Reformation Sunday| October 27, 2019| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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.” Romans 1:16-17
It was Hallowe’en – the eve of All Saints’ Day – 1517. Martin Luther, an Augustinian Friar and doctor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, nailed ninety five theses to the door of the Castle Church. He wanted to start a public debate about the practice of selling indulgences. People believed that their deceased relatives were suffering for their sins in a place called Purgatory. You could buy an indulgence that would get them out of Purgatory. Johan Tetzel, an unscrupulous cleric who sold indulgences for profit, coined the rhyme: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings a soul from Purgatory springs.” Buying souls with money! But how else can you get the money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome?
Luther confronted church corruption without fear or favor. Those with a passing familiarity with Martin Luther know of his bold stand against corruption in the church. Luther is known for his courage. Many people who don’t know or share Luther’s theological convictions nevertheless admire him for his integrity. He took a stand for what he believed to be right and he didn’t waver. He stood firm, even when threatened by the authorities with death. No wonder we Lutherans celebrate October 31 over 500 years later. Luther was quite a hero. He stands in the company of Elijah and John the Baptist. These were men of God who were real men. They spoke the truth and were willing to pay the price for doing so.
We don’t observe Reformation Day every year because we want to put Martin Luther up on a pedestal. Luther was just a servant of Christ. He’s described as an angel – that is, a messenger of God – in Revelation 14:6 where we read:
Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth.
God sent Martin Luther to restore the pure gospel to the church. We observe this day and we call ourselves Lutheran because we confess the same gospel he taught. We don’t confess it because he taught it. We confess it because God himself revealed it. We are not ashamed of the gospel.
Luther discovered the gospel in the Bible. But it took a while. He was a brilliant young man, a budding theologian, sincere and earnest, trying mightily and failing utterly to make himself good enough for God. It was as he was struggling with this text that the Holy Spirit revealed the gospel to him. It didn’t happen right away. It was only after painful struggle.
What caused young Luther such distress was what appeared to be a contradiction. The apostle writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Then he writes, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” How can this be? To be unashamed of the gospel is to glory in it. It is to boast in it. It is to rejoice in it. But it says right here that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. Luther was a sinner and he knew it. How can a sinner glory in a gospel that reveals to him the righteousness of God? The last thing a sinner wants to see is the righteous God. What does a just God do with sinners? Luther asked himself that question and answered it. The righteous God will surely judge and condemn a sinner like me. Here St. Paul tells me not to be ashamed of the gospel because it is God’s power to save me. But how can this be when I am a sinner and God is righteous?
The so called “gospel” that Luther had learned at the university was that if he did the best he could do to be good, God would be gracious to him. Do what you can. Then trust in God. He will do the rest. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Do the best you can do. Sounds like my old track coach. Do the best you can. That’s all you can do. One thing I learned in running the two mile is that I could never be confident that I had done the best I could do. Couldn’t I have tried just a little bit harder? I tried. I really tried. But how hard did I really try? Did I do my very best?
When Luther nailed the ninety five theses to the door of the Castle Church, he hadn’t yet discovered the gospel. He still believed in purgatory. But he had begun to understand the law. He knew that repentance wasn’t just a formal, outward act. Repentance was a change of heart. It was lifelong. But that’s where he got stuck. Is my heart sufficiently changed? Do I really want what God wants? Do I want it with my whole heart? Am I sufficiently sorry for my sins? Luther tried to do his best and the more he tried the more sinful he saw himself to be. He tried to repent, but since he knew that God would not accept him until he had done the best that he could do, and he could not be confident that he had done the best that he could do, he could not love God. He could not love the God who stood in judgment of him. He could not love the God whose righteousness brought his sin into bold relief. What kind of a gospel is it that reveals the righteousness of God? Gospel means good news. How is it good news for me to see the righteous God? I am a sinner. I have sinned against God. I have broken his commandments. I have failed to live up to his demands. I am to think it is good news to see his righteousness revealed?
Luther fought with this text. He knew the Bible was God’s word. He knew that the words penned by St. Paul were from the Holy Spirit. He held to the plain meaning of the words in front of him. This is how God delivered him. Listen again to what the inspired words say about the righteousness of God:
For in it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. Wait a minute! Paul is not talking about the righteousness that God has in himself. He’s talking about a righteousness of God that is revealed from faith to faith. It is not the righteousness by which God is righteous. It is a righteousness that God gives to us and that we receive through faith alone.
When Luther finally understood the plain meaning of the words before him, it was as if he had been born again. The righteousness that makes us Christians righteous is a righteousness that we receive from God as a gift. We receive it by believing it. God says we are righteous for Christ’s sake and we believe God. We have what God promises.
It is from faith to faith. It is through faith. That means it isn’t by our works. We don’t do anything to get this righteousness. God gives it to us and we receive it through faith.
There is nothing we have in this world that is as precious as the righteousness of God. The fact that it is not our doing does not mean it is not a real righteousness. It is Jesus’ doing. He obeyed. As St. Paul writes in Romans 5:19, “By the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.” This is not pretend, as if God is only saying we are righteous but we’re really not. No. When God reckons us to be righteous his reckoning makes it so. The gospel tells us that we are righteous. You doubt this? Well, take a look at Jesus! Can you find any sin in him? Did he fail in any respect? Was he ever unloving, disobedient, or greedy? Did he ever lie, lust, covet, steal, or hate? You cannot find any fault in Jesus!
Is there any sin for which Jesus did not suffer? When the Bible says that the Lord laid on him the sins of us all, is that true? So then, if Christ’s obedience is perfect and if he fully suffered the penalty for all sin, the righteousness that God has given us, the righteousness that is from faith to faith, is perfect, pure, and without any flaw. We who have this righteousness through faith in the gospel are righteous. We are righteous. We have nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
In this we boast. In this we glory. We are not ashamed of this gospel. We’re not ashamed of this gospel because we are not ashamed of Jesus. How could we be? Jesus is the one whose obedience is reckoned to us as our righteousness. Jesus is the one who took our sins upon himself, exchanging them for his righteousness that he gives to us. We glory in Jesus. We glory in his gospel. We are not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.
We are not ashamed of the gospel because it is God’s power to save us. We have no power to deliver ourselves from our own sins, even if we did the very best that we could do. Jesus alone has that power and we are not ashamed to admit it. His righteousness passes the test. Nothing less will do. The gospel is powerful to save us because the gospel gives us the righteousness that avails before God.
We are not ashamed of the gospel because it gives us a life to live. The just, the righteous, shall live by faith. Our lives as Christians aren’t tossed this way and that by the troubles we face. We lose a friend, a job, a pile of money. We lose our health, our good name, or an opportunity. So what? Does life consist in these things? Life lived at peace with God, in fellowship with God, under the favor of God – that’s a life worth living. This is the life of faith. I’m not talking about a generic faith in some supreme being however we conceive him to be. I’m talking about the God we know in Christ. Faith in him who obeyed the law as our representative and who bore the burden of all our sin on the cross is not just an intellectual assent to a doctrine. It is life.
Do you hate your sin and want to be free from it? Do you know that doing the very best you can do isn’t good enough for God? Do you believe that Christ alone is your righteousness before God? Do you believe that through faith in Christ you are robed in the flawless righteousness of Jesus your Savior? Then consider this. God sees everything there is to know about you. He knows every secret sin. He sees your weaknesses, doubts, fears, and failures. And how does he consider you? You know what he sees. How does he regard you? He regards you as righteous, righteous for Christ’s sake. He reckons you to be a saint – on your way to glory in heaven. He loves you as his dear child. He will most certainly move heaven and earth to help you in every need you have because this is how God treats his children. All this is ours in the gospel. This is why we are not ashamed of it. We believe it, confess it, proclaim it, and glory in it. It is our life. Amen.