October 31, 2010
Text: Rom. 3:19-28
Reformation Day, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the castle Church door in Wittenberg, on the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517. This act came to symbolize the whole movement Luther would spark, a reformation of the Church catholic, restoring the central article of the Christian faith, justification of the sinner by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to its proper place. The Lutheran Reformation was not the creation of a new church, but the restoration of the catholic and apostolic Church. For in addition to the three solas, grace alone, faith alone, and Christ alone, there was Scripture alone, the sole rule and norm of all Christian faith and life. These were the gifts restored to the Church in the Reformation led by Martin Luther. And so also did Luther restore a very important emphasis of the Apostle Paul, one that Paul unpacks for us in the Epistle lesson this morning, an emphasis by which we understand the truth of justification by grace. That emphasis is the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.
There are two doctrines contained in both the Old and New Testaments, and these two doctrines differ fundamentally from each other: There is the doctrine of the Law, and there is the doctrine of the Gospel. Both are the Word of God, both are contained in both testaments, and both work together toward the goal of our salvation, but their function is fundamentally different. To use the pneumonic device many of you learned as children in Catechism class, S.O.S.: The Law Shows Our Sin and the Gospel Shows Our Savior. The Law tells us what to do and what not to do if we are to please God. The Law of God is the Ten Commandments. The Law shows us how we are to be and how we are to act as Christians. But the problem is, the Law gives us no power to live up to its standards. In fact, the Law only exposes our utter inability to keep God’s commandments. And so the Law always accuses. It always condemns. It always kills. When we examine ourselves in the mirror of the Law, we find that we never measure up, that rather we are, as we confess, “poor, miserable sinners.” Not only do we sin, committing actual sins, but we are sinners, infected with original sin. God’s Word proclaims the Law to us so that we might know our true condition, our great need for a Savior, that we cannot save ourselves, that we have no merit or worthiness in us before God. Salvation must come from outside of us, from God, in Christ. For unless God saves us, we are condemned. Otherwise we are bound. We cannot save ourselves. The Law shows us that we are trapped by sin and sin’s wages, death. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin… For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:20, 22-23; ESV).
The Gospel, by contrast, does not tell us what we must do, but what God in Christ has done to save us. The Gospel conveys Christ to us. The Gospel tells us that God is already pleased with us, not because of anything we are or have done, but because of His Son Jesus Christ, who took on our flesh and fulfilled the Law for us, suffered the punishment for our sins in our place by His blood and death on the cross, and is risen that we might have eternal life. The Gospel announces to us the forgiveness of all our sins in Christ. The Gospel is that forgiveness. The Gospel is God’s verdict of justification on account of Christ. Justification: it’s a courtroom term. It means that God pronounces us righteous with the righteousness of Another, with the righteousness of Christ His Son. There is a handy pneumonic device for this term as well… When I’m justified, it’s JUST as IF I’D never sinned. For Christ has wiped my sin away by His blood. Thus the Gospel always forgives, always makes righteous, always gives life. And because it is life-giving, with the very life of the living Christ, it gives us strength to live a new life now in obedience to God, an ardent desire to live God-pleasing lives, to combat sin in our flesh, and to fulfill the commandments. What the Law could not do, namely, give life and obedience, the Gospel does! We are forgiven, set free from sin, death, and the devil by our Lord Jesus Christ. “But now the righteousness of God,” the righteousness of Christ by which He pronounces us righteous, justified, “has been manifested apart from the law…” We “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vv. 21, 24).
This means that in no way do we earn our salvation. Nor can we. The Law shows us that. Christ has done it all. He has earned our salvation. The Gospel shows us that. Christ Jesus won our forgiveness and salvation on the cross of Calvary. But we must ask, since we cannot go to the cross for such forgiveness, since the cross no longer exists, and since the events of our salvation took place so far away and so many years ago: How is this forgiveness and salvation given to us, and how do we receive it? Beloved, you know the answer. This forgiveness and salvation is conveyed to you in the Gospel, in the precious Word of God in the Scriptures and the preaching and the absolution, and in the visible Word of the Sacraments, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And this forgiveness and salvation is received by faith. Faith is the receiving hands of the helpless beggar. Faith is simply trust. It is trust that this glorious good news (for that is what the word “Gospel” means… “good news”) is for you! Faith is not intellectual knowledge. Faith is not the ability to confess articles of doctrine. Faith is simply trust in Jesus Christ for this forgiveness and salvation. And this faith in Christ is given by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (v. 28).
The Reformation came about because this truth had been obscured, clouded over by the doctrines and traditions of men. The powers that be in the Church thought that the biblical way of salvation was too easy. It made salvation seem so cheap, at least to human wisdom. Surely man must do something to make up for sin, to earn his salvation. Thus the devil introduced a horrendous lie into the Church, a lie that many Christians, even many Lutherans, still believe today. Of course, salvation is easy for us. We do nothing. Christ does everything. But that is also what makes it so hard. It is hard to believe. In fact, it is impossible to believe without the Holy Spirit. Paul writes elsewhere, “the natural” unconverted “person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). We must be converted by the Spirit, our minds transformed by Him, if we are to understand and believe these things. The Spirit alone grants faith. And by that same Spirit we understand that there is nothing cheap about this salvation. For though it is absolutely free to us, it cost the Father His Son. It cost the Son His blood, His life. It cost the Son all hell on the cross. You have been bought with a price. You have been redeemed, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). In the Reformation, God used His servant Martin Luther to remind the Church of this chief article of the Christian faith.
No, our redemption is not cheap. But it is free to us in the Gospel, received by faith. The Law of God is good and wise, showing us our need for this salvation. The Law keeps our flesh in check. The Law shows us our sinfulness as in a mirror. And the Law shows us what we should do and not do to lead a God-pleasing life. But no one is ever justified by the Law. No one can fulfill it. We are sinners. But in the Gospel, the Law is already fulfilled by Christ. We are forgiven of all our sins. We are free. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The Reformation is not about Martin Luther. It is about Christ. It is about Christ and Him crucified; Christ, the Word made flesh, who shed His blood; Christ, who speaks the Word of life, the Holy Gospel, and so justifies you. This Reformation Day we rightly celebrate as heirs of Martin Luther. But the reason for our celebration is the doctrine he preached. He preached Christ. And to this day Christ crucified and risen is preached into our ears and hearts. May Law and Gospel properly divided always be proclaimed from this pulpit, that we hear the very voice of Christ, that we be killed and made alive by His Word, that we be forgiven, justified, and receive eternal life. May nothing else ever resound from this pulpit, save Christ, Christ, and only Christ. For there is salvation in no other. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Cf. Thesis I in C. F. W. Walther, Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible (A Reader’s Edition) (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010) p. 2.