The Reformation of the Church
October 25, 2015
“Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone”
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Romans 3:19-28
On October 31, 1517, a young priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, 95 theses or statements that he though deserved public discussion. The topic was repentance and the practice of selling indulgences for sins. The discussion Luther started led to the Reformation of the Church. Luther was God’s servant to bring to light the pure gospel of the Holy Scriptures that had been hidden for many years under human opinions masquerading as divine truth. It is good to celebrate the Reformation of the Church. It is our history. Furthermore, what Luther and the Lutheran reformers confessed was true.
The truth on which the Reformation of the Church was centered is the central truth of the Christian faith. The topic is called justification. To justify means to forgive. It means to reckon someone to be righteous or just. God does the reckoning. When God justifies someone that person is just. All people everywhere naturally try to justify themselves. They want to be regarded as just or righteous or good. Who doesn’t? But how can a sinner get God to justify him? He can’t. If you are a sinner you cannot get God to declare you to be righteous by anything you do. The truth that Martin Luther discovered in the Bible is that a sinner is justified by God by grace alone, through faith alone. This is the central truth of the Holy Scriptures. The Holy Scriptures alone are the standard by which to judge all teaching in Christ’s Church. Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone. That is what the Reformation was all about. This is what our Epistle Lesson for today teaches us.
God justifies sinners by grace alone. God’s grace is God’s love that we don’t deserve. It is God’s favor. It is the gracious intention he has toward us for Christ’s sake. What does Christ have to do with grace? Everything! If you take Christ out of grace you empty grace of its substance and power. How can the God who hates sin forgive sinners? Is God just or is he gracious?
Only for Christ’s sake can God be both just and gracious at the same time. Jesus Christ confronts our sin. Here is how St. Paul puts it in our text for this morning:
God does not justify sinners apart from the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus redeems sinners. Only then can they be reckoned to be righteous by God. Jesus must pay the price to set them free. Jesus is set before God as a propitiation. A propitiation is a sacrifice to God that pacifies him. Jesus takes away God’s anger. As we sang earlier:
If we had to face our own sin we would face God’s punishment. A good God cannot tolerate sin. We are sinners. So a good God cannot tolerate us. This is what we must face. Our text says:
People reject God’s law because the law shows them their sins and they don’t want to see their sins. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” The law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. People try to justify themselves, but the law won’t go along. So people ignore the Ten Commandments, revise them, or deflect their accusations in some way. People who worship their things try to get around the First Commandment. People who despise preaching and God’s word try to figure out a way around the Third Commandment. People who dishonor their parents try to figure out a way around the Fourth Commandment. People who engage in sexual relations outside of marriage try figure out a way around the Sixth Commandment. And the list goes on. Those who think they can get God to justify them on the basis of their works need to listen to what St. James writes: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.”
The law shuts our mouths and makes us guilty before God. As the hymnist put it:
If you try to justify yourself by what you do the first thing you will have to do is to silence the law. You can’t. Only Christ can. Only Christ has. You cannot get around God’s law.
This is what Luther learned as a young man. He tried to justify himself by doing good. He had been taught to do the best he could do and leave the rest up to God’s mercy. No matter how hard he tried he could find no peace with God because he was trying to find it in his works.
A sinner is justified by grace alone. Only Jesus has redeemed us by paying the price of his holy obedience to the penal justice of God and suffering the anger of God against all sinners. By obeying and by suffering Jesus set aside God’s just judgment against us. He chose to bear it in our stead. This is what grace is, G-R-A-C-E: God’s riches at Christ’s expense. God’s riches are forgiveness of sins, spiritual freedom, peace with God, the Holy Spirit, and everlasting life, all freely given us by God for Christ’s sake.
Since it is by grace alone that we are forgiven and rescued from our sins, it must also be through faith alone. If we are justified by grace alone we are justified through faith alone. That’s what the inspired Apostle says in our Epistle Lesson for today. He writes:
The righteousness of God is revealed to faith. It is received by faith. It isn’t a righteousness that we do. It’s a righteousness that God gives. He gives it in his gospel, which is a message from God telling us that we are forgiven of all our sins for Christ’s sake. Since God gives it to us by speaking his promise to us this gospel can be received in only one way: through faith. You believe the promise and you have what it promises. There is no other way to receive a promise. You believe it.
To be justified through faith does not mean that you are justified because of your faith. It’s not as if God is looking for sincere people of faith whom he will reward with the forgiveness of sins because they believed so strongly and so purely. Not at all! Faith simply receives the promise. You aren’t justified because of faith. You are justified because of God’s grace, because of Christ, because of his obedience and suffering for you. You are justified through faith, not because of faith, through faith because faith is how you receive the promise that the gospel promises. Here is how we confess this wonderful truth in the Augsburg Confession:
Faith is not a good work that we do. Faith doesn’t justify because it produces good works. It doesn’t justify because it is formed by love. It justifies solely by receiving the righteousness that Jesus did. God says it. Faith believes it. And so faith has it.
How do we know? The Bible says so. Grace alone and faith alone are based on Scripture alone. Listen once more to St. Paul from our text for today:
“The Law and the Prophets” is a reference to the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament. The Bible is the source of all Christian teaching because it alone is the inspired Word of God. We know God justifies us by his grace alone through faith alone because the Bible says so. When the church sets aside the Bible as the sole source of divine truth, she loses the truth about justification.
As Luther studied the Bible, especially St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he learned this precious doctrine. He had been taught to do the best he could do. He had been taught that he had to merit God’s grace. He did everything he could do to merit it. The harder he tried to make himself righteous the more sinful he became. He was a slave to his sin. The Holy Spirit brought him to faith through the words of the Holy Scriptures. Luther learned that we are righteous through faith alone. This set him free.
It sets free everyone who believes it. It assures you that God is on your side, and that no matter what happens to you in this life, you have eternal life in heaven where sin, sadness, pain, and death cannot enter. To know that God in heaven looks down upon you and sees you as a saint, covered in that spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness is knowledge more precious than anything in the world. To be justified by God by his grace alone through faith alone. This is what God teaches us in the Holy Scriptures. Every other so called inspired source of religious knowledge teaches salvation by works and leaves us helpless in our sins.
Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone! Thank God for the Reformation he brought about through the ministry of his servant, Martin Luther. May God keep his gospel pure among us!
Rolf D. Preus