This week we celebrate the 501st anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 a German professor at the University of Wittenberg named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses for debate on the topic of repentance, and he also sent a copy of the theses to his bishop. But instead of leading to debate at the university or to the bishop correcting certain abuses, the 95 Theses led to much more public debate and examination, which began to touch on many other abuses in the church. Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1521, yet many people, especially in Saxony, agreed with his doctrinal position.
By the year 1530 the Reformation was well under way, and Emperor Charles V required a formal statement of what Luther and the other Reformers believed. This resulted in the Augsburg Confession, which sought to correct false teachings about justification, repentance, the Mass, prayer, confession, and good works, to name a few. The Roman Catholic Church responded with a document called the Confutation. The Lutherans responded with the Apology, or defense, of the Augsburg Confession. There were many debates and publications. There was civil unrest, and many tried to hijack the Reformation for their own ends, with the result that there is so much history and literature that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with it all and wonder what the Reformation was about in the first place.
Fortunately, the Reformers were very clear about what they were fighting for. To put it simply, they were defending the honor of Christ. The opponents were belittling Christ, particularly in the teaching of justification, that is, the teaching about how we become righteous in the sight of God. Scripture is clear on this point. We heard in Romans 3, “all have sinned and lack 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.” We become righteous before God because Christ gives us his righteousness. This gift is based on his sacrificial death. We do not do anything to earn it, but receive Christ’s righteousness freely by faith.
Now there are two ways to insult Christ when it comes to justification. The first way to insult Christ is to suppose that you don’t need him. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, was teaching people that they had to make themselves righteous before God by their own works. Christ had earned for us a certain disposition toward good works, or an ability to love God more easily, but ultimately everything still rested with our willpower and works. To which the Reformers said in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “Thus they bury Christ so that people do not use him as a mediator and on account of him believe that they freely receive the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation” (Apol. IV.18).
And the Reformers wrote many other such things: “If we merit the forgiveness of sins by these elicited acts of ours, what does Christ provide?” (IV.12). Again, “Those who deny that faith justifies do away with both the gospel and Christ and teach nothing but law” (IV.70). Again, “They completely bury Christ by imagining that we have access to God through our own works” (IV.81). And again, “What does denying that we obtain forgiveness of sins by faith achieve other than to show contempt for the blood and death of Christ?” (XII.2). And most succinctly, “It shows the highest contempt for Christ to seek the forgiveness of sins apart from him” (IV.261E).
But works are not the only thing with which sinful man seeks to replace Christ. Some hold that our sins are forgiven and we become righteous when we sufficiently suffer for our sins, that is, if God thoroughly punishes us, or if we inflict pain on ourselves, or if we make ourselves feel bad enough about our sins. What is this but to replace Christ’s suffering with our own? What is this but to spit on the cross and show contempt for Jesus? The Reformers acknowledged that God does indeed give us consequences for our sins. Yet they were careful to note that we should not think forgiveness of sins is owed to us for such punishment, “in order to do no injury to the benefit of Christ” (XII.150).
So that’s the first way to insult Christ: by supposing you don’t need him and instead seeking righteousness from your own works or your own sufferings. The second way to insult Christ is to believe that your sin is greater than his redemption. The Reformers likewise touched on this in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession: “Whoever doubts the forgiveness of sins insults Christ by thinking that such sin is greater or stronger than the death and promise of Christ, even though Paul says [Rom. 5:20] that ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,’ that is, mercy is more plenteous than sin” (IV.149).
Thus you see that there are two ways to fall off the horse. On the one hand, we can fall into pride, on the other hand, we can fall into despair. On the one hand, we can think that our good works are greater than Christ’s sacrifice, on the other hand, we can think that our sinful works are greater than Christ’s sacrifice. Either way dishonors Christ.
You know how easy it is to slip to one side or the other. Your sinful nature trusts itself and will never think any sin is bad enough to require the death of God’s Son. How often have you delighted in your own works instead of the works of Christ? How often have you considered a sin to be water under the bridge simply because of your sorrow or your regret or your pain? How often have you dishonored Christ? Then there are other times, times when your conscience, under the influence of the unbelieving flesh, thinks that a sin is so bad that not even the death of Christ can atone for it. How often has your conscience been inconsolable, as if there were no such thing as the forgiveness of sins, as if the Incarnation, death, resurrection, and Ascension of Christ had never happened? How often have you dishonored Christ?
And in every case, what is the result of dishonoring Christ? Uncertainty of salvation. Our works are never enough, our sufferings are never enough. Despair is a little more honest, yet incredibly stupid, since despair comes from recognizing our own inabilities and yet looking to ourselves anyway. But where Christ is honored there follows certainty of salvation and comfort for the conscience. These two always go together: the honor of Christ and the consolation of consciences. The Reformers understood this very well, and wrote with great clarity, “this controversy deals with the most important topic of Christian teaching which, when rightly understood, illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ, and brings the abundant consolation that devout consciences need” (IV.2). And again, “Therefore we are compelled to rebuke the Pharisaic opinions of the opponents” – why? – “both in order to proclaim the glory of Christ and to present firm consolation to consciences” (IV.375A). Where Christ is honored, and only where Christ is honored, there is comfort for the conscience.
And how is Christ honored? When we uphold his merit, and recount his work, and talk about what he has done. Now we don’t dare transform this honor for Christ into a good work on our part. We must pray, “Hallowed be Thy name,” because of ourselves we cannot honor Christ. Rather, proper honor of Christ is a gift of God through the Scriptures. And thus we honor Christ with sound teaching, that is, simply by speaking according to his Word and not according to the vain opinions of man.
So what do we know about Christ as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures? I suppose first, so that we properly regard ourselves, we know that we “were dead in trespasses and sins” and “were by nature children of wrath,” Ephesians 2. We know that “No one is righteous, no, not one,” Romans 3:10. We know that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment,” Isaiah 64:6 – and those are our righteous deeds! But concerning Christ, we know that he is the Son of God from eternity, as it says in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word.” And we know that when the fullness of time had come, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John 1:14.
Who are we that the Son of God should join us in the world that was created through him and that we corrupted through sin? Who are we that the Son of God would take on our flesh and become like us, save without sin? We are nothing! But the Son of God did not become incarnate because of what we are. He became incarnate because of what he is: merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). All glory to him!
The Son of God was named Jesus, which means the Lord saves, for he would save his people from their sins, as it says in Matthew 1. He became “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” John 1:29, and took our sins to the cross, as the Apostle Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” we hear in Isaiah 53, and there the Father himself says, “the Righteous One, my servant, shall make many to be accounted righteous.” By virtue of his sacrifice, Jesus justifies us, that is, he presents us righteous before God.
What kind of love is this that Christ has shown us! We marvel with Paul in Romans 5, “one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus has taken your sins and given you his perfect fulfillment of God’s commandments. Jesus in his innocence suffered for our guilt, so that we who are guilty appear before God as innocent. Or as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” All glory to Christ!
And what of his resurrection? It says in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Jesus lives to be our Justifier, the one who continually declares us righteous and who continually gives us his eternal life. Jesus has ascended into heaven, and as it says in Ephesians 4:8, “When he ascended on high he took captivity captive.” So now what can enslave you? Sin? The devil? They cannot, for these captors have been captured by Christ. You are free, as Jesus says in John 8, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Glory be to Jesus!
And he has not made it difficult for us to receive all these benefits. He offers them to us in his Word, and we receive them by faith. And lest we think that faith is something that we must work up in ourselves, it says in Romans 10:17, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” In Luke 17:5 the apostles pray to Jesus, “Increase our faith,” and in Mark 9 a man prays to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief,” thereby showing that faith itself is a gift from Christ. Jesus really has done it all. All glory to him!
This is what the honor of Christ sounds like. And do you see what goes hand in hand with the honor of Christ? Comfort for the conscience! This is because the honor of Christ turns your eyes away from your works and your sufferings and your inabilities and turns them toward Christ’s works and Christ’s sufferings and Christ’s power to accomplish everything necessary for your justification.
The Reformation was all about upholding the honor of Christ so that his sacrifice would not be despised and so that his benefits would not lie hidden. Praise be to God for preserving the truth of his Word to our day, for preserving the honor of Christ, and for preserving in him the only comfort for our consciences. Amen.
This sermon was preached at St. Silas Lutheran Church on October 27th A+D 2018, the Observance of Reformation Day. Quotes of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession are from the Kolb-Wengert edition of the Book of Concord.