In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. John 8:31-32 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Dear fellow Reformation saints, made so by Christ Jesus our Lord… Someone once summarized the entire Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century as a reformation of the Sacrament of Penance. Today, Reformation Sunday, we should ask ourselves, “Why are we Lutheran?” But along with that question, we should ask another: “Are we Lutheran?”
If it is true that the entire Reformation can be seen as really a reformation of the Sacrament of Penance, we should look at our own church life, family life, and personal life in that light. The theology of Penance to which Luther and the Reformers were responding was one that saw Penance as an action to be performed. Going to the priest for confession had become a mechanical act where the mouth confessed but the heart was not changed. The sale of indulgences meant that forgiveness could be purchased with money or by doing good deeds.
But now that we Reformation Christians have the Gospel, is the situation better, or worse? Claus Harms, a Lutheran of the nineteenth century, wrote, “The forgiveness of sins at least required monetary payment during the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth it costs nothing. Now men serve themselves with it. They at that time stood higher than us, they were nearer to God.” How can he say that? He can say that because they recognized that sin costs something. We mock and criticize that they paid money for the forgiveness of sins. But at least they realized that sin came at a price! Do we believe that?
Are we better off than the medieval peasant who went to the priest for confession? Or do we take confession itself for granted? Do we saunter in here, speak a mindless confession along with the crowd on Sunday morning, and suppose that we can live reprehensibly? Does the general absolution gives you a kind of amnesty to keep on with the selfishness, keep on with the pride, keep on with the porn, keep on with the gossip, keep bearing grudges, keep ignoring your neighbor? Is that what the Reformation has given us?
By no means, my friend. And do not think that real peace comes from learning to forgive yourself. The great theologian Hermann Sasse said, “He who forgives himself his sins is his own God” – in other words, if you forgive yourself, you make yourself a god. It is the worst kind of idolatry!
The Lutheran Reformation recovered for the church that all-important truth that penance, or repentance, is a comprehensive attitude of the entire life of the believer. The very first of Martin Luther’s now infamous 95 theses states: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is not a one-time thing, not a one-shot deal. Rather, it is the very life of the believer, the very substance of our daily life.
That great Reformation document, the Augsburg Confession, declares: “True repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest.” (AC XII:3-5)
The Reformation did not intend to create a new church or denomination. The Reformation at its core was not about dethroning the Pope. The Reformers would gladly have continued submitting to the Pope by human arrangement for the sake of good order on the condition that he would allow the Gospel to be purely preached.
The Reformation, therefore, was all about ensuring that the church proclaimed true repentance to the people, and pointed those people to Jesus who has taken away their sins by His death.
So why are we Lutheran? We are Lutheran not because Lutherans are perfect. We are Lutheran not because Lutherans are smarter than anyone else. No one should be a Lutheran out of ethnic pride or because Dad and Mom were Lutherans or because you married into it.
We are Lutheran because we firmly and truly believe that the doctrine of the Lutheran Church, as found in the Book of Concord, is the only confession that remains entirely faithful to the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. The Book of Concord is a true exposition of God’s Word and because of that we willingly bind ourselves to it, second only to the Scriptures themselves.
When folks are confirmed and when folks become members of this congregation, they are asked this question: “Do you believe that the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as you have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, is faithful and true to the Word of God?” And the answer, based on catechesis and faith is, “Yes, I believe.”
So what is that doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church? Well, it is not simply a collection of facts; rather, it is the doctrine that we are sinners saved entirely by God’s grace, through faith in Christ’s work on the cross.
To be a Christian, therefore, we must take every part of that sentence seriously. “We are sinners.” Do you take seriously what a problem your sins are? It is true and we know that as long as we are in this sinful body we must struggle against our sins. But at the same time we must realize that our struggle is never where our trust is. If it is, then your trust is in yourself.
Here is where faith comes in. Faith is not an emotion. Faith is not having confidence. Faith is not a pie-in-the-sky certainty that everything will work out. Faith is not a blind leap. Faith always has an object. As Christians, our faith has its object in Jesus. True Christian faith is not a blind trust, but it is grounded in the objective reality of the death of Jesus, the certainty that in Him sins are forgiven, death is defeated, Satan is stripped of his power, and that God has had mercy on us.
So the Christian lives constantly aware of two things: One – My sins are dreadful, they offend God, they damn me, and I wish to be rid of them. But two, at the same time, I am serene and confident in the knowledge that God loves me and forgives me all for the sake of Jesus. And we know this not by our feelings, not by our emotions, not even by a decision we can make. We know this unconditionally and absolutely because of the objective work of Jesus on the cross, and in the tangible ways in which He delivers the benefits of that death to me: in the Means of Grace – in my Baptism, in Holy Absolution, in the preached Gospel, and in the Holy Supper.
In Baptism we have the certainly not only of sins forgiven, but also that we are rescued from death and the devil, and that we have eternal salvation through Christ.
In Holy Absolution we have the certainly to the deliverance not just of some words but the real and true forgiveness of sins, from the pastor, as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by that word of Absolution our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
And in the Lord’s Supper we have not just bread and wine, but Jesus’ real and true body and blood delivered along with the bread and wine. And since it really and truly IS Christ’s body and blood, His forgiveness, life, and salvation are delivered with them. Let no one ever tell you otherwise!
In these things and in these truths we abide in Jesus’ Words and we are indeed His disciples. In these things and in these truths we are most certainly set free – free to live the forgiven life in Christ and to look forward with absolute certainty to the life of the world to come.
Today, then, we thank God for the Reformers. We celebrate the Reformation not out of party spirit or because we hate Catholicism and enjoy bashing the pope. We celebrate the Reformation in a spirit of grateful humility that God still allows His good news of forgiveness to be preached to us. And, dear fellow redeemed, we ask that He would preserve His Church on earth for the sake of Christ so that many more might hear the pure doctrine that God forgives sinners all by grace through faith in Jesus.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.