The Reformation of the Church
October 26, 2014
“Living by Faith”
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” Romans 1:16-17
We celebrate the Reformation of the church. We do not engage in hero worship. Luther was a sinful and fallible man. But God chooses sinful and fallible men to proclaim his holy and infallible word. God sent Martin Luther to reform the church. Martin Luther was God’s servant sent to preach the everlasting gospel that had been hidden for so many years.
Luther’s story is a compelling one. He did not preach dead orthodoxy. When he preached the gospel he preached about his own personal experience. The words before us today, specifically, the words “for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith,” were the words through which God delivered Martin Luther from spiritual slavery and saved his soul from hell. We cannot celebrate the Reformation of the church without acknowledging Martin Luther’s spiritual experience.
It is a popular misconception that one must choose between pure doctrine and a genuine experience. Luther’s experience is well known. He tried to work his way into God’s favor and failed. He tried to earn God’s approval and for his efforts became guiltier than before. He lived under the judgment of God’s law and could find no release from it or peace for his soul no matter how hard he tried. And he tried. When Luther describes how, as a monk, he tried to earn God’s approval by his religious devotion one is reminded of how St. Paul tried the same thing. It cannot be done. Luther’s personal experience of salvation is at the center of the history we celebrate today. The Reformation of the church during the 16th century could not have occurred if God hadn’t delivered Martin Luther from spiritual bondage.
What rescued Martin Luther from judgment and set him free? How was he born from above and delivered from slavery to fear? What did God do to bring to Martin Luther the forgiveness of sins he so desperately needed and the righteousness that had eluded him for so long? God taught him the doctrine: the pure and saving gospel of the Holy Scriptures.
Today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is in a shambles. A few months ago I was in Wittenberg, where the Reformation began. Martin Luther is quite the hero there, but there are very few Christians. Most don’t even believe God exists. They certainly don’t care about how a sinner can find God’s grace. For them, Luther stands as a symbol of personal integrity and courage, but few Germans today have any idea of what he actually preached and taught or what the Lutheran Reformation was all about.
Things are not much better here. In northern Minnesota and North Dakota Lutheranism is often the community religion, but the Lutheranism that prevails has little in common with what Luther taught. Luther lived in a world in which God’s anger against sinners was a reality. God was righteous and he demanded the same from all of his creatures. That we needed to be righteous in order to enjoy eternal life with our Creator was a given. God is righteous and God demands righteousness of us. There was no debate between Luther and his opponents in the Roman Church on our need to be righteous. The debate was on how. Luther and his opponents agreed that righteousness was necessary and our sin stood in the way.
Not so today. The categories of sin and righteousness have become so blurred as to be virtually indistinguishable. Matters of right and wrong are considered a matter of opinion. You have your standards and I have mine. Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you. Who knows for sure what’s right and wrong? What we do know is that it’s wrong to judge others. When people have lost the biblical doctrine of sin and can no longer identify sin for what it is, there can be no hungering and thirsting for righteousness. The gospel that reveals the righteousness of God is irrelevant to their perceived needs. They don’t know what righteousness is. They don’t see their need for it. They don’t know how to get it. And they don’t care. A traditional Lutheran congregation that preaches and confesses the righteousness that avails before the righteous God is a curiosity – a relic of the past.
But let me respectfully suggest to today’s Lutherans that it is they – not we – who are out of touch with reality. Just because folks don’t perceive their need to be righteous doesn’t mean they don’t need to be righteous. The righteous God requires righteousness and he punishes sin. Listen to what he says through the prophet, Isaiah:
Behold, the name of the LORD comes from afar
Burning with His anger,
And His burden is heavy;
His lips are full of indignation,
And His tongue like a devouring fire. (Isaiah 30:27)
God punishes. He said through the prophet, Hosea:
The princes of Judah are like those who remove a landmark; I will pour out my wrath on them like water. (Hosea 5:10)
And likewise in the New Testament God’s anger against sin remains. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 5:5-6)
And in the verse following our text for this morning, St. Paul writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1:18)
When today’s Lutherans deny the anger of God against sin and deny that God punishes sin they deny God. As we read in Hebrews 12:29, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
Martin Luther, like the apostle Paul before him, knew he needed to be righteous before the righteous God. He knew he couldn’t purify his own heart and rid it of sin. He could not become righteous before the righteous God. So every time Luther saw the words “the righteousness of God” in the Bible he was intimidated by them. The righteousness of God was a curse against a sinner like Martin Luther. He read, “the righteousness of God” and knew he was not righteous.
So he was perplexed by St. Paul’s words in our text where he says he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because in it the righteousness of God is revealed. How can it be gospel – that is, good news – when it reveals the righteousness of God? To a sinner the righteousness of God is bad news. To a sinner the righteousness of God is an accusation and a threat. God is righteous and I am not. His righteousness condemns my unrighteousness. He is good and I am bad and that’s all there is to it.
As Luther struggled over these words he noticed the word faith. Faith is mentioned four times in two verses. First, Paul says that the gospel is the power of God to save all who believe. To believe is to have faith. Then Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith and that the righteous shall live by faith. The word faith forced Luther to reconsider his doctrine. He had assumed that the text taught what the text didn’t teach. He had assumed that the term “righteousness of God” referred to the righteousness by which God is righteous and as the righteous God punishes unrighteous sinners. He had assumed that the righteousness of God would condemn him. But he had assumed wrong. The Bible converted Luther. The word “faith” taught him that the righteousness of God wasn’t the righteousness that inheres in God and makes him detest sin and punish sinners. The word “faith” taught him that the righteousness of God was not the righteousness that God required us to do. The word “faith” taught him – and teaches us – that the righteousness of God is given by God freely as a gift to be received through faith alone.
The Bible opened up to Luther. He had been taught falsely that the gospel was another law. It was something he had to do and since he knew he couldn’t do it, it wasn’t good news for him. But he learned from the Bible that the gospel was not another law. It wasn’t a requirement he had to meet that would shame him if he didn’t. The gospel was a promise to be believed – a promise that took away all his guilt and shame.
He read throughout the Pauline Epistles, throughout the entire Bible, and he learned the pure doctrine of the gospel that the righteousness of God is a gift that God gives to faith. This righteousness comes from Jesus whose righteous life fulfills the demands of God’s law. He obeyed the law perfectly. His obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness, even as our sin was reckoned to him. He obeyed for us. He suffered for us. Christ is our righteousness. He is the righteousness of God that is ours through faith in him.
This is what delivered Luther from the living hell in which he had been suffering. He wanted to be good. He couldn’t find that goodness within him. He couldn’t find it by doing what the church told him to do. He found that goodness in Christ and in Christ alone.
Today’s fake Christianity that teaches the false god of indulgence and tolerance who condemns no sins and punishes no sinners is a Christianity that doesn’t need Christ. But we will always need Christ as our righteousness before God. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God foretold the coming of Christ with these words:
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord,
“That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness;
A King shall reign and prosper,
And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell safely;
Now this is His name by which He will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. Jeremiah 23:5-7
We glory in this righteousness. We are not ashamed of the gospel that reveals it. It is the power of God to save us from our sin, from the fear of death, and from the power of the evil one. It is our most precious treasure in this life. It makes us righteous and gives us lives to live – lives that are worth living.
When you know Jesus as your righteousness before God you know God as your loving Father. He forgives you all your sins. For Christ’s sake, he justifies you. He reckons you to be righteous. His reckoning makes it so. When you sin and when your faith is threatened, your gracious Father gently leads you to repentance, forgives you, restores you, and fills you with his Spirit who confirms you in the true faith until you die. Then he receives you into the glories of heaven where the righteousness that is yours now by faith will transform you, body and soul, into that perfect Christian you wanted to be. Amen