The Reformation

Sermon for the Circuit Reformation Day service based on John 8:31-36

Dear heirs of the Reformation: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Reformation is not the story of Martin Luther. It is not the story of Luther versus the pope. It’s not the story of Germany versus Italy or even of Lutherans versus the Roman Catholics. The Reformation is the story of the freedom of the Gospel versus the slavery of the Law. It is the story of God versus the devil. The Reformation is the story of the truth versus lies. However, the story of the Reformation does include the Roman Catholics, the pope, Martin Luther, and the Lutherans.

The Roman Catholic church of the sixteenth century was no longer the catholic church of the prophets and apostles. The freedom and truth of the Gospel had been lost in most of the church, instead replaced by slavery to the law.

And it’s not the Law of God the Roman Catholics wanted to follow. They abolished the Law of God and invented their own laws. They dreamed up their own laws that they taught earn merit with God. They invented monasticism, pilgrimages, viewing relics, and observing festivals as supposed good works that please God. They touted celibacy, even tearing apart families as a supposed good work, although their monasteries and churches were full of vices and debauchery better left unmentioned.

The invented works of man were held in such high regard, that well-known Roman theologian Thomas Aquinas even said that the monastic profession is equal to Baptism.[1] In other words, he said that leaving society to be a monk at some monastery has the same benefits as Baptism.

As if this were not enough, the Roman Church further taught that those who followed these man-made rules earned so many merit points from God that they could sell them to others. So, the Roman church preyed on weak and despairing people, promising eternal life to them and their loved ones if they gave the church money. The church got rich from stealing from the poor and the widows. They invented a place they named “purgatory” and told grieving families that their dead loved ones were suffering there, burning in the fires of this fake temporary hell. The families were scammed and coerced into giving sums of money to the church to reduce the time their loved ones would suffer in their invented place of torment.

The Roman church thus taught the people to see God as a mean judge and to be afraid Him. Instead of praying to God, the Roman church told people to pray to Mary or other saints. Why would you pray to Jesus if you are afraid of Him? Pray instead to His mother who can put in a good word for you with her son. The Roman church thus turned people away from Jesus as their Saviour.

To those who did believe that the death of Jesus saves us, the Roman Catholic church said, “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, let him be anathema.”[2] Also, “If anyone says that… the Gospel [is] a bare and absolute promise of eternal life without the condition of observing the commandments, let him be anathema.”[3]

The Roman Catholic church says that if you believe that you are saved by faith alone you are anathema, that is cursed to hell. They say that if you do not believe that you also need to work your way into heaven you are cursed to hell. They say that if you do not believe that by your own power and strength you must work to save yourself, you are going to hell.

Can you image the freedom then, when the Gospel again came to light? When the lies of the pope and the Roman Church were exposed to be nothing more than Satan’s work? When the truth of the Word of God was once again preached, telling the people that the made-up works of the Roman church are nonsense; that you cannot buy forgiveness of sins with money? When the people again heard that their sins are forgiven freely, without cost to us, without any merit or worthiness in us?

The Gospel brought the people out of slavery to the Law to freedom in Christ. With the return to God’s Word, we can see what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel reading when He said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The truth of the Gospel sets us free from the Law that we cannot fulfil. I’m not talking about some man-made laws which are utter nonsense. I’m speaking of God’s Law with its demand that we be perfect in thought, word, and deed. The Gospel sets us free from the demands of the Law because the Gospel tells us that Jesus fulfilled what we cannot fulfil. Jesus kept the Law of God perfectly for us since we cannot do it. He took the punishment that we deserve for our sins onto Himself. By His suffering and death on the cross, He paid the price of our sins in full, with no payment remaining for us to make.

We do not need to be afraid of Jesus as if He is a mean judge. He loves us so much that He came to live for us and die for us. He loves us so much that He was judged in our place so that we stand acquitted.

Concerning those who make up their own rules to follow while claiming to be disciples of God, Jesus says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matt. 15:9)

Concerning those who say the death of Christ is not enough, that we must also work to save ourselves, Scripture teaches that by works of the Law no human being will be justified (Rom. 3:20), but rather we are justified by His grace as a gift (Rom. 3:24), we are justified apart from the works of the Law (Rom. 3:28), and Christ is of no advantage to them because they are again submitting to a yoke of slavery to the Law (Gal. 5:1-2). Galatians 5 says, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Gal. 5:4)

There can be no middle ground on this. We cannot tolerate the commandments of men, but must cling to the Word of God. We cannot give any ground to the teaching that we must work to save ourselves. We must cling to the freedom of the Gospel instead of submitting again to a yoke of slavery.

The Lutherans responded to Aquinas and his claim that being a monk is equal to Baptism by saying, “It is madness to put a human tradition, which has neither a command nor a promise of God, on the same level with an ordinance of Christ, which has both a command and a promise of God, and which contains a covenant of grace and eternal life.”[4] You cannot invent some supposed good work and say that God will give you merits if you do it. We must not submit to a yoke of slavery from which we have been freed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Son has set us free, so we are free indeed.

We rejoice that with the Reformation the freedom of the Gospel was once again taught and learned. Unfortunately, sin does not lie dormant, but is crouching at the door (Gen. 4:7). In all too many places, the freedom of the Gospel was misunderstood to mean freedom to indulge the flesh.

Luther made official visitations of congregations and writes, “The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God, what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas, many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.” (SC Preface)

Friends in Christ, we still live in the time of the Reformation. The Roman Church still denies the Gospel and condemns to hell those who believe it. The Lutheran church still struggles with the abuse of the freedom of the Gospel, as if we are free to do whatever we want because our sins are forgiven. We have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts under the guise of the freedom of the Gospel.

We must be clear. We are justified by faith apart from the works of the Law. Our salvation is not because of our works, but solely because of Jesus’ work of salvation.  But we are not to continue in sin so that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1-2). We are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies, making us obey its passions (Rom. 6:12). By the help of the Holy Spirit we are to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13).

This is possible only because God continues to forgive our sin and strengthen our faith through His Word and Sacraments. Our Baptism is a daily reminder that we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, so we will rise from the dead as He rose from the dead. The Lord’s Supper is a regular meal of spiritual nourishment, giving us the forgiveness of sins and strengthening our faith. God has given us His Word in which we abide, so that we know the truth, and the truth sets us free. Since the Son has set us free, we are free indeed. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.




[1] S Th II, 2, q. 189, a. 3, ad 3

[2] Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 9. Cited from H. J. Schroeder. Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. (Saint Louis: B. Herder Book, 1960), 43.

[3] Ibid. Canon 20. 44.

[4] Ap XXVII.20