Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon today comes from the Epistle, which was read earlier.
“Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word.” These are words which we will sing at the end of the service. In 1541 Martin Luther wrote this hymn. In his day the true light of the Gospel had been hidden by the shroud of false teaching. The Bible had become a bit of a relic. Only one copy of the Bible existed in the town: chained to the altar of the church. Few people could read it. Even if you were capable of reading it, you were too simple-minded to understand what it really said. You needed someone to interpret the Scriptures for you. That’s where the Roman Catholic Church came in. They were the “only” ones capable of understanding the Scriptures. Their priests were trained on how to interpret the Scriptures, according to the word of the Pope. Ultimately, it was the Pope’s interpretation of Scripture that determined how Scripture would be taught.
That changed on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” or what we know as the “Ninety-Five Theses,” on the church door at Wittenburg. The background to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses centers on agreements within the Roman Catholic Church regarding baptism and absolution. They also offer a view on the validity of indulgences, remissions of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven. They also view with great cynicism the practice of indulgences being sold, and thus the penance for sin representing a financial transaction rather than genuine contrition. Luther’s theses argued that the sale of indulgences was a gross violation of the original intention of confession and penance, and that Christians were being falsely told that they could find absolution through the purchase of indulgences.
Luther took a stance on something which had come under debate, something which should have never come under debate: Holy Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church had taken Scripture and misinterpreted what Scripture said or did not say. One of the largest issues which Luther took head on was the doctrine of justification, or how a person is saved. According to the Roman Catholic Church, a person was saved by Christ and their works. Luther, in searching throughout the Scriptures, could not find the basis of that teaching. The teaching which Luther could find came from Ephesians 2 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Luther could not find that teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and for Luther, he was convinced of one thing and one thing only – Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide; saved by Scripture alone, saved by grace alone, and saved by faith alone. Luther and the other reformers turned solely to God’s own Word. Their answers were not made up to make everyone feel good, nor were they guided by what most people believed, even if those beliefs were false. Instead, the Reformation answers were to stand on Scripture alone.
In looking at our text for today, we see something that is clear as day if you take the Word of God as truth: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus….” Here we have another sola of the Reformation presented so clearly: Sola Gratia or grace alone.
Paul is clear in the book of Romans how all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. But that’s not the last word. Scripture adds that righteousness comes from God, that we are justified freely by God’s grace through Jesus Christ, gifted with a new status: righteousness, free of all guilt before God because of Jesus Christ. Being right with God is His doing. Grace alone saves us. God reaches down with His amazing, unmerited grace and makes our relationship with Him right and good. Nothing of our own do we bring; only His unmerited love for us in Jesus, and Him alone, gives us the righteousness that we need for eternal life. We see the outstretched hands of Jesus that have nail marks in them. He hung on a cross to restore a right relationship between God and us. Eternal life comes from His death, and certainty comes from His resurrection. Jesus welcomes people with His loving, open arms because the grave could not hold Him. Death had no lasting power over Him. Only Christ our Savior can guarantee that life after death will bring heaven instead of hell, a loving Father instead of Satan.
Christ alone is the Reformation’s answer, the Bible’s answer, and God’s answer to those questions of righteousness and certainty. And faith alone holds onto Jesus, onto God’s grace in Him. Our faith stands on Scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone. And this Reformation certainty about God’s righteousness in Jesus still matters.
When we look at the Reformation, we need to understand that it was not about starting a new denomination. It wasn’t about a new church that would bear his name. It was about Christ. It was about the Scriptures. It was about faith. It was about grace. Luther tried and tried to “do enough” in his life and the more he tried, the more he failed. Luther saw in the book of Romans how off the mark he really was: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Far from earning God’s declaration of righteousness, the law only produced for Luther a clear knowledge of how far he had missed the mark of the holiness God really demanded. What was the answer to Luther’s problem of not being able to do enough to find favor in God’s sight? Again, looking at the book of Romans, looking at the Scriptures, Luther found his answer: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This is why Luther could never do enough. It’s because he couldn’t. It’s because we can’t do it. It’s because Jesus has done it for us. Jesus lived the sinless life for us because we couldn’t. This was the answer Luther needed. This is the answer that we all need: God’s righteousness is ours, not by works, but by faith.
Here is the Sola Fide – faith alone. It is faith alone in Jesus Christ that saves. It’s not our faith plus something else. Whenever you have grace and or grace but, faith and or faith but, then you no longer have grace alone and faith alone. It is by what God has done for us through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ that gives to us salvation and nothing else. We as Christians perform good works, but it is not our works that save. Our good works are our response to what God has done for us. They are for the benefit of our neighbor. What Luther was arguing against the Roman Catholic Church was the teaching that faith plus works could save. God declares a sinner not guilty of sin. This is the result of Christ and Christ alone. It is not the result of good works which we do. If our salvation hinged on the good works we do, when would enough be enough? Luther repeatedly went back to Scripture and the answer was singular, not plural. The answer was Christ and Christ alone, just as Paul says: “righteousness from God come through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Here is another sola that we need to keep at the forefront of Christianity: Sola Christus, Christ alone, for it is Christ alone who has atoned for the sins of the world, for you and for me, and it is Christ alone which brings everlasting life.
Salvation, by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, as found in Scripture alone, is the sole source of our forgiveness and the privilege of being called children of God. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.
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Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation. For why was it necessary for him to die if we can obtain a good conscience by our works and afflictions? Accordingly you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from him that just as he has received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness yours.
Luther’s Works(AE) v. 48:12-13