Reformation Sermon 2001| Rolf D. Preus| 1 John 5:12
“He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
Today is Reformation Sunday, though the actual day that marks the beginning of the 16th Century Reformation of the Church is October 31. It was on that Halloween or Eve of All Saints Day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany. Martin Luther was a religious young man in search of peace with God. He was looking for a life in which God would regard him with favor. He was looking for the assurance that he would enjoy eternal blessedness with God in heaven. False teaching tormented his soul. He was taught to look for peace with God in his own good works. But he found no peace in what he did. He found only more and more sin. Looking for God’s grace, he found God’s anger against him. The more he strove to save himself from hell the more convinced he became that he was going to hell. He was looking for his life in himself when in himself was only sin and death from which he couldn’t set himself free.
Martin Luther went through hell on earth before he found the peace he was looking for. But he found it. He found eternal life. He found Jesus. Or, I should say, Jesus found him.
Luther was one of the greatest theologians the church has ever produced. He was also a great musician and hymn writer. Besides that, he was a leader of impeccable integrity and great courage. He wouldn’t cave when standing firm was required. But he never fought battles over mere words. He fought battles over the truth. He was truly a remarkable historical figure. Even today the Germans honor his memory, though most of them don’t believe the doctrine he taught.
But it is Luther’s teaching that we celebrate today. Men come and go, but God’s truth remains forever, and Luther – more so than any other preacher since the time of St. Paul – taught the pure and saving truth of Christ with crystal clarity. He preached Christ. He set before the people the simple truth that is in Christ. St. John in our text states it so simply. He who has the Son of God has life and he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. On the basis of these clear words of St. John, let us consider the threefold discovery of the Reformation: Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, as taught in Scripture alone.
To say that we are saved by grace is to say that we are saved by Jesus. Grace and Jesus go together. St. Paul says that we are “justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24) There is no forgiveness, there is no grace, and there is no love from God except in Jesus. Any notion of heaven or peace with God apart from Jesus is a false dream. Jesus and grace go together and cannot be separated. So we confess that we are saved by grace alone. But we don’t ever dream that we are saved by grace apart from Jesus because it is only in Jesus that we have the undeserved love of God.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. I once knew a Muslim by the name of Mike Museitif who ran a store a few blocks from our house in Racine, Wisconsin. He was a friendly and talkative guy, and we used to talk theology. As a Muslim, he didn’t believe that Jesus had died for his sins, but he did claim to believe in God’s grace. I asked him what he thought grace was. He told me that grace was when God gave you ten times as much credit for the good you do as he gave you blame for the bad you do. He weighs your actions on the scale of justice and is generous in giving you even more credit than you rightly deserve for the good you do. That’s grace to a Muslim.
Luther grew up with a similar understanding of grace. He learned that you do what you can. He was taught that if you do the best you can do, God would take care of the rest. But am I really doing the best I can? I must do more. I must try harder. If I am to find God’s grace and be sure that I have it, I must first do what I can. His life centered on doing what he could. It was a very self-centered life. Martin Luther did his good works so that he could get grace in return. So everything he did he did for himself. His most religious works were his worst sins because they were offered for his own benefit as he was trying to get God’s grace by doing the things that would bring him God’s grace.
Then Luther discovered in the Bible that Christ alone brought him God’s grace. In fact, that this was how the Son of God wanted to be known. Jesus doesn’t want us to see him as a new Moses, as if he came into this world to teach a higher morality than the Ten Commandments. Jesus doesn’t want us to see him as the shining example of how to overcome this or that difficulty. The question of the popular bracelets, What Would Jesus Do? is not the question Jesus wants us to ask. No, Jesus wants to reveal to our hearts God’s grace. He wants us to look to him, not as One who brings us more problems and burdens and challenges, but as the One who has carried our burden of sin away from us forever. St. John states it quite clearly in the prologue to his Gospel, “The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (St. John 1:17)
Whenever Jesus preached the law, it was always to prepare folks to receive him, and that means, to receive God’s grace. Consider how he dealt with the Samaritan woman at the well as an example. She had been married five times and was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. This Jesus pointed out to her. Why? So that he could offer her forgiveness of her sin and eternal life. He called it living water that would quench her thirst forever – and he was that living water. Jesus shows us our sin only because he wants to cover that sin with his grace.
But there is no grace apart from Christ. When we confess that we are saved by grace alone we are confessing that we are saved by Jesus alone. He who has the Son has life. Only the Son of God has eternal life to give.
He who has the Son has life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have life. Well, then, how do you have him? You believe in him. This is what Jesus said. He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) It should be perfectly obvious that you cannot have what hasn’t been given to you. So first God must give his Son to you. Jesus must come into this world to do what grace requires of him. He must live the life that you were obligated to live. He must die the death that your sins required you to die. He must pay the payment that you owe to God. He must rise from the dead having destroyed death. He must be given to this world. Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter must all be true historical facts. This is Christ given to you and to me.
But that is not all. You are I weren’t there at the manger or the cross or the open tomb. We are here. And it is here that Jesus must be given to us. The gospel presents Jesus to us. Our baptism joins Jesus to us. The absolution is Jesus’ own words to us. The Holy Supper gives to us the same Lord Jesus, who was laid in the manger, nailed to the cross, and who rose from the grave on Easter Sunday. Faith feeds on this Jesus. Faith receives him. Faith doesn’t go out looking here and there and everywhere for Jesus. Faith simply receives the Jesus who comes to us in the gospel and in the sacraments. Wherever the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered, there is Jesus in all his life giving grace and there it is that faith is born.
This is what the Bible says,
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? . . . So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:14,15,17)
There is no such thing as a generic faith that all religious people have and you can just change the details and it all amounts to the same thing. No! There is only one saving faith and that is faith in the God-man Jesus who suffered for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. The only true faith is the Christian faith. We are saved by faith alone because faith is the only way to receive Jesus and salvation is found only in Jesus. We are saved by faith alone because our works don’t contribute anything to our salvation. If our eternal destiny depended on what we do, we would all go to hell. If our eternal destiny depends on God’s grace then it must be by faith alone because faith doesn’t do anything; it merely receives what Jesus has done.
We go to church to get saved. Not because going to church is a good work on our part because our good works won’t help save us. No, we go to church to get saved because church is wherever the gospel and sacraments of Christ are given out and that is where Christ the Son of God is with all his grace and saving power. It could be here in this building, in the home, out in the park, or wherever, but it must be somewhere. Faith doesn’t grow on trees and it doesn’t come from our examining our own religious consciousness. It comes from hearing the true word of God.
And this is why we must be taught the Scriptures alone. I have a good friend who used to be a pastor not far from here. Whenever anyone questions him for his staunch and stubborn insistence in following everything in the Bible, he has a pat answer that pretty much silences every objection. He says, “You know, I’m not very smart. The reason I follow the Bible is because I just don’t know any better.” What an answer! We just don’t know any better. And that’s the only answer. What else do we know but what God has chosen to tell us through the men he himself called? Didn’t God send the prophets who gave us the Old Testament? Didn’t God send the apostles who gave us the New Testament? So then, when we follow the teaching of the Bible and the Bible alone, how can we go wrong? We can’t. We don’t need a pope or a holy tradition, or continuous revelations from God. We need only the faithful teaching of the Bible.
The reason Luther’s Small Catechism has survived for over 470 years as the most widely used Catechism in the history of the Christian Church is because it states simply the biblical teaching of the true Christian faith. We don’t accept this little book because we love Martin Luther. We accept it because it teaches the Bible faithfully.
Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone. We have eternal life in Jesus Christ the Son of God. This life is given to us freely by God’s grace for Christ’s sake. We receive this life through faith in the gospel that we hear. We can be protected from all false gospels and false faiths by adhering to the teaching of the Scripture alone because that is God’s pure word. This is the teaching of the Reformation. May God keep us grounded in this saving truth so that the life he has given us in Christ will remain ours forever.