Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Epistle, which was read earlier.
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Holy Scripture is clear that works will save no one, yet throughout the history of the Church, salvation by works has been taught and continues to plague the Church today. 496 years ago, there was a man by the name of Martin Luther who challenged the Church and its teachings.
By simply nailing a document to the door of the Castle Church, Luther ignited a war, a war that, unfortunately, needed to be waged. In his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” or what we know as the “Ninety-Five Theses,” Luther challenged the Church and her teachings. He challenged whether or not an indulgence could free a person from purgatory. He challenged whether or not a person could find absolution through indulgences.
Luther took a stance on something that had come under debate, something that 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. What 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, 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.
As Luther studied the Scriptures, passages such as today’s text jumped out at Luther because he knew it was referring to himself. He knew that it referred to the German people. He knew that it referred to all people. Before God the judge, all mankind stands guilty of sin and liable for punishment because of their many transgressions. Luther knew this and this became a foundation to his theology.
What was confusing to Luther was that the Church taught that through Jesus Christ and your works, you would receive salvation. But how could that be when Scripture clearly says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”? For Luther, he saw that this contradicted the teaching of the Church and he deduced that someone had to be wrong. But the question was who: the Church or God? Luther knew that he had sinned, that he had missed the mark. Far from earning God’s declaration of righteousness, the Law only produced a clear knowledge in him of far he had missed the mark of the holiness God really demanded.
At the heart of the Reformation lied the question of salvation: are you saved by Jesus Christ alone or are you saved by your works? If it was the latter, Luther knew that he was damned because his works could never do enough. What about your works? Are they enough to earn you forgiveness in the eyes of God? Your works earn you nothing but damnation because your works cannot save you.
God declares a sinner not guilty of sin – not by what they have done but what Jesus has done for them. Free of sin, guilt, and punishment, the acquitted can enter the joys of heaven. This is the result of Christ and Christ alone, not the result of good works that we do.
As we celebrate the Reformation of the Church, it is not about starting a new church. It is not about wanting things our way. The Reformation was all about a return to the Scriptures, a return to what God had said and what He had not said. It was all about the work of Jesus doing everything for us, not about Jesus doing it for us with our help.
The avenue by which God’s declaration of “not guilty” becomes ours in faith in Jesus Christ, not by trusting in our observance of the Law or our good works to earn heaven. That is why Luther spoke out against the Church and wrote the 95 Theses. That is why Luther wrote pamphlet after pamphlet. The more that the Roman Catholic Church said that we had to do something to receive salvation, the more adamant Luther was in his writings against the Church, that salvation was from God alone and not from our works.
What a relief to know that my salvation is not dependent upon what I do! I know all the things that I have done wrong. I know all the ways that I’ve sinned. To know that through my own efforts I would receive salvation is a scary thought. There is nothing good about me. There is nothing redeemable about me, yet God has seen fit to extend to me the forgiveness of my sins, not on account of my actions, but on account of the actions of His Son, Jesus Christ. So it was for Luther, and so it is for you, as well.
Salvation is entirely a gift of God. A gift is something freely given, which the giver expects no payment. For the Christian, our salvation does not depend on us. How could a person accept that God sent His very Son to take on human form, to live a sinless life, to die for your sinful life so that you may receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, but, in order to receive that forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, you have to do something to earn it? That is not a gift, that’s some you have to earn.
What was at stake 496 years ago is still at stake today: salvation by Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. It is solely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ do we receive our forgiveness. God reaches down with His amazing, unmerited grace and makes our relationship with Him right and good. Nothing of our do we bring; only His unmerited love for us in Jesus, and Him alone, gives us that righteousness that we need for eternal life.
Christ alone is the heart of the Reformation. Christ is Scripture’s answer and God’s answer to the question of righteousness. Faith alone holds onto Jesus, onto God’s grace in Him. Salvation, by grace alone, through faith alone in 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 that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.
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