Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 3, 2008

Sermon for the Commemoration of the Reformation

REGAIN AN APPRECIATION FOR THE REFORMATION
1. Christ is not insufficient
2. Faith in Christ is fully sufficient

Text: Galatians 5:1-6

Service Note

The Hymn of the Day, sung immediately before this sermon, was “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (Christian Worship #390).  Stanzas one and five (from the version in Christian Worship) are quoted in the sermon’s conclusion.

Introduction

Pastor Paul Speratus wrote that hymn, originally 14 stanzas long, in or around the fall of 1523 while he was in prison for his strong stand as a gospel preacher during the early Lutheran Reformation.  Though not as well known as Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress”, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” is one of the oldest, best known, and clearest Lutheran hymns that confesses the message of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.  The story is told that when Martin Luther first heard this hymn sung by a street-singer outside his window, he shed tears of joy because its message was so beautiful.

Perhaps the only tears you shed in connection with that hymn were the tears of sorrow when you saw that we were going to sing all six stanzas of the version in Christian Worship.  Perhaps there were no chills down your spine when you stood and faced the processional cross as the melodies of “A Mighty Fortress” came from the organ at the start of worship.  Perhaps nothing struck you as particularly profound when you heard pivotal statements read from Luther’s 95 Theses, interspersed with related Scripture verses spoken by the assembly.  Perhaps our celebration of the 491st anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation of the Church doesn’t stir up an appreciation for the gospel like it did a generation or two ago.  Perhaps we need to regain an appreciation for the Reformation.

This morning, I propose that we do that!  Let’s regain an appreciation for the Reformation.  We’re not going to do that through a history lesson or a chancel drama.  We’re not primarily concerned about singing Luther’s hymns or reading more excerpts from the 95 Theses or picking on the Roman Catholic Church for persecuting Martin Luther.  That would miss the point.  Let’s regain an appreciation for the Reformation by focusing on the message for which Luther put his life on the line to restore in the church.  That message was the forgiveness of sins through faith-and faith alone-in the saving work of Jesus Christ.  And that message is not only the message of the Lutheran Reformation, but it is first and foremost the message of the Scriptures.  As we study the words that St. Paul recorded in today’s Second Lesson (Galatians 5:1-6), we will hear about a first-century church controversy that closely parallels the sixteenth century church controversy that ultimately led to the Lutheran Reformation of the Church.  Let’s study Paul’s words in Galatians, and in the process, let’s regain an appreciation for the Reformation.

I.

Sometimes we can learn an important lesson from a Bible subject that seems like it has nothing to do with modern life.  Here’s an example.  In a couple of places in the New Testament, the apostle Paul talks about eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol, a pagan god.  What on earth could we learn from that?  Actually, quite a bit!  Paul raised the topic to teach Christians that, even if a particular action isn’t wrong, we need to be cautious about what we do.  If something we do causes someone else to be offended or confused, then we ought to refrain from whatever action it is so that we don’t harm someone’s faith.  At first, the subject sounds like it doesn’t say much to us today, but after further review, it says quite a bit.

We have a similar issue in our reading.  Paul raises the issue of circumcision.  What on earth could that have to do with the Christian faith in the modern world?  It seems irrelevant at first glance, but the first-century controversy surrounding this issue threatened the gospel.  Listen to Paul’s words from our Second Lesson.  “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”

The first century Christian controversy about circumcision has absolutely nothing to do with the twenty-first century discussion about whether or not it is medically necessary or beneficial.  The first century issue had to do with an Old Testament custom.  The Old Testament practice of circumcision was something God himself had mandated.  It was, in a sense, the Old Testament equivalent of Baptism.  This was God’s way of repeating his promise that, through the offspring of the Jews, the Savior would eventually come.  So at one point in history, God commanded his people to observe this practice.

Once Jesus had come, the religious necessity of the practice no longer existed.  God had no reason to insist on a practice that was designed to get people thinking about a future offspring from the Jewish blood line when that future offspring, Jesus, had already come, done his work, saved the world from sin, and returned to heaven.  If Jews wanted to continue the practice, that would have been fine, but to insist that you must continue the practice or else you’re not a Christian-that was going too far.  Yet there were people who were doing just that.  There were people among the Galatians who insisted that this Old Testament sacrament be turned into a New Testament law.  There were people among the Galatians who said, “Yes, Jesus’ shed blood on the cross paid for your sin, but that blood wasn’t enough.  You’ve got to keep these Old Testament customs as well if you want to be forgiven and end up in heaven.”  There were people among the Galatians who taught and believed that Christ was not sufficient for our salvation.

Can you see why this reading was chosen for Reformation Sunday?  The first century controversy about circumcision resulted from people who thought that Christ was insufficient to make us right with God, and that we had to do something ourselves to get right with God.  The sixteenth century controversy about indulgences was no different.  The church of Luther’s day taught people that they had to do something more to get right with God.  They had to earn plenty of brownie points with God and perhaps even buy indulgences, special certificates authorized by Rome that promised forgiveness of sins for the buyer or a relative.  Christ was not sufficient.  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was said to be insufficient from bringing a soul from earth to heaven.

Does the same controversy exist in the twenty-first century?  I will venture to say that it doesn’t, and yet it does.  I don’t hear many voices in the church suggesting that Christ is not sufficient to save us or make us right with God.  What I hear are voices saying that it’s time to move on to something more exciting than a tired old message that got people worked up in the medieval Reformation era.  Skeptics laugh at the idea that God send his own Son to atone for the world’s sins.  Some Christians twist and manipulate the Scriptures so that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is turned into a mystical story with a moral meaning.  And other Christians, perhaps you and I among them, will shed no tears of joy at a hymn like “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” but only yawns of boredom, because we know that already.  Skepticism, manipulation, and boredom at the greatest historical drama the world has ever seen!

Who would have thought that so many people for so many different reasons could have come to the same conclusion so many times, that Christ is somehow insufficient?  Christ is thought to be insufficient for salvation, insufficient for our intellect, or insufficient to keep our attention.  But if Christ is insufficient, where do we stand with God?  Can you hear Paul’s words echoing in the back of your minds?  “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. … You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”

II.

If you have even a modest acquaintance with the Lutheran Church, you probably know the three Latin phrases that sum up the message of the Lutheran Reformation: sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone).  We are forgiven and made right with God purely by the grace, or undeserved love, that went into action when God sent Jesus Christ to die for the world’s sin on the cross and to defeat death three days later.  We learn about that message only in Scripture, and the only thing needed to receive that gift from God is faith in Jesus.  That message was restored to the church in the Lutheran Reformation.

In our Second Lesson, the sola fide aspect of the Lutheran Reformation is highlighted.  While others were tempted to think that they could perform some ritual or follow some custom to make themselves right with God, Paul said that faith in Christ was sufficient to make us right with God.  “By faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

“Ignore all those people who are telling you that you need to establish your relationship with God,” Paul told his readers.  “We’ve got something better.  The Holy Spirit has led us to eagerly look forward to the day when sin is gone and we are united with God.  Do you think some minor surgery is going to make you right with God?  Not at all!  Jesus has made us right with God.  Know that!  Believe that!  The faith that’s in ours heart will show up in our lives now and will especially show up when Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours for all eternity.”  That was Paul’s message for his readers.  And that message, loud and clear, announced that faith in Christ-and faith alone-is sufficient for salvation.

Maybe that message hasn’t seemed so stellar lately because we know it so well.  Familiarity breeds contempt, so the saying goes, and maybe our familiarity with the gospel causes our sinful nature to take it for granted.  But take another look at this message!  Look at what Paul says in our reading.  Faith in Christ is sufficient for our salvation!  When the big questions about life after this life track you down, you don’t have to guess or wonder or worry.  You know the answers!  You know that God graciously sent his one and only Son into a world full of sinners and walked in this world without sin.  You know that Jesus Christ then walked the road to the cross and offered that sinless life into death, enduring hell in the process, all on your behalf.  You know that Jesus did not remain in the grave, but on the third day he conquered death and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.  And you know that the keys to heaven, the forgiveness of your sins, have already been handed to you because the Holy Spirit has planted that faith and knowledge in your heart.

Can we ever tire of this message?  Can we ever shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s nice, but let’s move on to something new”?  Can we ever yawn and think that the timeless gospel is yesterday’s news?  I pray that isn’t so.  I pray that God fills us with child-like wonder at the gospel’s good news of peace with God and grace from God.  I pray that we will never say “Enough!” when it comes to hearing about Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, or contemplating the miracle of baptism, or anticipating the meal of Christ’s forgiveness.  I pray that God uses his Word and sends his Spirit into our hearts so that we regain an appreciation for the Reformation.  I pray that God gives us the strength of Martin Luther who stood up to the church when the church was not standing on the gospel.  And I pray that God gives us the heart of Martin Luther who cherished forgiveness and grace so much that the mention of it in a hymn would bring tears of joy to his eyes.

Conclusion

Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor.
Good works cannot avert our doom;
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is the one Redeemer.

Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation
Your grace, alone, dear Lord, I plead;
Your death is now my life indeed,
For you have paid my ransom.

Amen.

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Responses

  1. That’s a great Reformation sermon – thanks for sharing it. Sounds like a neat service you had. Reminds me that I ought to go read the 95 Theses. Can you tell me more about the processional cross? Do you use that for every service, or just special occasions? I appreciate ceremonial things like that, but I know it takes some getting used to for people not familiar with those customs.

  2. Hi Cindy,

    Thanks for your kind words. Here are some quick responses to your questions and comments.

    We usually put together a special order of service for festival occasions, although the overall flow of the service isn’t much different from a typical Sunday morning. We have used a processional cross for “bigger” festivals — Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, Pentecost, Reformation, and some other occasions. One of our young people carries the cross through the assembly as the opening hymn is sung, and then carries it out during the closing hymn.

    I know that, in some parts of the country, a procession might be viewed as an attempt to look Roman Catholic. While that has never been the reasoning behind a processional cross, if people had that impression, I don’t think I’d push the practice on them, but I would try to teach them so that they wouldn’t be stuck with a false connection between the processional cross and the Roman Catholic Church. In the part of the country I’m in and in the church I serve, people don’t seem to make those connections. My experience is that people here see this as respectful, as a chance to meaningfully involve our teens in worship, and as “artful.”

    That’s not a thorough discussion of the issue, but I hope that addresses your points satisfactorily.


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