Posted on October 25th, 2009
Text: Romans 3:19-28 +++ An adult was also confirmed at this service.
The problem with the church today is that Luther’s problem has stopped being our problem. Luther’s problem was the original problem of all true theology: How can mankind be redeemed – rescued from his sins, and the death and hell they have merited? For Luther, the question became a very personal one: “How can I be redeemed?”
This question is really a question about God: “How can I find a God of mercy?” Today’s questions about God – if they are about God at all – are throughly self-absorbed: How can I find a God who can give me my best life now? How can I have a life of purpose? How can I be happy? In these questions, God is a means to an end. But God is not a means to an end. God is the end, even as He is the beginning.
I heard a church historian speaking recently about the how modern American religious thought is different from previous ages. One of the things that makes our age unique is that nobody thinks he is going to hell. Luther wrestled with a different kind of problem. He couldn’t see how he wouldn’t be condemned to hell. The typical answer of his day – that God’s wrath would be turned aside by his duties as a monk, his life of self-denial, his frequent confession and communion – none of that satisfied him.
Luther, you see, had a gift, given to him by God: He had a tender conscience. Today, we would call that a curse. The key to success – in business, in life, and especially in the church – is compromise. And with each compromise, the conscience is deadened a little, and God’s Word is set aside a little more. With each compromise you and I make, we have to tell ourselves, “The warnings of God’s Word don’t really apply to me. After all, I’ve been baptized, I’ve been confirmed, I go to church from time to time – I’m already forgiven, right?” And so we willfully sin, repeatedly, and keep on expecting God’s forgiveness. It’s our right! We are entitled!
But when we hear the Bible really speak, all of our compromises melt under the heat of divine scrutiny. It is written, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12.29). We ought to be afraid – very afraid – at those words. The fact that we are not testifies to just how compromised we are, just how spiritually arrogant we have become, just how much we have taken God’s Word of Law and Gospel for granted.
The young Luther did not take the Law for granted, but at the same time he didn’t really know the Gospel. What he did know, what he was certain of, was this truth from God’s Word: “The whole world [will] be held accountable to God” [Epistle]. And when that day of accountability, when that day of reckoning, when that day of judgment comes, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight.” God’s Law requires – demands – that every person be righteous. And yet the same word of God says that no person is righteous – not one! The answer Luther’s church was giving him was that popes and indulgences and fasting and celibacy and penance could obtain for him the righteousness that he needed. But he knew it was not true. “By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight.”
What makes Luther different from other reformers is what drove his teaching. Other reform movements were driven by mystical experiences, emotional conversions, or a commitment to obedience. The Lutheran Reformation was instead a rediscovery of the teaching of the Bible about God’s righteousness. Luther rediscovered the Bible’s teaching that what God demands in the Law, He gives in the Gospel. In the Law, God’s punishes and condemns our unrighteousness, but in the Gospel, God gives freely His own righteousness. Through the fog of a false understanding of God’s righteousness, Luther heard the “eternal gospel” mentioned in today’s first reading, written in Romans 1: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” These words revealed the answer to Luther’s terrifying question: “How can I find a God of mercy?”
Luther’s problem needs to again be our problem: “How can I find a God of mercy?” If we want reform for the Christianity of our day, the church must ask this question again. If our Synod is to be restored to her former vigor, she must again ask this question. If our congregation, which has inherited the gift of the Reformation – if our congregation is to be successful, we must continuously ask that question: “How can I find a God of mercy?”
And hearing the answer in God’s Word, that we are justified, declared righteous, shown mercy “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” then we will have success. Perhaps not as the world counts it, in buildings, budgets, and crowds, but the kind of success God promises: that His Word will not return to Him void, but accomplish the thing for which it is sent.
Today, when Gena is confirmed, that is what pleases God – renouncing the devil and confessing the faith. Today, when you come to the altar confessing your sins and receiving in faith Christ’s body and blood, and with it, His pledge of forgiveness, that is what pleases God.
So each one of us needs to, every day, every week, acknowledge our sins, lament them, confess them, turn from them, ask for God’s help, and ask, “How can I find a God of mercy?”
And then, we are ready for the answer: We cannot find Him, but He has found us; in JESUS He became one of us, took on our human nature, hungered with us, suffered for us, died with our sins on HIm, and rose from the dead so that we too can rise from death. That is God’s answer to the Reformation question, the Bible question, the human question, “How can I find a God of mercy?” Trusting in that answer is what the Bible means when it says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” May that Reformation faith renew our hearts and our congregation!
Portions adapted from “Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” Part 2, Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way