“By God’s Grace Alone” by Pastor Steve Sommerer
Reformation Sunday Oct. 25, 2020
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The sermon text is from John 8:31-36. Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. Then you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” This is our text.
Today, we give thanks to God for faithful preachers of the Word like Dr. Martin Luther. Nearly 500 years ago, God restored the truth of the glorious Gospel that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone for Christ’s sake alone. True believers in every age died trusting in Jesus’ alone, but that central foundational doctrine had for many years been confused, obscured and rejected by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church that directed sinners to find mercy in Mary or in humans striving to do the best that they could do… rather than, the Church pointing to Christ alone. And so, at its core, the Reformation was not something new, but a return to the old timeless truth of Scripture.
We usually date the beginning of the Reformation to Dr. Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517. But the Lutheran Church, because it aims to be and desires nothing more than to teach God’s Word, walks hand in hand with the Church of every age. The first president of our Missouri Synod, the Rev. C.F.W. Walther wrote 150 years ago:
So long as there has been an orthodox church on earth, there has also been the Lutheran Church. She is (as strange as that sounds) as old as the world, for she has no other doctrine than the patriarchs, prophets and apostles had received from God and preached. Certainly, the name Lutheran first arose 300 years ago, but not what is signified by the name. So as often, therefore, as the question is to put to us: ‘Where was the Lutheran church before Luther?’ it is so easy to answer: She was everywhere that there were Christians, who believed in JESUS Christ and his holy Word from their hearts, and would not let themselves be dissuaded from this faith, which alone saves, by any human institutions or who finally in their tribulation in death found refuge in [Jesus].
May God deliver us from the ever-present temptation to build His Church on personalities, even personalities as mighty and memorable as Luther. The hymnist teaches us the Church’s prayer in every generation: “Grant, then, O God, Your will be done, That, when the church bells are ringing, Many in saving faith may come Where Christ His message is bringing: “I know My own; My own know Me. You, not the world, My face shall see. My peace I leave with you. Amen.”
Back then, Luther wasn’t particularly pleased that his “back-to-the-Bible” movement was ridiculed as being Lutheran – he preferred simply Christian. We should be pleased to see that name disappear, so long as the words he taught on the basis of God’s Word remain strong – namely, that no human work or merit makes us righteous before God. “It is by grace you have been saved,” Ephesians 2 says, “through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one may boast.”
Jesus said in our text, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. Then you will know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.” Teaching or doctrine drawn from the Living Waters of God’s Word is life itself. Doctrine, or teaching, that rests on the words of our Savior doesn’t splinter us into disagreeing factions, it unites us to Christ the Vine as living branches nourished by the Holy Spirit. The words of Christ are not one part of the Church’s life, second to human relationships, they are life and salvation. Let it be our prayer that God, by a special work of His Holy Spirit, should cause us to love His Word so deeply that we would rather lose every penny and even our lives rather than lose one Word from God’s Book of Life. That we would suffer every hardship to make it our life’s goal as living links in the Church’s chain to share the Good News of salvation by grace through faith alone with our loved ones and all the world.
What that means, dear family in Christ, is that God gives you the joyous opportunity to learn what you believe – to dust off the old catechism and read God’s Word; To join in Bible class and become unshakably certain of your soul’s salvation by building your life on God’s Word. “If you hold to Christ’s teaching, you are truly His disciples. Then you will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.”
It may seem strange, but I think the first truth recovered in the Reformation teaching is found in our text – that we are slaves to sin and death. The Jews replied to Christ in disbelief: “We are Abraham’s descendants. We’ve never been slaves to anyone.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
People wonder, “Why is it so important to first understand our slavery to sin and death?” Because until they realized they were slaves to sin, they didn’t care about being set free. They didn’t care about Jesus as their Savior, because they didn’t think they needed saving. They thought they were good enough on their own. If in your mind, sin isn’t too big a deal, you’ll have a very small view of Jesus. If you have a bloated view of how good you are, you’ll never understand the joy of being saved by grace alone.
It’s in the recognition of our absolute and utter inability to free ourselves – desperately hogtied by the shackles of sin – we finally learn the joy of Jesus’ redeeming work. God the Father sent His Son – a true Son in the Father’s house – to break the shackles that bind us in death. Jesus took real flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. A true Son over God’s house, entered into our slavery and bondage. He chose the path of suffering and death to free you from the hellish curse of dying in slavery.
Your Lord Christ did what you were powerless to do by living a sinless life under God’s Law. Jesus wasn’t enslaved to sin. He is the perfectly free and sinless Son of God, but made Himself a slave, being born as our saving Substitute, keeping every demand of holiness that you and I don’t and can’t. The sinless Savior walked in your shackles of slavery and carried your brokenness and bondage as His own. He died in your slavery and mine, so that you and I could share in His freedom as true sons and daughters of God – adopted children in God’s family. Because He was truly a man, He could be born under the Law for us – and He alone fulfilled the Father’s will. Because He is truly God, the Divine blood shed for us blots out the penalty of our own slavery to sin and death. That’s grace – God’s undeserved love… Grace is God’s love that didn’t wait to find good in us, but demonstrated His grace in that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
In the pages of God’s Word, Luther preached the truth that brings us joy today. To live in slavery is miserable and hopeless. It’s a living death with hell the only guaranteed future. But God’s Son has set you free. Romans 8 shouts God’s freedom promise: “Therefore, there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Our epistle has it: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law.” It’s the same saving promise that is as old as the Church – the same Gospel announced to Adam that the Seed of the woman would come and crush the devil’s head. The problem we slaves were powerless to solve, God made His problem and nailed it to Jesus’ cross. When God the Father raised Christ from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, God trumpeted this mighty truth, that Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect. In Him and through faith in Jesus, you are not slaves but beloved sons and daughters.
Our freedom in Christ isn’t freedom to sink back into sin’s slavery, but freedom to move joyfully into our daily callings sure of God’s gift of eternal life. The Holy Spirit liberated you when He called you to Jesus in the waters of Baptism, speaks your sins away in the words of Absolution, and feeds and forgives you in the real flesh and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. This same Spirit who saves you by grace alone makes you a part of Christ’s Body the Church, and in this Body of Christ He moves us in love and forgiveness and kindness to one another. Through our connection to Christ the head, we are joined to each other as fellow forgiven brothers and sisters.
Faith isn’t what you do, the last little contribution you have to make to save yourself. Faith isn’t your ability to climb the last ladder rungs into heaven. Faith is God’s work when the Holy Spirit sets you free to trust Jesus’ promises washed over you in Baptism and poured into your lips…free to stop counting up your works and rest in Jesus’ work. Because Jesus lives, you are free to know Christ your Brother is even now preparing a place for you in God’s heavenly home. Faith is freedom to rest in the most precious words you’ll ever hear – “This Jesus is for you for the forgiveness of your sins – you are free!” Amen.
And now may the peace of God which surpasses human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.