The Free Gift

Text: Romans 3:19-28
Date: Reformation Day (Observed) + 10/26/14

On the eve of All Saints Day, “all hallow’ds e’en” 1517, Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church the “Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” in Latin inviting scholarly and Christian debate on his discovery of the Gospel, the good news of the free forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life as pure gift of God. It began:

“Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Lutther,1 Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter.”[1]

The first thesis reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17],3 he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[2] That may sound like “a downer,” a bad thing. But just wait.

That occasion has been viewed by history as the beginning of the Reformation of the Church. So on this day we “evangelical catholics” (who never intended to abandon or leave the Church in the first place) pause to remember the work of Luther, the messenger or angel if you will, “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev 14:6).

Fundamental to right Biblical understanding and right Christian faith is the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel. We began today by singing the hymn, “The Law of God is Good and Wise” (LSB 579), for in the Ten Commandments, for instance, God has revealed the proper order of things for all people. At first one may observe that there appear to be only two “positive” commands (“Remember the Sabbath day” and “Honor your father and your mother”) all the other eight “negative” as in “you shall not” (have other gods, misuse God’s name, murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony, or covet). So what’s so “good and wise” about that? The proper distinction between Law and Gospel reveals that there is both a negative and a positive side to each one of those Commandments. For instance when the second commandment says “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” this is also God’s invitation to take His name for yourself and your salvation. That’s Gospel. When the fourth commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother,” it first reveals the fact that you haven’t and you don’t. You need to be reminded. That’s Law. The proper distinction of Law and Gospel then is not merely a matter of what you should and shouldn’t do. When we confess our sins we confess having sinned not only in deed but also in thought, word and what we have failed to do.

Rather than only negative or positive words therefore, the Law is all the words wherein “God commands good works of thought, word, and deed and condemns and punishes sin.”[3] The Gospel on the other hand are all those words that proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sins, the gift of faith, life, and the power to please God with good works.

You can’t pick up a basket of apples with just one handle. A proper understanding of Law and Gospel are like the two handles that enable you to go anywhere in the Bible and not get lost or confused. When Luther said Christ “willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance,” that was not a statement only of Law but also of Gospel. For repentance consists in two things, first, contrition or sorrow over sin, actually fear of punishment, that’s Law, but also faith, turning from self to Jesus Christ as your only hope, the bringer of forgiveness, life and salvation. That’s Gospel.

It was in these words of St. Paul we heard today that Luther began to discover the Gospel which had for him and all been hidden or denied by a purely Law understanding of the Bible and of the Church. A purely Law understanding is the natural, expected way of fallen, sinful man in his total depravity with no ability on his own to believe the Gospel. For instance, when suffering the natural man says, “What did I DO to deserve this?” When asked, “Do you hope to be saved?” he says “if I’ve been good enough.” For all mankind believes, by natural revelation, two things. First, we look at creation and draw the conclusion that there must be a God. Secondly, we look at the storms and troubles of life, the sin and finally death all around and determine that this God must be mad at us. And you’re right. So far so good (or bad as the case may be).

One does not discover by natural revelation, however, that this same God loves us and desires all to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved. That takes a special revelation, a word from God. That word is Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, and the testimony and witness of what He came to do for us and for our salvation.

Paul wrote, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight” (Rom 3:20). This is what troubled Luther and is meant to trouble you and every sinner if you ever hope to be saved. For Luther the whole idea of “the righteousness of God” of which St. Paul spoke meant only that pure holiness of God by which He can only condemn and punish the sinner. But then these words break in: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21-22). That is, because of faith in the saving work, the life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ, God gives and creates that faith in the heart, He sees that faith and because of that faith He declares the believer not guilty, righteous, not on the basis of works or anything in us but on the basis of God’s justice and gifts of Christ and of faith. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Everyone agrees (or should agree) with that. But now there is also no distinction that all “are justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation,” that is, the only satisfactory price, “by his blood, to be received by faith” which is, as the scriptures say, the creation of the merciful God in the hearts of all who hear and do not reject the gospel. In this way, says the apostle, God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Of all this Luther distilled the gospel into his meaning of the Third Article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” Do you agree? “But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

If this is so, St. Paul asks, “then what becomes of our boasting?” any boasting of our being saved or having become a Christian by any movement or decision of ourselves. Answer: “It is excluded.” And here comes the proper distinction of Law and Gospel: “by what kind of law? By a law of works? NO! But by the ‘law’ of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

For Luther and for every true believer before and after him this is the moment “as if heaven itself were opened.” This was the motivation behind Luther’s industrious work from there on. And it is the real reason why we celebrate him and this day, and every day full of grace.

1 Luther spelled his name Lutther in this preamble.
[1]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1957 (Luther’s Works 31), S. 31:25
3 The Latin form, poenitentiam agite, and the German, tut Busse, may be rendered in two ways, “repent,” and “do penance.”
[2]Luther’s Works 31:25.
[3] Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism, CPH ©1991, 51.