Christ alone, the only Deliverer from sin and death, the one Savior of mankind.
Those who do not believe in the Gospel of Christ are enemies of Christ. Their religions are untruths that must be opposed. Their delusions are a terrible danger that can strip a man of faith and send him into the flames of hell.
So we must not try to reach agreement with those who oppose the Gospel. When the Pope says that good works are necessary for salvation, he declares a different religion. When the Muslims say that Jesus was only a human prophet, they preach a different religion. We must not try to reach agreement with such people, or cooperate with them. We cannot cooperate with those who seek to destroy the Gospel.
But this takes courage, and a firm stand upon the truth. May the Holy Spirit give us such courage. Many around us, even in the Missouri Synod, claim that Muslims worship the same god as us, even though they deny both the Trinity and the deity of Christ. May we confess the truth by saying that in Christ, and in Him alone, is truth and salvation. May we never deny Him, for He has not denied us, even to the point of death.
Let us confess with the Lutheran Fathers and all the true Fathers of the Church through all history, that by faith in Christ alone we are righteous. By God's free gift, not by works, we are saved. The gift of grace is not to be found in any other place except in God's Holy Church created by Christ around His Word and Sacraments. There and there alone is the New Covenant. There alone is the forgiveness of sins.
May we courageously proclaim that one Truth against all lies, in the Name of the One who is the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.
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