Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reformation Sunday

Reformation Day (Observed)
October 25, 2009
Text: John 8:31-36

Beloved in the Lord, our Lord Jesus declares, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32; ESV). It is the disciples of Jesus Christ, believers in Jesus Christ who follow and hold to His teaching, who know the truth that sets them free. For Jesus Himself is the Truth that sets men free. Jesus sets you free. And you come to know about this freedom by hearing and reading and studying and meditating upon His Word in the Holy Scriptures. 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” (vv. 31-32). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36). Knowing the truth, knowing Jesus, you have freedom from sin, freedom from death, freedom from the devil and everlasting damnation, freedom from the threats and compulsion of the Law, freedom from the just accusations of the Law. Our Lord Jesus Christ has set you free by His Gospel, the very same Gospel of the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Christ that you learned in Sunday School and Catechism class, the very same Gospel you continue to hear and learn Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, Bible class after Bible class. You come to hear and learn this Gospel because of the freedom Jesus gives in every such encounter.

The 16th Century Reformation was essentially about the truth of Jesus Christ that sets men free. It was about the Gospel. For it was a grave abuse of the Gospel, the sale of indulgences, the sale of the forgiveness of sins on the part of the medieval Roman church, that led a pious Augustinian monk named Martin Luther to nail his Ninety-five Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Martin Luther was not yet a Lutheran, so to speak, when he wrote the Ninety-five Theses. He was very much a son of Rome. But as a student of the Scriptures, Dr. Luther was led by the Spirit to an ever deeper understanding of the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel. As Luther was enlightened by the Spirit’s gifts in his study of the Word, he began to see that indulgences were just the tip of the iceberg in the papal abuse of the Gospel. He began to see what the Roman Church had forgotten, that man is saved not by works, but by Christ alone.

A sinister error had crept into the Church of the middle ages, in fact, crept into the Church much earlier in her history, a lie of the devil that maintained that a person must contribute in some way to his or her salvation, that the work of Christ is somehow not sufficient for salvation, that one is not saved by faith alone, but by some combination of faith and works. It is really no different than the first temptation in the Garden of Eden when the devil told Adam and Eve they could be like God (Gen. 3:5). Humans, by nature (or at least the fallen nature, that is) want to be like God, meriting their own salvation by outer works or some inner worth. Indulgences simply represent the effort of human beings to purchase their forgiveness, thereby aiding what they considered to be the deficient work of Christ. An indulgence was a piece of paper with papal authority signifying that the purchaser received so many years off of purgatory. Or, if a person was feeling particularly generous (and keep in mind, the majority of the people were poor), that person could buy an indulgence on behalf of a loved one who was already in purgatory. “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” was the catchphrase of Johann Tetzel, the leading indulgence salesman in Germany. Indulgences were a papal fundraiser to build St. Peter’s church in Rome. The idea here was that the pope, rather than Christ, had the authority to declare one’s sins fully atoned for, and therefore free them from the satisfactions they were making in purgatory. Pay the money, and the pope will grant you his indulgence. Luther writes in response in thesis 82: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems and infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”[1]

Of course, there is no such thing as purgatory. You won’t find it in the Scriptures. It comes from erroneous traditions and misguided writings of some early Church fathers. Ultimately it comes from human imagination and logic. The Roman Church to this day has to stretch Scripture passages to find support for the doctrine of purgatory. In fact, the doctrine of purgatory is a contradiction of the very Gospel of Jesus Christ, as Luther came to discover. For you cannot work off your sins. That’s just the point. That’s why Christ came. That is why the Son of God became a man and lived under the Law in the place and in the flesh of sinful human beings. That is why the Son of God-made-man in the flesh of Jesus humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, in order to redeem us sinners, pay the penalty of our sins, and reconcile us to God. That is why the resurrection and ascension are so important. Mankind has been objectively justified in the person of Jesus Christ. The proof is that God raised Jesus from the dead in the flesh! And then He exalted that flesh to the right hand of the Father. You cannot work off your sins in purgatory, nor do you need to. And you certainly don’t have to purchase that forgiveness from the pope or from anyone else! The truth of Jesus Christ set Martin Luther free, and it sets you free as well. And that truth is that Jesus’ sacrificial death is sufficient for your forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. A righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the Law, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe, as St. Paul writes (Rom. 3:21-22). Jesus did it all to win your righteousness, your justification. You don’t do a thing, not to earn any of this, anyway. Anything that you do for God is simply a response of thanksgiving for all that He has already done for you and given you in Christ.

The errors that plagued the Church at the time of the 16th Century Reformation were all related to the fundamental error that we must do something to earn forgiveness and salvation. In addition to purgatory and indulgences, there were many other errors that Luther and the Reformers sought to correct. Among these are the idea of the Mass (or the Lord’s Supper) as a sacrifice that we make to God to atone for sin, rather than Christ’s gracious gift of His body and blood to us to be received orally for our forgiveness. So also veneration of the saints and prayers to them, pilgrimages to holy sites, veneration of relics, insistence on human traditions like the celibacy of priests and certain man-made rites and ceremonies, fasts, satisfactions for sin in penance (which makes a mockery of absolution), all of these done to earn merit before God. And finally there was the idea of papal primacy by divine right, and papal infallibility. These abuses, along with many others, had to be corrected in the Church for the sake of the Gospel, that the Gospel of the full and free forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus might sound forth as an angelic trumpet throughout the world (cf. Rev. 14:6), and so set men free.

The truth of Jesus Christ is ever and always in opposition to error. That is why purity of doctrine is such an important concern for us Christians. The Gospel is at stake! What errors plague the Church today? Well, certainly in spite of the Reformation, the Roman errors remain in part of the holy Christian Church. Then there are other errors spawned by reformers who went too far in distinguishing themselves from Rome. Among these are the idea that Christ didn’t die for everyone, but only those who are saved in the end (a doctrine called the “limited atonement”); the teaching that Baptism does not save and we should not baptize infants; the teaching that Christ’s true body and blood are not, in fact, present under the bread and wine as He says they are in His Word; the idea that God chooses some people from all eternity for damnation (which goes far beyond the revealed will of God in the Scriptures); all of these errors opposed to the truth of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. These errors do not make men free. Only the truth does that. These are grave errors that infect the Church like a disease. And of course, there are the errors of secularism and materialism so rampant in our culture that can also infect the Church, like the theory of evolution; sexual promiscuity, perversion, and permissiveness; the idea that there is no objective moral standard; and the very idea that God does not exist. Even Christians get sucked into these secular errors. All of these errors, and so many more, must be opposed by the clear truth of Jesus Christ. All of these errors must be resisted by Christians who abide in His Word.

Of course, the Lord preserves His Church. He preserves her by His Word and Spirit. The Lord keeps us steadfast in His Word. He is our Mighty Fortress. In spite of all that plagues the Church and individual Christians, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Body of Christ. Because again, we are saved by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, without works. The saving action is all God’s in Christ. And that is what we celebrate today. Martin Luther is a sinner saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, just like the rest of us. He’s no more, and no less, saint than any other believer in Jesus Christ, except to say that he is now blessedly confirmed in his sainthood in heaven along with all who dwell there. On his own merits, Luther is nothing, as he would be the first to tell you. But we celebrate him and his teaching and his work on this day because he made clear again for the Church the saving truth of Jesus Christ. He determined to know nothing among God’s people save Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). And now we are living beneficiaries of his heritage. What a comfort and a joy to know that the blood of Jesus Christ covers all our sins, that we don’t have to work them off (as if we could!), that Christ has done everything for our salvation, and we can rest in Him now and for all eternity. What a comfort and a joy to know that we are baptized into Christ, God’s own children, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. What a comfort and a joy to know that our crucified and risen Lord Jesus still speaks to us in His Word, preserves us by His Spirit, feeds us with His holy and precious body and blood. This is the very Gospel, the good news of our salvation. This is what was at stake in the Reformation. This is the truth of the Son of God that sets us free!

Beloved in the Lord, Jesus has set you free. And every encounter with His saving truth sets you free anew. This morning you heard the Word of the Lord Jesus Himself: “I forgive you all your sins.” This morning you hear His voice in Scripture and preaching. This morning you sing His truth in liturgy and hymnody. This morning he places His body and blood in your mouth to forgive you and strengthen you. Jesus is the Truth of God incarnate. By His grace, you know Him. You know Him by faith. You know Him in a very real and living relationship. And if you know the Truth, Jesus says (and His Word cannot be broken!), the Truth will set you free. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] AE 31, p. 32.

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