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06.25.17 The Wedge that Started it All Romans 3:9-31 Sermon Summary

by on July 3, 2017

To reform the church Luther took God at his word about sin. But also about grace. In this 500th year since his reformation, we could benefit again by following his example.

Summary Points

  • The reform Luther started
  • Indulgences and purgatory
  • Luther’s discovery: the faith of Christ saves us

We’re calling this year the “500th year anniversary of the Reformation.” It’s not really THE beginning of the Reformation. Across Europe, serious attempts at reforming the church had been started and extinguished for over 300 years. But an obvious marker occurred on October 31, 1517, when the Augustinian professor Martin Luther challenged the itinerant preaching Dominicans to a debate. This is the wedge that started the reform that could not be stopped.

The debate was about “indulgences.” In the Roman Catholic thought of the day, Christ’s death on the Cross created a storehouse of righteousness, grace, or merit. The Pope could access this merit on behalf of others, applying it to them in order to reduce their time in Purgatory.

Purgatory was the place where people went after they died to have any remainder of their sin “purged” from them. This was necessary before they could enter the presence of God. The doctrines of purgatory and indulgences work well within Roman Catholic thinking.

The problem for Luther was two-fold. First, Luther was obsessed with his lack of righteousness. He did everything he could, everything the church taught, in order to bring peace to his conscience. Nothing worked. Second, indulgences were now being peddled by the Dominicans who really didn’t have the authority to grant them as they were designed.

Luther saw the sale of indulgences as a further alienation from the righteousness he so wanted. He could not square the practice of indulgences with his stricken conscience. And in his search for relief, he discovered he could not square it with scripture either.

Luther’s main text was Romans 3:9-31. Paul was writing the churches in Rome to introduce himself, to raise money for mission work, and to address conflict in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. His opening remarks are followed by a harsh assessment of Gentiles in chapter 1, then of Jews in chapter 2, to bring him to this foundational passage.

In his reading of this passage, Luther really believed Paul. When Paul writes, “there is no one righteous,” “no one who seeks God,” “no one who shows kindness,” that peoples “feet are swift to shed blood,” and that “the fear of God is not before anyone’s eyes,” Luther agreed. He recognized that Paul is not describing some THEM out there, but ALL people, including US.

That’s worth contemplating, because we’ve all become glib about our lack of righteousness and our need for grace. I remember going to football games while a student at Notre Dame. I was a little envious at how casually the Roman Catholics could engage in such drunkenness based on their confidence in the sacraments to erase it all away. Meanwhile, when I was a student at Princeton Seminary I regularly drove out the one way entrance because it was shorter and “we are not under law, but under grace.” Paul wouldn’t tolerate such shenanigans with sin and grace. Neither did Luther.

But Luther also believed Paul when he wrote that, “now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed in the faith of Jesus Christ.” In other words, God’s righteousness is revealed not by our faith and faithfulness, but by Christ’s faith and faithfulness.

The law cannot save us because it exposes sin. It results only in condemnation. Yet so many of us, including Luther, try to live up to its demands. We do good deeds. We judge others. We refuse the truth that righteousness and justification are gifts. Salvation is a gift, given by God, to humanity, in grace, through Christ.

But we want to boast so badly! We want to take credit, to feel good about ourselves, and to feel better than others. But, Paul writes, such boasting is excluded by the law of faith.

When Luther remembered that in his opening comments Paul said the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith (Romans 1:16-17), he realized that scripture alone—not the Pope, not indulgences, not penance—only God’s promises in the Bible could give him spiritual relief. This is the wedge that began the splintering.

It raised questions about the priesthood, about the church, about the sacraments, about the Bible, about what it means to be “holy,” about how Christians ought to relate to the state—about everything!

Luther took God at his word to reform the church. Today, to reform our church and lives, can we take God at his word about us? Can we take God at his word about others?


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