Sermons, Uncategorized

Justification: The Article upon Which the Church Stands or Falls

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“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Martin Luther is generally remembered on this Reformation Day for the posting of the 95 Theses, statements for debate on repentance and the sale of indulgences. But a more complete statement of faith prepared by Luther is the Smalcald Articles. It was Luther’s hope that this document would be used for discussion at a general council of the Church or, should he die before such a council was held, that it would be regarded as his “last will and testament.”

The Smalcald Articles clearly establish the differences between Romanism and Lutheranism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Article I. It reads:

The first and chief article is this:

1 Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25).

2 He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

3 All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25).

4 This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)

That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:26]

5 Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].

For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.[i]

Article I is short, to the point, and like Luther himself, pulls no theological punches. Notice how many of the passages cited come from our Epistle, Romans 3:19-28. It is easy to see why this pericope was chosen for Reformation Day.

The key teaching of Lutheranism, “The article upon which the church stands or falls,” is justification—particularly, justification by grace through faith in the work of Christ. “Justification” has to do with being or being made or being declared “just,” or “righteous,” or “right.” Scripture teaches that we are justified by Christ, who took our sin into Himself and atoned for it on the cross and who imputes (or credits) to us His righteousness. When we are united to Christ—which happens by Baptism, in Holy Communion, and when we receive His Word—we are justified, freely, apart from any works of our own. To believe, trust, and depend on the fact that Christ saves us is to be justified by faith.

Now, it might seem that justification is another theological term whose meaning has been lost in today’s secular climate. Christianity is about the forgiveness of sins. But many people today do not think they have need to be made right with God. “Sin” is thought to be an outmoded concept.

And yet people today still search for “justification” for themselves and what they do. They still crave approval, and they want to consider themselves to be good and right. And when they fail to measure up even to their own standards or that of their peers—let alone God’s standards—they tend to construct explanations and  excuses that would exonerate them. It turns out that justification is the article on which we all stand or fall. It’s just a matter of where we look for our justification.

We can look for justification in our political or ideological beliefs: “I am good despite my personal failures, because my cause is just.” Post-modernism can be a way to justify ourselves: “The truth I reject is nothing more than a construction, so I am blameless in rebelling against it.” We can seek justification through atheism: “God does not exist, so no one can condemn me.” Or we can simply seek to justify ourselves by comparison: “Nobody’s perfect, but at least I’m better than so-and-so.” These are all attempts at self-justification. They are endless mental exercises by which we can consider ourselves to be good.

But something is missing in these attempts: a correct understanding of sin and personal culpability for that sin. Many believe there is no such thing as objective morality to sin against. They assume morality is purely subjective, varying from one culture or one person to another. No one has the right to “impose” his personal morality on anyone else. And yet, those who reject the very possibility of moral truth, are constantly making moral judgments of others: demanding social justice, human rights, and ethical approaches to the environment.

We tend to frame conflicts with others as arguments over moral transgressions—“You’re selfish!” “You don’t really love me!” “That’s not fair!”—with both parties accusing each other and defending themselves. Our transgressions still leave us with guilt, which can torment us for the rest of our lives. And yet we still tend to insist that “I am a good person.” If someone else considers us “bad” or “wrong,” we defend ourselves—with excuses and arguments maintaining that our vices are not bad but good, even something to be celebrated. In truth, we do not need to be righteous in order to be self-righteous.

Far from being an outdated theological concept, justification is a preoccupation, if not an obsession, for people today. We always feel the need to show that we are right. At work, online, in our casual conversations, in our relationships with others, we are always seeking approval, scoring points, making excuses, and defending ourselves. At the same time, we are also always accusing and judging others. Often, such criticism is not dispassionate moral analysis, but attempting to cover our own flaws by highlighting the far greater flaws of others. Underlying the need to be justified is our yearning for affirmation, for thinking that our existence matters, for our need to think that our life is worthwhile.

Not only do we judge and justify ourselves and one another; we also judge and justify God. “How can God allow evil and suffering in the world?” both believers and non-believers ask. “He must not be good.” Against that accusation, believers can form arguments to justify God, as if He needs our help to explain His motives and actions. Non-believers, ironically, justify the intellectual concept of a righteous God by concluding that such a being does not actually exist.

But the problems of evil and suffering do not go away even when God’s existence is rejected. No longer is the question “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” but “Why does existence allow evil and suffering?” If God cannot be justified due to the evil and suffering in the world, existence itself cannot be justified for the same reasons. If existence cannot be justified, life is meaningless, absurd, pointless, and (in a tragic number of cases) not worth living.

But what if, instead of having to justify ourselves, God Himself gives us the approval, affirmation, and assurance that our existence matters, that despite our many, obvious shortcomings, our lives have His approval? He does! We do! The incessant desire to justify ourselves is put to rest when we are justified by Christ.

How does Christ justify us? By dying.

The Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature. Instead of living in earthly glory as we might expect and as He was certainly entitled to, He chose to be born in poverty and to live a life of homelessness. But He did good works—by healing the sick, raising the dead, reconciling people who had been at each other’s throats—and His teaching blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the persecuted, and so on. Jesus’ goodness was evident to all, even to His enemies, who hated Him for it. He accomplished what other human beings throughout history have always tried to do but failed: He was justified by His good works.  

Nevertheless, Jesus did not escape accusations, judgments, and condemnation. He was, in fact, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. While others have supposedly died an innocent death, Jesus is the only person to have truly died an innocent death. At His execution, though, He fully exerted His divine power by doing something that defies our capacity to understand or to imagine: He took the evils of the world—that is to say, the sins of the entire human race—into Himself. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). St. Paul put it even more strongly: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When on the cross Christ “bore our sins in His body,” He also took the punishment that we deserve. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The “wonderful exchange” also means that Christ’s righteousness—along with access to the Father, freedom from guilt, and eternal life—become ours. God the Father now counts our sins as belonging to Christ. He also counts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. Thus, when we face the judgment of God the Father, He will consider all of Christ’s good works—His healings, His acts of love, His obedience to the Father, His perfect fulfillment of the Law—to be ours. This is what it means to be justified by Christ.

This is unbelievable, one might think. It would be tremendous if it were true, but how could it be? How could God become a human being? How could anyone—even God—bear another person’s sins, let alone the sins of the entire world? It staggers the mind. It is beyond understanding. Interestingly, Luther agrees. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him,” he writes in the Small Catechism. Essentially, Luther admits, “I believe that I cannot… believe.”

Notice how Luther anticipates—and repudiates—the mindset of both the modernist and the postmodernist. “I believe that I cannot by own reason… believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the “Age of Reason.” So much for modernism. Human reason is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts. “I believe that I cannot by my own… strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the will to power. So much for postmodernism. Exerting our own power or effort is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts.

So how do we? Luther goes on to explain: “But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith, this belief and trust in Christ, is a gift from outside ourselves. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, creates our faith. Rather than human reason or power, faith is how we receive Christ Jesus. God does this by calling me through the Gospel, His means of grace—Word and water, body and blood—which creates, sustains and grows faith.

For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the “chief article” on which the Church stands or falls. Every other key teaching—the Sacraments, Scripture, worship, vocation, the two kingdoms, prayer, the Christian life—has as its keystone our justification by Christ.

And it is also the chief article on which individuals stand or fall. Restless hearts and anxious minds find peace in justification. Frenetic lives of self-justification have rest in the salvation of Jesus Christ. The incessant need to prove our own worthiness and our failure to ever do so are nailed to the cross, buried in the tomb, and put to death forever. What Good News!

 We confess: “[We] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a). That is to say, by God’s grace, for Jesus’ sake, you are righteous and holy; you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 262–263). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

The One Truth in a World of Many “Truths”

comforting-lie-cartoonClick here to listen to this sermon.So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

At the dawn of the Reformation, the church in Germany was led by Joachim, an elector from Brandenburg, and his brother, Albert, who was bishop of Halberstadt and archbishop of both Magdeburg and Mainz. To get these jobs, these men contributed millions of dollars to the church in Rome. But because neither brother had this much money, they borrowed it from a family of bankers. Loans must be paid back, of course, and Pope Leo allowed Albert to raise money to pay this loan by selling indulgences. Half of the money they received from selling indulgences went to pay their debt to the bankers, and the rest went to Rome to help pay for the building of the Basilica of St. Peter.

With Pope Leo’s approval, Albert chose a monk named John Tetzel to sell the indulgences to the German people. This would give Albert the money he needed to repay his large debts. It would give the pope the money he needed to build his magnificent church in Rome. And in the mind of the people, it would give them the indulgences they thought they needed to buy forgiveness. It seemed like the perfect plan… except for one thing: it was not grounded in the truth!

Martin Luther preached against indulgences. Forgiveness cannot be bought or sold. The only way to avoid hell and go to heaven is through Christ, not through people’s own efforts, and certainly not through buying a piece of paper. Yet the selling of indulgences went on. Hoping to shine the light of truth on this unscriptural practice, Luther wrote a list of objections, called the Ninety-five Theses, and he posted it on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Little did people realize that these hammer blows on the door of the Castle Church would change Western Christianity as well as the course of history.

And we may rightly ask this Reformation Day: How could one man do it? Short answer: he couldn’t, and he didn’t. Looking at all the subsequent events of what we have come to call the Reformation of the Church, it’s not about Martin Luther. It’s not about the Ninety-five Theses. Rather, the Reformation is all about the one truth in Christ instead of the many “truths” around us.

When Luther issued his Ninety-five Theses to the Church—he was challenging Christians—no, not just the high and the mighty, like the pope and the bishops and the abbotts and the prelates—He was challenging all Christians to come back to the source of faith and hope: the Word of God, the Bible.

Admittedly, at the time, the Church was “doing fine”—if your standard is possessions, activity, people involvement, and influence. If you were to have considered the Collegiate Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, better known as the Castle Church, everyone would have been, perhaps was, full of admiration. A college of seven priests, subject to no local bishop but only to the pope in Rome, drew thousands of visitors a year. They conducted no less than nine thousand masses a year—you heard me right: nine thousand. That provided a sizable income for the clergy. But even more so, people received assurance for the quicker release from purgatory both for themselves and for their family members. A good deal all around, and of great economic benefit to the city. And here came this monk and said… Well, what did he say?

Father Luther did not say: Don’t listen to the Church; they don’t really have anything to say anyway. That would be the general Protestant idea: anybody can believe anything he wants to. Dr. Luther would be horrified. No, Luther said, preached, and wrote, “Retro ad fontes” (“Let’s get back to the source”). And the source of faith and therefore of the Church is the Word of God.

Jesus said: “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples” (v 31). And how did His listeners respond? “We are offspring of Abraham, they declared” (v 33). In other words, “We have no need to rely on the words of anyone else; we are proud of being descendants of this great prophet.” And at Luther’s time, the response of Church leaders was simply this: “You keep out of this, Luther; we know best.” And today? “I’ve been Lutheran all my life. I know how these things are supposed to work,” some would say.

That’s all good and fine. But dare I ask you about your faith in Christ or your faithfulness to God’s Word? Because that is what the Reformation events were all about. Not about a mythical German hero named Luther, but about God’s grace that helped us recover the hidden, the falsified, and glossed-over Word of God. And here (show the Bible) you have it. All of God’s mercy, packed in words, and the whole Christ, crucified and risen for you, speaking to you His full message of repentance and salvation in your own language.

But look around this day. There will be Reformation Day services elsewhere. There will be people who might claim the name “Lutheran,” with the same translated Bible for daily use and preaching in the Church, and yet their proclamation differs so much from ours that you might begin to wonder what “Lutheran” means these days. There seem to be—even in the Church—so many different views, opinions, philosophies, and convictions that others begin to ask: What does the Christian Church stand for? What does it mean to be Lutheran?

“If you abide in”—that is, listen to, stick to, remain with, hang on to—“My Word, you are truly My disciples,” says Jesus. The best medicine prescribed by the doctor will be of no use to you if you don’t take it! Abide in His Word.

And how do you “abide”? It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Christian education, catechism instruction, and regular worship for the survival of each Lutheran in his Christian faith.

It is nothing but life threatening, a threat to your spiritual survival, to disregard the Word of God or to separate from it. And churches and preachers who do that put the faith of their listeners in jeopardy. In the end, they must give an account for every soul lost. With the content of the Bible firm and clear, preachers have no right—and certainly the Church has no authority whatsoever—to “reinterpret” the proclamation contrary to the Bible so that it might better “fit” modern views.

Obviously, such an insistence on the one scriptural truth will not be appreciated everywhere by everyone, even in the realm of Christendom. There will be debate, disagreement, and contention. But then, was it that different at Jesus’ time? In our text and the verses immediately after, Jesus says to those who had believed in Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin… I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill Me because My Word finds no place in you… You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning” (vv 34, 37, 44).

No sweet little Jesus here. Jesus minced no words when he spoke with those who relied on themselves, prided themselves in their condition, and rejected Him and His Word. Strong words. And let me add: Sermons that cover up all sorts of spiritual mess, that don’t uncover sin, that do not show us our fundamental need for spiritual healing and restoration, such sermons ought to go directly from the computer to the trash can, never coming near a pulpit.

Perhaps what I’ve said so far was all a bit too much for you. Perhaps you had hoped today to hear more praises of Martin Luther, hear other great men and women of the Reformation. Well, this is not a course in history. This service is not about the past. Our worship service is always a message for the here and now—and its content—Christ’s Holy Word and the blessed Sacrament of the Altar—strengthens us for the road to the Christian’s final goal.

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (v 32). That truth we learned from men like Dr. Luther. And from those following him, including the teachers and preachers in our Church who expound the truth of Christ. And that truth says: You cannot free yourself from what you are. “The sinner,” says Jesus, “is a slave, bound, tied up, loaded down.” But Christ Jesus, God’s truth, is the truth that frees us.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), Jesus said. What a claim! And what a promise! For Christians, truth is not a theory nor a philosophy nor ideology. The truth embraced by Christians and expounded by the Church is incarnational. It centers in a person as God’s final and saving promise to each of us. The promise is nothing less than true life, life in eternity, life constant and joyous in God’s presence.

What do you have to do to realize that promise in your own life? Absolutely nothing! It’s already been done for you. In our text we hear: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36). And the Son has set you free! By Jesus’ death on the cross for all your sins, you are free! Indeed!

So this day, we are gathered not to celebrate a man or a movement—though it is certainly fitting to thank the Lord of the Church for His servant Martin Luther. We do not put out a list of who does what in order to reach the Christian’s goal—even though there are Christian communities that do just that. This day’s worship bids us to praise and thank Christ our Redeemer for giving us all for nothing, leading us from a world of “truths” to the one Truth, for taking us from captivity to self into the glorious spiritual freedom of the children and heirs of God.

Without any merit on our part, we again hear Christ declaring us free and loose from sin through the words of absolution spoken here. We listen to the Gospel of eternal liberty worked for each of us by the sacrificial death of Jesus; and—awesome as it is!—we witness the power of the Savior’s words, making of ordinary bread and wine the bearers of nothing less than the body and blood of our holy Lord. Out of these simple earthly elements, the creative Word of God makes “a medicine of immortality” for our lifelong walk to the gates of paradise.

Now why would anyone want to miss that?

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.