O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever (1 Chr 16:34). Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church - Winnipeg, MB
The Dividing Word of Law and Gospel
The Dividing Word of Law and Gospel
Based on Romans 3
Preached on October 30, 2016
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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Reformation Day, October 31st, tomorrow, the Eve of All Hallows (that is, All Saints). That is the day - when in 1517 an Augustinian friar and professor of theology at Wittenberg University named Dr. Martin Luther - posted 95 theses on the church door for all to read – because he wanted to have a chat. Luther wanted to discuss what he saw were abuses in the church and a misunderstanding of the Gospel.
Well, you probably know the story. Someone got a hold of those 95 theses, translated them into German, slapped them on Guttenberg’s printing press, and circulated them all over Germany where they became a manifesto for rebellion against Rome. Three years later, Luther got excommunicated for preaching the Gospel of Jesus in the church; the churches in the German lands were cut off from Rome, and the rest, as they say, is history. A divided western church with hundreds if not thousands of protestant sects and a big, bloated bureaucracy in Rome. Not a pretty sight.
Of course, the NT continually reminds us that the church always appears weak in this world, that the cross of Jesus remains a stumbling block to the unbelieving world, and that this teaching: that God justifies sinners by His grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Christ alone - rankles the religious world as much today as it did nearly 500 years ago, or for that matter nearly 2000 years ago when St. Paul preached it.
Reformation Day is not a day for gloating and boasting, as we have nothing to boast about. It’s not a day for Catholic bashing or a Protestant happy dance in the end zone after scoring the winning touchdown. It’s not the birthday of the Lutheran Church nor is there really such a thing as a Lutheran Church. There is only Christ’s Church! The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that clings to Christ in faith and proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ, regardless of what the signboard outside may say. And that church, the Lord’s church, is visibly and audibly marked by God Himself where believers gather around the preached Word of the Gospel and the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. There God is having His Church.
Reformation Day is a good day for a bit of a “values check”, a self-reflection and self-examination of the church in our own day, and ourselves as a congregation, to see if we’ve drifted from the core and central teaching that is the hub of the Christian faith. If you put your ear to the track of Lutheranism today, you begin to wonder how “Lutheran” the Lutheran church is today. If Luther were among us, would he be nailing 95 theses to the door of our Lutheran churches? Would he even recognize the church that he so passionately and courageously tried to refocus? There are those who agonize over the division of Christianity into sects and schisms, and even blame Luther and the reformers for this. But the reality is that the church has always had its divisions, great and small. Even the pages of the NT record divisions among the apostles, sometimes settled, sometimes not so settled. The apostle Paul wrote to the divided congregation in Corinth “there must be divisions among you in order that those who are genuine may be recognized.” (1 Cor 11). Wherever the Word of God is preached, there will be division, if for no other reason than sinners are preaching it and sinners are hearing it. God has entrusted His teaching to sinful and fallible men, and He seems fine with that. The church, like her Lord, always appears weak and divided in this world, and it must be this way, lest we begin to worship the Bride of Christ instead of Christ Himself.
Yet - the Church is one - through faith in Christ. There is only one holy, catholic, and apostolic church on earth. And though we may appear to be hopelessly divided and weak, nevertheless our unity is found not in ourselves but in Christ alone. We will see and experience that for ourselves one day, in the Resurrection. But not one day sooner. Now we must confess, “We believe in one holy church” precisely because we do not see one holy church.
There is this saying - that is popular among “the cool Christians” during these latter days of October. “The church is always being reformed.” Ecclesia semper reformanda est. It sounds so much better in Latin, doesn’t it? Well, that saying can be understood in a good and a not so good way. It can mean that the church must always be changing with the times, keeping step with the culture, striving to be relevant, never standing still. Or perhaps that Luther and the boys got off to a good start but it’s up to us to keep the Reformation ball rolling in our day. That would be the not so good way to understand it.
The good way – is saying that “the church is always being called back by God to the bedrock, foundation, core teaching that makes the Christian church Christian. Namely, that a sinner stands in a right relationship with God not because of themselves – but by trusting in the completed work of Another, God’s own Son who took on our flesh and our cause and won our salvation by His death and resurrection for the Sin of the world. That this is God’s gift to you received by faith alone – apart from the works of the Law.
The Law – oh, the Law – all those things you ought to do and not do – all the ways you do your best and try to not fall short. Every way you try to negotiate with God based on what you’ve done or haven’t done. Telling yourself you’ve done right – rationalizing and justifying and convincing – like you are going to get one by the Judge who sees all.
St. Paul writes, “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the Law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.”
It couldn’t get much plainer than that, could it? The Law cannot forgive, the Law cannot justify, the Law cannot save. It will accuse you, it will damn you, it will kill you. It can never make you better, it can never turn a sinner into a saint. It won’t commend you to God. And yet every religion in the world, save one, attempts to use some version of the Law, whether written in a book or written in the heart, to justify oneself before God.
You do it too. I do. Whenever we attempt to justify ourselves by our actions, when we attempt to atone for our sins or try to appease God, we are using the Law against God, and God will have none of it. The more you try to play lawyer – the more the Law will show you your Sin to a depth that you cannot bear to see. You think that your problem is that you have problems? Think again. The law says, “You are the problem.”
In Luther’s day, it was all about merit. Your sins and your merits. Kind of like bad karma and good karma. Your merits had to outweigh your sins on the scales of God’s justice. And if you fell short, well, ten thousand years in purgatory for you. Unless, of course, you buy this indulgence letter. Or perhaps you can negotiate with the saints to give you some of their extra merits. Or better even, the blessed Virgin who has lots of extra merits. Or best of all, Christ Himself who is brimming over with merit. It was all about transaction, this for that, merits for sins. Bookkeeping. The Law.
No one will be justified in God’s sight by the Law. The solution is not in yourself. It’s in Christ. Over there. Outside of you – on that cross. There is a way of God’s righteousness, a way for a sinner to stand before God holy and righteous, not with his own righteousness but with the righteousness of Another, the way Jacob stood before his father Isaac disguised as his older brother Esau and obtained the blessing. We stand before God clothed with Jesus – and all His goodness.
Listen to this sentence from Romans and follow it closely: “For there is no distinction. All have sinned. All fall short of the glory of God. All are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” That’s it in a nutshell. The Gospel. The core of Christianity apart from which Christianity is just another religion among religions. No one else has this. That you, a convicted sinner, guilty as guilty can be, stand before God and are declared innocent by the blood of Another who died for you. To the unbelieving ear this is outrageous, scandalous, perverse, crazy. Certainly no way to run a religion. It’s bad for morals, they say. It’ll leave people wild, they say. You can’t just tell people that they are justified solely because God says so for Jesus’ sake – can you? That is the message.
Do you see what God has done here? It means there is no place for someone to stand in judgment of another. There is no place for knocking each other down, and climbing the ladder off each other’s backs. The judge came down from His throne and put Himself beneath us all. He had no sin, but He didn’t come to judge us. He came to save us – to lift us up on His own tortured back – to bring His life and His righteousness back to us in our sin and our death which He died on the cross. This is the new reality. This is His eternal kingdom. Mercy and grace for all.
The Church doesn’t have the task of changing people’s behavior. But declaring God’s mercy and love upon every fellow sinner in every place. And it becomes a joy to show mercy to those around you, when your entire life is ruled by the forgiveness spoken upon you in Christ. This is who you are now – in Jesus. A justified sinner. One who dies and rises in Jesus everyday all the time. The old man in Adam, the old you - dies by the Law. The new man in Christ, the new you - rises by the Gospel promise.
The life we now live in this flesh of ours, we live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave Himself up for us. We no longer live, as far as God is concerned. Christ lives in us. And every day we need to remind ourselves and be reminded that we are dead and alive at one and the same time. Dead to Sin, alive to God in Christ.
The life we now live as justified sinners is a life of “being simul,” simultaneously righteous in Christ and sinful in Adam. We are Adam and Christ at one and the same time. Christ wearing an Adam suit. Our good works, the works that Christ does in and through us, are hopelessly soiled with sin. That doesn’t mean we don’t and shouldn’t do them. Our neighbor needs them. They are God’s goodness and mercy through us to him. But they are acts done by the hands of a sinner. They are words spoken by the unclean lips of a sinner. Whatever we do has Adam’s fingerprints all over it, so it can’t be held up to God. We have nothing for which to boast. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
So don’t let any one of you so-called Lutherans say on your deathbed, “I have lived a good life.” No, you haven’t. You fall short of the glory of God and deserve to be damned. But thanks be to God in Christ that you aren’t. Before God, it is faith alone in Christ alone. “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” That is the reforming Word for a distracted church. That is the Word that calls us back to the core, to the cross. When we are distracted by everything that needs to be done, by everything that’s going on in the world, this is the Word that tells us to be quiet before God and hear the glorious and gracious truth He has to say to us. You are holy and righteous in Christ Jesus who died for you. You are covered with a righteousness not your own. You are justified by grace alone through faith alone for Jesus’ sake alone. And for that = it is worth having a Reformation. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Rev. Cameron Schnarr