Wednesday, November 02, 2022
Tuesday, November 01, 2022
Sunday, October 30, 2022
On this Reformation Sunday, we consider a simple and important question: What is a Lutheran? Lutherans have always seen Christian faith, the faith commended to us in the Bible, as having three key truths: Grace alone; Faith alone; and Word alone. What does that really mean?
When the thirty-three-year-old German monk and priest, Martin Luther, accidentally began the Reformation movement back in 1517, he found himself addressing both a religious elite who no longer cared about the Word of God, choosing to replace it with their own ideas and traditions, and Christian masses whose allegiance to the Church was as an institution and a habit, rather than a fellowship with the living God. No wonder that the elites hated Luther or that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire put Luther under an imperial ban, meaning that anyone was authorized to kill Luther on sight!
Luther’s witness to the justification of sinful human beings by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and to the authority of the Bible as God’s Word undermined those who wanted to replace Jesus with other lords and the authority of the Bible with traditions and customs that brought them control or power.
The experience of Luther and the other church reformers was nothing new. When you read the Old Testament, you see a recurring pattern in the life of God’s chosen people, the Israelites or Jews. God would call them to repent, trust in Him for life, and follow Him, and the people, feeling weak or vulnerable or afraid, would do so. For a time. Then, once they got a little food in their bellies, a tract of land to farm, a bit of wealth or power, they would mostly forget God. Or, they would make God over into an indulgent Santa Claus who didn’t care if they repented, believed, or followed, so long as they were happy. Or, they would tinker with their faith, adding their own rules, intermingling the worship of other deities. It was to God’s people in these latter circumstances that God would send prophets to call people back to Him.
We see this rejection of God and of God’s Word in the people Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel lesson from John. Just before our lesson, Jesus foretells His crucifixion and resurrection. Then Jesus lifts up those three distinctives of Biblical faith, three distinctives that would become the three cornerstone principles of Lutheranism.
John tells us: "Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ’If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Lutherans don't claim to have a corner on the truth market. But the Confessions of our movement, found in a book called The Book of Concord or Concordia, hold that Jesus is the Truth that sets us free. We believe that people are set free from sin, death, and futility, first of all, through God’s grace alone. Jesus doesn’t say, “Perform these deeds and I’ll set you free from sin and death.” He doesn’t say, “You’re just perfect the way you are so nothing needs to be done to make you righteous, or acceptable for life with God.” Instead, Jesus tells us that we are sinners who need to be righteous and then, on the cross, through His innocent suffering and death, does the hard work of taking our sin into His body while giving His perfect righteousness to us. He does this as a free gift, an act of grace (or charity) from God for us. We are saved by God’s grace alone.
Lutheran Christians also believe we are saved through faith alone. Faith is how we grab hold of the grace Jesus gives us on the cross. Jesus told His fellow Jews that they would only be free to be the people of God if they trusted or believed in Him, literally the original Greek says "remain in My Word." To have faith is to remain rooted in Jesus and to draw life from Him alone. This is what Jesus is talking about when He says elsewhere, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Faith, the gift God gives by His Word, overcomes our deadliest enemies—the devil, the sinful world, and our sinful selves. As Jesus tells Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will live forever.” Then Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Do I? I mean, how is it possible for self-centered, untrusting people to have faith in Jesus, the Lord we’ve never actually seen? The Small Catechism tells us, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel [that is, the good news message that God the Father sent Jesus, God the Son, to save me from sin and death], enlightened me with His gifts [The Bible and the Sacraments], and sanctified and preserved me in the truth faith.” In Jesus, God not only does everything needed to save me from myself, He also creates my faith in Jesus. A Lutheran is someone who, because of God’s great grace or charity, has been given and receives the Word about Jesus that creates faith.
Finally, Lutherans believe that we come to know God through the Word alone. Above all, we know God through “the Word made flesh,” Jesus. The Bible, the inspired Word of God, which is about Jesus from Genesis to Revelation, points us to the life God gives through Jesus.
In Martin Luther’s day, the Church added to or ignored the witness about Jesus found in the Scriptures. Luther and the other Reformers said that the Church dared not do or say anything contrary to the will of God revealed to us in the Bible. This agrees with 2 Timothy 3:16, which says: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness...” We may not like the things that God calls sin. But we Lutherans believe that when the righteous, loving God of the universe and we disagree about how we should live our lives, God is right and we are wrong. We may want to know much more than God reveals. But in the 66 books of the Bible, everything we need to know about God, about ourselves, about how to live, and about Who can be trusted, is found in the Bible.
We live in an era in which the Bible is routinely snubbed, dismissed, or misused. The Bible isn’t the writing of just one person claiming a hotline to God, as was true of the books of Islam or Mormonism. The Bible doesn’t claim to give us a means by which we can work our way to heaven or to a state of spiritual enlightenment, as is the case with eastern religions. The Bible is a library of books that tell us how God reaches out to us, saves us, loves us, and wants to be reconciled to us through the Savior He sent for us. The Bible is the Word from God that has the power to change the lives of anyone who stand under its authority. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “...the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
God saves through grace alone, faith alone, and Word alone. It was true in 33 AD, true in 1517, true today, and true for all eternity.
So, what is a Lutheran? At the least, Lutherans are people who stake their eternal lives on these three truths. And when the world rejects or demeans or tries to tell us to reject the Bible's witness to these three essential truths, we must say with Luther who was commanded to recant or repudiate his witness for Christ, “"Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason…I am bound by the Scriptures…and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God…I am neither able nor willing to recant. God help me.”
And may God help us to be true to our Lutheran heritage, not from a commitment to tradition, but from simple faith in Jesus, the One Who has borne the cross and opened eternity for us. May we be true to our good confession as Lutherans that we are saved from our very real enemies–sin, death, and the devil–by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone! Faith in the Savior Who justifies sinners, making us innocent of our sin through His death on the cross, this faith is the best way to remember Reformation Sunday, today and always. Amen