It’s lonely being a Lutheran. One of the great twentieth century theologians, Hermann Sasse, resisted the Nazis and fled to Australia. A collection of his essays is titled The Lonely Way. That phrase occurs in an essay from 1943:
As Luther once went the lonely way between Rome and Spiritualism, so the Lutheran Church today stands alone between the world powers of Roman Catholicism on the one hand and modern Protestantism on the other. Her doctrine which teaches that the Spirit is bound to the means of grace is as inconceivable to modern people in the twentieth century as it was to their predecessors in the sixteenth.
To be a Lutheran is to travel a lonely road, but it’s the only road I want to be on.
What is at the heart of being Lutheran? There are two essential aspects of Reformation teaching that I want to share with you this morning; the first was stated in that quotation from Sasse: “The Spirit is bound to the means of grace.” Where is the Holy Spirit working with grace? In what we call the means of grace: The Holy Spirit works when the Word of God is read and preached; and in the visible Word of God, joined to water in Baptism, joined to bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper.
Now the Holy Spirit is everywhere, but He is not everywhere in a way we can apprehend. Thus the Spirit locates Himself, binds Himself to working in the Word and the Sacraments for our certainty. When you hear the Word of absolution, you can know and be certain that is the very declaration of God that your sins are forgiven. When the water is poured over the head of one being baptized, we can know and be certain there God is working and acting. When the Word of God comes to us attached to bread and wine, we can know and be certain that the bread and wine is what Jesus said, His body and blood. And we can believe His promises attached there: “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
After the Reformation was underway, radicals arose to destroy all externals. They smashed statues, crushed crucifixes, shattered stained glass. The eradication of externals led also to hostility to the Word and Sacraments. They were called enthusiasts, which doesn’t mean getting excited about something; it meant looking for God within instead of without. Enthusiasts stopped looking for God in His Word, and in the things Jesus established, like Baptism and the Eucharist. Instead, they said to look inside of yourself, and find God in your heart, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
The truest Word of God becomes what your heart is telling you. But listen to the holy prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (17:9). Far from looking to the heart for guidance, Jesus taught the human heart as the source of evil: “Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.” (Mt. 15.18-20)
Our hearts are desperately wicked. Our hearts are deceitful above all things. Our hearts need reformation.
Instead of the means of grace, some teach that he Spirit is located in the Church. To be sure, the Spirit works through the Church, which is why as soon as the Creed confesses, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we immediately go on to say, “the holy christian church.” But the error is when popes and councils and synods and churches declare traditions and doctrines of men as the Word of God and the moving of the Holy Spirit. This is why, as appealing as both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are in many respects, we cannot be part of their communions, because they both locate the Holy Spirit as working surely and infallibly through the leaders of their church.
So we must walk the lonely way between these various churches, not out of a sense of pride or arrogance or separatism, but because we cannot find there the certainty of God’s Word.
Only in the sacred Scriptures can we find the sure and certain grace of the Holy Spirit, the sure and certain Word of God, and then that Word working through the sacraments that Jesus instituted. When I go to confession, my heart judges me, “You are a sinner, you are a hypocrite, you do not measure up and God will reject you.” Yet what I feel about it matters not, but what the Word says to me, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And that leads us to the second emphasis at the heart of the Reformation: a rediscovery of the Bible’s teaching about justification. You can see it in the last verse of today’s Epistle: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
To be justified is to be declared not guilty. Think of examples from everyday life: when we try to justify our own actions, we are trying to get ourselves acquitted from the appearance of wrongdoing. If I show up late to a meeting, I may seek to justify my tardiness by mentioning the bad traffic. When a student is caught misbehaving in school, or unprepared for a test, rarely does the student promptly confess; instead, there are justifications heaped upon justifications: but she did it first! But I didn’t have time to study because…! As we grow older, the justifications become more complex, and we deceive ourselves with them.
But we cannot justify ourselves, declare ourselves to be in the right—not before God. God’s Word is clear: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You are a sinner, you do not measure up, you have made other things and people your gods ahead of the true God; you have misused God’s name and your worship and prayers have faltered; you have not listened to God’s Word; you have dishonored your parents and other authorities; you have harmed your neighbor; you have not led a sexually pure and decent life; you have spun what happened so you come off looking good; you have been dissatisfied with what God has given you. You have fallen short of the glory of God, and deserve nothing but God’s wrath and displeasure. That is the truth of God’s Word, the Law, but there is another truth, which is at the heart and center of the Bible’s teaching, and thus the heart and center of Lutheran doctrine: “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
That means that justification—being declared righteous and just and holy—comes from outside yourself. What comes from within you is desperately wicked. But outside of you, what you have not and could not be or do, stands Jesus, the God-man. His active obedience—doing the Law perfectly for you—and His passive obedience—receiving the punishment you deserve—all is counted, given, credited to you for your justification. You, a sinner, are declared holy, pure, sinless. You, hopeless, are granted hope. You, dying, are given life. Not by what you do, but in what Christ Jesus does. That truth, so widely rejected throughout Christendom today, is what makes it lonely being a Lutheran.
Whether you are a cradle Lutheran or just got here, we must continually ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be Lutheran?” Lutheranism is not allegiance to Luther. Lutheranism is not allegiance to an ethnic background. Besides, the center of world Lutheranism will soon be in Africa.
What does it mean to be Lutheran? The Reformation is not a 16th century event. The Reformation is an event that must happen every Lord’s Day when we gather here, and every new morning that God gives you. Semper reformanda ecclesia est, “The church is always reforming,” and each of us must always be reforming. Just as the sixteenth century reformation happened by a return to the Bible’s teaching of repentance and justification, so we must be constantly repenting, constantly returning to justification, the declaration of the sinner to be just before a just God, righteous before a righteous God, holy before a holy God.
Justification happened on the cross. But justification is never past event but always present reality. Baptism delivers to us justification, and the entire Christian life is the living out of that justification. The name “Luther” is not important. The Bible that Luther gave to people in their own language is. The Bible teaching of justification, the free forgiveness of sins, that’s what is important. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That truth alone can bring reformation to the church and to our troubled souls. +INJ+