Text: John 8:32
Date: Reformation Day + 10/31/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
On Reformation Day every year we celebrate the 16th century awakening to the Gospel of Jesus Christ which had become grown over like a neglected lawn, grown over, defaced, covered up, even rejected by the confusion of Law and Gospel. Christianity was identified not by the freedom of the forgiveness of sins by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone but by the myriad of laws and rules one must follow and then never being sure that all of your sin has been atoned for. It took the angel of Revelation 14, a messenger of the eternal gospel in the person of the otherwise obscure Augustinian monk named Martin Luther to rediscover, publish and teach the true, pure Gospel. Contrary to uninformed opinion, Luther never intended to “start a new church,” but only to correct abuses, mow and trim the lawn so to speak, uncover and recover the Gospel. Admittedly, that meant eliminating things that were contrary to the pure Gospel. It meant some surgery deeper than many including the Pope were willing to undergo. Finally, Luther and his followers were left to believe and preach and teach officially rejected by the church. The so-called “Lutherans” continued to consider themselves good Catholics, even better Catholics. That’s when the old Catholic Church became the Roman Catholic Church. As long as any identified with the Pope in Rome, they remained apostate to the truth of the pure Gospel.
Now, every year when we celebrate the Reformation we have done so in ways that attempt to emphasize our claim to be the pure expression of the western catholic faith and not just a “sect” or as Rome likes to call us, “separated brethren.” This year, however, we wish to be so bold as to do a little boasting, not of ourselves, of course, but of Jesus Christ and the pure Gospel that has been handed down and delivered to us. Growing from the confessional movement of these days has come an alternate youth organization called Higher Things, which has only recently become a Recognized Service Organization in the LCMS. Their motto has been “Dare to be Lutheran.” And that’s our consideration today as Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” To “dare” to be Lutheran means, first of all, to be convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church presents and represents the purest and most complete expression of the historic Christian faith, and, secondly, that we are dedicated to confess and maintain that pure Gospel especially in the face of everything that speaks against it. We will just take a few examples.
The very first doctrine we need to mention is the doctrine of the Word of God. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word.” God revealed Himself and His will, at first, directly and verbally to Adam and Eve. Through the oral Word God built His Church until the days of Moses. After God had chosen to transmit His Word in writing, the Church of every age is strictly bound to the written Word of God—beginning with the five books of Moses, then the prophets and the psalms, and finally the apostolic New Testament. We all know (or should know) the proof passages, 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God,” and 2 Peter 1:21, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Our knowledge and understanding of God is bound to the Holy Scriptures only, and not to our natural reason, nor decrees, councils or synods of the Church, nor so-called private, immediate or new revelations, nor scripture forced or interpreted through historical or philosophical presumptions. The Bible does not only “contain” the Word of God. We must confess that the Bible “is” the Word of God. It must be interpreted according to its own rules, the “darker” or more difficult passages being interpreted in concert with the clear passages, everything ultimately pointing to Jesus Christ, the Word of God Himself in the flesh. The two basic rules of interpretation demand a clear distinction between Law and Gospel.
Now having that foundation, let’s look at just a few other doctrines of the Christian faith. The first, main and central teaching of the Christian faith is salvation, or the justification of the sinner by God’s grace through faith in Christ the sacrifice for the sin of the world. Justification: the declaration of God upon the sinner in the complete forgiveness of all sins. It happens solely by God’s grace—not through works of the Law or of any value or supposed worthiness in ourselves. Mankind is so lost in sin, we call it “total depravity.” It is the grace of God that it is not for the sake of our works but for the sake of the holy work of Jesus Christ and our faith in Him that God declares us righteous, justified. There the doctrine of Christ is central: that Jesus was not just a prophet or a holy man, but the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, God Himself, who humbled Himself to be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary where He became, was made man. As a man He lived under God’s Law, perfectly fulfilling it. As The Holy Man He did not deserve to die. The Biblical principal is “you sin, you die.” “You don’t sin, you don’t die.” “All have sinned,” Roman s 3:23. Therefore, all die. Jesus did not sin. Therefore Jesus did not have to die. Yet He did. Why? It was for the life of the world, John 6:51. Jesus died because of, on behalf of the sin of the world, my sin and yours. Now any and all who believe that, who trust in His sacrifice, are declared by God to be righteous, justified and saved.
Or take the doctrine of creation. Where did we come from? We believe that God created the world and the universe in six days and rested on the seventh as the Bible says. Were these literally, 24-hour days? Well, we don’t know of any other definition of a “day.” The Hebrew word is “yom.” A day is a day. When philosophers or liberal theologians try to say, “well, maybe each day back then was actually a span of a few thousand years,” we say, “a day is a day.” We can’t explain it. But we must stand for the Word. And the word is “day.” For if we start “interpreting” words of scripture in other ways, we will eventually interpret Christ out of the Bible totally and end up hoping for salvation in some other way than by faith in Christ. As Luther said, “If you cannot understand how [the creation] could have been done in six days, then accord the Holy Spirit the honor that He is more erudite than you” (St. L. III:21).
Or take the doctrine of the sacraments. The “problem” is the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood under the forms of bread and wine. It is a “problem” for everything but faith in the Word. The Reformed simply deny the Real Presence. The Roman Catholic Church explains it through a philosophy called “transubstantiation.” We receive the same, true, substantial body and blood of Christ that once hung on the cross, that was born of the virgin Mary, that rose from the grave because Jesus said, referring clearly to the bread and wine set apart for this use, “This is my body, This is my blood.” “Is” never means “represents.” I expand Luther’s Christian Questions with the Answers for Those who Intend to Go to the Sacrament when he asks, “You believe, then, that the true body and blood of Christ are in the sacrament?” Answer, “Yes, I believe it.” Then I add, “Can you understand HOW the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ?” The correct answer is, “No, I cannot understand it.” But do you believe it? That’s a different question. And that’s what faith in the Word is all about. It is a beautiful thing that I do not have to explain to anyone how this can be other than to say, “Because Jesus said it.”
Is this not also our only hope of salvation, because God has come to us, spoken and continues to speak to us, washed us and claimed us as His own in our Holy Baptism, continually forgives us all sins, and has promised to receive us into glory and everlasting life, our “last day” being but the first day of the completion of our salvation in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
In all of this, you see, everything depends on the Word of God. Faith in the Word is not separated from but above or more than, and additive, if you will, to reason. Luther, of course, had plenty to say in all of his writings but here is a passage on dealing with an unbeliever in an apologetic way. He says, “They [the sophists] say the Scriptures are far too weak that we should silence heretics with them; reason must do it, and it must come forth from the brain; thus one must prove that the faith is the right one. But our faith is above all reason, and it alone is the power of God. Therefore, if the people will not believe, then be silent; for you are not held to compel them to receive Scripture as God’s book or Word; it is enough if you give the reason therefore. But if they take exceptions and say: You preach that one should not hold to man’s doctrine, and yet St. Peter and Paul, and even Christ, were men—when you hear people of this stamp, who are so blinded and hardened as to deny that what Christ and the Apostles spoke and wrote is God’s Word, or doubt it, then be silent, speak no more with them, and let them go. Only say: I will give you reasons enough from Scripture; if you will believe it, it is well; if not, go your way. Will you say: Then God’s Word must suffer defeat? Leave that to God!” (St. L. IX:1238f.; Pieper I:243).
You see, this “knowing the truth” stuff is not without challenge or conflict. But this truth, the truth of God’s Word, brings freedom from sin and eternal life. Oh, rejoice that, even through all the opposition and troubles—the counter reformation of the Council of Trent, the ages of Pietism and Rationalism, the struggle of our fathers in this country with Revivalism and other movements, the disintegration of the so-called Synodical Conference, the civil war in the LCMS of the early 70s, and now the challenges of the Church Growth Movement and other conflicts—rejoice that, even through all the opposition and troubles, we still have a fellowship where at least it is not yet illegal or disallowed to preach and teach and believe the pure Gospel. The lawn still needs to be mowed and trimmed. The reformation continues.