What Saves Lutherans?
Today we celebrate the 490th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Usually Reformation Sunday is a time when you hear about the differences between Lutherans, Catholics, and Protestants. Well, today you're going to hear about differences among Lutherans. We'll ask and answer this question: What saves Lutherans? All Lutherans agree it's not good works, but beyond that there are important disagreements among us.
Some Lutherans think repenting saves them. Can't get around the fact that we are sinners. Our text teaches that every mouth is silenced by God's law "and the whole world held accountable to God." The text goes on to say that "all" not some, not most, not many but "all" have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Did you catch the change in tense? All have sinned and all do fall short of the glory of God. Your sin, your separation from the saving God is not merely in the past; it's an ever present reality.
You need to repent now and every day for the rest of your life. Your Lord Jesus didn't just teach you to pray for daily bread but for daily forgiveness. Repentance is where Luther started the Reformation. The first of the 95 Theses he nailed on the door of the Castle Church says, "When Jesus said repent' he meant that believers should live a whole life repenting." In fact it was the issue of repenting that spurred Luther to write the 95 Theses. Going home one night he found a peasant drunk in the road and admonished him to repent. The peasant pulled from his pocket an indulgence from the Pope and said that he didn't need to repent because he had this.
So do you think repenting is what saves Lutherans? If so, you haven't been around a child between say 3 and 10 lately. A child of that age caught red-handed doing something they'll get a spanking for repents. Boy do they repent. They will moan; they will plead; they will get themselves into a frenzy wailing, "I'm sorry; I'm sorry; I'm sorry." And, just like the crowd on Pentecost and the jailer in Philippi, they move quickly to doing. They will do anything to be saved from the spanking. They won't do that again. They will do whatever it takes to make up for it.
Repenting doesn't save that child from a spanking or Lutherans from hell. If you think it does, you probably got your own little frenzy going on. Your stuck on repenting. All you can think of is how sorry you are, how sinful you are, and of course, like the child, you're stuck on doing. You will do better next time. You will do whatever takes. You will do more repenting because after all the life of a Christian is to be one of constant repentance. But no sense of salvation comes from repenting, does it?
Don't think I don't know where you Lutherans are running to. If repenting isn't what saves Lutherans, than surely it must be believing. Isn't that one of the solas of the Lutheran Reformation? We're saved solely by faith, look at the text, isn't faith there too? "Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ." God "justifies those who have faith in Jesus." "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law." There you are. That seals it: We are saved by believing.
No so fast. It's true; salvation through faith is a major tenet of the Lutheran reformation. And this was a major point of the Council of Trent which the Pope called in 1545 to answer the Lutherans. Canon 12 says, ""If anyone shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified ... let him be accursed." What further proof do we need that Lutherans are saved by believing? Even the Catholic Council of Trent thought so.
You know who the real disciples of believing are? Do you know who pack all their salvation, all their relationship to their god in their believing? Muslims. In fact the meaning of Muslim is "one who believes." And if you have talked to Muslims you no doubt noticed that they are dead certain of their believing. There is only one god, and Mohammed is his prophet.
But watch what happens when I put the spotlight on your believing. Do you believe enough? Do you really believe? Would you stake your eternal salvation on your ability to believe? Has anyone ever gotten beyond what the man asking for Jesus' help said: "Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief?" Has anyone of us ever gone beyond the description of the disciples in Matthew 28: "They believed; they doubted"? Jesus' pet name for His apostles was, "O ye of little faith." When the apostles could not cast a demon out of a boy, Jesus exploded on them saying, "O faithless generation how long am I to be with you and bear with you!"
Wait a minute; I've been taught my whole Lutheran life that I'm saved by faith. I'm sure you have been, but it doesn't mean what you think it means. It doesn't mean your faith, your believing causes salvation. That phrase, "Saved by faith," is really shorthand for "saved by grace through faith." Follow the prepositions: Ephesians 2:8 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith." Faith is the means by which a person receives the perfect life and innocent suffering and death of Jesus as his own, but faith doesn't cause salvation, and our faith is never perfect. It is flawed by doubts, fears, worries, cares. The more you look at your believing the more it withers before your very eyes. You try to pump it up by saying to yourself in a mantra like manner, "I believe; I believe; I believe," but all it takes to quash your faith is Satan whispering, "Do you?"
Lutherans do repent; Lutherans do believe but neither repenting nor believing are what saves Lutherans: gracing does. The text plainly teaches this. It not only says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," which everyone of us remembers, but the sentence goes on to say, "and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Somehow we always manage to forget this part.
Grace goes on in God's heart not yours. If you look in your heart, you will only see what St. Paul said was in his, "No good thing." In your heart you will only find what Jeremiah 17 says about the heart: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." Look in your heart and you will only find what Jesus says is in there: "Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." Paul, Jeremiah, and Jesus speak of your heart, my heart, all people's hearts. Even when repenting and believing are going on in our hearts, so is all that wickedness. Not so with God's heart. It is pure, and full of grace, mercy, and peace toward sinners.
Look at the Old Testament lesson. How is the New Covenant, the New Testament, the New Promise described? In unilateral terms. God does it all. "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." Though you and I cannot forget our sins, the God who remembers all says He will remember our sins no more. This is grace; it comes from God to us for Jesus' sake without any merit or worthiness in us.
Lutherans are saved by God gracing them, by Him finding us when we sought Him not, by Him sending His only beloved Son into the world "as a sacrifice of atonement" while the world, us included, were still ungodly, enemies of Him. Before we uttered one word of repentance, before we believed one promise of God, He was being gracious towards us for Jesus' sake. Focus on your repenting or believing and you will make yourself miserable or, even worse, you will make yourself self-righteous. Do you recall when Jesus put Peter's love for Him under the spotlight asking Peter 3 times "do you love Me?" Peter's love melted quickly. Peter finally put it all in Jesus' hands saying in effect, "I don't know; You know all things."
Lutherans are saved not by what they know but by what God knows about them in Jesus. This is freeing. If their salvation was based on what they know about their sins, based on their repenting, they would have to wonder "Do I repent enough?" They would have to be sure they confessed every single sin before they could find comfort in Jesus paying for them. The same goes for believing. If their salvation was based on their believing, it would be based on shifting sand. Some days they would feel very confident in their believing, and therefore confident in their salvation. But there would be days, maybe weeks, could even be months, when their believing was tainted, dented, ugly and unsure, and then where would they be?
They'd be in despair, and despair is right where you should be if you're looking at your repenting or your believing, but I'm not pointing you there. I am pointing you to Jesus, and what do you see there? If He kept the Law in your place, does He want you fretting because you can't keep it perfectly? Would you do that to someone you loved? If you did something for them, would you want them fretting over doing it? Likewise with the payment of sin. Jesus was a wrath-removing sacrifice for your sins, all of them. Now does Jesus want you bothered by sins He already paid for? Would you want that for someone you loved? If you paid off a debt of theirs, would you want them worrying about paying it?
Jesus deals with us by the means of grace. He gives us Baptism which always washes away our sins and rebirths us into everlasting life even when our believing is small. He gives us Absolution to send away our sins even when our repentance is not perfect. And what but grace, free and undeserved, free and unexplainable, free and wonderful, could cause Jesus to place His Body and Blood on this Altar for us sinners to eat and drink? If He didn't graciously, freely give us His holy, precious Body and Blood on this altar all the repenting, all the believing in the world couldn't force them to be here.
What saves Lutherans? The same thing that saves all who are being saved: Grace, free and boundless. Repenting and believing are going on in us, but we live from, we live to, and we live by God gracing us in Jesus' name. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20071028); Romans 3: 19-28