Today we celebrate the 501stanniversary of the Reformation of the Church. We can also call today “Happy Gospel Day” because that is what the heart of the Reformation was all about for Martin Luther. The Reformation was centered and is still centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and so should the Church today. Unfortunately, that was not always the case of the Church.
In the 16thCentury, things were not great in the Church. The popular thought and teaching of the Church was salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and in your works. This was the prominent teaching that stemmed from the Papacy to the clergy to the people. This was the official teaching and no one dare argue against it, but throughout the ages, there were those who argued against that teaching for one that was based on Holy Scripture alone.
Going back a century before, in the early 1400s, John Hus had spoken out against the Papacy for some of its teachings, namely, indulgences and the forgiveness which they provide. Hus had come to the conclusion that only God can grant forgiveness, and that to sell what comes only from God was a taking away of God’s power which man could not do. Hus also spoke out against the teachings of salvation and works. On July 6, 1415, Hus was burned at the stake for being a heretic.
Fast forward 100 years and now you had a new voice leading the charge, albeit weary at first. A man by the name of Martin Luther, who at the ripe age of 22, joined the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. In his early days in the monastery, instead of finding his justification before God through good works and the sacrament of penance, he realized that due to his sinfulness, he could not find that justification that he desperately needed. He sought to obey his monastic vows to the fullest, punishing his body and going to confession as often as possible. Nothing he could do would ease his fear of damnation.
Through his study of the Scriptures, namely Romans 1, things began to change for Luther – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” His doctrine of “justification by faith” does not mean that what God demands of us is faith, as if this were something we have to do or achieve, and which God then rewards. It means rather that both faith and justification are the work of God, a free gift to sinners.
This was the Gospel being re-revealed, or in some cases, revealed for the first time. While the Church taught justification by faith, it also taught justification by works, something which Luther could not find in the Scriptures. And so, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church for debate, largely focusing on the practice and selling of indulgences and the forgiveness granted by them. However, the Roman Catholic Church saw no need for debate, but rather for repentance and recanting on the part of Luther for speaking out against the Church’s teaching.
St. Paul, in his writing to the Romans, and our Epistle for the day, writes this: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Good works are a law, something that man must do. St. Paul clearly says that works of the law will not make one justified by God. So, if you strip away good works from the equation of salvation, you are left with one thing – Jesus.
This concept of salvation by Jesus alone was damning to the Church because it took away the Church’s power and authority. This was what Luther sought to restore – a restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone, with nothing else attached to it; in this case, the Law. That is why St. Paul later goes on to say, “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….” You see, salvation is not the part of man, but rather of God. Salvation is done apart from man and his actions, leaving the only action-doer Jesus. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
That is the heart of the Reformation. When you strip away all of the man-made laws, all the extra stuff that is crammed into God’s Word, you are left with one thing and one thing only: you’re left with the Gospel, you’re left with Jesus. Jesus does the action of salvation, not you. That’s the way it has been from the very beginning, from man’s fall into sin, it’s been about Jesus. It hasto be about Jesus because it is Jesus Christ alone that saves.
Luther’s mantra for the Reformation is all about the Divine and not about man. It is Sola Scripture – Scripture alone; Sola Fide – Faith alone; Sola Gratia – Grace alone. And for good measure, we can throw one more sola in: Sola Christus – Christ alone. Where are you in that equation? You’re not there because you can’t be there. Your sin keeps you from being there because your sin separates you from God. And so, we hear the words from Ephesians: “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.”
Jesus Himself sets out to teach that salvation is solely through Him and nothing else. However, this thought was unpopular with the Pharisees who taught salvation by adherence to the Law. And so, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” There is one truth when it comes to salvation and that is Jesus. Nothing else will suffice. Freedom in Christ is what we don’t have because of our sin. Our sin keeps us separated from God and there is nothing that we can do to rectify that. And so, Jesus tells the Jews in our Gospel text, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” It is only Jesus that sets you free. It’s not your works. It’s not penance. It’s not indulgences. It’s not Canon Law. It’s only Jesus.
As we celebrate the Reformation, the focus isn’t on Martin Luther, though he was instrumental. The Reformation focus is on the Gospel. The Reformation focus is on Jesus. The Reformation focus is on our salvation by grace, through faith alone in Jesus Christ. By Christ alone, we have been set free from all that separates us from God. To God alone be all glory and honor, through the salvation work of Jesus Christ, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.
(Texts: Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36)