Sermon for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

500 years. 500 years since Martin Luther discovered or re-discovered the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is just that, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the Gospel of Martin Luther. While we indeed give thanks for Martin Luther and his work of the Reformation, the Reformation is not about Martin Luther, contrary to popular thought. The Reformation was, is, and always will be about Jesus Christ.

What is that Gospel of Jesus Christ that Luther stumbled upon that made such a world-wide influence, continuing for the last 500 years and, God-willing, many years to come? “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Free. Set free. Acquitted. Absolved. Forgiven. Baptized. Worded. Bodied and Blooded. Saved. Freed by the Son of God.

What a Gospel nugget to find! That verse captures the saving work of mankind. It properly lists the subject of the verb as Jesus and the direct object as mankind. That’s the way that the verse has to be, because anything other than that is not salvation by Jesus.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Let that verse resonate again. It’s all about Jesus for you. Jesus does everything and you do nothing. Jesus’ holiness becomes your holiness. Jesus’ righteousness becomes your righteousness. Jesus dies and you live. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

Sadly, that was not the message one would have heard 500 years ago. You would have heard Jesus plus – Jesus plus your works, Jesus plus your actions, Jesus plus something else. But it can’t be Jesus plus because of what Scripture says. Paul, in addressing the Romans writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Works of the law means something that man does. Jesus tells us, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here’s the problem. We were perfect once but we aren’t perfect any longer. We lost that perfection in sin. So how are we expected to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? We’re perfect through Jesus and nothing else.

You might be thinking that I’ve gone too far, that I can’t say that you are free in Jesus. But I did and I must and I will again – “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” That’s not Martin Luther’s words or my words. Those are Jesus’ words. If Jesus said it, then who can argue that?

When you read Scripture the way that Scripture is meant to be read, that is, to believe every word contained, from cover to cover and in between, is the very word of God. And if God said it, then it is true, no ifs, ands or buts. This is the very Word of God, a Word that promises salvation to all who believe. But what should you believe? We believe that Jesus, the very Word of God incarnate, took on human flesh like you and I, lived and died, in order to set us free from the death and damnation brought about by man’s fall into sin. It means that Jesus declares you to be forgiven of all of your sins. It means that Jesus has declared you to be justified, that is, made right before God, our Father.

If we are free, then what about our sin? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Are we a slave to our sin or are we free? We are slaves to sin because we sin. That’s what Jesus says. We are slaves to sin and we die because of sin. But Jesus dies for you. He hangs upon the cross for you so that you are not a slave but you are free. He takes the sin of the world upon Himself. He becomes sin so that you may have life and have it abundantly in Jesus, the one who has lived and died for you.

Luther found this Jesus, the Jesus of the Holy Scriptures, 500 years ago. He needed this Jesus because he found that his works only drove him further away from the righteousness that God requires. He found that his works were insufficient for salvation because at his very nature, Luther was a sinner and Scripture told him that his good works, his righteous acts are nothing but filthy rags. And so if his good works saved him and they are filthy rags, then how could he be saved? After praying and praying and praying for God’s grace, Luther found the answer in God’s Word – 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.  For Luther, it wasn’t a matter of boasting about what he did to be saved – he just wanted to be saved! All he wanted was God’s grace and he couldn’t find it the way that the Church had told him. Rather, he needed to find it the way that God said it could be found – in Jesus.

Now it might sound like I’ve said Jesus a lot this morning, and that’s because I have. In fact, I’ve said “Jesus” 37 times and counting. And why is that? Why spend so much time on Jesus? It’s because Jesus is at the heart of the Reformation. It’s Jesus who does the work of salvation and not man. It’s Jesus’ words of promise that declare you free from sin and justified before God, not man’s words.

That’s what Paul tells the Romans: “For there is no distinction: 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, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” By Jesus’ crucifixion and death, by the blood that poured out of Jesus that washes over you, that’s what saves you. Can you be sure of that? Absolutely, because, once again, God’s Word declares it. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Your slavery to having to sin is over in the three magical words — “I forgive you.” The chains of sin break in the water, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The death and hell that you have coming for what you deserve has a remedy — “Take eat, take drink, the Body and Blood of Christ.”

So now you are free. You are forgiven free, freed by the Son. You are free to live a life that reflects who you are – a blood-bought and forgiven child of God. It is because of Jesus, the sun-darkened, hanging on the cross, beaten and bloodied, risen and living Jesus that has redeemed you. It is because of Jesus that the slavery of the Law has been removed from you and now rests upon Jesus. His death took the eternal punishment for your slavery to sin and in exchange has declared you forgiven by His grace and mercy shown to you.

You are free. You have been acquitted and absolved. You have been forgiven. You have been declared sinless in the eyes of God. Does it mean that you have stopped sinning? If it were only that easy. Rather, it means that God does not see your sin. Instead, He sees you as He sees Jesus – holy, pure and righteous. He sees you for who you are on account of Jesus: freed from your sin. So if Jesus, the very Son of God has set you free, you are free indeed! In the name of Jesus, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.