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The Eternal Gospel October 27, 2013

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Romans 3:19-28

Reformation Sunday

October 27th, 2013

Focus: God gave His Son so that we might be saved by faith not works.

Function: That the hearers share the treasure that is the eternal gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Structure: Plowing through the text.

The Eternal Gospel

We begin today on a journey, a journey that takes us back a long time ago in a place far, far away.  A journey across the ocean to 16th century Germany, some 500 years ago.

We must strip away the world we currently live in.  Strip away the electronics and lights, replacing them with torches, candles, and oil lanterns.  Strip away the paved roads and dry-walled interiors, replacing them with cobblestone, dirt, bricks and mortar.  Strip away the skyscrapers, cubicles, and John Deere equipment, replacing them with farmland, plowhorses, and wells of water.  My O my, how times have changed!

We find ourselves now in a monastery, the home of monks.  This particular monastery is known to the people as the Black Cloister in Wittenberg, Vittenbaerg, home of the Augustinian monks.  These men spent their days isolated, alone in their thoughts and prayer.  When they weren’t busy with prayer or fasting, they often found themselves doing labor, upkeep on the monastery, like scrubbing floors, patching mortar or the roof. Whatever was needed.

There was only one church at the time, the Catholic church led by the Pope.  The teaching of Christianity was that you had to achieve perfection.  We are unrighteous sinners trying to reach a righteous God, a righteous God who punishes and condemns unrighteous sinners.  Following God’s law to the letter was how you became righteous or holy.  Perfect keeping of the law equals salvation.  This is why monasteries were often full, as these men fled the normal life and spent their days striving for perfection.

Our journey leads us to one monk in particular.  Despite living in the Black Cloister, this man also served as a priest and professor of theology at the local University of Wittenberg.  But his life was a struggle.  We have found a man who loved and hated God at the same time.  He loved God for the gift of creation and life, and yet hated Him because He was a righteous God who condemned sinners.

That daily struggle to achieve perfection and righteousness led him into despair.  He knew he wasn’t perfect despite all his efforts.  He still fell short of what God demands of us.  In his mind, he would be struck down by the righteousness of God.  Whenever he saw the words “righteousness of God” in Scripture, he said that it “struck my conscience like lightning,” that it “was like a thunderbolt in my heart.”  He was terrified of the righteousness of God.

Then one day, he was sitting in his study in the tower of the Black Cloister in Wittenberg Germany.  He was reading the Bible as the sun rose and the morning light began to fill his room.  He was reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Romans 1:16-17:

16 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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Our monk had read this verse many times.  But the phrase “righteousness of God” had always filled his heart with so much terror, it clouded his mind, and he could only think about the righteous God who punishes sinners.  But not this day.  Thanks be to the Holy Spirit!  This day, he read it in a new light.  He focused on the words, “The righteous shall live by faith.”  After meditating on these words day and night, he had what he would later describe as a conversion experience.

The righteousness of God was not talking about the demands of perfection, but the righteousness of God was talking about what God gives to us freely through faith in Jesus Christ.  In seminaries today, this is still taught.  There are two kinds of righteousness.  There is an active righteousness, or a horizontal righteousness that describes what we do, how we live, the way we treat others.  In a sense, this is the perfection, the law demanded of us.  That we love our neighbor as ourselves.

But that’s first set up by passive righteousness, or vertical righteousness, that is, the relationship between God and man.  Passive means we do nothing.  We’re righteous because God made us righteous.  It’s His gift, He does the work.  We don’t earn it.  That’s the gospel, the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

With this being Reformation Sunday, I hope you have figured out where that little journey just took us.  The Reformation that began in 1517, didn’t start with a Papal decree, or the preaching of indulgences by priests like Johann Tetzel.  It didn’t even truly begin with the 95 Theses being nailed to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.  The Reformation began with one man sitting alone in his study, reading the word of God at dawn.  We could probably all learn from that example!  The Reformation began when Martin Luther rediscovered the eternal gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a gospel which the church had lost long ago.

In talking about this conversion experience in that tower, of the gift of righteousness in Christ, Luther said that he “was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates…that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.”  While he once questioned his ability to GET saved, he was now certain that because of Christ, he would BE saved.

Don’t underestimate that difference.  The matter of who does the work is extremely important.  If salvation depends on us, we’d join Martin in despair and agony as we strived to reach perfection, only to find ourselves in Paul’s words “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and that “the whole world may be held accountable to God.  For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight.”

But if righteousness and salvation are God’s work, His doing, then we “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.”  Propitiation is a strange looking word, but a beautiful word.  It means to make someone favorably inclined, to appease someone, or to reconcile.  Jesus’ work propitiates, atones, reconciles us to God.  That is, it makes us favorable to God.  We were once “very good” before sin entered the world.  Now, through the blood of Christ, we are again “very good” in the eyes of God.  But it’s a gift, not something we earn.  That’s why Paul says that we “hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

This concept, that God does the work, is why we look at sacraments the way we do.  If we had to the work, we wouldn’t baptize infants.  But God does the work, He creates faith, and in the waters of baptism, He claims that child as His own.  That’s why we do it.  And if the Lord’s Supper depended on us, we might take it just once a year.  We might think that we don’t need it.  We certainly wouldn’t connect it to forgiveness because we’d be too busy trying to reach perfection.  But it’s a gift of God.  He does the work.  He forgives our sins and brings us closer to Him.  That’s why we can celebrate as often as possible.  That’s why we could have it every day if we wanted, because God is doing the work, He’s forgiving us.

This isn’t the first time in church history that the gospel has been lost, that the Word of God has been lost.  There are plenty of cultures around us today that have lost the gospel, and ours is headed that way.  The people of Judah in the Old Testament had forgotten so completely, that we get the account of King Josiah.  One day the priest Hilkiah was collecting money at the temple and stumbled upon the Book of Moses, what we know as the first five books of the Bible.  God’s Word had been lost and forgotten.  But after reading it, Josiah helped his people return to God.

But that’s the thing.  The Word of God may be lost sometimes, as it’s been before.  But it’ll never be completely lost.  God’s message of salvation can’t be lost forever.  This is the gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ and what He has done for us.  This is the gospel that sent Luther head first into a reformation.  This is the gospel, the good news of salvation for all who hear it.  This is the gospel that the apostle John was talking about in his vision, the eternal gospel that is to be shared.

God chose to work through His creation to share the gospel.  He uses angels, He uses us, at one point, Jesus even says that God could raise up children for Abraham out of the stones of the earth to proclaim the good news if the people wouldn’t.  This is the message of God for salvation, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

As we celebrate today the 496th anniversary of the Reformation, we celebrate the rediscovery of the eternal gospel, that God didn’t let it disappear forever.  But we also celebrate that the gospel is still among us, with us.   We celebrate that by sharing the gospel, the message of good news, the power of God for salvation.  If we don’t, God may well rise up some rocks, because His gospel will never die.  It is the eternal gospel that we are “to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”

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