The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 1:16-17
In Christ Jesus, who “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Ti. 3:5), dear fellow redeemed:
Who is responsible for the Reformation movement? The answer that comes immediately to mind is Martin Luther, the bold monk from Wittenberg, Germany. But that is not really correct. The one who brought about the Reformation was God the Holy Spirit. The Reformation did not grow out of someone’s personality, personal strength, or intellectual ability. It grew out of the powerful Word of God.
To be specific, the Reformation can be said to have grown out of the short text before us today from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It may seem straightforward and comforting to us, but it was terribly perplexing to Martin Luther. The part that troubled him the most was the part about “the righteousness of God.” He said these words “struck [his] conscience like lightning” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 193), and that they were “like a thunderbolt in [his] heart” (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 308-309). He went as far as to say he hated these words.
He had been taught to understand “the righteousness of God” as referring to the vengeful God who punished unrighteous sinners. He explained it in this way: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction [by the good works he had done]. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 336-337).
But as discouraged as he was by this text, he couldn’t leave it alone. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was missing something. The ideas didn’t seem to match up. On the one hand, Paul wrote about “the righteousness of God.” On the other hand, he cited a passage from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk about how “The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had been taught and was convinced that no one could be righteous before God unless he did enough good works to please Him. But Paul was connecting righteousness to faith.
One day Luther was sitting in the tower at his monastery pondering the words before us today, when it suddenly dawned on him. He realized the problem was not with the text—the problem was with him! He said he now “began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 337). He learned that there was a difference between “the righteousness of the law” and “the righteousness of the gospel.”
The righteousness of the law is how God requires us to live according to the Ten Commandments. But the righteousness of the gospel is not about what we do at all. The righteousness of the gospel is all about what God gives to sinners according to His grace. What Luther learned in these two short verses is the proper distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 442-443). He didn’t come to this understanding on his own. He gave all glory to God. He said, “The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me” (LW, Vol. 54, p. 194).
This is why I said that God the Holy Spirit brought about the Reformation. But there are many who disagree. They wish the Reformation had never happened. They view it as the work of the devil. They feel this way because the Reformation caused the church to break in pieces like it never had before. Besides dividing the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, the Reformation also led to the formation of other Christian denominations like the Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. (We’ll be studying these denominations in more detail in our next Bible Class.)
We, too, are sad that the church is so divided. But we thank God for the Reformation. Before the Reformation, the Gospel message of salvation had been obscured. Christians were not confident that their sins were forgiven because of what Jesus did. They were terrified of death because they thought they would be in purgatory a long, long time paying for their sins. This is why they jumped at the chance to buy indulgences authorized by the pope. They were told that as soon as they purchased an indulgence, they could send a loved one from purgatory to heaven and store up merit for themselves.
But an indulgence is not needed for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Jesus is. He stated this clearly when He said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). We call this “the Gospel in a nutshell.” This is the good news—that God the Father sent His Son to take on our flesh to save us. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life under the Law for us, and He carried all our sins to the cross to atone for them there. We are saved because of what He did and not because of anything we do. As soon as we believe this good news by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have eternal life in Him.
This runs contrary to natural human thinking. We think that since we messed up, since we sinned, we have to fix it. We have to make up for our wrongs by doing lots of good. Even we who know this is not the case still beat ourselves up over past sins. We won’t let ourselves live in the grace of God. We won’t let ourselves rejoice in His wonderful love and goodness toward us. “I have sinned too much,” we think. “My faults are too many.”
Do you realize that is just another way of saying that Jesus is not much of a Savior? If your sins are too great, if your past is too horrible for God to forgive you, then He is a very limited God, and Jesus was wasting His time on the cross. Why was Jesus there if not for you? Why did He suffer if your sins could not be forgiven? Or was He there because your sins could be forgiven? And did He rise again from the dead because your sins are forgiven? This is why He suffered, died, and rose again: to blot out all of your sins with His precious blood and to win your eternal salvation.
You’re not alone in wondering if this message of the Gospel is too good to be true. Luther wondered this. So did the Apostle Paul. Paul admitted he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of God. But, he said, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Ti. 1:14-15).
Paul spread this Gospel message all over Europe. No matter how much he was ridiculed and attacked, he would not stop preaching the good news. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is hard for us to understand how a message, a collection of certain words, could have the power to save. Our words do not have this power. But God’s words do.
In His Gospel, God reveals His righteousness. He shows us that what we could not accomplish, He accomplished for us. He tells us that we are no longer His enemies doomed to eternal destruction. Now we are His children destined for eternal life. Everything He required of us in His Law, He gives to us in His Gospel.
The Gospel message is able to do this for us because the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work through it. Just as He opened Luther’s mind and heart to understand and believe the good news of what Jesus had done, so He does the same for us. He works faith in our hearts through the Gospel, and He continues to strengthen our faith in the same way.
This faith, a gift from God, joins us to Jesus and everything He did to save us. This is why God the Father counts all who believe in His Son as righteous. We are righteous because Jesus was perfectly righteous. His righteousness covers over all our sinfulness. And because Jesus rose from the dead, never to die again, so we live in Him. Jesus Himself promised, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:26).
When the Holy Spirit led Luther to understand the truth about what God had done for him, he could not contain his joy: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Luther now realized that his sins were all forgiven, not because of anything he had done, but by faith in his Savior. “And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God,’” he said. “Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 337).
The Gospel of salvation through Jesus is our “gate to paradise” too. It is why we celebrate the Reformation. It is why we will not budge an inch from the Bible’s teaching for the sake of outward unity in the church. The Gospel is everything to us. If we lose the good news of what Jesus has done for us, we will go back to thinking salvation depends on ourselves. And then we are lost.
But as long as we have the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is at work cleansing, comforting, and strengthening us. He continues the work of reformation in our hearts just as in the church, so that we are pointed always to Jesus, our Savior.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877)
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
The Festival of the Reformation
Text: Philippians 3:17-21
In Christ Jesus, “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1Tim. 1:17), dear fellow redeemed:
Martin Luther never ran for political office. That was not really an option for him in 16th century Germany, which was governed by emperor, electors, and princes. Even if it had been, Luther was not concerned about political revolution. He was interested in the reformation of the church, a church which no longer clearly taught salvation by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. But in order for the church to go about its proper work, government also needed to recognize its God-given responsibilities and to know the limits to its authority.
Luther explained that God has established two kingdoms. One is the kingdom of God’s right hand—His heavenly kingdom—, which is the kingdom of His grace and promises. The other is the kingdom of God’s left hand—the temporal kingdom—, which operates by reason and law, by punishment and reward. “Both must be permitted to remain,” said Luther; “the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds. Neither one is sufficient in the world without the other” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, p. 92).
You and I live in both of these kingdoms at the same time. We live in the world and are governed by the laws of our country, and we belong to Christ’s spiritual kingdom, which is governed by His Word. The kingdom of the world may seem more powerful at times, but it will ultimately come to an end. God’s spiritual kingdom may seem weaker, but it will endure eternally with Jesus as its victorious Head. This is why, according to God’s command, We Respect the Authorities, but We Worship Only One King.
In 1521, Martin Luther stood before Emperor Charles V, the ruler of a good portion of Europe at that time. He had been summoned before the emperor to answer for what he had been teaching and writing over the past four years. Luther thought he would have the opportunity to explain why he taught what he did on the basis of the Scriptures. But instead, he was ordered to recant (or take back) all of it. Luther refused. How could he deny the teaching of the Bible? He said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” Was Luther right to respond in this way, or did he fail to show proper respect to the emperor, whose authority was from God?
To answer this question, we should review what the Bible says about the governing authorities. In the thirteenth chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1). The Apostle Peter wrote much the same thing in his first epistle, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (2:13-14). This clearly says that the authority of government is established by God. Just as children must honor their fathers and mothers, so citizens should honor the governing authorities (Fourth Commandment).
But there must be some limit to this authority. And there is. Government officials do not have authority from God to disregard His Commandments and abuse their power. Their responsibilities as rulers are to protect citizens from harm, preserve order in society, and uphold and support what is good. God also gives government the authority to assess taxes. As Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21; also Rom. 13:7).
God has given government no authority over His Church. Government has no authority to tell you what you may and may not believe. It has no authority to legislate what a pastor preaches from the pulpit or what parishioners confess from the pews. It has no call from God to allow one religion or set of beliefs while outlawing another. As Luther stated before Emperor Charles V, a person’s conscience is free from any directive of government. Not surprisingly, the emperor was outraged. How dare Luther ignore his demand? He ordered that he should be arrested after which he would be tried as a heretic. But the ruling Elector of Luther’s homeland secretly whisked him away to a remote castle, so that his life was spared.
Emperor Charles thought he was acting properly and within his authority by condemning Luther. In the same way, the governing authorities in our day may also threaten us and our beliefs because they think they stand on the side of justice. They think that if any progress will be made, it must be done by the efforts of mankind. Others accuse Christians and their Gospel as being the source of the world’s problems. Their goal is to silence Christians and ultimately to eliminate them. Today’s sermon text predicted this. It says that there are many who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Such people are not fit to serve in positions of authority, and yet, God lets this happen. Why?
The Christians in the Roman Empire in the first centuries A. D. must have wondered this as no less than ten waves of persecution against them swept through the land. Luther might have asked this when he was condemned by the emperor. We see government officials in our day promoting what is wrong and attacking what is good. But we are in no position to tell God what He should be doing (Rom. 11:34). God may allow wicked rulers as a judgment against an immoral land. Or He may allow it so that a sharper distinction is made between the Church and the world. Or He may use the attacks of a corrupt government to bring wandering Christians back to Him and strengthen their faith. Whatever God’s reasons and plans may be, we know that He ultimately works these things out for the good of His children (Rom. 8:28).
We must admit that when we live in times of peace, and when we are happy with our government officials, we are tempted to let down our guard as Christians. Or else we put too much trust in the officials. We think that if this or that person is elected, everything will get better. But if they are not elected, everything will be lost. As citizens of this country in God’s left hand kingdom, we have every right to support and vote for whatever policy or politician we think is best, or even to run for political office ourselves. But we must not forget where our true hope lies and where our salvation is found, that is, in Jesus.
Jesus is easy to overlook. He came in such humility that hardly anyone believed He was the Messiah sent from God. They were looking for something more – a conqueror’s disposition, a dazzling display of power, a real threat to the Roman authorities. Instead He submitted to these authorities. Even as He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hailed as a king, He did not come to threaten any earthly rulers. The only thing that worried the Roman governor Pontius Pilate about Jesus, was the prospect of sending an innocent Man to death. Pilate said to Him, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:10-11).
If God did not will the death of His only Son, Pilate could have done nothing with Him. But it was God’s will that Jesus should die for the sins of the Jewish leaders who called for His death, for the sins of Pilate, and for the sins of you and me. Jesus hardly looked the part of a king when He was led to Calvary and nailed to the cross. But the sign was right; He was the “King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19). In fact, He is the King of all. On the throne of the cross, wearing thorns for a crown, Jesus single-handedly destroyed the powers of sin, devil, and death that had ruled the world for so long. By His humble sacrifice, He won eternal life in His kingdom for you and for me and for all.
There is no ruler or government that can promise you this. The kingdom of the world can only promise riches and happiness in this life, and it rarely delivers them. Your King promises forgiveness and eternal salvation, and He freely delivers these gifts day in and day out. His grace does not depend on donations to His campaign, or to an impeccable history of loyalty to Him. He remains our merciful King no matter how much we have doubted Him or how often we have looked for help and salvation anywhere else.
Earthly kingdoms, governments, and rulers all topple, but the spiritual kingdom of Christ prevails over every enemy and continues to conquer not by force or by the sword, but only by the Gospel in God’s Word and Sacraments (Mt. 16:18). Luther wrote in his great reformation hymn that even if our enemies take away our “kindred, goods, and life, / We freely let them go, / They profit not the foe; / With us remains the kingdom” (ELH 251, v. 4).
With us remains the kingdom and its King. No matter what happens in our country in the future, we will pray for our elected officials (1Tim. 2:1-2) and obey them as far as God’s Word permits. But we will worship only one King, because “our citizenship is in heaven.” When Jesus our King returns in all His glory, the great and powerful rulers and government officials of this world will all fall to their knees and will have nothing more to say except “that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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