In Its Original Sense
Pastor Ray Lorthioir
Trinity Lutheran Church
W. Hempstead, NY
In Its Original Sense
Sometimes I wonder what the church would be like if Pope Leo X had supported his loyal monk, Martin Luther. For Luther was a loyal monk who believed that Leo would stand with him against corrupting forces within the church on the basis of what Scripture actually teaches about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But Luther found out that the corruption he was opposing and the theological foundation of that corruption went right to the top. Therefore, when Leo eventually excommunicated Luther and Luther, in turn, excommunicated Leo, a great fracturing of the Western Church began that has not been healed to this day.
So one question I want to explore this morning is why Luther persisted in his doctrine to the point of splitting the church. There are basically two reasons — conscience and the care of souls.
In Luther’s time, there was no individualism as we know it now. Everything was God, family, community and church. So when Luther speaks about conscience, he does not speak of it as we would. Rather, he is talking about his conscience totally engaged with the Word of the living God. His conscience was not off in a world of his own. Rather, Luther’s conscience was captivated by the truths God has revealed in His Word.
The split developed because Luther had come to understand the Word of God in its original sense, not in the sense of the church of his time. His rediscovery of the doctrine of Justification before God by Grace through Faith in the work of Christ alone set him personally apart from those who had corrupted the purity of that doctrine by mixing it with faith that our own good works must somehow justify our lives before God.
Indeed, in his personal spiritual life Luther had suffered much terror over the fact that he was a sinner and incapable of being good enough to be justified before God. And for those, like Luther, who know there is a God and have heard the promises and curses in His Law, that terror can become very real in the witching hours of the night. To whom shall we flee? Where shall we go when the very real prospect of eternal damnation breathes its deadly breath down upon us. For our Creator God is absolutely and completely righteous. And only those who are as righteous as He is will have their lives justified before Him.
So, do we have such righteousness? No. We are cursed sinners. As it says in James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” And without the Gospel, that is sheer terror.
In Luther’s time, as it continues to this day, the Roman Church has a prescription which it claims will satisfy God and assure our consciences of God’s favor. It’s to go to church, partake of the sacraments, and do good works — especially to take care of the poor. But are all those good works ever enough to satisfy God? Are they ever enough to offset the guilt of sin? In reality, the answer to that is No. And thus, the lack of assurance can crush the conscience under a devastating load of despair and guilt. This is what happened to Luther.
Later, as a doctor of theology, Luther had access to what very few people had access to in his day. He could read the hand copied scrolls of the Bible in their original languages, Hebrew, Greek and in their Latin translation. There was no German translation. Later he would be responsible for that.
In his studies of Scripture, Luther found that Scripture contains a very different prescription for a tormented conscience. That prescription is Jesus, pure and simple. Scripture declares that the work Jesus did through His birth, life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection had but one purpose — to save sinners from sin, death and the power of the devil. He discovered that when a human conscience is captivated by the work of Christ, then the despair created by the Law is removed and a gracious comfort is received by faith in the work of Jesus alone.
As we heard in today’s gospel, John 8:31-32, “31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” Jesus Himself will comfort each conscience with the freedom that comes from having sin forgiven and being set free from slavery to sinful ways of living and ungodly approaches to life. Indeed, the freedom that the Son of God gives creates in the heart and mind of a believer an entirely new way of looking at life. We finally understand what it’s all about.
That understanding begins with two principles. First, this universe has a glorious uncreated Creator who was and is and is to come. There are no other uncreated Creators. There are plenty of created creators. We fit that category ourselves. But there is only one uncreated Creator.
Second, everything, literally everything, revolves around the Creator’s righteousness — His complete and holy goodness. Even evil revolves around His righteousness. For if there were no goodness, we wouldn’t know what evil is. And evil has a simple definition. It’s anything that our Creator doesn’t want in His creation. Therefore, Yahweh has promised that a day will come when the evil, sin and death in this universe will be completely swallowed up in His victory of righteousness. And, every rebel who has sold themselves out to evil — like Satan, his angels, and all impenitent sinful human beings — these will be corralled into a place from which they can never escape and again infect the universe. That place is hell. And with all the evil locked in there, it will be hell.
On the great Day of the Lord, everything and everyone evil that Yahweh will no longer permit in His creation will be swept up and expelled from it. As Jesus said in Matthew 13:41, “‘The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.’”
On the other hand, on that same Day Jesus promised in, Matthew 13:43, “‘Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’” For, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:6, “‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’” This means that for those who seek the true righteousness of God here, in the resurrection of the dead they will finally be satisfied by Yahweh’s eternal righteousness, eternal goodness in themselves. They will become bright, shining like the sun just like God their Father.
So how will we, the unrighteous who hunger and thirst for righteousness become righteous? How will we, the unrighteous, become righteous to shine like the sun? How can Yahweh’s righteousness come to us?
Luther found the answer in Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Ah. This righteousness will not be our own. If it were, we wouldn’t have to have faith. Christian faith always has an object. And that object is not ourselves. It’s Jesus of Nazareth. He is the righteousness of God come in the flesh as one of us. That’s the righteousness that’s revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For, it was in mortal flesh that the Son of God humbled Himself, and obediently followed the predetermined course of Messiah — a course hidden in plain sight in Moses and the Prophets. He followed it to His dying breath on the cross, and was resurrected in power to confirm that He had been totally and completely obedient to the predetermined course of Messiah. And so through Jesus’ complete obedience, Adam’s disobedience — the disobedience we all inherit — was finally put to death with Christ. This is the great truth that Jesus said sets us free. Jesus conquered disobedience, rebellion and sin so that we might be eternally free of it. For in baptism we die with Jesus to our inherited disobedience and are freed of it through Him. And in baptism we are raised with Jesus to a new life of obedience and service to God.
Therefore, with the joy of the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ in his heart, Martin Luther had a huge decision to make. For, Pope Leo had demanded that Luther repent of the true Gospel and return to the false gospel of the church of his time — a false gospel still current in the Roman Church. This Luther could not do. As he put it, it’s not right to go against conscience when you know the truth. It’s also not right to go against truth when you know it’s God’s eternal truth revealed in Holy Scripture.
Now, the Roman Church might have been able to ignore Luther if Luther had been just a nobody. But besides his duties as a theologian and professor, Luther was also pastor of a congregation. He had the sacred duty of caring for the souls of his people. And it was as a pastor that conscience and the care of souls merged. Once Luther understood the true eternal doctrine of God’s Justification of our lives by Jesus, through faith in Jesus, Who is the embodiment of God’s Grace, there was no way in good conscience that he could proclaim a false gospel to his people. To do so would have been to lead them into God’s Wrath and Eternal Condemnation, and to bring his own soul before God Almighty in Condemnation. In good conscience he could not do that. Therefore, he spoke out in a public way.
Luther’s critics attempted to cow him by asking who he thought he was standing against fifteen hundred years of church authority and tradition. After all, he was just a country village pastor. Who did he think he was to stand against the great medieval theologians.
At the time Luther knew he was a nobody. But he had dared to speak out against the false gospel that mixes the holy work of Jesus Christ with our own imperfect good works and calls that salvation. He knew that the indulgence proclaimed by the pope for contributing to the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was worthless before God. He knew that only through the work of Messiah Jesus alone can our sins be forgiven. Therefore, for the sake of the souls of his people who were being deceived by this false gospel, Luther was willing to stand up even to the pope himself. He was willing to be martyred — as he easily could have been. And for that, Luther became a somebody to be reckoned with.
Understand that only the finger of God saved Luther from the fate of John Huss who had also challenged the false gospel a hundred years earlier. Huss was burned at the stake. That fate did not befall Luther because of several fortuitous events.
The first was the invention of the printing press. Although Luther was an obscure monk in an obscure German city, the printing press made his writings known all over Europe.
Second was the complex political situation that caused the prince of Luther’s German State, Prince Frederick the Wise to have Luther tried in a secular court on German soil and then to protect him even though he was condemned by that court. Prince Frederick also became convinced of the eternal Gospel as did a number of other German princes. Ultimately, it was the confession of the eternal gospel through a document known as the Augsburg Confession, supported and signed by these German princes, that permitted the Reformation to go forward.
Therefore, on this Reformation Sunday, let us consider the eternal Gospel of Messiah Jesus that the true Church Catholic is commissioned to proclaim. The proclamation of the Gospel stands on three pillars — the Word alone, Grace alone and Faith alone.
Word alone. Two thousand years of church history and tradition have now come and gone. But the eternal Gospel was never meant to rest on any of that history or tradition. Instead, it rests upon Moses, the Prophets, the four Evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — and the testimony of the Apostles — all of it written in the pages of Holy Scripture. If any practice, tradition or doctrine of the church contradicts or subverts Scripture, it is worthless. Only that which can be established by the eternal Word of God is valid.
The authority of the church also rests upon Scripture. If Bishops, Popes or any other authority figures write or speak that which contradicts or subverts Scripture or the true doctrine that comes from Scripture, those words are to be completely disregarded.
Grace Alone. This is the principle that our salvation — our rescue from sin, death and the power of the devil — rests upon the work of God alone. Because we are sinners and are born sinners, there is absolutely nothing we can do to save ourselves from the eternal Condemnation and Punishment that all rebellious, unrighteous sinners deserve at the hands of the totally righteous God.
As we read in Romans 8:3, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son. . . .” This means that our sinful nature is stronger than God’s holy Law. Therefore, we cannot be saved by obedience to the Law. Our obedience is just not strong enough and comprehensive enough. On the other hand, the work that Jesus did is many times stronger than our sinful nature. Only the work He did was comprehensive enough to conquer sin, death and the power of the devil, and atone for our sin. We know this because Jesus’ hideous death led to His glorious resurrection from the dead.
Thus, Yahweh sent Yahweh, the Son, to us as His free gift. That’s what grace is — a free gift. Only in Jesus is there salvation. As Peter preached of Jesus in Acts 4:12, “‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’” This is God’s Grace alone.
Finally, there is Faith Alone. The key thing to remember about faith is that it always has an object. In other words, faith believes something. Not nothing. What is the something of the Christian faith? It is Jesus Himself. Faith believes every promise made in Moses and the Prophets concerning Messiah Jesus. It believes every promise made by the Apostles, and by Jesus Himself. Again, it says in Romans 1:17, “. . . in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Also, what it says in Galatians 3:6-9, “6 Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” This is why Faith Alone.
So when the whole package of Word Alone, Grace Alone and Faith Alone is put together, this is what it sounds like in Ephesians 2:8-10, “8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this [faith] not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
And here in verse 10 we get proper instruction about the good works of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. God does not save us because of our good works. Period. I’ll say it again. God does not save us because of our good works, no matter how beautiful they may seem. This is because He has already saved us through the magnificent, extraordinary, all-sufficient works of Messiah Jesus. Therefore, what does He need our good works for in order to save us? His Messiah has done everything, and has done it superbly.
Rather, as it says in Ephesians 2:10, the good works and righteous living that Christians do is the result of the work of Messiah. For, such good works and righteous living actually belong to God. The Word specifically says that God prepared them in advance for us to do. Through the work of Messiah, Yahweh has unleashed these good works on us through His Holy Spirit.
Therefore, we can never boast to God and say, “See all the good things I have done!” No. Instead, God brags to us. “See what I have done through you!” To which we can only humbly say, “Amen.”
So, then, may the Word of the Lord prosper among us because we know the truth of the eternal Gospel that has set us free. Yahweh Himself by His Grace alone sent His Son to Justify our lives before Him. So, He gives us Faith alone to believe His glorious Word Alone. Amen.
All Bible quotes are from the NIV.