Pastor Steven Thiel's Sermon
THE SUNDAY OF THE REFORMATION
“By Grace Alone”
If a poll were taken and the question asked, “What does October 31 mean to you?” likely almost every American would answer, “It’s Halloween; ‘trick or treat’ time.” This reveals just how little people know regarding the true significance of October 31 and Halloween.
The name “Halloween” comes from “(All) hallow(s) e(v)en,” or “all holy ones evening.” It is the evening before All Saints’ Day, November 1. For centuries the Christian church has celebrated this festival in remembrance and thanks for all saints – namely, for everyone who is holy in God’s sight thru faith in Jesus Christ. Specifically we remember departed saints who, having fought the good fight of faith, now rest from their labors in heavenly glory.
We Lutherans have two reasons to celebrate this time of year. Like other denominations, we celebrate All Saints’ Day and the Commemoration of Martyrs. But together with all churches that proudly confess salvation in Jesus Christ – by grace alone, thru faith alone, based on Scripture alone – we remember October 31 for another reason.
On October 31, 1517, 503 years ago, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This in itself was not all that unusual. In those days the church door served as the town’s bulletin board. If someone wanted to publicly debate an issue, he would make it known by nailing it to the church door. But the particular notice written by Luther was quite unusual compared to the commonly accepted beliefs and practices of that time. Luther’s petition began the Reformation, a bloodless, worldwide revolution that continues to have repercussions still today.
The subject to be publicly debated was indulgences. Martin Luther affirmed 95 theses or statements that he wanted to debate. As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s briefly examine the controversy in Luther’s day concerning indulgences. Then, on the basis of our comforting Scripture text, we can reaffirm the central tenet of God’s Word and the Christian faith; that salvation from sin is only by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake, thru faith.
Paul in our Epistle categorically states again and again that we, are saved for time and eternity by grace alone. So, what does grace mean? Some have made the word into an acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In Luther’s day, however, grace was received in the selling and buying of indulgences. This moved Luther to write his 95 theses. Pope Leo X wanted to complete St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Much money needed to be gathered before such a mammoth project could be completed. Pope Leo ruled that indulgences should be sold in Germany. Chief among the pardon peddlers was a monk by the name of John Tetzel. The people of Germany held these indulgences in high esteem. Tetzel was received in town after town as bells tolled, organs sounded, and a red cross was erected bearing the pope’s coat of arms. Once in the town church, Tetzel preached about the miraculous power of indulgences. It was proclaimed and believed that whoever bought an indulgence or pardon not only received forgiveness of sins, but also would escape punishment in purgatory.
The forgiveness for sacrilege and perjury was sold for nine ducats; adultery cost only two. Tetzel proposed dozens of outlandish statements that placed the pope equal to Christ. He even went so far as to produce a catchy little rhyme which could be translated, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Due to this jingle, many thought there was no need to repent or to believe in Christ alone for mercy. They could keep sinning, buy an indulgence, and then continue to sin. It was that simple for many who heard Tetzel. People were placing their trust and confidence in indulgences, not in Jesus Christ.
Luther was enraged when he heard what was transpiring. The souls for whom Christ died were at stake! The Good News of salvation was at stake! The Christian church was at stake! Luther protested the sale of indulgences, which threatened to destroy a Christian’s relationship with God – the relationship Christ made possible by dying for all sins and rising again. That relationship is established in Baptism as the Holy Spirit puts faith into a person’s heart. With faith in Christ the person baptized is born again, and becomes a child of God.
“By grace you have been saved.” We cannot save ourselves, for we are sinners. God states: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:22) “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” (Eccl 7:20–23) That is a bleak picture! Our sinful nature results in sins of commission – things we do, say, and think that are violations of God’s Law. Moreover, all of us are guilty of sins of omission; a failure to do the things God wants us to do. Considering all this, can anyone think for a moment we could save ourselves? “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” (James 4:17) We are saved solely by God’s grace, his undeserved love in Christ Jesus.
Have you ever wondered how many sins we commit each day? John Calvin said no one knows the 100th part of the sin that clings to his soul. Psychologists inform us that we have forgotten 99 percent of all the wrong things we have done. We suppress them because we don’t like to think about what is unpleasant.
Due to such blindness, God has chosen to make salvation now and forever a free gift. It is unearned, unworked for, unstriven for, undeserved, unmerited. Now, you may think there is nothing in life that’s free. We have often heard, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” We are taught to be wary of that hidden price tag. Since most people believe you have to pay for everything, many hope they might get into heaven that way too – by paying for it. Thanks be to God, the greatest blessing a person can ever receive – the forgiveness of sins – is completely free. To be sure, it did cost a bundle. Someone did have to pay for it. But that person is Jesus Christ, the only one who could offer his perfect life in payment for our sins. God emphasizes in our text that we are saved only – and saved completely – by his grace.
Paul makes that crystal-clear in our text when he states: “This not from yourselves” (v 8) and “not by works, so that no one can boast.” (v 9) How much clearer could Paul be in stating that salvation, our relationship with God for time and eternity, is not at all dependent on what we do, but on what God has done for us thru his Son, Jesus Christ?
And yet so many humans in their sinful rebellion against God continue to cling foolishly to the hope that their character, their life, their morality, and their good intentions have some worth or value that might enable them to gain heaven. There really is nothing new under the sun. Ever since the human race fell into sin, people have tended to think their salvation is self-made, rather than God-made and God-given. At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a tour guide told about the afterlife the ancient Egyptians hoped for. They believed they would be judged on the balance of their good works and evil deeds in this life. On one side of the scale a feather would be placed; on the other a person’s sins in this life would be placed. If evil deeds outweighed the feather, the person would be condemned. It is hard for us to believe for one second that if we were tested by God in that way, we would have any chance of being saved. Yet people today cling to the hope their good works will outweigh their evil deeds, that their goodness is superior to their sinfulness; or that even though we fail miserably, God might in the end reward us at least for our efforts, if not for our good intentions.
There is absolutely nothing that any of us can do to gain heaven. Salvation is entirely a gift of God. “By grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (vv 8–9) When Paul reminds us that salvation is a gift, he means exactly that. Google reveals that a gift is defined as “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another WITHOUT compensation.” We all receive gifts on special occasions in our lives. Take a birthday gift, for example. What did you do to deserve to be born? You receive birthday gifts for no other reason then the calendar comes around to that date again, not because you do anything to earn them. Is it not true that when you receive a gift, it is because someone loves you? So it is with the gift of salvation.
Paul furthermore states that we are saved by grace thru faith. This is not faith in one’s self, in one’s good works, morality, or right living. By faith Paul means the gift the Holy Spirit gives to us as we are baptized into Christ, and thru the hearing of God’s Word. In faith we trust in Jesus, our Savior for making restitution for our sin. It is thanks to what Christ has done for us that we are saved. When our Savior agonizingly uttered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46), he was suffering our punishment for us, so we might have forgiveness. “The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Is 53:6) The greatest transaction in the world was being made. The Father transferred the sin of the entire world – yours and mine included – onto the Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday. We deserved to be punished by God for our sins. But, by God’s grace alone, the Father punished his Son in our behalf. Jesus died for our sins, once and for all.
Salvation by Grace Alone, thru faith in Jesus Christ alone, is the foundation of our daily Christian life. Paul in our text reminds and encourages us: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (v 10) The love God has for us motivates us and energizes us to live our daily life for him. What a privilege God gives us: to live joyfully to him for all he, by his grace, has done; is doing; and will continue to do! To him be all glory, honor, and praise. Amen.