Reformation Day Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| October 31, 2004
“For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.”
(2 Corinthians 13:8)
Four hundred and eighty seven year ago, on October 31, 1517, a thirty-three year old theological professor by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. He wanted to start a public debate about the practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences were letters from church officials that supposedly set loved ones free from purgatory. What started out as a debate about the true nature of repentance became the most important religious event since the time of the apostles. Today we call it the Reformation.
The Reformation of the Church that God brought about by His servant, Martin Luther, was a true reformation that set forth the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. May God lead us in our day to make the same confession of the same truth.
When I was a senior in high school, Johnny Cash sang a song on the radio with the refrain, “And the lonely voice of youth cries, ‘What is truth?’” In the song Cash said that the truth was the truth regardless of who said it. That’s true. The youth of that era are now middle aged. Yesterday’s argument about who speaks the truth has given way to the claim that there is no such thing as truth. It is fashionable to insist that nobody has the final truth. There is your truth, my truth, his truth and her truth, but there really isn’t anything that we can call the truth.
This is the spirit of agnosticism. The word agnostic comes from the Greek word for ignorant. An agnostic says he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if there is a God. If there is a God the agnostic doesn’t know what He says. Many nominal Christians today are, for all practical purposes, agnostic. They believe in a god but they do not know what he says. They insist that we cannot know. When they hear clear teaching of Christian truth they become uncomfortable or impatient. They are persuaded that no one can be sure that his doctrine is God’s doctrine. In fact, the very word “doctrine” is held in contempt.
How far removed this is from the spirit of the Reformation! At the conclusion of the explanation of the three articles of the Creed we Lutherans are taught to confess, “This is most certainly true.” Can we make that confession today?
“For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.” (2 Corinthians 13:8) The Apostle Paul wrote these words near the end of his second epistle to the Corinthians. The Corinthian congregation was beset by all sorts of false doctrine. Some denied the resurrection. Some were living in open sin. They turned the Lord’s Supper into a drunken spectacle. They were pulled away from the truth by both false teaching and false living. St. Paul opened his heart to those weak and erring Christians, alternately chiding them and encouraging them. Everything he said and did was always for the sake of the truth. We can do nothing against the truth because the truth is from God. Since the truth comes from God it matters. It’s a matter of life and death.
Martin Luther was a man trapped by lies. The most vicious lies are not the lies people tell about us. They are the lies that people tell about God. In Luther’s struggles we see the struggle not only of one man born and raised in the Middle Ages, but we see the battle of truth against lies. The truth to which God led Martin Luther can be summed up in the three pillars of the Reformation: grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone.
When God speaks, He speaks the truth. This truth is not so far above us that we cannot know it. In fact, we know God as God when God speaks to us His truth. This is how we meet God. God talks to us. It was only when Luther learned to recognize the voice of God that he was led into the light of the truth and set free from the prison of lies. Luther’s heart had been captured by pious-sounding lies promoted by highly respected religious authorities. He was taught that the way to eternal life was by doing the best that you can do with the help of God’s grace. If you faithfully partake of the sacraments with an honest and sincere intent, God will give you His grace. If you cooperate with God’s grace by doing those things that Holy Mother Church teaches you to do you will grow in grace. Grace was a gift that God poured into you to enable you to secure more grace. But you could not know that you had received enough grace to be in a state of grace. That is, you couldn’t be sure of your salvation. Have you been sufficiently sincere? Have you really done the best that you can do? Is there some sin that keeps you from fully giving yourself to God? Luther did not know. He could not know. He was taught not to presume that he was fully justified before God. But he was also forbidden to despair. You should do the best that you can do and trust in God’s mercy. But the best that he could do was so filled with sin that he was led to despair. He regarded God as his enemy because he could not trust that God would actually receive him as a dear child. How could he know that God would not rather punish him for his sins? The doctrine of grace that he learned gave him no assurance of salvation. It was a doctrine of doubt. Since his salvation depended on himself, he could not know he was saved. He sincerely believed that he was damned.
Luther learned a different doctrine from the Bible. He learned that the grace by which he was saved was not something that God poured in his soul that enabled him to do good. The grace that saved him was God’s goodwill toward sinners. It was not God’s willingness to help sinners to do better. It was God forgiving us our sins. We do not see God’s grace by looking within our hearts for evidence of holy feelings or holy desires. We see God’s grace only by looking outside of us to Christ. The doctrine of grace alone is that God rescues guilty sinners from their sins and forgives them not because of anything the sinners ever do but solely because of what Jesus Christ has done for them. Grace is what Christ does for us. He fulfills the law for us. He does what God demands of us. He suffers God’s punishment for all our sins. He, true God and true man, quenches God’s anger against us by bearing it for us. We are forgiven of all our sins and justified by God because of what Christ has done for us, not because of how we live. We should not look to ourselves and to our lives for assurance of our salvation. We should look only to Christ. We are forgiven of all our sins and inherit heaven by grace alone.
This grace is received through faith alone. Faith is trust. Faith believes the gospel promise that tells us that God is gracious to us and forgives us and delivers us and brings us to heaven all for Christ’s sake and for Christ’s sake alone. Here the first pillar of the Reformation leads us to the second. Since we are justified and saved by grace alone it must also be through faith alone. Why? Because, as St. Paul explains in Roman 11:6, “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.” Grace saves. Works don’t save. Works don’t receive grace. Faith does. Luther had been taught that the faith that justifies us is a faith that is formed by love. But our love has nothing to do with it. God’s grace has everything to do with it. Until this truth is confessed our faith will have no foundation. To trust in our works is idolatry. To trust in Christ’s works is faith.
Since faith trusts in grace alone, that is, in Christ alone, faith must know where Christ is. He is not locked up in heaven far away from us. He is present wherever His gospel is proclaimed and wherever His sacraments are administered. Faith doesn’t go out searching for the Savior. Faith receives the Savior who comes in Holy Baptism. Faith receives the Savior who comes in the gospel. Faith receives the Savior who comes in the Lord’s Supper. We are forgiven and saved through faith alone because faith alone receives grace. Faith alone receives Christ’s merits and righteousness. We are forgiven of all our sins, rescued from death and hell, and guaranteed eternal innocence with God in heaven by grace alone through faith alone.
This is most certainly true. Why? God said so. He said so in the Bible.
Grace alone and faith alone are grounded in the Scriptures alone. The Bible is the only source of divine teaching. Luther discovered grace alone and faith alone by reading the Bible. The reason we can trust the words of the Bible is because God is the Author of the Bible. The principle of Scripture alone does not mean that we don’t need creeds and confessions. In fact, the very opposite is the case. We are commanded to confess what God teaches us. When God speaks His words of grace to which faith clings, we confess that faith with our mouths. We confess together. That’s what it means to confess. It means to speak the same truth with one voice. We confess, “This is most certainly true.” This is not one man’s private interpretation of the Scriptures. We don’t believe what we believe on the authority of Luther or any other man. We believe what we believe and we confess what we confess on the authority of God Himself, because our doctrine is from the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. That makes it God’s truth.
If anyone could show that Luther’s Small Catechism taught anything the Bible does not teach, we would have to discard Luther’s Small Catechism. If anyone could show that the Augsburg Confession or any other confession of our church taught anything the Bible does not teach, we would have to discard those confessions of faith. We hold to the creeds and confessions of the church because they are drawn from the Holy Scriptures, which are God’s inerrant and infallible words. The Scriptures judge the voice of the church. The church submits to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures because the Bible is the very voice of God who saves us by His grace alone, through faith alone.
The doctrine set forth in the Lutheran Confessions is the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. This is why we can put our confidence in its truth, teach it to our children, and confess it to the world. We are not unsure of our teaching. It is God’s teaching. It will never change. God cannot change. His truth cannot change. We are sinners who have not loved God with our whole hearts. We need God’s grace that forgives us all our sins for Christ’s sake. Our good works cannot save us. This is most certainly true. Only the precious means of grace – the gospel and sacraments of Christ – can bring us to faith and sustain us in this true Christian faith. This is most certainly true. We need the Holy Scriptures as the only source of divine truth and final judge of all Christian teaching. Human traditions, philosophies, and systems are subject to error. God’s word cannot err. We need God’s truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is most certainly true.