“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Greetings to all of you on this day on which we celebrate God’s gift of the Gospel, the light brought forth from all that shrouded it through the work of Martin Luther and others. Today we do not celebrate a man or even a movement, but instead we commemorate the Gospel, and God’s chosen instruments used to proclaim that Gospel clearly. God chose a simple Augustinian monk from Germany to reform the Church, to create a movement that would result in the Gospel once again being clearly proclaimed. This should be no surprise to any of us. God has a certain habit of using means, whether it is water, bread and wine, or the sinful lips of a pastor. He takes hold of those means and uses them to create and strengthen faith, He connects them with His Word in order to give life. But because He likes to use sinful human beings, you, me, and many others throughout history as His means, the proclamation of the Gospel rarely occurs without trial or stumbling. Even Martin Luther, a figure that seems to tower over history, was a sinful human, and it would be his struggle with sin that would define the rediscovery of the Gospel.
Luther’s life was filled with spiritual struggle and conflict. He was fully aware of his own sin and God’s punishment for that sin. Luther knew only of a God who judges, a God who condemns, and His condemnation is terrible, it is unavoidable, it is final. Our creator laid down laws for all humanity to follow, laws that no human could be expected to keep, then condemned us when we failed to live up to His standard. I think that we today have much to learn from Luther’s struggles. We are in a culture that dismisses sin- we are not conditioned to look at ourselves as sinners. But that is what you and I are. You can fight it all we want, you can tell your pastor to quit proclaiming it, but the simple fact is that you are a poor, miserable sinner. Perhaps those of you in the church do see your own sin, but do you realize the weight of your sin, the fact that God has every right to condemn you to hell for it? As we read in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” Inside or outside the church, we encounter many people who honestly believe that they do not sin- they see their lives as perfect, or if they do admit to wrongdoing, they do not acknowledge the punishment they deserve. You’ve tried to live a good life, right? Surely that has to count for something! Moreover, many Christians believe that they are done with sin, that they have passed beyond the stage of sin and are now perfect, as God wants them to be. Luther’s awareness of his own sin is something that we can all learn from, as it is only from an awareness of sin that we have any need for a merciful God. Those without sin have no need of a Savior.
This acute awareness of his own sin drove Luther to find salvation for himself. It drove him to the monestary, where he was an exemplary monk, and he followed each and every regulation and instruction to the letter. But he could not find peace. As he said himself: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience… I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” The more he worked toward his own salvation, the more he was aware that he was reaching for an impossible goal. All he deserved was death, eternal death.
Moreover, Luther was very aware of Satan’s work in the world. Today it is easy to simply dismiss this as part of the superstition of his day, but as you read Luther, you become convinced that he felt the hot breath of the evil one on his neck each and every day. In the monastery he heard Satan’s accusations from every angle, as he was accused of his sins and shortcomings. Today, many even in the Church seem to forget that he is the enemy, the accuser, the murderer and father of lies. How often do you speak of your enemy, how often do you appreciate that he is always striving against you? How often do you hear about your enemy from the pulpit? Every Christian should be aware of Satan’s work, whether through the world or our own sinful human flesh. You should engage Him in battle each and every day, every sermon that is preached should take him head on and strike him the blows that only God’s Word can land. As Luther said, “A Christian should know that the devil is about us everywhere…and we must fight with him.” You have a problem- it is called, sin, it is called death. You have an enemy- he is called Satan. Make no mistake, Luther was exceedingly aware of both his sin and Satan’s work, and both of those drove him first to his own works, but then to the Bible.
It was Scripture that saved Luther. This, once again, is no surprise. God has a habit of changing hearts through His Word- He has been doing it since the Creation, and he has not stopped since. Luther was led through his struggles and anguish to Romans chapter one, verses sixteen and seventeen: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” These words tortured him, as they gave a picture of a righteous God who condemned all those who did not live up to His righteousness. God, however, continued to work through His Word. Finally, Luther realized that the righteousness demanded here was the righteousness of Christ given to us as a gift by faith. It was at that point that the Scriptures opened up for him, and for us! “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely… the righteousness with which God clothes us when He justifies us.” Jesus Christ was the one who fulfilled the requirements of the Law by becoming man, by taking on our human flesh. He was the one who faced the wrath of a just God over your sin, the one who died on the cross to fulfill all righteousness. On that Good Friday, Jesus hung upon that cross in your place, taking on the punishment that you deserved, and when He said ‘It is finished’ your salvation was completed. He shed His blood for you! He defeated your enemies- sin, death, and Satan. He dealt them a blow from which they will never recover when He stepped forth from the tomb on Easter morning. This same Jesus Christ then bestows on you His righteousness won on that cross through faith. This righteousness covers you like a robe so that when God looks at you from the judgment seat, He only sees Jesus. His judgment is therefore ‘not guilty,’ and you are given the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting for the sake of Christ. Righteousness is no longer an unattainable goal- in fact, it is not a goal at all, but a gift, a gift given to you through His shed blood. You are a poor, miserable sinner, but because of what Christ did for you, you are now saved from your sins, you do not have to fear the wrath of God. What wonderful news! The Scriptures all opened up for Luther to reveal the glorious narrative of God saving His fallen creation through the sacrifice of His Son.
And so the remainder of Luther’s life focused around proclaiming and defending this message, this glorious Gospel of God’s free grace for the sake of Christ. Every sermon and every page that came from his pen dripped with the blood of Jesus, it revolved around Christ and Him alone. This focus on the Gospel also led Luther to highlight the Sacraments, those means by which God comes to sinful man, the means by which He comes to you. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Luther did not see something you do for God, but instead simply another way that God’s overflowing grace comes to you. Baptism encapsulated the Gospel, as the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to you through water joined with the Word. In your baptism, you are clothed with Christ’s righteousness; you are one of those who are “coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” As Luther says in the Small Catechism: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things… with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”
In the Lord’s Supper, the fact that God took human flesh, becomes reality, a reality that you join in each and every time that you receive His Body and Blood. That is why he opposed so vehemently any attempt to make Christ only spiritually present in the Supper. As he states in the Large Catechism: “Here you have both truths, that it is Christ’s body and blood and that these are yours as your treasure and gift. Christ’s body can never be an unfruitful, vain thing, impotent and useless.” When you receive the Lord’s Supper in just a few moments here in this place, you will receive the very Body and Blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the same Body and Blood which was given and shed on the cross for all of your sins, and now it is given to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Luther always taught that salvation was accomplished on the cross, but it is distributed to His people in His Word and Sacraments- and it is distributed to you on this very day!
Luther’s goal was never reform for the sake of reform, or change simply for the sake of change. His goal was to proclaim the Gospel freely, detached from all that the medieval church had added to it. He did not introduce anything new, but instead sought to restore what had been lost, to bring the Church back to its Scriptural roots. How do we follow in his footsteps? By defending the Gospel with everything we have, opposing any teaching that adds any ounce of our own effort or striving to the Gospel. And by proclaiming this same Gospel, freely and clearly, to all whom you come into contact with. Those who have received this message by faith have no need of the Law to motivate them to speak this message to others. Instead, proclaiming the Gospel is simply something we do because of who we are, those redeemed by Christ. May this glorious message, the wonderful free gift of life and salvation through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, strengthen your faith and give you the confidence to stand before God as one of those redeemed by Christ, Amen.