This We Believe

Text: Romans 3:28
Date: Pentecost XXI + Reformation Sunday + 10/25/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

When the Apostle Paul wrote, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28), he was speaking, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the whole Church of Jesus Christ. Now, on Reformation Day it’s too easy especially for Lutherans to attempt to confiscate or kid-nap these apostolic words to serve as a protest against other Christian denominations as if the Apostle were saying, “For we LUTHERANS hold this-and-that” over-against the Papacy on the far right or the Reformed on the far left. As true as that may be, there were no Lutherans or so-called “denominations” when Paul wrote those words. There were those already, however, who were allowing the innate legalism of our common, fallen, sinful nature and spiritual blindness to get in the way of the Gospel. The “we” in “we hold that one is justified by faith” are all those who hold to the pure, central Biblical doctrine of the Gospel of salvation, the justification of the sinner by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works of the law. This is no new teaching of the 16th century but the apostolic Gospel from the beginning.

It’s hard to imagine the huge task Martin Luther faced in basically having to contradict and undo the entrenched system of salvation by works that had grown over the Gospel like so much wild undergrowth of choking Satanic weeds and forestation, and not only undoing that but then replacing it with the task of teaching the pure, beautiful Gospel of forgiveness and eternal life as God’s free gift of grace. He used every means at his disposal all the while maintaining that he and his followers were not starting anything new; that they were still good, faithful catholic Christians, only with the freedom of the Gospel restored in their worship, preaching, confession and teaching. Besides the preaching and teaching and use of sermon and catechism, Luther also revised the Mass or Divine Service ever so slightly beyond totally removing the sacrificial and works-righteous language from the Holy Communion liturgy. So we say in our Lutheran Confessions:

“We do not abolish the Mass, but religiously keep and defend it. Masses are celebrated among us every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals. The Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other such things….
However, ceremonies should be celebrated to teach people Scripture, that those admonished by the Word may conceive faith and godly fear, and may also pray. (This is the intent of ceremonies). So, we keep the Latin language to aid those who are learning and understand Latin. We mix with it German hymns so that the people also may have something to learn, and by which faith and godly fear may be produced.” (Apol. XXIV:1, 3-4)

Now for nearly half a millennium our churches have provided the historic liturgy in the vernacular or language of the people in whatever country the Lutheran Church has settled. What Luther did, initially, however, before the liturgy was simply translated into German or the vernacular, was to provide not only hymns as we have hymns but also hymnic paraphrases of the Ordinary of the Mass in order to teach the people.

This is what we are doing in today’s celebration, beginning with a hymn paraphrase of the Kyrie or “Lord, have mercy.” Then Nicolaus Decius’ paraphrase of the song of the angels, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.” That is the familiar song of the angels at Christmas. The remainder of the Gloria was added by the early Church as a prayer to the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Creed is sung in a paraphrase written by Luther himself. Then the Ordinary of the Liturgy of the Sacrament beginning with Luther’s paraphrase of the Sanctus of Isaiah 6, another eternal song of the angels, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth,” or armies of power and might. “Heaven and earth are filled with His glory.” In the Latin Mass the choir then sang the first communion hymn that confesses the real presence of Christ’s body and blood on the altar, “Agnus Dei,” “Lamb of God.” Interestingly, Luther never wrote a hymn paraphrase of this because he chose to use the hymn by John Hus, “Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior” (LSB 627) as his catechism hymn to teach about the sacrament.

In all of this it should be noted that Luther never considered the historic liturgy merely a series of unrelated bits and pieces to be cut and pasted together, willy-nilly, haphazardly, as is the habit these days among those in whom the so-called church growth movement has dulled their sense of what is essential in Christian worship. For the Biblical base and content of the liturgy, in every detail, supports, confesses and proclaims the pure Gospel of salvation, the wonderful justification of the sinner by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone apart from works of the law.

When it comes to the Eve of All Saints, or in old English, “All Hallowed’s E’en” from which we get the word “Halloween,” instead of recalling the blessed Gospel recovered beginning with Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg on this day, what do most people think of today? Candy! And Ghosts! The scary costumes, ghosts and demons stem from fables of the dead (which we remember and celebrate on All Saints Day) variously supposedly coming back in the extended winter darkness of the northern hemisphere to haunt the living unless they are paid off with some treat. You see how the old works-righteous theme of salvation by works is so deeply ingrained in the fallen, spiritually blind, sinful human psyche. We say, no. “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In other words a person is reconciled with God, restored, born anew, justified and saved solely by God’s mighty act and Word and not by anything we can do. That mighty act was nothing other than the sending of His only Son to fulfill God’s Law for us, to pay the wages of sin for us, to die and rise again from the dead for us. And all of this is counted as your salvation by the simple hearing of the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ.

That baptismal hearing and faith is achieved through the mighty Word of God. This is why we make such a big deal out of the publication of yet another edition of the Bible this year, The Lutheran Study Bible. The hymn written to celebrate this publication simply recalls the basic truths of the Bible—The holy Word of God endures forever; it is the vehicle of the Holy Spirit to create faith in the heart of those who hear the Gospel; it is not a mere human book but the inspired, “God-breathed” Word of God. Jesus Christ is at the heart of the Bible. It all points to Him. For only in and through Jesus can you discover the true heart of God’s love and invitation to salvation.

This is what we Lutherans are celebrating this day, nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ through which sinners are invited, converted, justified, saved and sanctified for eternity to take their place with us in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of every time and place on earth and in heaven.