The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
John 8:31 “Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ 33 They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?’ 34 Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.’” (NASB)
We are just a few days short from the 501st anniversary of the start of the reformation. Today we are performing the last Luther play for the foreseeable future. And once again, members of the audience are telling me that they learned so much about the reformation through this play. Now dare I say, you know the story, history, and theology of Lutheran Reformation better than most, including those who self identify as Lutherans.
What is probably less familiar is church history prior to the events of the reformation. How in the world did the doctrine and practice of both the Eastern and Western church get so badly corrupted? Why was a reformation even necessary? To answer that question we have to go back to the first three hundred years of church history.
Let’s start with the first 100 years. For any one who has attended a proper Bible study, you should know that from the very beginning sinful human beings mixed fallen human philosophies and ideas with the Word of God. The apostles had to confront and fight against the Judaizers on one side and the Hellenism on the other. Judaizers mixed compliance with their laws with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ creating another kind of gospel that was no Gospel at all.
This is why St. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:6 “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel . . . 8 even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”
That was on the Judaizers side. On the Hellenistic side, the mixing of Roman and Greek philosophy with the Gospel, St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (2:8)
Virtually, every epistle in the New Testament was written to deal with the false teachers that had entered the church and were leading people away from Christ and His Word.
For the next few hundred years one false teacher after another arose mixing philosophy with theology, the words of men with the Word of God. At the same time, Christians were being persecuted by the Roman emperors and governors. In the fourth century things began to change for Christians and the Church. Christianity went from being outlawed, to tolerated, to the official religion of the Roman empire.
Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire it was easier to be a Christian and the population was encouraged to attend become Christian and attend church services. It became one’s civic duty to attend church services and to at least pay lip service to the Christian religion.
As other aspects of western culture and government began the fail, the leaders of the priests, bishops, and hierarchy of the church were more and more respected and gained more and more influence.
Due to its location, its political influence, and unique history with St. Peter, the church and bishop of Rome had more influence in the political and public life of the Roman empire than any of the other bishops and territorial churches.
But Rome was rotting from the inside out. Not unlike what we are seeing in our own culture. As the Rome Empire began to fall in the fifth century, the power of the bishops and Roman church grew stronger than even the government. The people looked to the educated men of the church to bring order to a increasing chaotic political environment.
As the bishops and church grew more powerful in the political realm, the real mission of the church was being lost and along with it, sound doctrine. The maintenance of earthly power took precedence over the proclamation of the gospel and a life lived by faith in Christ and in love toward one another.
In the eight century, Charlemagne, king of France extended his kingdom over most of Europe and revived the title of emperor. In 800 a.d. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in Rome by the Pope. Thus, began the Holy Roman Empire and what became known as Christendom.
By 800 a.d. the doctrine of the Eastern and Western Churches had been corrupted by neo-platonism. During the first several hundreds years the question plaguing the church was over the two natures of Christ. What does it mean to say Jesus Christ is both God and Man. Once the early church had finally come to terms with the biblical teaching and had pushed philosophical explanations aside, a second question arose. How is a person saved?
The answer to the question, got mixed up in another school of philosophy. You see as the Muslims expanded western through military conquest they discovered the Alexandrian library and inside that library they found the works of the most brilliant philosopher that had ever lived – Aristotle. They attempted to use Aristotle to disprove Christian theology. But the theologians of the Roman Church found Aristotle even more useful in defending and explaining Christianity as the Muslims found in attaching it. Eventually there would be a synthesis of Aristotelianism with Christian doctrine and this gave rise to the teaching that good works and faith eventually produce salvation.
No longer was Scripture the supreme authority. No longer did the church teach that a person was saved by faith alone. Papal authority and edicts, and tradition as set down by councils, not God’s Word, governed the church and life of the Christian.
No longer was grace understood as God’s unmerited favor. Grace was redefined under an Aristotlean system. Grace was understood as a substance that is infused into a person by the church to help that person become better, to enable them to do more good works, and thus to help make payments toward their debt of sin.
Theology, preaching, teaching, and the Christian life were no longer based on the Scripture alone principle. A person was not saved by faith alone and grace alone. In fact grace wasn’t grace either.
Then on April 18, 1521 Luther stood before Charles V and the Examiner from the Roman Church. “Now,” the examiner declared, “You must give a simple, clear, and proper answer to the question, Will you recant or not?” Luther did answer, and it was an answer that in his words, was without “horns or teeth.”
“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scripture or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning-[for] my conscience is captive to the Word of God-then I cannot and will not [recant] because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”
This folks is what Sola Scriptura looks like. By Scripture alone. God’s Word. It is what He says and teaches in His Word that matters; not we feel or how we even think. We are not to abide by in opinions. We are Christians and Jesus makes it absolutely clear where are hearts and minds are to abide.
John 8:31-32 Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” People seem to remember and be rather fond of the last part of that Bible verse, “the truth shall make you free.” This part of the statement seems makes into the script of one movie and tv show after another.
But Jesus means something very specific. His Word is truth. John 17:14 “I have given them Your word . . . 17 Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” God’s Word is the ultimate truth. It is the only Truth that brings with it salvation. This Truth contains many truths inside of it. Here’s one, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This is the truth that sets a person free, free from sin, death, and the power of the devil.
When Jesus speaks of Truth, He isn’t speaking as a philosopher. He is God Himself correcting deadly errors. It’s not a matter of philosophy, but Christology. A person can’t know God if a person doesn’t know the real Jesus Christ. If you don’t know Christ, you don’t know the Truth.
Luther had set aside Aristotle, canonical law, and sinful human reason aside. He submitted himself, that is his reason, emotions, and will to the Word of God. Lutherans talk about the ministerial and magisterial use of reason. Magisterial use means reason is the supreme governing authority in a discipline or of all disciples. That is what the enlightenment was about. Throwing off God’s Word and seating human reason it its place.
A ministerial use means reason is a servant to something else. In this case, reason serves Christ under the supreme authority of His Word. That is what Luther meant when he said his “conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Think here of Romans 12:2 “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The reformation was not about Luther’s religious and political opinions. We do not celebrate a cult of personality. His stand was not for his own personal dignity. Luther’s stand was a stand was about the most important thing in all the universe. It was a stand for and upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Scripture alone brings us to grace. There is no grace in God’s law. There are only demands and the sin it reveals. But in Christ, God’s grace is manifest. John 3:16 “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”
Grace is not a substance that adds additional power to enable one to do good works in God’s sight. Grace is unmerited love, the unearned favor of God toward us. Romans 11:6 “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
By grace you are saved. By God’s unmerited love you are save, but that happens through faith. By grace alone. But God’s unmerited favor and all the benefits of the Gospel are received by and through faith apart from any work of man.
Romans 3:27 “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
When these three Christian truths are rightly understood and rightly applied the Law of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Church, and the sacraments all take their proper place and do the work that God sent them to do.
Our freedom, our forgiveness of sins, our faith, God’s grace is a gift from God given in the person and work of Jesus Christ and delivered through the church.
What was at stake in the Reformation and what continues to be at stake today, is the Gospel itself, life, and salvation. ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” What God did for Martin Luther and all the saints who now live in paradise in Christ Jesus, He has done for you as well.
1. Salvation unto us has come By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom, They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.
May the peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.