Dear friends, Greetings this morning in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
You and I live in a day and age when new discoveries are being made every day. Things that weren’t even thought of years ago are now a regular part of our every day life. Just think, for example, about the advances we’ve seen in medicine. There’re more health care options available today, more possibilities for prolonging and enhancing life, than were even imagined twenty years ago. Just think about the new technology that’s now on the market. I doubt if any of us here today saw it coming with the speed and availability that’s now possible.
I read not long ago that in the past century, there have been more advances in our world, changes in the way we live than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. It’s a different world today than the one in which we grew up. (Things are changing all the time.) And it’ll be a different world tomorrow than the one in which we’re living today.
Well, all of that to say that as much as we’ve seen change in these past years, as much as the advances of our day and age have changed the way we live, so the events of nearly 500 years ago in the Church brought about some of the most dramatic change our world has ever seen.
This weekend marks the 489th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. If you remember the history, it was on October 31, 1517 when a relatively unknown monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. And in so doing, began one of the most powerful reforming movements this world has ever known.
What Luther discovered, along with the other reformers of his day, over the next 20-30 years, as the protests began and as the conversations and debates took place, continue to be some of the most foundational truths of the Christian faith and life. Today I want to use this anniversary of the reformation, the passages we have in front of us, to lift up three life-changing discoveries that grew out of those reforming years. Discoveries that not only changed the course of Church history, but that continue to change lives even today.
Now, I’ve placed outlines in your bulletins again this week. If you want to follow along and take notes, feel free to do so. It might help you remember some of what we’re saying and better be able to follow as we go.
“Life-Changing Discoveries.” What was it that Luther discovered nearly 500 years ago? Three important discoveries that continue to be important for us today. Discovery #1: Doing the right thing doesn’t make a person right. Doing the right thing doesn’t make a person right.
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I had a conversation this past week in which I was talking with a man about raising kids. (We have four kids in our house. He has five. I told him I’d pray for him.) Somehow we got off on the topic of religion and how our religious beliefs impact the way in which we parent.
Now, he knows I’m a pastor. He knows how important it is in my life. But his thinking is different. The way he comes at life is from a totally different place. He said, “I have a religion.” And he said, “I use it all the time.” He said, “I teach my kids how to live.” He said, “We follow the Ten Commandments.” And then he said, “That’s my religion. That’s the way my family approaches life.”
Now, I’m not going to ask for a show of hands. (I didn’t go out this past week and take a survey.) But what that man described as his religion, as the way he and his family come at life, is the same way a vast majority of people today come at their relationship with God.
(We’ve talked about this before.) It’s all a matter of behavior. It’s all a question of whether or not you measure up. Behind it is this idea that if you do the right things, then your relationship with God is going to be right. (And why is that?) Because that’s what God expects. That’s what God wants to find.
I don’t know how much of that history you remember, the controversy that was happening at the time of the reformation? (We’ve talked about this before, as well.) It all began with the question of becoming right with God. And it was centered in the practice of indulgences.
Now, what was an indulgence? An indulgence, if you remember, was something you could buy that would make you right with God. More specifically, (at least the way it was being taught), it was something that would shorten your time in purgatory.
Now, what was purgatory? Purgatory, according to the church in Luther’s day, was the place you had to go once you died, before you could get to heaven, where you would become purged of your sin. You’d be cleansed. You’d be cleaned. All of the wrongs of your life would be cast away. And the time you had to spend all depended upon how you lived.
Now, I don’t want to spend a lot of time with this here today, but there were a number of things wrong with what was being taught, against which Luther protested. One, there is no such place. There’s nothing in the Bible that supports this idea of purgatory. There’s this life and the next, but there’s nothing in between. Two, if we needed to be cleansed before going to heaven, then why did Jesus die? What was His death on the cross all about, if we still had to be purged of our sin? And three, it’s not the right things we do in life that make us right. But it’s our relationship with Jesus and the rightness of His life that becomes ours.
That was our second lesson this morning. In writing to the believers in Rome, Paul talks about the righteousness that comes through faith. “A righteousness apart from the law,” he says, “to which the Law and the Prophets testify. A righteousness from God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
What Luther discovered was that doing the right thing doesn’t make a person right. In fact, if you know anything about Luther’s life, you know how hard he tried. All of the disciplines, all of the practices of the faith were a regular part of his life. (Like the man whose religion was the commandments. Like so much of what we find in our world today.)
Now, don’t miss the point of what we’re saying, because there’s nothing wrong with following the commandments. (That’s not the point.) Luther would have been the first to talk about the importance of living a good and a godly life. What he discovered is that it didn’t work. It was never enough. What he did in his life was always coming up short. And why? Because it was all centered in his life.
Remember what Jesus said? (Remember the gospel?) He said, “If you continue in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Luther discovered the truth about how it is we become right with God. And when he did, it changed the way he lived. And it can change the way you live, if you discover the same.
#1: Doing the right thing doesn’t make a person right. #2: It’s not the “what” of our faith that saves us, but the “whom.” It’s not the “what” of our faith that saves us, but the “whom.”
There was a big debate in Luther’s day about what the church believed. What it was the church taught. And it was that debate that led to the discoveries of the reformation. Part of the debate was on the “what” of our faith. In fact, if you read through some of that history, look at the work that came out as a result, you’ll find a long list of books that were written, lengthy discussions recorded over what it was the church held to be true.
(Now, this is somewhat of an aside.) But as Lutheran Christians, having the right teachings are as much a part of our tradition as anywhere in the entire Church. (We’ve said this before.) We’re a confessional denomination. Some of the books that came out in those days are still held together in what we refer to as the Lutheran Confessions. They’re statements of what we believe. They’re writings about what we teach and confess.
In fact, don’t ever let anyone convince you that the teachings of the church don’t matter, that what we hold to be true isn’t of the utmost importance. It is. And it always will be, as much as anything else. But it’s not the “what” of our faith that saves us, but the “whom.”
It’s been quite the week. I spoke, as I told you, with a man whose religion was the Ten Commandments. I had a conversation with another man whose claim to the Christian faith was what happened in his life as a kid. He said, “I grew up in the church.” He said, “I was confirmed when I was young.” He said, “I learned everything I needed to learn.” And then he said, “Since then, I haven’t gone back. I haven’t felt the need.”
Now, I didn’t argue with him about what he said, about what had happened in his life. (I invited him back and shared a bit about why it matters.) But his faith journey is not unlike that of so many people today. Their relationship with God goes only as far as the things they’ve learned. They know the story. They understand what took place 2000 years ago. (And knowing the story matters. Understanding what took place is an important step.) But they’ve never made the connection between the “what” of their faith and the “whom.”
Anyone here this morning in our fifth grade first communion class? Anyone here in 8th Grade confirmation? (If you are, here’s a reminder. This next week, we’re going to have a test. In each of those classes, we’re going to test you to see what you’ve learned. If you’re not up on your work, you might want to catch up.) And why? Because what we learn makes a difference. It’s important that we understand what we believe. It shapes what we come to know.
But guess what? On Judgment Day, there’s no test. You don’t get in or out because of what you know. You get in or out because of Jesus. You get in or out because of the one in whom you’ve believed.
Martin Luther’s life changed when he discovered that truth. Up until then, he was afraid of what might happen when he died. (Like so many people today who are scared to death about dying.) Once he discovered that it’s all been taken care of in Jesus, he was no longer afraid.
My friends, Jesus doesn’t want us to be afraid: not afraid of living, not afraid of dying, not afraid of whether or not were going to be in. “If you continue in My Word, you will know the truth,” He said, “and the truth will set you free!”
Martin Luther discovered the freedom of the Christian life. And it wasn’t by tying himself to the “what” of the faith, but by daily devoted himself to the “whom.” And once he did, he never looked back.
In fact, not long after the Reformation began, Luther would begin writing a tract called “The Freedom of the Christian.” (It was in actuality, a letter written to Pope Leo the tenth.) At the heart of what he wrote is the freedom that belongs to us in Christ.
He said, (and I quote), “It’s not the teachings of the Church that set a man free, but the one about which the Church teaches that gives a man freedom.” It’s not the doctrines of what we believe,” he would write, “that lead us into the kingdom, but the one who rules the kingdom that leads us to know what’s right.”
Five hundred years ago, these discoveries we’re being re-made. Two thousand years ago, they were being lived out in the flesh in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And they’re discoveries that have been changing lives ever since – ones that can change your life and set you free.
#1: Doing the right thing doesn’t make a person right. #2: It’s not the “what” of our faith that saves us, but the “whom.” And Discovery #3: The truth of what we believe is grounded in the Truth.
Since the beginning of time, people from every day and age have been seeking to know the truth. Every generation that’s ever lived wants to know and understand what’s true. Adam and Eve wanted to know, when they chose to eat that forbidden fruit. Pilate wanted to know, when he questioned and stood in judgment of Jesus. Luther wanted to know, as did the other reformers in the sixteenth century. And the same is true for you. The same is true for me.
The good news we need to hear once again this morning, the genius of the gospel, is that the truth is not found in some teaching, in some kernel of wisdom discovered by man, but in a person and in a promise and in a plan revealed and set forth and made complete in Jesus Christ.
200 times in the New Testament, we find the biblical writers speaking of the truth. (More than 50 times, in John’s gospel alone.) But from beginning to end, as the story of Jesus is told and played out, the truth of what we believe, the truth we need to know is grounded in the one who is the Truth.
John says, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Paul says that more than anything else, God “wants us to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And Jesus said, in words that led to the discoveries of Luther’s day, that continue to change lives here and now, “If you continue in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
My friends, what we’ve been saying here this morning is basic. It’s foundational to what we believe. The Christian faith stands or falls on Christ. If He was not the Son of God, then it’s all for naught. If He was not who He claimed to be, then all of the claims we make are unfounded and untrue.
But the truth is that He was the Son of God. He was and is who He claimed to be. And that’s what Luther discovered. And that’s what reformed the Church. And that’s where you and I find our hope.
Doing the right thing doesn’t make a person right. It’s not the “what” of our faith that saves us, but the “whom.” And the truth of what we believe is grounded in the Truth. May those same life-changing discoveries continue to be re-discovered in your life, as you fix your eyes on Jesus. Amen.