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REFORMATION - A REAFFIRMATION OF THE PRIORITY OF THE GOSPEL
Dear friends in Christ,
Today we celebrate the 499th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. It has been 499 years and (five) six days since Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. With the theses Luther protested the sale of indulgences by the Roman church. Indulgences was a teaching concocted to raise money for the Roman Church. They claimed and still claim that the forgiveness of sins is for sale. You can still buy indulgences in the Roman church to spring a friend or relative from in purgatory where they are paying the penalty of their sins of weakness. The whole idea of a Purgatory is an abomination that manipulates people and gets into people’s pocket books. Frankly, the Roman church should be ashamed of themselves for teaching something so anti-biblical. Those who teach it will be held accountable one day. What an insult to Christ who set us free!
But let’s face it when the Bible says that we are saved by grace through faith alone in the Savior, this is an unnatural teaching too. Heaven is free? Based on Jesus’ blood and merit? When a candidate for political office says that they want to make something free, people who believe that are ridiculously naïve. Someone is paying. We can say that about heaven too. It was not free. A price was paid. Jesus paid it to make if free to us.
That is really what the Reformation is all about. It is all about the Gospel, the good news that salvation is free to us because of Jesus. This is the point of the sermon today: “The Reformation - A Reaffirmation of the Priority of the Gospel,” in our lives.
Over the centuries, theologians have used a Latin term “opinio legis.” It means “the opinion of the law.” It means that “All people by nature come into this world with the attitude that they can do something to secure their salvation, to gain heaven.” The world works on this principle. You do something good, you expect to be rewarded. Children learn that early in life. If they are good, they get some ice cream. If they are bad, they get sent to their room or in time out or they might even get spanked. The “opinio legis” is the natural religion of mankind.
The natural religion of man is law and not Gospel. But law doesn’t comfort. It doesn’t work. Why? Go back to Mount Sinai when God gave the Law. There were the “You shall’s” and the “you shall not’s” of the Ten Commandments, but there were the Ceremonial Laws which were the laws of worship: whom to worship, where and how to worship. It included laws about the priesthood, the Tent of Meeting, the sacrifices, the holy days, the clean and unclean foods. Read the Book of Leviticus for details. There were also civil laws that pertained to how they would govern themselves. It was a boatload. The Bible says, “When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do.’ In fact, their promise was solemnized by the building of an altar and the promise was repeated, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” Really? Everything the LORD has said we will do?
There was a British monk by the name of Pelagius. Pelagius was born about 355 AD. He was a contemporary of Augustine, who was one of those men in history God used to keep his Church on the straight and narrow. Pelagius was a tall man and highly educated. He spoke and wrote Latin and Greek with great fluency. People say he was well versed in theology. Pelagius’ reputation grew around 380 AD when he moved to Rome. He had a reputation for austerity. He became concerned about moral laxity in society. He blamed this laxity on the theology of, believe it or not, divine grace preached by Augustine. He taught a very strict and rigid moralism. He emphasized an innate human ability to attain salvation. His teaching was called Pelagianism. What is amounted to was getting to heaven was up to the individual. Everything the LORD has said we will do?
That was certainly the dilemma that Luther found himself in. All his childhood he heard only the Law. “Everything the LORD has said you better do.” Imagine this. A child takes a seat on Santa’s lap and Santa asks, “Have you been good this year?I wonder if there has ever been a child who replied, “No Santa, I have been a dirty rotten sinner.” Luther was very honest and truthful. He understood, Everything the Lord has said, he didn’t do. Fast forwarding through his life, he was driven to give up a promising law career to enter the monastery so he could separate himself from the world to concentrate on being perfect. He was so faithful and zealous in carrying out his duties he acquired the reputation of being a ‘living saint.’ But while others spoke of his holiness, Luther could only think of his sin. He described his monastery days by saying, “The holier we became, the more we became a children of the devil.” Pride took over.
I don’t know how many people I have spoken to about Jesus the last 39 years of my life, but two claimed they never sinned. They would have made Pelagius proud. One eventually admitted how foolish that claim was; the other I never saw again. Some teach a spiritual “perfectionism” that can be achieved in this life. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said that sins of weakness (unintentional sins) were not sins at all. He preached, "A Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin." Present day Methodists are hard to pin down. They are anything but united Methodists. Perfectionism is definitely found in Pentecostalism and those religions that came out of the holiness movements of
the 18th and 19th centuries when theology seemed to emphasize what I do rather than what did Jesus do?
In the Roman Church perfectionism is still taught. That’s what happens in purgatory, the stop over place you go after you die, so you can suffer for the sins of weakness you did during this life. It is the time you are punished and purged and perfected of your sin. Think about that! Jesus apparently didn’t finish the job. You see, the two million from the Hebrew nation trudging through the desert weren’t the only ones who have said, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.”
“Everything the LORD has said we will do.” An honest answer would be, “Lord, I would like to but I haven’t. I can’t. As Paul wrote, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!
After stating Pelagius’ teaching and speaking about perfectionism, a vast majority of people would probably frown on that theology. After all, who hasn’t said, “Well, nobody is perfect!” But that doesn’t keep people from at least trying to help out when it comes to their salvation. When Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians he was warning people about and confronting people called “Judaizers.” They knew they needed Jesus, but they said they also needed to keep the laws of the Old Testament that they grew up with. It ws necessary for men to be circumcised, to celebrate the holy days and Sabbath Days, to eat clean foods and abstain from unclean foods. If you believe in Jesus and do those things, that will get you to heaven. In essence faith and works together saves – not faith alone in Jesus.
Theologians call that synergism, a word that means “works with” Jesus. Some call it semi-pelagianism. This teaching exists in so many ways today. Have you ever said or thought when you did some sin that you needed to make up for it? In other words, your salvation is like a teeter totter where you need to balance the bad with the good. “Everything the LORD has said we will do” is actually every other time we sin we will do.”
Decision theology is synergism or semi-pelagianism! A preacher by Joseph Arminius is the father of decision theology. It can be summarized by saying that Jesus took care of the forgiveness part; you are responsible for the believing part. Yet the Bible says we are dead in our transgressions and sin. How can the spiritually dead make good spiritual decision? The Lord grants us grace with the faith too. The Bible says, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit? If salvation depended on a percentage for us to contribute, we would be asking ourselves, “Are we there yet? Have I done enough?”
Listen to the apostle, “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” No one is justified, that is, declared innocent of sin by the works of the Law. The Law condemns us. Paul said in Romans that the Law makes us “conscious of our sin.” The Law makes us cry out, I need help! The horrible wrong of teaching that salvation is of the Law gives the impression “Help is found within you.” Luther entered the monastery to find comfort in doing the Law. He was a cat chasing his tale. That’s what put him in the monastery in the first place, trying to keep the Law that he couldn’t keep. Changing his environment didn’t help; he was still carrying around a sinful heart.
There is an interesting event recorded in the Bible that occurred to Moses that the apostle Paul talks about in another letter. When Moses received the Law he came down the mountain and his face was glowing. He had been in the presence of God and had been given the Law of God. Afterwards, however, that glow wore off. It faded. Paul said there was a lesson in that. The Law had no lasting glory. Sure it comes from God. It instructs us how to live and how to be. But it fades. No one can keep it. Frankly it will only condemn us. That’s why we need the Gospel.
Luther’s life was never the same when he learned the Gospel, when he learned “that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” One day spent under the demands of God’s law should make it abundantly clear we cannot even come close to keeping it.
Christ declares us justified. The Law which we did not keep, he kept for us. The sins that we did and that our holy God needed to punish were laid upon Jesus, our holy and sacred Substitute. Through faith we are simply acknowledging the truth that what Jesus did for the world, he did for each of us as individuals. The verdict of being justified is not rejected but accepted and needed and won for us by him. No conditions have been placed on it. It’s free so we can be free.
When Luther discovered, by God’s grace, that he was not saved by obedience to the law which he could never fully do but by believing in Jesus, he said it was “as if the gates of paradise had been opened for him.” His life was never the same.
He once wrote, “The Gospel gets at man’s heart and makes it different.” From that time on his service in the church became, not an effort to earn his salvation, but an overpowering drive to share what he had learned to others. He preached two or three times a week, taught classes, lectured at the university, wrote dozens of books scores of pamphlets and hundreds of letters. He wrote 80,000 pages of material with the intent of sharing Jesus and his forgiveness with others. His writings reflect an emphasis on the Gospel that he had learned. That’s why the Reformation is a Reaffirmation of how the Gospel needs to be the priority of God’s church to be spread to the world.