Reformation Day 2017 (500th Anniversary)
October 29, 2017
“Justified By Faith”
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is Romans 3:28 – ““We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
This is the text. My dear friends,
In the orthodox Church, what this text teaches – and make no mistake about it – is the very heart of why Jesus lived and died and rose. And, before Martin Luther, this precious Gospel truth was shrouded in error and nonsense for nearly a thousand years.
All that changed 500 years ago, on October 31—the “Eve of all Hallows” or “Halloween,” the eve of All Saints’ Day—Martin Luther, a 34 year-old Augustinian monk, preacher, and professor of Scripture, took an eight-minute walk from his monastery home on one end of the little town of Wittenberg to the Castle Church on the other end of town, and there he posted his written protestation against indulgences. He had absolutely no inkling of the firestorm he would start, nor that within weeks he would become the most famous person in the Western world. And he certainly had no inkling that the storm would still be raging some five hundred years later.
Maybe if you knew what was going on inside the Castle Church, that would give you insight into why Luther wrote what he wrote and why. Behind the church door where Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, there was a sanctuary with seventeen side altars. Seventeen! Why so many? Priests were at those altars day and night, 24-7, saying masses to achieve merit for the living and the dead. Money, of course, had been paid by the living for deceased family members and friends. Such masses, it was believed, reduced a person’s time in purgatory. It was taught that Christ’s death paid only for eternal punishments, but not temporal punishments. Temporal punishments had to be paid off by suffering through hundreds of thousands of years in purgatory. Can you imagine the pain and guilt of knowing the soul of your loved ones were in agony in purgatory? So, as a result, people paid good money to ease the suffering of their loved ones in purgatory by paying for masses and/or buying indulgences…or so they thought because they didn’t know any better.
Additionally, this particular sanctuary was also special in that it housed a collection of “relics” of the saints. Luther’s prince had collected hundreds and hundreds of bits and pieces of this or that saint or other holy things. The most important relic, around which Frederick the Wise had built the whole collection, was a thorn, allegedly from the crown of Jesus. Yeah…right. But there was also a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, fingernails from John the Baptist, and milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary! You name it, it was there and available to view…for a price. Luther later joked that if you added up all of the pieces of so-called “relics” housed in such collections, there was enough for at least eighteen of Jesus’ apostles buried in Germany alone (and there were only twelve apostles, you might recall)! In other words, it was all fake! None of that was what God intended at all, and Luther had figured that out. Winning less time in purgatory by honoring bones and bits or buying an indulgence was not the Gospel! They had never been taught any different and they had no access to the Scriptures to learn otherwise. If the Church told them their loved ones were suffering and paying money was the only way to free them early, the people paid up.
But Luther knew differently. Luther taught the Bible at a university for five years before he posted the Ninety-Five Theses. Before he came to clarity on the Gospel, he had taught courses on the Psalms, Romans, and the book of Hebrews. During Luther’s study of Holy Scripture – especially Romans – God moved him in his understanding of righteousness—of God’s righteousness, and our righteousness. Luther already believed, like everybody else, that God is the supreme judge who rewards good and punishes evil. But then, Luther came to believe that the Law reveals one’s sins, and that if we are humble enough in recognizing our sins and lost condition in true repentance and confession, God will not count them against us in the end because of Jesus’ work on our behalf. That’s Gospel! The final breakthrough for Luther came in the months after he had posted the Ninety-Five Theses. It happened as Luther was mulling over Romans 1: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, (for) in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’ ”
Luther described his “Gospel epiphany” this way: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that (God) was placated by my (efforts) – my works! Masses! I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners . . . I was angry with God…I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the words, namely, “In (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’ ” And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Luther had learned and would teach that there are two kinds of righteousness: active and passive. Passive righteousness is just that…passive. It isn’t something we can earn, buy, find, achieve, trade for, or anything else. It is the righteousness of God that is unattainable for sinners like us EXCEPT for the fact that God in Christ gifts that righteousness to us; it is passive in the sense that we cannot make it our own unless gifted to us by faith. That righteousness is active in that we, motivated by the Gospel, show forth God’s righteousness and love and mercy and grace in the lives that God calls us to live in whatever station of life we find ourselves in; what Luther referred to as “vocation”. Faith receives the Gospel and its blessings and then also motivates how we live as a result. Forgiveness of sins is won for us by Jesus on the cross and it is NOT for sale…by anyone. It is a free gift of grace.
That, my friends, is what the Lutheran Reformation was about at its heart. Luther never intended to create a new church or tear down the existing church. He only wanted the church to correct its errors and lead people to the truth of the Gospel. It’s a message that applies to you as intensely today as it did to Luther five hundred years ago. And it’s a message needed by our world—those right in our own families, our neighborhoods, and our workplaces, as much today as ever. 500 years is a major milestone, but it’s not the end of anything. The Reformation and its crucial message is still on, for it lives on in every heart moved to live by grace through faith in Christ alone in order to love both God and neighbor!