Sermon / October 26th, 2014 / By Grace Alone / Romans 3:20-22 / Pastor Terry Defoe
20 … no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. 21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known… 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ… (N.I.V)
On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a document containing 95 debating points to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It just so happened that, back in Luther’s day, the Castle Church in Wittenberg held a large collection of religious relics. As a matter of fact, it was said that the Castle Church in Wittenberg had the largest collection of relics outside of the mother church in Rome. It was claimed that these relics included pieces of bones from saints, locks of hair from martyrs, a piece of Jesus’ cross, a twig from Moses' burning bush, bread from the Last Supper, a veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ, and so on. In those days, relics were kept in special containers called “reliquaries,” decorated with qold, silver, and precious stones. They were put on public display on All Saints Day each year.
By the year of 1518, 17,443 relics were on display in the Castle church at Wittenberg! And the people back then were told that, by paying a special fee, and by viewing the relics, their stay in purgatory would be shorted by more than 1,902,202 years! This non-Biblical practice of indulgences prompted Martin Luther to pen his 95 theses –95 suggested topics of debate with the scholars of his day. And so, on Halloween, in the year of 1517, a young and courageous Catholic doctor of theology by the name of Martin Luther nailed lengthy document to the church door. This was not unusual. Back in those days, the church door was the town's bulletin board. If someone wanted to publicly debate an issue, they would make it known by displaying it on to the church door.
By doing this, Luther was openly challenging the then-current doctrine of “indulgences.” This doctrine taught that, by doing certain works, a person could shorten his or her time in purgatory, and therefore hasten their entrance into heaven. In opposition to this man-made teaching, Luther preached God’s gracious forgiveness of sins, not by relics, or papal pardons, or indulgences, but by faith alone – faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Luther’s goal was to REFORM the church. I pray that God would bless our consideration of this important theme this morning!
So it was the selling of indulgences – that church teaching that claimed that God's power to pardon and forgive could be bought and sold – that prompted Luther to speak out – a very risky thing to do in his day. But why were indulgences being sold in the first place? Well, the Pope at that time, Pope Leo X, wanted to complete St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. But he was short of money. And so, Leo proclaimed that indulgences could be sold in Germany as a money-raising project. Historians tell us that chief among the pardon-sellers in Germany was a monk by the name of John Tetzel. It’s important to realize that – rather than rejecting indulgences, most of the people in Germany believed in them. John Tetzel was therefore warmly received wherever he went in Germany. Bells tolled, organs sounded, and a cross colored red was carried through each town, exhibiting the papal coat of arms.
Tetzel proclaimed the miraculous power of indulgences. He said that whoever bought an indulgence not only received the forgiveness of his or her sins, but would also escape punishment in purgatory. The pope, Tetzel claimed, had more power than all the apostles and saints, even more than the Virgin Mary; for all these were under Christ – subservient to Christ, while the Pope was equal to Christ. The cross with the papal coat of arms was declared to have as much saving power as the cross of Christ! Tetzel even claimed to have saved more souls with his indulgences than the Apostle Peter did with his sermons!
Tetzel had a catchy little rhyme that was heard in every town.
"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."
And what was the result of this practice? Many people believed that they didn’t need to repent of their sins and believe in Christ alone for mercy. They believed that they could sin, buy some indulgences, be forgiven, and then continue to sin even more. Notice what was going on. The people were placing their trust and confidence in indulgences, and not in Jesus Christ. For Luther, souls for whom Christ died were at stake! The Gospel of Christ hung in the balance. Luther felt that this practice could destroy a person’s relationship with God – a relationship made possible when Christ died for our sins and rose again.
Here are three of Luther’s theses – to give you an idea what he was saying:
Thesis 1: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, `Repent,' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Thesis 27: They preach only human doctrines [when they] say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
Thesis 62: The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
Lutheran Christians celebrate October 31st – not as a pagan relic of the past called Halloween, but as an important date in the history of the Christian church. Lutheran Christians pause at this time of the year to remember how the clear Gospel message was rediscovered and then proclaimed to the world. By grace alone, through faith alone, made known by the Scriptures alone, God’s gift of salvation is proclaimed and received. According to Luther scholar Roland Bainton,
Luther felt like a man climbing – in the darkness – a winding staircase, in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness, he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. And he was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.
Luther took no steps to spread his theses among the people. He was merely inviting scholars to dispute … but others surreptitiously translated his theses into German and gave them to the press. In short order, they became the talk of (all) Germany!
Luther came to his understanding of the Gospel suddenly. He said, that when he finally understood God’s grace in Christ, is was as if he had been “born again.” Before that, he had been tormented by his sins. He had been tormented by his understanding of Jesus, whom he then saw as a stern Judge, not as a gracious Savior. Tormented by his sins, Luther confessed them frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a time. At that early point in his life – before he fully understood the Gospel – he believed that every sin in his life had to be remembered and confessed if it was to be forgiven. Dr. Bainton tells us that Luther – at this early stage in his life – would repeat a confession and, to be sure that he was including everything, would review his entire life until his confessor, Dr Staupitz, grew weary and exclaimed,
God is not angry with you. You are angry with God. Don't you know that God commands you to hope?
Before Luther re-discovery of the Gospel, his heart was bound by sin. Desperately searching for a way out, he believed that confession would bring freedom, but it brought only more bondage. Luther had no peace because he didn’t know the Prince of Peace – Jesus Christ. At Erlangen University in Germany some years ago, a religious survey was conducted among the students there. And some very interesting information came to light. The students were asked, “Who is Christ?” Only 16% knew the answer. They were asked, “How does a person become a Christian?” Only 8% of the students who had grown up in Martin Luther’s backyard knew.
So what is the answer, then? The Apostle Paul stated it often.
… because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved!
This teaching is the central theme of our faith. In our text this morning, the Apostle Paul says:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works – so that no one can boast.
Romans, chapter 3, verse 22 says:
There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Salvation is God’s free gift of grace. Grace is God’s love, unearned, undeserved, unmerited. The greatest blessing anyone can ever receive – that is, the forgiveness of sins – is completely free – for us, but not for our Savior. Jesus was the only one who could offer his perfect life in payment for our sins. Our salvation, our restored relationship with God, doesn’t depend on what we do, but on what God has done for us – through his Son. At a museum in Cairo Egypt, a Lutheran pastor’s tour guide told the people about the afterlife that the ancient Egyptians hoped for. They believed they would be judged on the basis of a comparison – a comparison of the good works and evil works in their life. The ancient Egyptians believed that on one side of the balance a feather would be placed; and on the other side, their sins. They believed that if the evil deeds outweighed the feather, they would be condemned to punishment.
That pastor says that it’s hard for us to believe – even for one second – that if we were tested by God in this way, that we would have any chance of being saved. And yet, a surprising number of people today continue to cling to the hope that if their good works outweigh their evil works, the locked doors of heaven will swing open for them. Former boxer and Muslim believer Muhammad Ali said:
One day we’re all going to die, and God is going to judge us – our good deeds and our bad deeds. If the bad outweighs the good, you go to hell. If the good outweighs the bad, you go to heaven.
When actress Hilary Swank was asked about her faith, she said:
It’s not like we’re Catholic or Christian or Episcopal – or practice Judaism or Buddhism even. We just kind of believe in a higher power – and that doesn’t mean a man God, or someone on a cross. It just means that we all have god-like qualities. We have the power inside of us to do good things.
You’d be surprised how many people in our world today are seeking to earn their salvation. When the Apostle Paul says that salvation is a free gift, he means exactly that. A dictionary definition of a gift is
… something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.
The Apostle Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith. This is not faith in ourselves, or faith in our good works. When the Apostle Paul uses the word “faith,” he means the gift that the Holy Spirit gives us at our baptism. He means the faith that the Holy Spirit has sparked in us. This gift of faith enables us to trust in Jesus, as our Savior from sin. This gift of faith enables us to hold out our hand and receive all that God wants to give us. At the cross, a great transaction took place. God the Father transferred the sin of the whole world – onto His Son.We deserve punishment for our sins. But, the Father punished his Son instead. Jesus died for our sins, once and for all. And now, by Word and Sacrament, God transfers the benefits of Jesus’ cross-work to us.
On the cross, when Jesus said, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He was – at that very moment – experiencing punishment for our sins. He was – at that very moment – and for the very first time in his life – experiencing separation from His Father. Isaiah said, in chapter 53 and verse 6:
The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
So what difference does faith make in our lives? The Apostle Paul says:
We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Once we are members of the family of God, and by God’s strength, we can do – and we must do – good works. Not in order to be saved. But because we are already saved.
God’s prophet Jeremiah asked, in chapter 13, and verse 23:
Can the Ethiopian change (the color of) his skin or the leopard (change) its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.
Human nature hasn't changed down through the ages. And there’s nothing we can do to change it. But God offers us the change we need – he offers us the forgiveness of our sins. His Holy Spirit opens our hearts to God’s Word. Through another prophet, Ezekiel, God says in chapter 36, and verses 26 and 27:
I will give you a new heart and (will) put a new spirit in you. I will remove your heart of stone… I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and … keep my laws
Martin Luther’s goal was to bring a wandering church back to the truth. He proclaimed that we are saved, not by our good works, but by grace alone, through faith alone, made known by the Scriptures alone. Veterinarian James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small, tells of an unforgettable wedding anniversary that he and his wife celebrated early in their marriage. His boss at the veterinary clinic had encouraged him to take his wife to a fancy restaurant on their wedding anniversary. James balked. He was a young veterinarian and he couldn’t afford it.
“Oh, do it!” his boss insisted. “It’s a special day.”
James reluctantly agreed and surprised his wife with the news.
On the way to the restaurant, James and his wife stopped at a farm to examine a farmer’s horse. Having finished the exam, James returned to his car and drove to the restaurant – unaware that he had dropped his checkbook in the mud. After the meal, James reached into his pocket for his checkbook, only to discover it was gone.
“Not to worry,” came the waiter’s reply. “Your dinner has already been paid for – by your boss!”
Our salvation has already been paid for. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Let’s Pray: Dear Heavenly Father – Bless us this day with a renewed appreciation of our most holy faith. In our Savior’s name we pray. Amen.