Monday, November 01, 2010

Sermon on Romans 3:19-28, Reformation Day, "Grace as a Gift"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we remember Reformation Day, the day when Martin Luther nailed 95 statements or Theses to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg Germany. In 7 more years, in 2017, it will be the 500th year anniversary of the start of the Reformation. Although there are countless ways that the Reformation has affected the church and the world in the 493 years since, the most important for us is the recovery of the teaching that a person is set right before God completely by the work of Jesus our Savior. The Reformation made it clear that the Bible taught Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were completely sufficient, adequate, and satisfactory to turn away God’s anger against human sin, and to purchase eternal salvation. It was not incomplete in any way. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What made the Reformation of the Christian church so necessary? It was because the benefits of Jesus’ saving work had become hidden in the church. Sinners who were troubled in their conscience, searching for the comfort of the good news of Jesus, were being turned instead do pilgrimages, fasting, the purchase of indulgences to pay for their sins or those of dead relatives, to certain prescribed “good works” and prayer to the saints. People who needed the saving comfort of Jesus’ total and sufficient death on the cross for their sins, were instead pointed to their efforts to keep the laws and commands of Scripture to make themselves right before God. Jesus’ saving work was being clouded over by man-made acts of religious piety or worship. Like a cherished diamond ring can slowly get covered in dirt until it loses its brilliance and needs a cleaning and polishing, so the Reformers desired to clear away the dust and the film to let Christ’s saving works be seen in their full brilliance.

Instead of seeing grace as God’s underserved gift, it was being taught that grace was Jesus’ boost to your own sinful willpower, to enable you to do the good that you should have been able to do. Grace became a “supplement” to our own powers, rather than God’s full and free gift. All were agreed that you couldn’t be saved without grace, but the Roman Catholic church had turned grace into just a boost for you to finish the job that Jesus got started. You couldn’t get straight to heaven by Jesus’ work alone. The Lutheran Reformers urged them back to the Scriptures to see that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). They urged them to see that Christ’s death on the cross for us was not an incomplete act that could only get us to heaven after we filled up the remaining gap of good works and then suffered the pains of purgatory. But rather Jesus’ death for us was the full and complete act that gets us there, not by our own doing, not by our works, but completely by His undeserved love.

Many said this was too unconditional—there had to be something that we have to do to earn salvation or participate in it. It couldn’t just be free, could it? Have you ever gotten credit for something that you didn’t do? Some woman admitted recently that she won a community art contest as a child—but it was actually her mom who drew the picture. Or maybe getting credit on the job for something your coworkers actually did? How did it feel getting the credit for what someone else did? Maybe we became very apologetic at the unfairness of it, and tried to give credit where credit was due, or even tried to pay the person back for the unfairness of it. Maybe we kept it secret that we really didn’t deserve the credit, but tried to work extra hard or do something that made us feel like we at least partly earned it. Maybe we even took the credit.

These might be normal reactions if credit was mistakenly given to you. And our reaction to the undeserved credit of free salvation in Jesus can be the same. We want to somehow work to add our own credit to make it seem more legitimate. We try to repay somehow so that we can feel that we at least partly earned it. At least in our American culture, it’s usually an uncomfortable feeling to owe someone a debt you can’t repay. But what about if the undeserved gift was intentional? What if a person gave you an incredible gift, and there was no way you could repay it, but they gave it out of their pure and simple love for you? Then what if you tried to set up a payment plan to repay them—even though the amount was impossible? How do you think they’d feel? It would come as an insult to their generosity. Even worse—if people asked you how you got that incredible gift, and you said you paid for it (or were paying for it). This would steal the honor of the person who gave that gift.

It’s the same way when we try to take credit for what God has given us by grace as a gift. Any credit we try to take, however small, diminishes the glory of Jesus Christ who made the full and complete gift of salvation freely ours. To suggest that the death of Jesus Christ was in any way insufficient or incomplete to freely gain us heaven, likewise steals from the glory of Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t just start us on the way to salvation and the rest is left up to us. It’s not a 50/50 proposition, not even 90/10, or 99/1. We didn’t even pay or earn 1% of our salvation. It was God’s grace, 100% gift. We cannot in anyway take credit, even partial credit for what Jesus has done. Instead, we can glorify God by giving full and complete credit to Jesus.

Both the verse I quoted from Ephesians 2: “By grace you have been saved,” and our reading from Romans end with the same conclusion for why all credit is due to Christ, and not due to our good works. It’s so that we cannot boast. We have salvation as a gift, “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In Romans, Paul asks, what then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded…for we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This gift of salvation gives us no grounds for boasting, and any time that we do boast or try to add in our works for shared credit, it’s stolen ground we’re standing on. God desires that all the credit go to Him alone, and rightly so!

But at the Reformation and still today, it was claimed that this will just give people the idea that they can scoff at God’s law and ignore it—they won’t be held responsible anyway. Or Christians will become lazy about doing good works. They might take salvation for granted. What of these claims? Well, if we as Christians proclaim this free Gospel of Jesus Christ, and hear this type of response, we stand in good stead together with the Apostle Paul. When he preached the pure gospel of Jesus Christ he got the same reaction. Some would say, if God’s grace increased all the more where there was sin, should we then “continue in sin so that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). Paul emphatically responds, as did Luther and the Reformers, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2).

God’s grace doesn’t motivate us to return to our sins or continue doing them—that would be to abuse His grace and take it for granted. But rather God’s grace motivates us to turn away from sin as we die to it in our baptism and by repenting. His grace motivates us to do good works, not for credit or for repayment to God, but for the good of our neighbor. As the passage I quote from Ephesians said, we are saved by grace through faith, not by works so that no one can boast, it goes on to say that we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10). God’s grace is a totally free gift, and our works don’t earn us anything, but that doesn’t mean that our works are unimportant or don’t have a place. The place for our works however, is not to be used between us and God to prove our worthiness or earn our way into heaven or even His favor. But the place for our good works is between us and our neighbor, who benefits from our love turned into action for their good. As the sermon hymn puts it, “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone, and rests in Him unceasing; And by its fruits true faith is known, with love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply, the proof that faith is living.” Only faith makes us right before God—but works serve our neighbor and prove that faith is alive.

So ever since the Reformation 500 years ago, the Lutheran church and other churches of the Reformation have had to respond to this charge that seeing grace as a free gift would make lazy Christians who won’t do good works or take salvation for granted. And certainly that is possible. People do become lazy in their works, they become lazy to struggle against sin. But this does not give us the right to confuse or change the pure teaching of the good news of salvation. Yet before the Reformation, the Gospel had been slowly changed, with the intention of preventing laziness or neglect of good works. How had the Gospel been changed or hidden to do this? Jesus was taught to be the New Lawgiver, that He had come into the world to give a new and better law than the Law of Moses, rather than the one who came to redeem us from the Law. Moses was the Lawgiver and Judge of Israel, who gave the Law on Mount Sinai in the 10 Commandments and other laws that made Israel as a nation. So the Roman Catholic church taught that Jesus, when He came to give the Sermon on the Mount, was a New Lawgiver, and that while Moses’ laws couldn’t gain us salvation, obedience to Jesus’ new laws could. So Jesus was seen as a fearful and stern judge, rather than as the Savior who redeemed us from the demands of the Law.

And to a certain extent, placing Jesus in this role does have the effect of frightening people into obedience, and to at least outwardly do good. It might light the fire under a lazy person to shape up their act. But it doesn’t motivate them to do good out of a love for God and a thankfulness for what Jesus has done. And it doesn’t teach us to seek out Jesus’ mercy alone when we are frightened and terrified of God’s judgment because of the guilt of our sins. Rather it leads us to put our trust on the faulty grounds of our own moral progress or success. It leads us to build our confidence on our own righteousness, or at the very least, the combined righteousness of Jesus and ourselves. It can lead to hypocrisy and to taking credit for what Jesus has accomplished for us. It can even lead us to soften God’s law or weaken His demands so that it seems more like we are actually doing them, because we’re convinced it depends on us.

But Christ did not come as a New Lawgiver, nor did He come to get rid of the law or to make a law that we’re more able to keep. Rather, He taught the full depth of the 10 Commandments and showed how they were not concerned merely with our outward actions, but also concerned with the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. Jesus didn’t lower the bar, He raised it to its full height, so that we could see that it was impossible for us to jump. Why did He do this? In the words of our reading, it’s because the purpose of the law is to stop our mouths and hold the whole world accountable to God. It’s to make every last one of us see that we’re fully responsible for our sins, and that we’re not righteous by the law’s standards. It’s to remove any ground of boasting. Because only when this has happened, when we’ve been silenced by the law, and held accountable for our sin, are we prepared for the glorious good news of the Gospel.

And that glorious good news is that though we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, He has justified us by His grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Justified before God, as we said last week—to have God’s approval, His verdict of innocence. That we are undeservedly called righteous and saints. With mouths stopped from boasting, we look in amazement at the free and complete gift of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. We look in amazement at the sparkle and the brilliance of that diamond of good news, polished to its original brilliance in the Reformation, by pointing people back to the total undeserved goodness of God that is full and complete. That we can add nothing to God’s free gift of innocence by Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus raised the bar of the Law to its fullest height, but by His perfect life He leapt over it as only He could. He took all the fall and the blame for the sin that we had accumulated, took all the punishment that we deserved upon Himself at His cross. But He gives us the credit of His innocence by putting our trust in Him.

So it is the full, sufficient, total, and 100% complete work of Jesus—God’s work of salvation—that opens our mouths for praise and thanksgiving this Reformation Day. Not to praise our own works, but to praise the great work of our saving God who did everything we could not do, and who even took all the blame for the sin that we’d done, so that we could enjoy His forgiveness as a free gift. So let our voices and our songs continually be lifted in praise to our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, whose grace comes to us as a pure and generous gift. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

P.S. After having preached this sermon, I wish I would have thought to say that Jesus is not the New Lawgiver, but rather He is the Gospel-giver. Jesus came to bring us the good news.

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The Reformation of the Christian Church was triggered Oct. 31, 1517 by Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, nailing 95 Theses (statements) onto the cathedral church door in Wittenberg Germany. They drew attention to numerous corruptions that had arisen in the church, particularly the sale of indulgences. The Lutheran Church is the heir of that Reformation. The “slogans” of the reformation included faith alone—that one is saved only by faith in Jesus, not any combination including our works; grace alone—that salvation is a free and undeserved gift of God; Scripture alone—that the Bible is the only infallible (without error) authority for our faith and life; and Christ alone—that Jesus Christ is the only Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6).

1. What made the Reformation necessary? How was Christ’s saving work being clouded over within the church? And today? What consequence does this have for faith, when Christ is not put forward as the full ground of salvation? Was the Reformation the introduction of new ideas to the church, or recovery of old ones? Explain.
2. What is the difference between seeing grace as a free gift (cf. Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:24) and as a “supplement” or boost to our own willpower?
3. How do we usually react if we get credit for something we didn’t do? How does that parallel how we react to the free gift of salvation from God? How does this steal away God’s glory and diminish the work and the honor of Christ? Romans 4:4-5
4. How does the Apostle Paul respond to the fear that the free Gospel of grace will produce laziness and ingratitude or continued sinning? Rom. 6:1-4. How does Scripture encourage the Christian to works? Eph. 2:9-10
5. How is the idea of Christ as a “New Lawgiver” wrongly pressed into the service of keeping Christians from sinning? Jn 1:17. How did Christ show the fullness of the Law? How did He become the only one to keep it? How is Jesus work totally complete and sufficient for our salvation?

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