John 8: 31-36; Romans 3: 19-28
Let me ask you a question. What are some of the things that you like to celebrate? Anybody? (Birthdays; anniversaries; holidays – Christmas, 4th of July)
Those are all good things. And like all good things, we have a special event that we are celebrating today – an event that took place 500 years ago – 500 years! – this Tuesday, October 31st. For it was on October 31st, 1517, that a single, solitary monk by the name of Martin Luther, challenged the teachings of the church. In a document Luther wrote and which we now call the 95 Theses, Luther challenged the church’s practices and beliefs. And all he was asking for by nailing these 95 theses to the door of the castle church – or so the tradition tells us – in Wittenberg Germany, was to invite leaders of the church to a debate based upon these 95 points. That event – and the movement that it sparked – is what we celebrate today. The Reformation – The Reformation of the Church.
It is a long story, and it can be somewhat complicated – but let’s just say that the church of Luther’s day was not open to being challenged by this upstart monk. Luther was not listened to, in fact he was labeled a heretic – and he was excommunicated. In other words, he was kicked out of the church by the pope.
But by then it was too late. The fires of the Lutheran Reformation could not be stopped. It spread across much of Germany, and later into the countries of Scandinavia. Other reformers – taking their cue from the boldness of Luther – and probably from the fact that Luther was not burned at the stake – well – that’s what the church did with heretics back then – other reformers and other denominations soon arose in various parts of Europe as well.
It is not just the person of Luther and his bold stand that reformed the church that makes me proud to be a Lutheran. More to the point, it is the contribution to our faith that Luther made. Part of my seminary education Included two years at a Roman Catholic seminary – and the Franciscan Friar who taught church history – when he taught about Luther and the Reformation summarized the lesson with these words – and I will never forget this – this Franciscan Friar – this Roman Catholic priest said, “Luther was right.”
So what was it that Luther got right? More than what we have time for today, let me tell you. SO let me try to keep this simple. There are five slogans or phrases that came out of the Reformation. Each one of these slogans has the word “alone” in it. So are you ready? Here they are:
To the glory of God alone.
The five alones. Or the five solas. Where sola is the Latin word for only or alone. And we start with Scripture alone because all of the other alones come out of the Scriptures.
Luther was a Bible scholar. Especially when it came to understanding the book of Romans. In a time when scripture and the tradition of the church ruled what the church taught and how people were to live – Luther taught us to go back to the Bible – back to the Scriptures – alone. Why? Because the tradition could not be trusted. The traditions were created by human beings – and where they contrasted to the clear teachings of scripture – Luther rejected the tradition. Luther had a Latin phrase for this. He called it “Sola Scriptura” or “the Word Alone.”
And much of what Luther discovered from the Bible – teachings that became obscured because of some of the traditions of the church – he discovered in the book of Romans. I love the book of Romans. One of our readings today is from the 3rd chapter of Romans – and what we discover here is the heart of the Gospel – the heart of the Good News – especially the very last line in today’s reading. Listen!
“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
Look folks, there are a lot of big church words that we heard earlier in that complete reading from Romans 3. But let’s focus on just one of those words for a moment. The word, “Justify.” Listen. That’s just a fancy word to say that we are made right with God – not because we are doers of good deeds – not because we obey the 10 Commandments – like anybody could ever do that anyway – no. To be justified – is to be made right with God – through faith alone. Faith believes; faith receives; and faith trusts. So faith is simply believing – believing that you are made right with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You are made right with God – you are made righteous – and your righteousness has nothing to do with what you have done, but what Christ has done for you. And it comes to you as a gift – received by faith. Faith alone.
By the way – raise your hand if you think you are righteous. Aww, every hand ought to go up. If you believe that in Christ you are declared to be righteous – and I know – we look at ourselves and we think, “Oh, Pastor Randy. If you only knew.” Well, I do know. I know that I am a sinner in need of forgiveness. And the righteousness that is mine is given to me as a gift. This is not something that I accomplished on my own. And I just accept that truth. I accept it by faith. I simply believe that what the Scriptures say about this true. To do otherwise would be to call God a liar.
Luther had a Latin phrase for this too. He called it “Sola Fide”– Faith alone. So now we’ve got the Word alone, and we have Faith alone.
And then there is grace alone. Grace alone. Those of you who have been here any length of time, you know what the definition of grace is that I like to use. So if you know it, say it with me. Grace is “God’s undeserved love and favor.” Say that again. “God’s undeserved love and favor.”
Ephesians 2:8 and 9 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith. In other words, we are saved from sin, death and the power of the devil by grace alone through faith alone. Luther called this “Sola Gratia.” Grace alone.
And since the Scriptures tell us that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, what this means is that we are not able on our own – no matter how good we think we are or try to be – we are not able to save ourselves. And this is where the fourth alone comes in. All of this is possible only through the work of Christ alone. And yes, Luther had a Latin phrase for that too. Solus Christus. Christ alone. Only Jesus Christ – through his life – through his death – and through his resurrection from the dead – only Jesus can do this for us. Jesus is the only Savior, and only he can reconcile us to God.
And that brings up the fifth alone. All of this is for the glory of God alone. Soli Deo Gloria. For the glory of God alone.
Listen! I know that I am giving you a lot of information today. And information is important. But far more important than information – is transformation. Preaching that imparts information is merely a lecture. Real preaching leads to transformation. It is my hope that you are being touched today by the things – the same things – that transformed Luther’s life. By the things that transform every believer’s life. These five alones – Scripture – faith – grace – Christ – the glory of God – these are the things that I trust you are taking to heart – because these are the things that lie at the heart of the Gospel.
And the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – leads to transformation – the transformed life in the here and now. We start with the understanding that there is a great divide between us and God. We start knowing that we are sinners – sinners in need of forgiveness. But at the heart of the Gospel – at the heart of the good news – is an understanding that if we will allow God to do His work through us – our very lives will be transformed. We will be changed. And we will turn away from those things that tear our lives apart, that separate us from each other, and keep us separated from God. The heart of the Gospel reminds us that we are not sufficient in and of ourselves to overcome these separations.
There is a story that goes like this. “A man approaches heaven’s gate. St. Peter asks, ‘What’s the password?’ The man quotes John 3:16. Peter says, ‘Nice try, but wrong.’ The man quotes John 3:17. Peter says, ‘Nice try, but wrong.’ The man recites the 23rd Psalm. Peter says, ‘Nice try, but wrong.’ Helplessly, the man blurts out, ‘Well, then, I give up!’ And Peter says, ‘That’s it.’ Peter extends his hand to the man and welcomes into heaven.”
Folks, that’s grace. That’s a picture of God’s undeserved love and favor. Someday we too will be taken by the hand and led into heaven itself. But grace also says that we are saved now – from our slavery to sin now – when we simply give up trying to get into heaven on our own. When we give up and realize that it is by God’s grace – in other words – it is by God’s undeserved love and favor – alone – received through faith alone. It’s not because of what I’ve done, but because of what Christ has done. Not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. This is the truth, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel lesson today – this is the truth that sets us free.
Earlier I said that I wanted to keep this simple. I don’t know if I have done that or not. But hey – you even got a Latin lesson thrown in too! And today, I’m giving that Latin lesson away to you as a freebie!
So on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation – what was true for Luther is still true for us today. We are Christians first – and in our understanding of what it means to be a Christian – we have a rich heritage – a rich Lutheran heritage – that I for one, am proud of.
It is a heritage based on the Scripture alone that tells us we are saved through faith alone, by grace alone, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ alone, for the glory of God alone!