Reformation Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 26, 2008| Romans 1:16-17
“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.’”
When we celebrate the Reformation of the Church we talk about Martin Luther. We consider the torments of his soul: his hunger and thirst for righteousness. His story is about a man who wanted to be good. He wanted to be good enough. He wanted God to say that he was good enough. It was not sufficient that his fellows considered him to be good enough. He needed God to say it. He was a sinner in need of God’s grace. He was caught between God and the devil.
Luther was a smart man. He learned Latin. From there he learned theology. He learned Greek and Hebrew. From there he learned the Bible. Ironically, his knowledge of theology kept him from understanding the Bible. That happens. The church had come up with a doctrinal system that blocked out the plain meaning of the Bible. The text of the Bible was perfectly clear. But Luther couldn’t see what it plainly said because he was too busy trying to do what he could not do.
He had been taught that God was gracious to those who did the best that they could do. They said, “Do what is in you to do.” God would be just. He would give credit where credit was due. All Martin had to do was to make sure he did the best he could. But how could he know? He did whatever the church prescribed. Had he done enough? What was in him to do, anyway? Looking inside himself to see if he had done what was in him to do he found himself to be the very worst kind of sinner. He saw a man at war against God.
As Martin Luther learned the true requirement of God’s law he learned despair. The demands of the law were not confined within the church’s rules. God’s law required a perfect heart. He was filled with envy, lust, malice, greed, selfish ambition, and every kind of sinful desire. It was bad enough that God’s law revealed this to him. God had to add misery upon misery by giving the gospel as well. It was from what he though the gospel taught that Luther began to hate God. Luther could see right here in the words of our text that the gospel reveals the righteousness or justice of God. And he knew perfectly well what a righteous or just God does to sinners. He punishes them. He learned to hate the words: the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God meant only one thing to Martin Luther. It meant that the righteous God would surely condemn Martin Luther to hell.
In Luther’s autobiographical hymn, Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice, he described his life under judgment:
Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay.
Death brooded darkly o’er me.
Sin was my torment night and day.
In sin my mother bore me.
Yea, deep and deeper still I fell.
Life had become a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.
The gospel that was supposed to be the power of God unto salvation became for Luther the power of God unto damnation. The righteousness of God that the gospel revealed to Luther’s conscience drove him to despair.
And then something happened. As God and the devil fought over Luther’s soul, God drove the devil away by means of the words of the Bible. God led Luther to read the Scriptures as they read rather than according to a preconceived theological system. Instead of fixating on the words “the righteousness of God,” Luther looked at the words in their context. He looked at the inspired text and he saw that before the words, the righteousness of God, appear in the text the Apostle writes that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. And then after the words, the righteousness of God, the apostle mentions faith again, writing, “from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’”
This is what opened Luther’s eyes to what was there all along. He received the finest theological training of his day. He was a brilliant student. Even his enemies have to concede Luther’s genius. But what converted Luther was the Bible.
It was the Bible that showed Luther that the righteousness of God was nothing to run away from. It is not the righteousness of God by which the righteous God punishes sinners. It is exactly the opposite. It is the righteousness of God that God graciously gives to sinners. It is not a righteousness that we gain by doing righteous things. It is a righteousness that Christ has gained for us. It is from faith to faith. It is received by faith. It provides the life of faith. It takes us out from under the judgment of a just God and covers us with the pure and flawless justice of Jesus Christ.
How righteous is Jesus? How pure is he? How devout? Is there any lack of love, any sinful lust, any selfish ambition? Examine his life and see. You will not be able to find any fault. God himself could find no fault. Jesus is more than the perfectly righteous man whose obedience to God was flawless in spirit and letter. He is the holy and eternal God become flesh. And as little as God himself can lie, deceive, err, or fail, so little can God incarnate, Jesus Christ, lie, deceive, err, or fail to do what is good and right.
This is the righteousness of God. It is what Martin Luther needed. It is what you need. The Reformation centered in the question: How can a sinner find a gracious God? Luther found his gracious God in Christ. He found Christ in the pages of the Holy Scriptures.
And this is exactly how the Reformation is relevant to us today. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, you are a sinner in need of a gracious God. You can find your gracious God only in Christ. He is the Christ who is revealed in the pages of the Holy Scriptures.
The Reformation is often reduced to a morality play with Luther standing up for conscience and taking a hit in so doing. Luther’s struggle is used to tell a compelling story about a man standing up against corruption and error. It makes for a good story and Luther was indeed a great man. But his fiercest battle was not waged against the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. It was waged against God. Listen to another verse of his hymn:
My own good works availed me naught,
No merit they attaining.
Free will against God’s judgment fought,
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left naught but death to be my share.
The pains of hell I suffered.
It was when Luther did what was in him to do that he fought most fiercely against God. His so called free will was his essential contribution to his salvation. So he was taught. So he believed. So he did. So he lived.
It’s not a radical doctrine. It’s quite common. Quite ordinary. You do what you can and leave the rest up to God. Who doesn’t believe that? It’s plain old fashioned religious common sense. But it’s the devil’s own lie.
You have not loved God with your whole heart. You’ve loved yourself. You’ve loved your pride, your convenience, your money, your popularity, and everything else about you that makes you you. You’ve done what is in you to do, alright, and what is in you is sin. So you offer up your sin to God as your contribution to making yourself holy. You insist that you will do your part when your part is what you need to be delivered from and so you bind yourself every so tightly to your sin and enslave yourself to the sin within you.
That’s no life to live. But he who does not rely on doing what is in him to do and trusts instead in the God who justifies the ungodly has a real life to live. He who through faith is clothed in the spotless righteousness of Jesus Christ has received eternal life. He knows that what is in him would condemn him so he trusts instead in what is outside of him. He looks to Jesus. He sees his obedience as claims it as his own. He watches his suffering and death and holds to it as to life itself for it is his life – innocent, victorious, and eternal life.
What a life it is! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. No sin can claim them. The law can no longer judge them. Their conscience cannot rob them of the joy that is theirs by divine right. They are righteous through faith. It is the righteousness of Christ’s most holy obedience and innocent suffering and death. It covers them and presents them to God as righteous saints. God reckons us to be righteous, not by ignoring sin and the demands of the law, but by destroying sin and fulfilling the demands of the law. It is a wonderful exchange. The innocent Jesus becomes the guilty one so that we guilty ones might become innocent.
This is why we are not ashamed of the gospel. Jesus bore our shame and removed it forever. The gospel that reveals to our faith his righteousness is powerful. It is never inert or lifeless or mere doctrine to be filed away in the back of the brain somewhere. This gospel teaching is life itself for it raises us out of death to live. And so we live. We live as God has called to us live. And when our living contradicts our faith our God calls us back to our baptism where the gospel we confess remains a river of life for us and a washing of rebirth.
I am not ashamed of the gospel. For when all else in life fails me and I fail myself the righteousness that is mine by faith will not fail me. It will present me to God as his holy child with a life to life here in time and hereafter in eternity. Amen