Grace mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Four hundred ninety seven years ago, on All Hallows eve, October 31 1517, a young Augustinian Roman Catholic Priest and Theology professor nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. If you are like me; you like to picture the young Martin Luther strolling up to the castle, while all of the town’s people watch. They all stare in amazement as he shows his disgust with the inhabitance of the castle and he pounds the nails in to the door. And then in my mind’s eye I see all the peasants rushing up to read this historical document, as this priest turns and walks away. The whole town would soon be in a buzz discussing the new theology that Martin Luther had put down on paper. The people’s reactions would be commensurate with the historical events which had just taken place.
Unfortunately, reality is much less exciting than the movie scene that I can come up with myself. In the middle-ages, survival ruled the day more than ethereal religious debates. The town’s people most likely would not be reading the document; most of them could not read. At that time there was no 24 hour news cycle, the way you announced a debate or you wanted attention for your cause, you nailed them to Wittenberg castle. Who knows, he may have nailed his 95 thesis over a sign that said “cats for sale”. It is very likely this event was met with a yawn; but Martin Luther did not introduce a new theology. It was a very old one. Even though this incident may have seemed minor at the time, it does not take away from the fact that this episode, changed history forever.
What were the 95 theses that Luther was concerned with? Much of his focus was the indulgences which the medieval Roman Catholic Church was selling. An indulgence was an item which a church member would purchase, a piece of paper which was said to get dead relatives out of purgatory. Purgatory was a teaching of the Roman Church that said that after a person dies, they have to be purified of their sins in purgatory before going on to heaven. People could also buy these indulgences to get their own sins cleansed quicker, so they could go to heaven. When you look at selling indulgences in light of today’s reading the question has to be asked; where is the grace? This kind of activity puts you in control of our own salvation. There is no place in the Bible that tells us to pay money in order to have our sins forgiven. Actually it tells us the gift of salvation is, Free.
This “free salvation” was the “new” theology of Martin Luther, and it dates back to Genesis chapter 3. After Adam and Eve had sinned, God promised them a redeemer when he told them and the serpent: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” He was telling them that the one coming might be hurt, but he will bruise the head, kill the devil. That happened when Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. Jesus destroyed the devil’s power. This new theology of grace was new to Luther and to Paul. Both were taught their theology as a theology of works. Both were taught that this grace of God came at a price. It came from their own works; Paul from keeping the law and Luther from keeping the law and buying his way to heaven.
Luther learned Greek, and he studied the writings of the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul. Luther’s study of the Greek New Testament brought him to verses such as those in our Epistle Reading. Luther learned about the gift of grace, the free gift of grace. The whole point of the 95 thesis was the free gift of grace. Luther was not trying to start a new church, he was trying to teach that grace is free and the use of indulgences and other things pull the people away from Christ, it didn’t draw them to him.
In an effort to draw us closer to Jesus, Paul starts this passage out by talking about the law, he draws on the Psalms when he quotes psalm 143, when he says: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight,”Have you ever come into church and said to yourself, “wow, there is no way I could be as good as old Mrs. Smith”. It doesn’t matter because Paul tells us: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”… Salvation is not a race to be the best, or better than others; it’s a race to perfection. Everyone falls short of that standard. Even the best characters in the Bible fell short, Moses, John the Baptist and even Paul.
How do we know that we fall short of the standard God set up? Paul tells us, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. We understand from what Paul is telling us, we are all sinful. Martin Luther taught that the purpose of the law is not to make us better people but to reveal to us our sins that we may yearn and pray for grace. In the law we find no way to help ourselves, no salvation. Even if we try as hard as we possibly can, we will never stop sinning. That is why God sent us a redeemer.
Paul tells us in our epistle, and (we) 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. Paul is telling us, and the Lutheran church teaches; that this grace is a free gift. If I gave you a new iphone 6 for Christmas you might think, “Boy that’s really cool, but now I have another monthly bill”. That would stink, that’s not a gift, that’s a curse. It is the same thing with grace. It is not given to you with a cost. Jesus never said I came to save sinners if they follow the law perfectly or if they pay for forgiveness of sins. When Jesus was on the cross dying he said, “It is finished”. What was finished? Everything; the punishment for our sins, the cost of salvation his victory over the devil.
Part of this gift of salvation, is knowing about it. Because of the reformation, church services were now spoken in the local language. Later in Romans Paul tells us, So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. The people needed to hear the word of God, prior to that, church services were only in Latin. That did not help to spread the Gospel message at all. As another direct result of Martin Luther’s reformation we have the Bible written in our language. Luther translated the scriptures into German; others translated it into other languages using the best Greek text available. As I stated earlier, many of the populous were illiterate; Luther thought the education of children was very important. He wanted all children to know how to read, so they could learn about the free gift of salvation.
Can we be proud to be Lutherans because of these achievements? Of course, but as for our salvation, Paul tells us, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”. We can’t boast that we are saved, we didn’t do it”. If our salvation was as a result of us keeping the law, then sure we could say, “I saved myself”. But as Paul told us earlier it is a free gift, by the grace of God. We are not in control of our salvation, Jesus is. To illustrate this point, imagine if you will, in February the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl. The media ask Calvin Johnson how they did it, he will not reply, “That middle aged guy in Arlington Wisconsin eating chips and watching the game was the key”. I will have had nothing to do with the win, but I can enjoy it. I can’t in all honesty run around saying, “We won”, because I had nothing to do with it. The same holds for our salvation, we have nothing to do with it, it is all Christ.
The reformation was one of the greatest pivotal moments in history. This little known priest that wanted to debate the Roman Catholic Church in regards to indulgences and other things changed the world. He did not change things through a new theology or new type of religion. He changed the world, because as a result a church was created, that tries to follow the scriptures alone. Following the scriptures, provides us with the clear teachings of Grace. The grace that is taught is that of Christ’s work on the cross is the only work for our salvation. As they said then, and we say now; Scripture alone, Grace alone and Christ alone.
In the name of Christ alone, Amen.
And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.