Reformation Day (Observed) 2020
October 25, 2020
Matthew 11:12–19 (Romans 3:19-28
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, X and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Festival of the Reformation is remembered by us at Redeemer annually on the Sunday before October 31. October 31 is the eve of All Saints’ Day. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg to start a conversation about the nature of Salvation. He may not have stated it exactly like that when he nailed the theses to the door that evening, but he wanted to start a public conversation about the practice of selling indulgences – pieces of paper that Christians could buy that supposedly took years off of Purgatory and paved the way to heaven. But the underlying issue with selling indulgences was salvation—how sinners become righteous.
We scoff at the Roman Catholics because they dared think that they could buy salvation with a piece of paper—through a work, which is, by definition, works righteousness. But we would do better to turn our wagging fingers back on ourselves. They took sin and hell seriously. For the most part those who bought those pieces of paper were fearful of going to hell and wanted to be with God in heaven. They were misguided by the teachers and bishops at the time to their own works and the works of the Saints and away from Christ, to be sure. For that, the Roman Catholic Church is rightly criticized, even to this day. But do we fear sin and hell as we should? By emphasizing salvation in Christ by the grace of God alone apart from our works, we dare not stop taking sin seriously, because it is serious.
Sinners apart from Christ go to hell. Hell is eternity without God. We were born at enmity with God. We were born under the condemning law. We were born in sin and death. That’s what original sin means, and all sin leads to death. We should rightly be fearful of that. We must have the Law satisfied for us if we are to have any hope of going to heaven. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). If it’s not by our works and not buying pieces of paper, or by giving offerings, or by being nice to people, or caring for the environment, or voting for the right politician, then how do we go to heaven? It’s only by God’s grace, only by Jesus’s righteous death being applied to our account. Only those born anew in the body of Christ can go to heaven.
The Law shows us our sin. It’s a mirror. It is a necessary part of God’s plan to save the world. The Law hasn’t been abolished by Jesus but highlighted as a tool that shows us our need for a Savior. If sinners insist on trying to justify themselves, they will constantly run to a Law that cannot save. Don’t scoff at the desire for self-justification. It is strong in your sinful man. It may not look like it did in medieval Catholicism, but it’s alive and well in all of us. Our self-justifying efforts are exposed when we hold people around us to double standards of moral behavior, when we expect others to think or act in a particular way, while giving ourselves allowances on the same thoughts or behaviors. It’s even self-justifying when we shirk our prayers, when we despise the Word of God, as if there are other ways to salvation. We have to fight against this daily. Stop looking down your nose at your neighbor. Stop pushing off your devotions and prayers. Salvation is only in Christ, and Christ is only found in His Word and Sacraments, and being a Christian affects our thoughts and our actions.
The law of God condemns the whole world as guilty. It silences every excuse. It contradicts every denial. St. Paul says “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” God’s Law teaches us what true love requires. We have not loved as God demands. We have hated, lusted, coveted, and harbored malicious judgments in our hearts. We have worshipped idols of our own making and have despised God’s Word. We have even sought to justify these things with convoluted arguments.
But St. Paul goes on: “Now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.”
The righteousness of God for us is known and received apart from our keeping of the Law. It is a righteousness that we don’t do, but receive. It is apart from our works of the law, apart from our obedience to the law, and connected to THE Obedient One. It is a righteousness that Jesus has accomplished for us.
There can be no righteousness if no one has done anything righteous. But the God of righteousness became man and placed Himself under the Law, being obedient in our place to the point of death. He is the righteous one. God demands genuine righteousness before He will justify anyone. So for us, we receive this righteousness done on our behalf by being pronounced righteous because of Christ’s sacrifice. That’s the Gospel. It is a declaration that says you are righteous. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom. 3:22b-25).
This is the righteousness witnessed to us by Moses and the prophets. The entire Old Testament pointed forward to this righteousness. It is the righteousness of God. It is done by Jesus, true God and true man for us. And it is truly ours, not by our obedience, but through faith in our Savior. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ has this righteousness. This is what the Reformation was about. It was not some silly squabble about insignificant words or cliches. It was central to the Christian faith. And because it is central to the Christian faith, we still must consider these things.
The Law does not save us, but neither is it undone or nullified. It is fulfilled in Christ who is a propitiation, a mercy seat to, us who receive it by faith. Jesus’ righteousness is without flaw. Jesus’ righteousness comes not only from the fact that he is God in the flesh and therefore inherently righteous and without sin. He is righteous because He earned it. He did it. He obeyed. He loved with a perfect love. He did what the law demanded. He did it as our substitute. In His righteousness He suffered what we sinners deserved to suffer. And in His mercy, He applied to us what rightly belonged only to Him—God’s righteousness; and by it, we are saved. This is grace. It is undeserved. It is pure gift.
But now what? The Reformation question today is not really how we obtain righteousness, but how we act righteously. Christ’s righteousness is real, and it has been given to us. That changes things. We are no longer slaves to our sins. How do those who are “justified by his grace” now act and live? We are to act righteously to our neighbors. We are to love our parents, our spouses, our children, our rulers, our pastors. We are to go to church, hear God’s Word, receive the sacrament, recall our Baptisms, receive absolution, pray, praise, and give thanks. And we are to look to the fulfilled Law for all moral behavior.
Luther didn’t discover the law or the gospel. Luther struggled to uncover the gospel that lay hidden underneath all sorts of false teachings and human traditions. But in so doing, he did not, then cover up the Law. Luther sought out the instruction of God’s Word, in Law AND Gospel. The one is not undone at the proper teaching and application of the other. In both, the righteousness of God on our behalf is revealed to our salvation. May God help us apply these things to ourselves today.
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.