But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus. Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? of works? Nay: but by a law of faith.
The readers of this devotion are an incredibly diverse group. It reaches to the four corners of the world, literally, and from the entire spectrum of Godís Church. I suspect that there are at least a few people who are not even Christian, either members of other faith communities or even those who do not believe in God. I write to encourage Christians in their faith, but I can always hope that God will use my words to help someone come to know the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is such a blessing to know that the words I write have an impact on such a diverse community. I try to keep my own personal preferences and history out of the writing and let Godís Word speak for itself, but it is impossible to do so completely. I am who I am, and my perspective comes from a very specific place. There are dozens of labels that can be placed on meóAmerican, woman, mother, artist, writer, Texan, military spouse, college graduate, etc.óand they all have contributed to my personality, character and point of view. In faith terms I am a Christian, but I am also a Lutheran. Though I try to make this writing beneficial to my much broader audience, it is impossible for me to not write from that point of view even if it is not specifically named on a regular basis.
Today, with your patience, I am going to be Lutheran. The text for this week are those assigned for Reformation Sunday, the day we remember the work of Martin Luther and the reformers in the sixteenth century. The focus of all four is justification, which was (and is) the heart of Lutheran theology in Lutherís day as well as today. We are made free from the power of sin and death by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ through His life, death and resurrection. Despite this freedom, we continue to struggle with our human nature which always looks to law for justification. We try, to no avail, to be the saints we were reborn to be, but the sinner in us still has too much control. We are a work in progress, and the only thing that truly saves us is that God saved us; we are saints based on His promises, not on our ability to be perfect.
We all know many people that we can call ďgood.Ē There are, of course, some people we can name that are almost saintly, their faith lived out in good works and right action. Yet, even those who appear perfect have imperfections. We are all sinners, sinning against God in thought, word and deed by what we do and by what we leave undone. Sometimes our failure is not willful disobedience, but simply the reality that we live in an imperfect world. We have to make choices, and those choices are sometimes between what is wrong and what is really wrong. Most of the time, though, our sin is a manifestation of the old Adam that still dwells within, turning from God and going our own way.
Thatís why Martin Luther taught us to remember our baptism daily. We are simultaneously saints and sinners, freed from sin and death and yet still unable to be perfect. As we remember our baptism, we remember that while our salvation was complete in the work of Jesus Christ, we are still being saved. Some people like to keep a seashell near their bathroom sink so that they will remember daily what God did in the baptismal font. A drop of water on the forehead and a prayer of thanksgiving can begin our day with the promise of God in our hearts and minds. As we go out into the world to face the temptations that will come, we are more likely to be obedient to God if we are armed with that promise. The same ritual can end our day with the reminder that while we certainly did fail, God is still faithful.
See, God has a selective memory. His memory is much different than ours. While we tend to remember the things that we think might benefit our lives and forget our own faults, God sees His promises and forgets our faults. He has laid upon us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and thatís what He remembers at the close of the day. This doesnít mean that we will never experience the consequences of our failures or that God will not work in our lives to transform us into the people He has called us to be. But we deserve more than a punishment or a lesson; we deserve death. Thanks to Jesus, we will not die; thanks to Jesus, we will have eternal life. Speaking for God, Jeremiah writes, ďFor I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.Ē What an incredible promise we hear from Jeremiah in todayís text!
The scriptures are filled with covenants. In Genesis 9, God made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the world with flood. In Genesis 12, God made a covenant with Abraham that he would be the father of a special people. In Exodus, God made a covenant with Moses and the Hebrews establishing that special relationship and giving them the Law. God made a covenant with David that his house and his throne would last forever. This covenant was a foretaste of the promise of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the King who would reign forever. These covenants were made with individuals, but they were for Godís people as a whole.
In todayís passage from Jeremiah, God makes a new covenant with His people. He promised that the day would come when Godís Word would dwell in their hearts and that every believer would have direct access to God. He fulfilled this promise at the cross of Christ when He provided forgiveness and reconciliation to all those who believe and at Pentecost when He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in their hearts. He lives within each believer, molding and reforming us each day. We know Him because He has written Himself into our hearts and our minds with His Word.
He is there and there is nothing we can do to make Him any more present than He already is, and yet in faith we are called to a life that pursues God. The response to our salvation is not to sit back and bask in the glory, but to go out into the world and live the faith weíve been given. Living faith is not about working toward righteousness but about letting the righteousness of Christ flow through our lives. It is about being His witnesses in a world that still needs to hear His Word and know His grace. Sadly, too many of us think that faith is a private thing. Or we think that it is limited to Sunday morning. Or that religion is a duty that if performed correctly will get us to heaven.
We arenít the only ones; this lifeless faith has been a problem throughout the history of Godís people. There were already people in the days of the Apostles who didnít understand that they were called to a new and different life. There are always people who are nominal Christians, or Christian for all the wrong reasons. It was happening in the days of Martin Luther. He wandered around the streets of his town where he was a priest, saddened by the lack of knowledge among the people of Godís Word. They didnít understand salvation; they didnít live their faith. And because they did not know God or His Word, they were easily fooled into believing in the efforts of men.
A story is told about how Martin Luther came upon a parishioner who was lying in the gutter drunk. Martin scolded the man saying that as a Christian he should not be living this way. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, an indulgence, and waved it at him. ďI can do anything I want! Iíve been forgiven.Ē The man had paid a price to receive a Ďget out of jail freeí card and that it didnít matter what he did. If the pope said he was going to heaven, he was going to heaven. The man was trusting in the word of man rather than the Word of God.
The indulgences being sold by Tetzel and the Roman Catholic Church were a fundraising effort for building a new cathedral in Rome. The injustice of it was bad enough; the Church was building a magnificent cathedral on the backs of the poor. But the spiritual injustice is that they were giving the common folk a very dangerous and unfaithful understanding of forgiveness. They did not have to believe in anything, they just had to buy that piece of paper. The encounter with this drunk was said to have shocked Martin Luther so much that he went home and wrote a list of 95 points, the Ninety-five Theses, which he thought should be debated among the scholars of the day. The next day, on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed those theses on the door of the university church and hoped that the academics would weigh in on his ideas. They were roughly written, Lutherís understanding of many of the points matured over the years, but the page was never meant to be a summary of his entire theology. It was meant to make the Church consider what they were doing and how they were rejecting Godís Word.
Unfortunately, the debate never happened; Lutherís Ninety-five Theses went viral. The printing press was newly invented and someone used it to ensure that Lutherís points would get a wider audience. It was the catalyst for an extreme moment in history, not only in the Church, but also in the world. It was not all good; the peasantís revolt spilled too much blood. Division in Christís body is never a positive thing. But along with the bad came some good.
Luther, of course, was not the only protestor and reformer. He was not even the first. We could talk about the many others; there are probably men and women with which you are more familiar based on your religious heritage. Luther did accomplish some things worthy of note. He wrote many hymns, particularly ďA Mighty Fortress is Our God,Ē which is based on todayís Psalm. In it, Luther lays all the trials and tribulations that he and the Church were facing at the feet of God, claiming His power and protection. Though fear was an everyday part of life, there was nothing that could overcome the grace of God.
The test of faith is believing that God is our refuge even when the storms of life are raging around us. Luther risked his life, his home, his family and even his vocation to stand for the truth that he saw in the scriptures. He was excommunicated, threatened and forced into hiding. He lived through war and famine, disease and other disasters. He suffered from physical ailments, too. Through it all, he believed. Martin Luther was in no way perfect. He was arrogant in many ways, also brash and bold and loud. He was a sinner in need of a savior. What makes Luther great is that He found the Savior and He did not waver in his faith and the truth no matter what others did to him. He stood firmly on the Word of God and lived in the grace that God has so freely given to each of us.
Luther knew Godís Word and it was upon that Word that he stood. Thatís what he wanted for all Christians. He wanted them to know the God who lived in their hearts, to experience the forgiveness that Christ won for them on the cross. Luther wanted everyone to shine with Godís glory and grace. Sadly, most Christians did not even know the scriptures. Even the priests were sadly lacking in knowledge. They preached, but the Word was missing. Theology was for the academics, the people had lives to live. Thatís why it was so easy for Tetzel to sell indulgences. It was much easier for everyone concerned if the Church just granted this guarantee while everyone else just went about their daily lives.
But Luther knew the only way to overcome the ignorance of the people was to give them the opportunity to explore the Word themselves. He translated the scriptures into every day German so that it could be read. While God writes His Word on our hearts, it takes daily delving into the words for it to become a living part of us.
One of Lutherís greatest accomplishments was his Small Catechism. Catechisms existed long before Martin Luther penned the version we know today. They were designed to instruct new believers before their baptism. By Lutherís time, the catechisms included the Lordís Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments, in that order.
While visiting a congregation, Luther discovered that the ordinary Christians knew nothing about their Christian faith. The pastors were unskilled and incapable of teaching the people. Luther was shocked and determined to write a simple booklet explaining the beliefs of Christians in a way that the average layperson could understand. The pastors and preachers were encouraged to use it word for word so that the people, especially those who could not read, would learn it by heart. People learn through repetition and the catechism helped to write the basic doctrine of Christian faith on the hearts of believers. By holding to the words of the catechism, the priests built on the lessons learned at home and avoided confusion. To Luther, it was not enough for the believer to recite the prayer, creed and commandments; he felt that all Christians should understand what they mean. So, he wrote one sentence explanations answering a simple question, ďWas ist das?Ē which means, ďWhat is this?Ē
Luther changed the order of the catechism, beginning the booklet with the Ten Commandments, then the Creed, and finally the Lordís Prayer. This guided the reader through a journey of Law to Gospel, so that they could see their need for grace, confess belief in the only source of grace and then learn how to pray for the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Luther also included explanations about the sacraments as well as prayers and bible passages. There were woodcut pictures representing the bible stories that were specially chosen to enhance the concept of each part of the catechism. The book was a resource for families: pictures for the children, explanations for the adults, beloved Bible stories to pull it all together. By using the catechism, the parents would grow in understanding while instructing their children in the faith. It was an easy to use, in depth handbook for the Christian.
Lutherís intent in his work was not to divide the Church, but to restore her to God. He wanted to help Christians live faithful lives, to recognize the reality of their faith and Godís place in it. He lived in uncertain times. It must have been dreadfully disappointing to see the church he loved to be so misguided. He was not perfect himself, but he understood what it meant to be forgiven. He knew that his future was not dependent on doing what the church said he had to do. His future, his salvation, was dependent on what Christ had already done. He believed Godís word above the word of the Church, and he spoke that word to Godís people. He simply wanted Godís people to be free to know Him, to live in faith and to serve one another.
The turning point for Lutherís faith was a discovery in scripture that was seemingly lost in the teaching of the church of that day. He realized that there was nothing he could do to make himself right with God. He was a sinner in need of a Savior, and only Jesus Christ could bring justification and sanctification to his life. This knowledge made Luther free. It makes us free, too, to live and love and work according to Godís righteousness, following the passions of our heart which by faith will be in line with God's will in this world. He calls us from the inside, through the gift of faith we receive as we believe in Jesus. The new attitude we have in the New Covenant will make us long to be actively involved in God's creative and redemptive work. We need not be forced to do anything to be righteous, for God has made us righteous and in that righteousness we'll do what is right. He has set us free.
It isnít always easy to know what is right and what is wrong. Was Robin Hood right to steal from the government and give it back to the people? Do the ends justify the means? What is just in our world today? How do we guarantee justice? How do we get that pendulum to stop swinging to the extremes and find the place where there is justice for everyone?
In the epistle for this week, we hear about a group of destructive leaders. Paul traveled extensively, planting churches in many cities. He always moved on to a new place, but he never left the congregations that were gathering and growing in his wake. He had friends who visited, and he even returned occasionally as his scheduled permitted. He wrote letters to the congregations, helping them to grow but also to stand firm. Yet, there was always someone following right behind Paul, hoping to convince the new Christians to their way of thinking, to turn them to a different sort of gospel. Paul had to defend himself and the Gospel he shared with the people in Thessalonica because there were many trying to destroy him and his ministry.
This, too, has happened throughout history. There have always been religious leaders who have led the Church astray to follow their own ideas and ideology. Heretics have existed in every era of history. Bad leaders have done too much damage to the Church. Even today there are those who claim to be working for Christ, but who are working for their own benefit. Tetzel was among those in Lutherís day who was selling a false gospel.
Paul didnít just lay the Gospel on the new Christian congregations and then abandon them to their own means of growing in faith. He didnít leave them to be confused by false gospels or assertive leaders. He nurtured the people, kept them accountable, rebuked their sin and corrected their error. He praised their faith and encouraged them to bear good fruit. He thanked them for their work for Christ, for the Church and for him.
Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him, that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God. In faith we cry out to the God who saves. In that faith we have hope and the freedom to live in His grace.
This revelation spurred Luther to reform the Church. The theses began a reform movement that sought to restore the Church the Christ built. Luther, other reformers and those who followed them were fighting against a body that had lost touch with Godís grace. Religion was much like it was in the day of Jesus Christ, with leaders determined to keep or enhance their positions and power. It was a religion that burdened Godís people with Law, forgetting the center of Godís salvation: the cross. They sold indulgences to raise funds to build a massive new church building in Rome and they did this by feeding the fears of hell that were held by the people. They made the people believe that the only way they would make it to heaven was to pay for it. They even offered salvation for those who had already died: they could pay to free their loved ones who were wallowing in purgatory.
Luther seemed to have found the very meaning of the passage from John: when we are saved we are made free to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. For him freedom was not to do whatever we wanted to do like the drunk in the gutter, it was freedom to be as God created us to be. He never sought division, he sought change. Unfortunately, just like the religious leaders in Jesus' day, the religious leaders in Luther's day had no room for God's word in their lives. And so began the building of walls between Christians that has lasted nearly five hundred years. Yet, even as Luther was willing to risk division by speaking forth Godís grace, he longed for the Church to remain whole. We continue to live in the freedom, reaching out to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that someday the Church will be healed and made whole once again.
Sometimes we can see a suggestion of that future happening in the world, as Christians of many different backgrounds join together to fight injustice, serve the poor, feed the hungry and heal the sick. In every town there are organizations where various churches can gather their resources to do the work calls us to do. Some groups have found ways to gather together for worship and discussion. We have come together in many ways even while we continue to be divided in others.
The one thing that matters: that we always remain true to Godís Word. Some of our divisions will never be healed because human beings are imperfect, sinners even while we are saints. We will continue to seek to benefit ourselves and ignore God, as human beings have done since the beginning of time. We will forget that God is the source of all our blessings and that we can know Him through His Word. We will chase after men who will teach us what we want to hear and encourage us to do what they say is right. We will conform to the world because it feels right while ignoring the truth of God's Word.
But, we can look at the lives and ministries of faithful people like Martin Luther and be encouraged to stand on what really matters: Godís Word. We can live the life of faith, daily basking in our baptisms and remembering that we are sinners who would never be saints without His grace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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