Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
The reformation of the church is a continuing process. Numerous reformations took place in Old Testament times, when God chastened his people and brought them from spiritual wanderings to renewed appreciation for basic truths. Jesus renewed the church during his earthly ministry when he called people away from stale human traditions to life and salvation through faith in him. Reformation continues today, not in the experiments that we humans love to indulge in, but wherever people come to faith in Christ through receiving God’s Word. Reformation in the church always begins with a rediscovery always of basic truths.
The specific Reformation the Lutheran church celebrates today was very dramatic, with far-reaching consequences for secular life as well as the church. The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther, its first great figure and probably the most famous of all reformers. Most people know about certain public events in his life, such as the time he nailed a list of 95 complaints to the door of his local church or when he stood up to defend himself before high authorities or when the pope excommunicated him. But we need to know about the private side of Luther’s life, too, for his public actions took place only after a profound and sometimes painful inner spiritual journey.
Even as a boy, Luther had a strong feeling for God and the church. Although his father objected, he became a monk, and he was not satisfied with being your average monk. He wanted to be the best monk possible. He submitted himself to various exertions to win God’s favor, but a curious thing happened. The more he tried to please God with prayers and fasting and numerous good works, the less certain he became of God’s favor toward him. He knew that God demanded perfect righteousness and total obedience to his commandments, yet the more Luther pushed himself, the further away he seemed from righteousness. It must have been an intensely frustrating experience. A person who exerts himself above the call of duty expects to achieve results, but Luther felt driven to the point of despair.
No one outside Luther’s monastery would have heard of him, though, if God hadn’t stepped in and directed him to a new understanding of Scripture. Luther looked with new eyes on certain passages that discuss God’s requirement for righteousness. One was Psalm 31: “In you, Lord, do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness, deliver me.” He found similar words in Psalm 71: “In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me! Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.” The Holy Spirit comforted him also with a third passage, from the first chapter of Romans. “In the gospel, the righteousness of God revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who is righteous through faith shall live.”
Luther discovered that his own overheated exertions didn’t make him righteous before God. God demands perfection, and no one except Christ is perfect. We’re in a hopeless situation if we try to stand alone before God. We need an advocate, a mediator, a friend in court. This friend is Jesus. Not only did he fulfill God’s law completely so that he lived a perfectly righteous life but he took our sins upon him and died in our place. He paid the price for our sins so that now because of our faith in Christ, which we receive as a gift, God sees us as perfectly righteous. He gives us as a gift the righteousness God requires. He calls us saints; he says we’re his adopted children; he clothes us in robes of righteousness that aren’t visible to us now, but our Heavenly Father sees them.
This is the great discovery Luther made. If you want a simple way of understanding the Reformation, here it is. Where can we find a gracious and loving Heavenly Father? Through faith in Christ. That’s what the Reformation was about. Hearts turned away from human effort and human traditions and structures and found certainty in Christ. God is a refuge, a rock, a fortress for those who believe and trust in him. Luther’s ferocious battle ended in peace; the outcome was certainty and joy in God. Luther was a gifted communicator, and as he told others about the truth to which the Spirit had led him, his discovery resonated in the souls of millions of people. Having learned the truth about our sins and Christ’s actions to deliver us, our hearts are able to dance in freedom before the Lord.
This fundamental insight about the grace of God to sinners, the certainty of the kindness of the Heavenly Father, has several benefits for us right now. First, the mercies of the cross bring relief to our consciences. Guilt doesn’t haunt us; the memory of our sin doesn’t persecute us. Instead, as we trust that God has declared us righteous for Jesus’ sake, we find that a burden has been lifted from our shoulders. Our confidence grows. As the Lord says, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
In the second place, the grace of God empowers us to live more and more in line with what God expects. Our righteousness becomes more visible the longer we live with God, not because we’re busy improving ourselves, but because the good Lord acts in us. Earthly life offers few satisfactions. There are many ambiguities and unfinished projects. As one writer put it, every blessing on earth is a mixed blessing. But we Christians experience the deep satisfaction of knowing the Lord is remaking us. He builds us up not so that we may pat ourselves on the back but to give him glory. We rest in his ability to transform us, just as we rest in his ability to provide for us. The faith that our Savior is at work on us makes us hopeful and brings us joy. To paraphrase the words of Jesus, if the Son transforms us, we will be transformed indeed.
Thirdly, the grace of God delivers us from the fear of death. “Truly, truly,” Jesus said, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” A 20th century pastor wrote that although sin is a problem for us, death is an even greater trouble. Our main problem, in fact. Working against our fears, the resurrection of Christ is a sign to us that death is not a terrible end but the gateway to life in Paradise, where our souls will await in peace the second coming of our Lord. Luther said that the whole purpose of the Bible is to deliver us from the fear of death. Jesus frees us from the grip of our worst enemy; faith in his victory gives us boldness and courage now. As our Lord says, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”
Relief for our consciences, increasingly visible righteousness, deliverance from the fear of death. What wonderful blessings from our Lord, concerning which the reformers of the 16th century sharpened our understanding. Now, suppose we ask: what must we do to keep these gifts?
Our Lord’s answer is to stay in his Word. “If you continue in my Word,” he said, “you are truly my disciples.” We hold onto Jesus and his blessings by staying in touch with his Word in public worship and reading the Bible regularly. Luther found God’s grace in the Bible. So do we. The Bible is our guide to life and truth and salvation.
The Lutheran reformers recovered two basic truths, then, that we find the grace of God though Christ and that Scripture is the source of our life with Him. These principles govern the life of our church today.
Some people say that it’s been many years since the reformers lived, and folks ask different questions nowadays. Instead of wanting to know how to find a gracious God, for example, some ask where God is and even if he exists. However we ask the question, the answer is the same as ever. God is gracious and merciful, actively bringing millions of people to salvation through faith in his Son. He reveals himself and the truth about him in Holy Scripture.
These are the fundamental insights of every reformation in the church, which the reformers uncovered for us. They are eternally valid, for they are the truth, and as our Lord says, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. In his Name we rejoice. AMEN The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.