What are we commemorating on Reformation Day?
A man? Martin Luther? Certainly not.
Luther himself didn’t seek to trumpet his own name, only the truths found in the Bible. He was even against anyone calling themselves “Lutheran”. He thought the followers of Christ ought to be called by Christ’s name, not his.
So then what ARE we commemorating? A split into two separate churches, the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran? Certainly not this either.
Though division is sometimes necessary and right, the split itself is never something to rejoice about.
On Reformation Day we commemorate and celebrate a restoration. We celebrate a rediscovery and a cherishing of the Bible’s most important teaching: salvation for sinners, by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.
The two most important teachings found in the Bible are: law and gospel.
Through the law, God tells us what we ought to be, and how we have failed miserably. The law shows us that we have sinned against God and deserve nothing but punishment.
Through the gospel, God tells us we He has done to reclaim us from sin. The gospel shows us that God’s Son suffered and died in our place so that our sins stand forgiven.
Look for the gospel in our readings for today.
Grace and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We read from Romans 3, verse 19 and following.
Romans 3:19-20 (NIV)
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
Have you ever had a broken bone? Even if you haven’t, you know the drill. You hit your arm on something hard - and there’s pain. This isn’t just a bruise, even a deep bruise, you can tell that something else is wrong here. You think it’s broken. But you can’t be sure it’s broken until you get an x-ray.
So you go to the doctor and she takes some x-rays. Now you can see what’s causing all the pain. It’s not just a fracture, it’s clearly broken.
Now comes the fun part. Resetting the break so that it can heal properly. If the bones aren’t set right, they’ll grow together wrong. Then you might have pain, or limited use of your arm - for the rest of your life.
So, the doctor sends you back to the x-ray technician. She says, “Three x-rays daily for the next month or so, and those bones will set up perfect.”
You say, “Huh? Aren’t you going to move the bones into the right place and then put a cast on this?”
“Oh, no,” your doctor says, “X-rays will stitch those bones back together in no time”.
At this point you’re thinking, “I’m gonna need a second opinion on this”.
Obviously, x-rays don’t heal bones. They don’t move bones. They don’t ease pain. X-rays are only for diagnosis, not for healing. In fact, if you blast yourself with x-rays long enough, you’ll die from it.
That’s how God’s law works. When we use the Ten Commandments, or the other laws found in God’s book, we can see where the pain comes from. We can see what’s wrong inside of us. It’s called sin. The breaking of God’s law.
Now here’s the problem; many religious teachers are great at using the law to show people that they’re broken. But then they send them away with more things to do and laws to keep in order to heal them. And that just doesn’t work.
The law can’t heal, it only reveals.
Romans 3:20 is my favorite passage in the Bible about the law. It condenses the purpose of God’s law into one short little statement:
“20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20 NIV).“Observing the law”, in the Greek, is literally “by works of the law”. In other words, sinners CAN NOT get God’s stamp of approval by doing what God’s law says. It’ll never happen because even if we get it right half the time, the rest of the time we DON’T. And God sets the bar as high as He is. Only the holy can be with Him. Only the sinless.
The 21 year old Martin Luther was terrified of God. He had been taught that God expected him to make up for his sins. But even as he was trying to do this, Martin knew his own heart. He knew that he hated God for this requirement of holiness. How could his works EVER be pure enough to make up for his own sins?
Young Martin became a monk and dedicated his life to God. In the monastery he punished himself severely for his own sins. But in these things he found no peace. His sin still weighed heavily on him, and each day he added to that weight with more sin and guilt.
Eventually, Luther got to study the Bible for himself. There he found the healing which the law could never give. He found it in passage like our next section from Romans 3.
Romans 3:21-24 (NIV)
21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Our natural inclination is to think that we have to DO SOMETHING in order for God to be happy with us. We think, if I’m a sinner, that means I’ve got to do something to make God overlook that fact.
But God wants us to know that this is stupid. Our righteousness can’t come from inside. Jesus once said,
“19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19).Is that where our righteousness is gonna come from?
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah described how God sees our ‘righteous acts’ when he wrote…
“all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV).Our righteousness can’t come from inside. If our righteousness is to 100% pure, it has to come from God.
Look at verse 21 again and answer this question: Is our righteousness from us or from God? Is our righteousness because of our doing works of the law?
It gets better. In verse 24, Paul says that we are “justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”.
Our justification is free, because Jesus paid for it on the cross. Someone did have to pay for our sins, but it wasn’t use. We weren’t qualified or able. Jesus did it for us.
But it can’t be that easy right? There’s gotta be something God wants us to do right? That’s what people always think.
Peter preached in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost, and when he stopped telling the people about how Jesus died on the cross, the people asked,blockquote>“Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 NIV).When Paul stopped the jail keeper of Philippi from committing suicide, the man turned to him and asked,“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 NIV)But the Gospel isn’t about what WE can do, it’s about what GOD has done for us in Christ. That’s where our righteousness comes from.
Look one more time at verses 21-24. It’s like the Holy Spirit KNOWS that we’re gonna somehow try to put redemption on our own to-do list. So He describes where our righteousness comes from thoroughly. Verse 21: It’s from God. It’s apart from the law. Verse 22: It’s through faith, not deeds. It’s freely given. Verse 24: It’s a graciously given gift. It comes to us because of Jesus Christ.
It was the denial of this central teaching that eventually drove Martin Luther to part ways with the Roman Catholic church. The official Catholic teaching concerning forgivness was put on paper around the same time that Martin Luther died. At the council of Trent, in the fourth session the following statement became official teaching…
“If any one should say that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in the divine compassion which forgives sins for Christ’s sake, or that we are justified alone by such trust, let him be accursed” (Council of Trent, Sess. IV, Can. 12).▬
Let’s hear Paul’s final words about justification from our section.
Romans 3:25-28 (NIV)
25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
In the Old Testament, God overlooked the sins of those who trusted in Him because He knew that His Son would one day pay the price for them in full.
Today, God remains just as patient. He does not strike people dead when we sin, but leads them to the foot of the cross to see their Savior, and to receive the gift of forgiveness that He earned for them through faith.
On this Reformation Day, we can’t boast. Everything we have has been given to us by God. From our possessions, to our friends, to our families, to the complete freedom from sin and punishment that we have in Christ, to our relationship with God. It’s all a GIFT, and you can’t brag about something you had no part in earning.
Luther loved the book of Romans. Speaking about this book He once said…
“This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. We can never read it or ponder over it too much; for the more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes” (Luther’s Works 35:365).May God continue to be merciful to us, so that we will forever treasure the book of Romans, and the precious Gospel that permeates it. May we ever confess with Paul that we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Our righteousness is not our own, it is the gift of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
All glory be to God.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.