This Sunday is a very special one. This is a Sunday when the events of RELATIVELY recent event have made a significant, eternal difference for many Christians. (It happened about 500 years ago—but compare that to 2000!) On Reformation Sunday, some churches celebrate that, on October 31st, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg. He did that to start a debate which focused on some of the teachings of the Church at that time.
This event marks the start of the gospel once again becoming central in the teaching of the Christian Church. Even if a Christian does not want to celebrate this day, one should be thankful for that gospel, which, unfortunately, can easily be covered up by people.
One of the options for the Gospel text for this Sunday is John 8:31-36. Within that text, Jesus and the Jews (who recently believed in him—a significant event) talk about being enslaved and being free. Those are some significant words, not only since the Civil War, but for all time. Those two words have a significant impact on people’s lives. How those words are defined and located is a critical step to Christianity. The best starting point for discussing Christian doctrine is by asking the question, ‘How bad are we?’
In Dr. Luther’s most significant document of 1518, The Heidelberg Disputation, he tackles the issue of whether one can become truly free by his or her own effort. This is a critical issue. And it is especially relevant in our day when the thoughts, feelings or emotions a person has within him or her have a great value.
I am quoting his sixteenth thesis and the entire explanation which follows. Hopefully it is helpful in knowing where Luther and Lutheran congregations are ‘coming from’.
‘The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin, so that he becomes doubly guilty.’
From what has been said earlier, the following is clear: When a person is doing what is in him, he sins and seeks what is his in everything. But if he should think that through sin he would become worthy of or prepared for grace, he would add haughty arrogance to his sin and not believe that sin is sin and evil is evil, which is an exceedingly great sin. Therefore, Jeremiah 2:13 describes it: ‘My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that give no water,’ that is, through sin they are far from me, and yet they presume to do good by themselves.
Now you ask, ‘What then should we do? Should we go our way with indifference because we can do nothing but sin?’ I answer: By no means. But, when you have heard this, fall to your knees and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ—in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection. For this reason, we are taught—for this reason, the law makes us confess the sin so that, having recognized our sin, we seek and receive grace. Therefore, God gives grace to the humble [I Peter 5:5], and whoever humbles himself will be exalted [Matthew 23:12]. The law humbles; grace exalts. The law works fear and wrath; the grace, hope and mercy. For through the law comes knowledge of sin [Romans 3:20], through knowledge of sin, however, comes humility, and through humility, grace is obtained. Therefore, an action which is a strange work of God finally results in his own work: that he makes a person a sinner, so that he may make him righteous [rendered from the St. Louis edition, vol. 18, pages 48f.].
For a person to ‘do what is within’ seems like a very natural thing. And it is a very popular focus these days. But it ultimately leads to a very depressing ending. Thankfully, there is some good news. And next Sunday we will be celebrating All Saints Day!