The Burning Question Behind the Reformation

Sermon for Reformation Day

Romans 3:21-28  +  John 8:31-36

We’re here today celebrating the Lutheran Reformation because of a question.  Now, there were many questions floating around in 1517 that needed answering: From where does the pope get his authority – from God or from man?  Is the Christian faith founded on Scripture alone or is it founded just as much on the traditions of the Church and the decisions of Church Councils?  Should priests be able to get married?  Should the laity be able to receive both the bread and the wine in Holy Communion?  All good questions, questions that the Reformation would answer.

But at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation there lies a single question, a question that drove Martin Luther, that haunted him, that plagued him until he found an answer to it in Holy Scripture. And when he found the answer, it became the question that fueled the entire Reformation and that led to the answer of every other question, too.  The Lutheran Church exists today – you and I call ourselves Lutherans today because of this one question, the burning question behind the Reformation:  How can a sinner stand before a righteous God?

It’s a question that almost seems irrelevant in today’s world. Who cares about such things anymore?  Sin, righteousness, one’s standing before God – don’t we have more pressing things to worry about, like world hunger, drugs addiction, the border, the economy, the education of our children, health care, what time the game is on today …  ?  But Luther knew the truth: every other question is a distraction. How can a sinner stand before a righteous God? Answer that question correctly and every other question finds its answer. Fail to answer that question correctly, and everything else is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

How can a sinner stand before a righteous God?  The Apostle Paul lays out the answer beautifully in the Book of Romans.  First, he explains how God’s holy Law summons all people into God’s courtroom and places them before God’s tribunal of justice.  And here in this tribunal God doesn’t search his books and count up good deeds vs. bad deeds.  He doesn’t bother comparing one person with another, or handing out grades like A, B, B-, C+, D or F.  The verdict of God’s law is very simple. Either you kept it or you didn’t.  Righteous or wicked! Anyone who has ever broken any of God’s commandments in thought, word or deed, or even by the corrupt, sinful nature with which all people are born – stands accused, convicted and condemned.

Yes, that includes the wicked, immoral world out there.  But it also includes the wickedness that lives “in here (in the church)” and “in here (in the heart),” in the most faithful churchgoer, in the most generous offering-giver, in the nicest and kindest men and women and children in our midst.  God’s Law is merciless and final.  The soul that sins shall die, and all have sinned.  Before the tribunal of God’s justice, every mouth is stopped and the whole world held accountable to God.

The heart that is thus convicted before the tribunal of God’s justice anxiously seeks where and how it can be freed from the verdict of the Law, where and how the demands of God’s holy Law can be met.  How can the sinner stand before a righteous God?  The Roman Catholic doctrine offered several options, and Luther tried most of them, to no avail.  Purchase a Mass to be said for you.  That’ll help to appease God’s justice.  Follow the right ceremonies in the Mass, say enough prayers to the saints, touch their relics and they may speak to the Judge on your behalf.  Get thee to a nunnery or a monastery.  Make a pilgrimage to Rome.  Buy an indulgence. Maybe then God’s justice won’t come down so hard on you.

That’s called “false hope.”  It was a lie.  As the hymn verse says, “It was a false, misleading dream that God his Law had given that sinners could themselves redeem and by their works gain heaven.”  This is what the Scriptures call the “slavery of the Law.”  It’s slavery because you were born into it and you were trapped in it.  It’s slavery because all you can do before the tribunal of God’s justice is work and work to appease the judge, but as with any slave, none of your work pays off.  None of your works can set you free.  At the end of the day the sentence remains unchanged: accused, convicted and condemned. 

How then can a sinner stand before a righteous God?  Before the tribunal of God’s justice, he can’t. By works of the law no human being will be justified

And so, what God did, what Luther finally understood, was this: God has not closed the tribunal of justice or changed the rules in it.  Instead, he has opened up another courtroom, a second tribunal.  It’s the “truth” Jesus told his disciples about in the Gospel, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 

What is this truth?  It’s that God, in his mercy, offered Jesus as a “propitiation” through faith in his blood.  That’s a technical Bible word we really have to understand.  A propitiation is that which satisfies the demands of God’s holy Law, that which satisfies the Judge.  What it took to satisfy the Judge so that a second tribunal could be opened was the humble obedience of a Man who was more than a man – a Man who was – and is! – God and Man in the same Person.  What it took to satisfy the Judge for the sins of all men was the blood – the sufferings and death of the Son of God.

Actually the word “propitiation” in our text literally means the “place of propitiation,” the place where God’s righteous wrath is satisfied.  Christ is the Seat of Mercy, the Throne of Grace.  Christ Jesus himself is the second tribunal, the throne of grace.  “The Son of God pleads for us the benefit of being called away from the tribunal of justice to the throne of grace,” so that all who flee to him in faith are no longer judged in the tribunal of justice, but in the tribunal of grace. There they are forgiven from all the condemnation that justice required.  There God credits to them the righteousness of His Son, and so justifies them – declares them righteous, receives them into His grace and judges them to be heirs with Christ of eternal life.

The burning question behind the Reformation has found its answer:  How can a sinner stand before a righteous God?  Only through faith in Christ Jesus our Righteousness, our Throne of Grace.

That was Luther’s answer, and it was the answer of everyone who followed him in opposing the pope in Rome.  It was the answer of priests and princes, of poor farmers and handmaids.   It is this answer for which Christians have faced death for two thousand years, beginning with Christ himself.  It is this answer for which churches have been burned down or closed, ministers have been threatened or imprisoned or deposed, Christian have lost their families, their livelihoods, their lives – for answering this question as Luther did. 

If you abide in my word, Jesus says, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. You see, to abide in Jesus’ word is more than just to hear it once in awhile.  It’s more than just sitting through a confirmation class or making a confirmation vow.  It’s more than just belonging to a church.

To abide in Jesus’ word – to abide in the Gospel! –  is to know it, to believe it as true and especially to rely on it at every moment for your soul’s salvation.  To abide in Jesus’ word is to confess it before men, in the face of all persecution and all affliction, to bear the dear Christian cross and to die first rather than to change your answer to the burning question behind the Reformation, to lose all things rather than to disown Him who is your Throne of Grace.

What would you be willing to lose to hold onto your answer? No. What wouldn’t you be willing to lose?  God has opened up to you, a sinner condemned before the tribunal of justice, a throne of grace that makes you able to stand before a righteous God – as a saint, as a son.  Why worry about the condemnation of men when you stand justified before God through faith in Christ Jesus?  Why worry about the loss of earthly things and earthly life when eternal things and eternal life have already been guaranteed to you by God’s own word?  All things are yours.  What wouldn’t you be willing to sacrifice?  “And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife, let these all be gone.  They yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.”

This is what the Reformation was about.  This is what our life as Christians must be about, too, the burning question behind the Reformation that must consume our hearts and lives, too.  And no matter how irrelevant it may seem to your life or to the lives of the people around you, the fact is, it is the only question that is truly relevant.  Because for as much as people search and search for other things to think about, the Day of the Lord is coming and it will not pass anyone by.  Death is coming and it will not pass anyone by.  All flesh must stand before God in one of his two tribunals.  And now is the only opportunity anyone has to escape the tribunal of justice and to flee to the tribunal of grace.  Now is the time for Christians – and especially confessional Lutheran Christians – to wake up and to return with urgency to the burning question that was asked and answered in the Reformation.

If you have taken the throne of grace for granted, then repent.  If you have been deceived by the devil into seeking God’s approval again in the tribunal of works, then be no longer deceived. If you have grown cold to this grace and to the love of God, then be warmed by it again. Every sinner, no matter how wicked, who is crushed by God’s law and who seeks God’s grace through Christ will find it, and will be able to stand before the righteous God in righteousness, innocence and blessedness forever and ever.  Praise God for the answer His Spirit has given you!  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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