Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Why do we celebrate the Reformation? There’s not much from 500 years ago that we intentionally set aside time to remember, so why this event? Martin Luther’s actions so many years ago paved the way for this constant fracturing and splintering of the church into more and more separate denominations. Why would we celebrate actions like that?
In spite of our hesitance in proclaiming Luther’s greatness, the rest of the world, quite surprisingly is not. Martin Luther is consistently placed on the top of lists naming history’s most influential people. Luther’s life and teaching, intentionally or otherwise, radically changed the course of world history, influencing everything from the German language to the publishing industry to the idea of an individual conscience to the separation of church and state to an American Baptist pastor who found Luther’s story so compelling, he changed both his name and his son’s name to Martin Luther King. Yes, Martin Luther lived and worked a long time ago, but the effects of his life are still being played out among us today.
And while the breaking apart of the church does tie directly back to Martin Luther, it was never his intention to destroy the unity of the church. When the reformation first got started, it was, as the name suggests, an attempt to reform the church. Luther wanted the change to happen from the inside out. And from all his writings at the time, we can see that this reform was what he hoped and expected would happen. He thought that he’d open up his Bible, show where things had gotten out of whack, right the wrongs, and go on with life. But the international politics and church politics at the time would not let it happen. Once the damage was done, and Luther was kicked out of the church for his Biblical teachings, he worked hard to try to reign in some of the further fracturing that was going on with other protestant movements, but to no avail.
So we celebrate the Reformation, not half-heartedly or lackluster, but joyfully and humbly. Because of all the effects that the Reformation had, the most important ones were theological. Luther’s reformation brought to the forefront two teaching of the Bible, two doctrines, that bring all of Christianity back to Christ. We could focus on any number of his teachings and still not cover everything that should be said about it, but today, we’ll just focus on two. These teachings were not new in his day. Luther didn’t make them up out of thin air. Rather, he went back to the Bible, listened to what God said in His Word, and built his theology on that. Two teachings that Luther brought forward were the Distinction between Law and Gospel and Subjective Justification.
Today’s reading from the book of Romans highlights these two doctrines perfectly for us. Verse 20 lays out the basis of the Law for us. “By works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The Law brings knowledge of sin. It doesn’t save you. It cannot save you. It was never meant to save you. We just read through the Ten Commandments, an excellent summary of God’s moral laws. Let’s see how we do when we take a look at just a few of them.
“You shall have no other gods.” We heard last week how we break this one all the time. We take God’s good gifts, even spiritual activities of worship and devotion, and turn them into idols that we worship. If you want any more proof of our breaking this commandment, I can pretty much guarantee that you have at least one idolatrous shrine set up in your house at this very moment. I know I do. It sits in a place of prominence in our living rooms, bedrooms, yes even in our kids’ bedrooms. We pay an exorbitant amount of money to keep it going and we spend hours at a time gathered around this box individually and as families. There are even set times that you have to show up at this place, otherwise you’ll miss out on some special gift the TV has to offer.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” How many of you actually take this commandment seriously? Sure, you’ll come to church on Sunday, but your minds wander. You’ve got a big project coming up, and you can’t get your mind off of it. Your kids are behaving less than ideally, so you’ve got to take care of that. You don’t know that song, so you let it pass without thinking about it. Then you go home, with the idea that the third commandment is more than just Sunday morning worship—that it’s supposed to be a life of faith throughout the week—only to go on with life as if Jesus made no difference to your life.
“You shall not murder.” At least we got one down, right? Well... not so fast. This commandment is about more than simply not killing other people. It’s about a mindset, a heart attitude that is gentle and kind even to your enemies. You break this commandment when that jerk cuts you off in traffic and you get the desire to ride his or her bumper until your exit. Even if you don’t follow through on that, the anger that instinctually wells up in you is sin and wants to do harm to your neighbor.
“You shall not commit adultery.” Again, you’d think you’d be all good to go with this one, but no. Jesus ties this commandment with not just actions, but with what goes on even in your mind. If you look at someone who is not your spouse with lust for them, you’ve broken this commandment. And statistics show that it’s probably the case among us this morning. According to a 2014 study, pornography use within the church is nearly identical with that outside the church. That means almost two-thirds of the men here and 15% of the women use pornography at least once a month.
We could keep going, but we should probably stop there. The Law condemns, and rightly so. When you come face to face with the demands it lays on you, it tears you down and beats you up. Imagine that’s what the Gospel did too. Here’s what Luther said about his mindset before his discovery of the distinction between law and gospel. “I regarded both as the same thing and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection.” Jesus was only a new Moses, a new Law-giver. If Moses laid out Ten Commandments, Christ laid down a hundred. Good luck. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law... through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” There’s a difference, a distinction between Christ and Moses. Moses brought the Law that demanded righteousness, righteousness that you could never attain. Jesus came, demanding that same righteousness, but this time giving it to you completely apart from your actions. “You are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is done. Jesus has done it for you. You have been baptized. You have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit and of faith. You have been forgiven of all your sins. No, you don’t measure up to God’s Law, but it doesn’t matter because it was never meant to save you. In Christ, you are justified—declared righteous—freely, as a gift. This good news is the Gospel that we proclaim. It’s what we’ll confess in just a moment when we speak the Apostles’ Creed. The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection sets you free from trying to serve God and trying save yourself so that you can go out and serve your neighbor and bring the good news to them.
So we’ve got the Distinction between Law and Gospel. Now what about that Subjective Justification? When you hear the term, subjective justification, think the words, “for you.” Jesus didn’t just take on human form as a baby. He took on human form for you. He didn’t just life a perfect life. He lived a perfect life for you. He didn’t just die on the cross. He died on the cross for you. Jesus didn’t just rise from the dead, he rose for you. This all becomes yours by faith, which is given to you.
This may all sound rather ordinary around here, but it’s anything but the world over. In Luther’s day, the Roman church had drifted from this truth, and he sought to bring them back. Today, you head down the block to the nearest church, and chances are, they’ll have bits and pieces of this truth, but not the whole thing. For many, Jesus is nothing more than a new Moses. For many, Jesus came, lived, and died, but did He do it for you? Who can say? From the clear teaching of Scripture as brought to light by Martin Luther, we can say boldly and confidently that you and I are sinners. We don’t measure up to God’s Law. But Jesus came to set us free, to die and rise again for you so that you might have faith, so that you might have forgiveness, so that you might be justified before God. Jesus has done it all for you. That’s why we celebrate the Reformation.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell