by the Rev. Mark Buetow
Martin Luther had to be set free. He was a slave to his sins. He had become a monk so that he could spend every hour of every day living a holy life and make God happy with him. But the problem was that instead of a holy life, he just had more time to think about his sins. He spent hour after hour and day after day wondering how he could ever get on the Lord’s good side. After all, Jesus was the righteous Judge and Luther was a moldy worm sack! He would go to Confession and then go and scrub the floor and then have to run back to his Father Confessor because he remembered some sins he had left out. Finally his Father Confessor, Father Staupitz, told him, “Martin! Stop already! Believe and trust in Jesus who has taken away your sins! I’ll tell you what. You have too much time around here to think about your sins all day. You’re not busy enough. You’re going to go to Wittenberg and teach the Bible.” So off Martin Luther went. And he immersed himself in the Old Testament as he lectured. He drunk deeply of the Scriptures until at last the Holy Spirit brought the Word of God clear to Martin Luther. God’s justice and righteousness are found in Jesus and Jesus forgives our sins by grace. We receive this forgiveness by faith through the Word and Sacraments. Luther finally learned, from God’s own Word, that Jesus was not the Judge of sinners but their Savior; that salvation wasn’t something earned but given; that the forgiveness of sins and eternal life were not rewards but gifts. The Word of God showed Martin Luther the Truth. And the Truth, that is, Jesus, set him free. Free from sin, death, devil, hell, the curse of the Law, guilt, misery and despair. Luther was a free man in Christ!
As Luther learned the Gospel more and more and as he preached and taught and wrote, he was constantly fighting against two kinds of false doctrine. These are the same temptations to false belief that swarm around us today. On the one hand was the teaching of the Roman church that just by doing whatever the church said, you would be saved. As long as you went to Confession, went to Mass, acknowledged that Pope was always right, and did other good works, you would be saved. Furthermore, if you just gave enough money, you could have your sins forgiven completely and avoid any time in Purgatory. In other words, by mixing your faith with your good works, you could be certain of God’s favor. On the other hand, the other “Protestants” taught that God is experienced directly, in your heart. Never mind preaching and the Sacraments. Never mind the external Word of God. We are to look for Jesus in our hearts and in our changed lives. All of these ideas are alive and well today! That if we just do some things like show up in church, we’re automatically in. Also, that being a Christian is all about MY faith and what’s going on in my heart; my decision and choices; that we don’t have to receive God’s grace in the Word and Sacraments but just have some “personal relationship” with Jesus, whatever that means. Brothers and sisters flee such preaching! Flee such teaching which directs you to trust in what you’ve done or what you have chosen or how you live. Flee such instruction which does not lead you by faith to Jesus Christ but one way or the other has you put your trust in yourself and what you have done. Such a faith can never save! Only Jesus the Son sets us free by giving us His Word to save us.
Against the first false notion of earning grace by works we put the works and merit and life and death and resurrection of Jesus. What Martin Luther learned is what Jesus taught the Jews: “If you remain in my Word then you are truly my disciples and you will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free.” The Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, the teaching and preaching in the church all give us Jesus. Everything in our Christian life is about Him. All that He has done, He has done for you. All that He still does, He does for you. He is the eternal Son of God, begotten of the Father. He is man, born of the flesh of His mother, the Virgin Mary. As a man, Jesus placed Himself under the obligations and demands of the Law. He sinlessly kept all the commandments for you, loving His Father above all things and His neighbor as Himself. Jesus was baptized with sinners, tempted by the devil, accused and condemned by men. He carried our sins to the cross of Calvary and, nailed there, shed His blood for the sins of the world, for your sins and my sins. On that cross, Jesus drank in death and breathed His last, declaring that all things for our salvation and bringing us back to God are finished. He declared that victory triumphantly to the Devil and the powers of Hell. He rose again on the Third Day. He ascended in triumph and then sent the Spirit upon His preachers so that the Word would go forth to save sinners all over the world. All glory, honor, work, accomplishment, belongs to Jesus! The Jews didn’t recognize that Jesus was the center of salvation. The Roman Church and other Protestants speak of Christ while subtly putting the focus on ourselves. But the Holy Scriptures deliver Jesus to us for our salvation.
Now, against the other notion, that we can only be sure of Jesus when we look into our hearts, or in how well we live, against that notion Luther preached and taught plainly that the Lord does not come to us or deal with us or save us in any other way than in His external Word. What do we mean by that? We mean the Gospel and the Sacraments. The four “holies” as they are called: the Holy Gospel which preaches and teaches what Christ has done for us. Holy Baptism in which God’s Word is joined to water to wash away our sins! Just like Alayna today! At the font, the Name of God is put upon us! Holy Absolution in which the called minister of Christ pronounces forgiveness in the stead and by the command of Jesus. Holy Communion in which our crucified and risen Lord’s body and blood are put into our mouths so that we have forgiveness, life and salvation. Dear Christian, believe this, trust it, that Jesus comes to us in no other way than through His Word and Sacraments. The Jews of Jesus day were proud to be in the family tree of Abraham. But that didn’t save them. Many so called Christians today are convinced that by their own feeling of faith in their hearts or by some way of living, they prove they are Christians. Such ways of thinking leave us no comfort. The Gospel and Sacraments, however, are all the comfort in the world. They show us exactly where Jesus is and teach us to be absolutely confident and certain that our sins are forgiven and the Lord is no longer our enemy but our Savior. He is no longer the Judge who will condemn but the Lord who has brought us into His kingdom of righteousness. Through the Gospel and the Sacraments, you can be certain that you are Jesus’ disciples and that He has set you free from sin and death. So be in church! Not because showing up makes you holy. But because Jesus’ church t is the only place you can be certain that your sins are forgiven and you have a heavenly Father in Jesus.
Finally, now that the Gospel has come clear in the church, now that we understand that the forgiveness of sins is a free gift of God, accomplished by Jesus and delivered in the Gospel and Sacraments, we can have a right view of God’s Law and Commandments. Now, instead of thinking the Law is just rules to keep to avoid hell, we can learn and believe that the Law teaches us how best to love and care for our neighbor. Martin Luther became a monk because he wanted to avoid hell. He left the world where he could serve his neighbor so he could try to save himself by his life cut off from the world. What joy that he learned later on to come back into the world and work hard to preach faithfully to his congregation, to be married and so care for his wife and children. You, dear Christian, have been set free from the Law and its judgment against your sins. Now, learn from the Commandments what your neighbor needs you to do: to love your husband or wife; to care for and teach your children; to work honestly at your job; to help those in any kind of need. Because you are no longer slaves of sin! You have been set free by the Son to be a servant to your neighbor.
Martin Luther became a free man in Christ by the power of the Holy Gospel. In that Gospel, God’s righteousness was revealed through the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s all about Jesus and His work to save sinners. Now you are set free. Set free from thinking your works can earn you God’s smile. Jesus has done this by His life, death and resurrection. Now you are set free from looking in your heart or life or other strange places to find Jesus. He comes to you clearly and for certain from the font, altar and pulpit. Now you are set free from using the Law as a ladder to get up to God. Rather, the Law becomes your guide in knowing what holy and good works your neighbor needs you to do for them. Remain in this Word, dear Christians, and you are truly His disciples. Because His Word makes it so. His Word gives you Jesus Himself. And Jesus has set you free from sin and death. Go in peace. Happy Reformation! Amen.