10-31-21 Reformation

October 31, 2021
Passage: John 8:31-36
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504 years ago today, Martin Luther posted 95 theses against the sale of indulgences on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Powerful people, bishops, pope, emperor, commanded Luther to retract what he wrote or die. But Luther wouldn’t, because Luther had a higher authority. His Lord Jesus. His Word, the Bible. The emperor could take his bodily freedom, but Jesus had already set his conscience free from all sin. The pope could put him to death, but Jesus had already given him eternal life. And so Luther stood on this Word and many joined his cause and it spread, the Gospel of salvation by faith in Christ, spread throughout the world, so that this Word that sets us free remains our hope and our highest authority today, far above princes and presidents and powers of this world. So when we celebrate the Reformation we are, on the one hand, remembering this man Martin Luther. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s certainly true that we have no business hero-worshipping Luther. He was a sinful man like the rest of us. And Luther knew this, he was the first to object to having people call themselves by his name, to people calling themselves Lutheran or talking about a Lutheran Church. Luther himself wrote:

“I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine…Neither was I crucified for anyone. … St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3, would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I – poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am – come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians.”

The name Lutheran stuck of course, despite Luther’s objections, but it stuck not because we hero-worship a man, but because we cling to the Word of the Bible that he taught.

That’s not to say Luther isn’t a hero. He is. He’s a hero of the Christian faith. It’s our nature to pick out individual men and women as our role-models. And this isn’t a bad thing. God built it into nature. I see my daughters mimicking my wife and this is a good thing. It used to be that Christian children grew up reading lives of the saints and martyrs, hearing stories about Christian men and women they could really look up to, who stood on the Word of God and suffered pain and shame and persecution and death rather than fall away. This is still what we give our children at our school to read. What a contrast from the culture of our world! Who are the role-models of today? Overpaid men who dress in tights and tackle each other? Or actors who literally spend their lives pretending they’re people they’re not and whose family lives are in shambles. Unhappy rich people. They’re the heroes of our age, because people think they want their beauty, their glory and fame and riches.

That’s pathetic. We can do better. Our children can do better. Luther was a real hero, he’s a real role-model for us and our children. We could talk about what a great father he was – that he loved and provided for his children, was there for them, wrote to them when he was away, taught them God’s word, made sure they were in church, played with them, told them stories. We could talk about how generous he was, that his wife had to plead with him to stop giving so much money away to the church and to the poor, because Luther was generous even to a fault. We’d have no trouble with finances in the church if we all took Luther as our model. We could talk about how he adored his wife, not because of her looks but because of her character and Christian conviction and because God gave her to him. And the list goes on. And for that matter we could talk about Luther’s wife Katy, how she encouraged her husband, talked God’s Word with him, raised Christian children, entertained guests, kept a garden and animals, and even made beer.

But we could talk also of Luther’s struggles, that he was far from perfect and faced the same temptations as we do. We could talk of his anxiety and his depression, his dark days when he could hardly get himself up out of bed to go do his job, or how he could lose his temper and speak and write more harshly than he wished, or how the devil racked him with doubt about God and the promise of forgiveness in Christ.

But in talking of all this, in talking of the man Martin Luther as a hero of the faith, whether about his Christian virtues or about his struggles against sin, we miss the entire point of the Reformation unless we see that everything good that we could possibly look up to in him is traced back to the Word he preached and every struggle and temptation that gave him pain in life forced him more and more to rely on this same Word and find his strength in it. This is what makes a Christian hero. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. If you continue in My Word…

And this is the great legacy of the Reformation. God’s Word is our great heritage. Our reading today from Revelation speaks of an angel trumpeting the everlasting gospel. Lutherans have traditionally identified this angel with Luther himself. But notice what the text says about this angel. Nothing. It focuses exclusively on what he said. “Fear God and give him glory.” This is the battle cry of the Reformation – soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory – not to us, not to our works, not to pope or president, but to God, who saves us by His grace alone by faith alone in what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us alone.

Or as Luther himself said: I did nothing; the Word did everything. And so it is now. If we want to live the Christian life, be Christian sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, teachers, workers, church members, and citizens, if we want to be generous with our money instead of selfish and stingy, if we want to have Christian conviction and Christian bravery and Christian virtue, if we want comfort from God when we are facing anxiety and stress and pain, if we want refuge in God when our sin weighs heavy on us and we are ashamed of what we have said and done, if we want certainty when the devil tempts us with doubt of God and fear of death and hell, then we need to abide in this Word of Jesus, this everlasting gospel.

Jesus says twice that this Word sets us free. First he says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And then he says, “So if the Son sets you free, then you will be free indeed.” So it is the truth that sets you free and it is the Son who sets you free. And this is really to say the same thing.

The Word of God we hear is the truth. The Son of God accomplished it and proved it in history. We call this the realist principle, and it’s at the heart of the Reformation. Everything we believe is real. We don’t just hope, we don’t just wish it to be true, we don’t just feel that it’s real. No, God did it, on this earth, in our flesh. And because He did it, because Jesus walked this earth and said and did what the Bible says he said and did, because he lived the perfect life in our place, and died the death of God as the sacrifice to end God’s anger at our sin, because he really rose again the third day, we are really free from sin, really free from death. The pronouncement of our forgiveness is real, the body and blood of Christ given for the forgiveness of our sins is real, and we are really children of God, really free from all guilt and punishment for our very real sins.

This is the truth. The Son, who is God Himself, He did this, He so loved us, He sets us free. And this sets before us with beautiful clarity what St. Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson, that it is by no work of ours. The Son has done this. God Himself has bled and died to buy you back from the slavery of sin and death and hell. So the freedom Jesus speaks is a certainty. If it depended on us, we would fail and fall, as our hymn confesses, “With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected, but for us fights the valiant one whom God himself elected. Ask ye, who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God. He holds the field forever.”

This is why we hold so insistently to this beautiful truth, that faith alone justifies, declares us righteous before God, saves us, because faith grasps hold of Christ alone. And because He alone has done it, it is sure and certain, and we can say and really mean, “The Lord is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore I will not fear.”

This is why we celebrate the Reformation. We are celebrating our freedom. And it’s a freedom the world had nearly lost until God raised up this man, Martin Luther, to preach it again. This is no political freedom that can be taken away by stupid voters or self-serving politicians; it’s the freedom a father gives to his son, the freedom our Father gives to us because His Son is our Brother. This freedom is a heavenly nobility, the status of belonging to the divine family, God’s family. And not as a slave, but as a son, as a child. The slave has to work to stay in the house, but the son works because he’s already in the house. The slave has to earn the affection of his master, but the son has no such worry, he knows his father loves him. We are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And if sons than heirs, heirs of God and coheirs with Christ.

Freedom is not license to sin. Freedom is not getting away with doing bad things. Freedom is being a son of God. Sons live by the rules of the house, but these are their rules, not some foreign rules imposed on them. My son lives by the rules of my house: he eats at the table with us, he listens to God’s Word read with us, he prays with us every evening, sings hymns, works hard to bring in firewood for the stove, pays his mother respect, treats his siblings with compassion, obeys his father’s commands, asks for and receives forgiveness when he does wrong, and none of these things are burdensome – they become simply the way he lives His life, willingly, happily, because my house is his house and his house is my house. So is our freedom under God our Father. We belong to His household and the rules of His house are simply wonderful. We eat at his table, we speak and pray to Him, we hear His Word, we sing His praises, we pay His Church, our mother, the respect she deserves and we don’t absent ourselves from her, we show compassion and love to our brothers and sisters, we obey our Father’s commands, and when we fail, we ask for and receive forgiveness from His hand. And we do this with perfect freedom, not because we are paying some slavish obedience to a taskmaster, but because Jesus has set us free precisely to live as sons of our Father.

This is what it means to be disciples. Unapologetic partisans of our Lord Jesus. No politician, no theologian, no health guru, no priest of science, no pope, no authority on this earth has done for us what our Lord Jesus has done or can give to us what He gives. He has lived for us and died for us. He has joined us to Himself, made us partakers of His glory, made His Father our Father, given us His Spirit, made us to eat of His lifegiving body and blood, because He loves us. So our allegiance is to Him. The disciple stands with his teacher. His Word is our final authority. And He will not fail us. This body will fail, this mind will fail, this world and all its kingdoms will fail, but the Word of the Lord endures forever; our victry has been won: the Kingdom ours remaineth.

Let us pray:
Shine in our hearts, O Spirit, precious light;
Teach us Jesus Christ to know aright
That we may abide in the Lord who bought us,
Till to our true home He has brought us.
Lord, have mercy! Amen.

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