Reformation Sunday- Rom 3:19-28
There were a few times when the course adjustment was too rough to hold the church together. Sometimes the turn was too sharp and the boat wasn’t flexible enough. The reform of the 16th century was too much to hold the church together. For example, the church had come up with the idea of purgatory, which the reformers rejected as unbiblical. In the medieval church, Heaven was reserved for angels and the saints- It was reserved for those who walked the narrow road of the perfected. The other option was Hell, which was reserved for those who walked the wide road that led to destruction. The idea of Purgatory arose as a third option where the less-than-perfect could be purified before entering heaven. The purifying punishment experienced in purgatory was a painful and long process. It was something like hell, but less permanent. If you had a loved one who died, and they weren’t particularly saintly, you may have imagined them in Purgatory. Which is not a comfortable thought to say the least.
The Church invented a way that you could help your loved one. The church had access to a kind of bank account of merit that had been accumulated by the works of Christ and the saints. The church could then dispense that accumulated merit to others, in particular, it could be given to your loved one in purgatory which would lessen their time there and allow them to get to heaven quicker. The church made this merit available … for a price. It was called an “indulgence”. Greed led to corruption and abuse.
Martin Luther became famous for challenging the church on these kinds of teachings. He asked that if the Pope had access to this merit of Christ and the saints, why not open up the doors and pour it all out on purgatory. Why hold it back and charge people for it when the church had the ability to relieve the suffering of those in purgatory? Martin Luther, like many voices before him, challenged the church to reform. Other voices joined his and some political powers became involved. The church authorities resisted. Some desired quick or extreme reform and the structure of the church was too rigid to accommodate. This led to the Protestant Reformation when a certain portion of the Western church separated in protest against the Roman Catholic Church.
A major rallying cry of the reformers was the accusation that the Roman Catholic Church encouraged “works righteousness”, which was the idea that people could earn salvation (if even just partially) by doing good works. Against this they cried out that salvation was by faith, not works. In his younger years, Luther felt that he was constantly under the weight of his own sin and unable to do enough good to outweigh the wrong he had done. As Luther studied and taught the Bible as a university professor, Paul’s letter to the Romans had a particularly powerful effect on him. Suddenly he saw that God’s righteousness, a requirement of eternal salvation, was not something earned by human works, but was something freely given through trust in Jesus. This gave Luther an incredible sense of freedom.
What Paul said to the Romans was that indeed we are sinners. Jewish people and non-Jewish people alike- we are all sinners. The Jewish people had received the Law, but were unable to keep it. Non-Jewish people had their natural conscience and were unable to live perfectly according to their conscience. No one was able to live rightly. Sure people could be worse than they were, and people could also do good things, but in an eternal sense, according to how we have been made in the image of God, we are not able to be who we are supposed to be. We fall short. Even if you have the law, more often than not it just clarifies how you are not able to live rightly in God’s world. So we are in a stuck situation. We are a bit like criminals who haven’t been thrown in prison yet, but we know that any day the police could be showing up at the door.
We don’t like thinking of ourselves that way. We might even think it is an unhealthy way to think about ourselves- it’s bad for our self-esteem. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as all that bad. Usually that’s because we compare ourselves to one another. The one we are being compared to, however, is Jesus. He is who human beings are supposed to be. Human beings are made in the image of God, made to reflect His glory. We usually assure ourselves by saying things like, “well, I’m not like Hitler. I’ve never killed anybody. So I’m not all that bad”. But, I’m afraid that the holiness God created us for is not the same as not being a murderer. We are made to reflect God’s glory- that’s the standard. As uncomfortable as it is for us to hear it, we all fall short of the standard. Luther felt that acutely.
So what is God to do? Human beings are disobedient to their original calling, and so they are out of sync with God. They are disconnected from the source of life and so they edge towards death and separation from God. This was the future Luther felt he was unable to escape. But, God created us in his image and loves us. On the one hand there is what we deserve, and on the other there is what God, in His mercy and love, wants for us.
Jesus came to do what we couldn’t do. Jesus came to live a human life as it should be lived- reflecting the glory of God. But, he still needed to make his life available to others. The blood spilled in the temple for forgiveness of sins pointed to the blood Jesus spilled on the cross for us, to draw us into communion with God.
Jesus is the perfect representative of Israel. Israel was meant to be the conduit of blessing for all humanity, but had failed in their task. Jesus succeeded on Israel’s behalf. The work of Jesus became available through trust in him- through faith. It is available for all, Jewish people and non-Jewish people. All are on equal footing before God through Christ. This was a massive shift. The Temple was the place to deal with sin. To gain access to the services of the temple someone who was not born Jewish had to essentially become Jewish, but now the temple is useless. Jesus is the new temple. Jesus is now the place to deal with sin. And he is available to everyone everywhere by faith.
Luther had gotten lost in the structures and traditions of the church. He had gotten lost in the system of confession, and merit, and penance, and indulgence. He felt crushed under the weight of his own sin and he felt the way out from under that boot was too hard as the church presented it. He felt destined for damnation. Until he began studying the Bible deeply and he came upon readings like our Romans reading this morning. Suddenly he realized that he didn’t have to do anything except trust. In fact, he couldn’t do anything to earn salvation. He had to receive it as a gift from one who could do what he wasn’t able to. There is a place for works, but it is not in earning anything. Works do not make God owe us anything. But, out of love God offer us life and we receive it as we receive Christ. I should also say that we don’t just receive him once. We receive him like we receive air. We can’t just breathe once then assume we are good for life. Just as we constantly breathe and so we must constantly be receiving Christ so that his life is constantly growing within us.
Just as the church must be in a constant state of reform, so do we. The saints called this living in a state of repentance. Repentance could be understood as a course adjustment. Whenever we come to God in confession we are making course adjustments, and recognizing where we have drifted off course, or taken wrong turns. We constantly readjust our lives so that we are better able to live a life in union with Christ, so that by trusting him he can fill our lives with his own eternal life.
The concerns of the reformation were important for making a course adjustment in the church. If we are to learn from their difficulties we should be constantly returning to Scripture in humility to allow it to correct our course- the church’s and our own personal course of life.