By Paul Koch –
500 years ago. Can you believe it? 500 years ago, an unknown monk and professor of theology at a small university in the town of Wittenberg, Germany let his frustrations with the bureaucracy of the church boil over. See, though the church was always a place where the gifts of Christ were given to the faithful, over the years it had become a place marked by systems of penance and work that obscured the gifts of Christ. To continue the growth and strength of the church, monetary payments were attached to your devotional activities. From viewing relics to buying indulgences the Christian was encouraged to ease their conscience and show their repentance by these acts of faithfulness. But this meant that the conscience of the people was always plagued with doubt. Did they give enough or do enough to be sure of their salvation? Where they good enough Christians? Perhaps just one more payment, one more pilgrimage, one more act of penance is needed. In fact, one more is always needed.
And one monk grew tired of the doubt and fear that plagued the hearts of the people; people who were trapped by this system instead of being set free in Christ alone. And so that monk, Martin Luther as you know him today, drafted 95 theses for debate. The goal was to begin a discussion about the abuses of such a system, to correct what has gone astray, and bring church practice back in line with the Word of God. On All Hallows Eve in the year 1517, Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church his theses. And the rest, as they say, is history. 500 years ago was the beginning of the great Reformation of the Church. Luther’s work took off like a firestorm. It was messy and painful as it split and cracked the church. The façade of the unity of the Pope and Councils of the church came tumbling down as God worked through this single monk to smash His own church so that the Gospel might go forth once more.
While we rightly celebrate this great moment in our history, we ought to take note that this is nothing unique. Or rather, we ought to see this moment in time as a reflection of a far greater moment. Not a celebration of 500 years in the making, but a celebration 2000 years in the making. For what exploded and tore the world apart in the 1500’s is nothing compared to what happened when God himself became flesh. When He bore the sins of the world to a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, there God died to save His own creatures from themselves and then rose from the dead to proclaim to you this day the promise of eternal life. That is what this is really all about!
We see the shock of this great work in our reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. The law of God was His word to His people. The commandments that Moses had carried down from Sinai’s height set apart the people of God from all others. The law was a gift, a proclamation of the eternal God for the living of our lives as His children upon His creation. The law declared the righteousness of our God, but it did just the opposite to us. See, that salutary doctrine of life could not give us the ability to do what it commanded. And so, all those under the law found that they were not gaining righteousness but were being rendered silent before the righteousness of God. As Paul says, “So that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law come knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:19-20) The law proclaimed the righteousness of God and in so doing it reveals your sin. And your sin renders you silent before your God. You have nothing to offer, nothing to barter with, nothing to better your situation.
And then comes the next line of the text. It begins with two simple words that change everything, absolutely everything. For after reminding us of the hopelessness of being justified by our works St. Paul daringly proclaims, “But now…” But now there is something new. But now there is something different. But now there is hope. But now there is life. But now there is justification for the sinner. What He actually says is, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” The righteousness of God which was made known through the law and bound us to the grave and darkness now comes apart from the law, in a new way, and this way bring life and light to men.
This new thing is Christ our Lord, himself. It is His sacrifice, His suffering, death and resurrection that reveals God’s righteousness apart from the law. This isn’t just an improvement upon the law, it isn’t adding one more piece to that old system as some sort of corrective. No, this is a righteousness that comes apart from the law. So, Paul says, “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.” (Rom. 3:23-24) Your justification, the decree that you are a saint of the most-high God and welcome into paradise itself, comes to you by grace and as a gift through Christ alone. Your justification is a gift, a gift is not earned, it is not bought, but simply received.
What the Reformation was all about was letting this gift shine again as the only source of your hope and assurance. For the people of God are prone to cover up this revelation of righteousness apart from the law. You might say that it is too good to be true, it is too cheap, it doesn’t ask enough of the believer. In a strange way you set out to protect God by covering up this revelation. So, you begin to add things to the gift in order to be sure of the justification of the individual. After all you can’t have people being justified without any consequence that we can see and measure in our world. You want proof otherwise they are mocking your God, taking him for granted or worse. Perhaps you demand a certain devotional aspect to the believer’s life. Do they pray enough or give enough or read their Bible the right amount of time? Surely a justified believer would be found doing such things, plus they would be found supporting the work of the church, volunteering, giving of time and money to the work of the kingdom.
You know the great cost of your salvation. You know the story of the death of your Lord. You know about the beatings and the crucifixion and the piercing of His side. And so, you want those who receive such a gift show the proper humility, the right amount of sorrow and shame. And the more you work, the more you press on down this road, the more you find that you are not all that far from setting up a system to help the weak believer in faithfulness – and indulgences would be on sale once more. Oh, sure you wouldn’t call them that, but the spirit of your endeavor wouldn’t be much different.
This is nothing else but a reaching back to the system of the law, to the righteousness of God that leads to only one place. Not your justification, not your assurance, not your hope, but only the crushing weight of your sin. For you will never do enough to be worthy of His gifts, you will never be pious enough or give enough or volunteer enough. And to think that your justification before God hinges in even the slightest bit upon such endeavors of mankind is to reject a righteousness that comes apart from the law.
What good news then that the cause of the Reformation, the cause of St. Paul, the cause of Christ himself is still going strong today. The “But now…” of this new gift in Christ alone is still given to you this day. For apart from your work, apart from how much you put in the offering plate, apart from how often your read your Bible, apart from the love and kindness you show to your brothers and sisters in Christ, I say to you, that in Christ all your sins are forgiven. In His death and resurrection you are justified. You are the saints of God. You are heirs of eternal life.
Your God does not need to be protected. Just stop for a moment and receive what he has done for you. He has called you, He has washed you in the waters of baptism, He has clothed you in the righteousness of Christ, He has fed you with his own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, He has declared that you are justified apart from the works of the law.
And then He turns you lose. As possessors of the greatest gifts ever given, he simple sets you free. Free to be his children. So go, you wonderful inheritors of the Reformation, you crazy gathering of God’s children, go and know that you are what he has declared you to be.