Today is Reformation Sunday, a day that marks our commemoration of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation when, on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest and professor in Wittenberg, Germany, began a protest movement against the Roman Catholic church’s claims that they controlled the storehouse of God’s grace, and that they, by their rituals, controlled, in effect, who got into heaven and who didn’t and how long one might have to stay in the imaginary place of preparation called purgatory, after they died, in order to be purged of any remaining, unconfessed sin, prior to getting into heaven, as if Christ’s death on the cross was somehow insufficient. One could purchase indulgences, basically “get out of purgatory free cards,” by making a significant monetary gift to the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Today, the Roman church no longer sells such indulgences outright but, more commonly, indulgences are thought to be earned through certain devotions, for example, one can earn a plenary indulgence for themselves
to be applied in the future, or for a dead loved one, perhaps, who might be suffering in purgatory now, simply by saying a particular series of prayers, like a novena. But the thought that we can, somehow, earn our way into heaven, makes the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life granted to us because of God’s grace and by the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection not a gift, but something earned. And that is not the nature of grace.
The truth that sets us free is not that we can earn our way into heaven. The truth that sets us free is that God, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, has come down to save us…
For over 10 or 11 years now, on Reformation Sunday, I’ve read passages from Gerhard Forde’s book, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Forde, Gerhard O., Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1982) because, frankly, he says this all far better than I can. So, here’s some Forde…
We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength,
gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What shall I do to be saved?”
the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in
your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you
in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!”… The “nothing” must sound,
risky and shocking as it is. For it is… the death knell of the old being. (Forde, p 22)
It is, I suppose, the very explosiveness and radicality of this unconditional act that causes us
all the difficulty… At any rate it seems to be just at the point where we begin to glimpse the
radicality of it all that all the questions and protests begin to spew out: “We have to do
something, don’t we?”… Aren’t there some little conditions after all? Is not imputed
righteousness “cheap grace?” What about morality? What about good works? Virtue? The
building program? Won’t people… get the wrong idea?
It is in the face of such questions that we are tempted to “chicken out”… When the question
comes, “But…, but, we have to do something, don’t we?” we are most likely to say, “Well, yes,
now that you mention it, there is a little something. You have to bake cookies… bring your
pledge up to date… go to church at least once a month.” And then we are through. We may as
well quit, for then and there the battle is lost. (ibid p 33)
But, if we remain steadfast in the truth, then the battle isn’t lost. And more, always remember, the battle was never ours to win or lose in the first place. Look, we humans like to be in control, that’s what the whole first few chapters of Genesis is all about, right? We like to think we have the ability, no, more than the ability, we like to think we have the right to choose our own eternal destiny. If I do enough, I should be able to impress God enough to want to save me. But it’s never been about me, or about what I do or fail to do, or about proving myself worthy, because there’s only One who is worthy, and that One has come down to save us precisely because we are powerless to save ourselves, no matter what sorts of religious ideals I espouse, or religious schemes and systems I devise.
More from Forde…
Perhaps we can construct a little parable to illustrate the matter. Suppose there is a
lowly peasant lad who has a secret love for a beautiful princess. It seems a hopeless,
lost love. He fears he can’t have her so he only worships her from afar. In his hurt…
he constructs a kind of defense mechanism… He tells himself that she is too vain and
proud for her own good… He sets out to show her. He sets out to become rich and
powerful. He plans and plots and sets ideals for himself. He dreams of himself as a
potential prince! But then to top it all off he hears that she has already been predestined
for someone. She has already decided the matter… but he refuses to believe it and goes
on doggedly pursuing his ideals and perhaps even begins to become cruel and ruthless…
Then suppose one fine day the royal carriage… pulls up at the door. The princess steps
down and comes to him and announces, “John, what in the world are you up to? Don’t
you see? You are the one I have decided on! I love you and always have. Why are you
making such a fool of yourself?”…
The story, of course, is somewhat romantic. To be more accurate theologically in the
biblical and Confessional sense we would have to say that when the royal carriage came
we were so incensed that all our plans and ideals had been for naught, we rose up and killed
the royal lover, put him on a cross. For in our bondage we loved the darkness rather than the
light. But the One crucified rose and came back to say, “Shalom, you are mine, I have chosen
you nonetheless!” (ibid p 75-76)
God has chosen us, nonetheless…
Today we begin our annual stewardship emphasis – Down, In and Out. Today we remember that it all begins with God coming down. It all begins with God choosing us, not the other way around. It all begins with a radical declaration on God’s part, completely apart from our efforts or good works. We humans like to think that there’s something we have to do to be saved, but God’s answer to that is the cross. In and through Christ Jesus, God has done it all, and simply announces salvation to us in the death of Jesus which is, in the end, God’s writing of a whole new law on our hearts.
- This is justification by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, not earned, but simply received
- This is the truth that sets us free to live as the beloved children of God we already are, because, like the princess pulling up in the carriage, God has already come down to us, and has announced to us that we are chosen and set free from sin and death…
Still, the old Adam and old Eve dies hard, don’t they? And we still want to ask the question: “Well, isn’t there something I can or something I have to do to be saved?”
We still want to believe – being curved in on ourselves as we are – we still want to believe that we have some role to play, some control to exercise, some free will with which to choose, when it comes to our eternal salvation.
One last bit of Forde:
A pastor friend related an interesting reaction from a teenager to… a book on Luther’s
Catechism… he said he didn’t like the book because it seemed to tell him he could do
anything he wanted to do! Now what is one supposed to say to that? The most immediate
reaction, I suppose, would be to jump in on the defensive and thunder, “No! No! No! – of
course not…!” But think for a moment… Should one not rather say, “Son, you are right.
You got the message. The Holy Spirit is starting to get to you.” For now, you see, the
question is: “What do you want to do? Who are you now that God has spoken his word to
you?” But is that not dangerous? Of course it is! But God has taken a great risk to get what
he wants. We can only follow him in that. Is it not “cheap grace’? No! it’s not cheap, it’s free!
“Cheap grace,” you see, is not improved by making it expensive… It’s free.” (ibid. p 34)
And, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, it is precisely this truth that sets us free –
- Free to not have to do anything, but instead to get to do everything we want
- Free to not have to earn our salvation by doing good works, but instead to get to love God and neighbor
- Free to not have to give of our time, talent and treasure, according to some law at some prescribed percentage or amount, but instead to get to share, freely, joyfully, all that God has first given to us, holding it all with an open hand
- Free, indeed, to live as slaves for the sake of the Gospel and the good of the world in the name of Christ Jesus who is, himself, the truth come down from heaven that makes us free, indeed.