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Sermon for Reformation Day

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ November 7th, 2012

Sermon on St. Matthew 11:12-15

Reformation Day (Observed)

28 October 2012

+ In the Name of Jesus +

For by grace you have been saved through faith. — Ephesians 2:8

Some of you have heard of the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura, “By Scripture alone.”  This phrase, popular since the Reformation, reminds us that all doctrine and practice is based solely on the Sacred Scriptures.  It guards us from the doctrines of men, and directs us to the external Word of God as the source of all Christian teaching.  But this “Sola” is not the whole story, for it only prepares us for three more “Sola’s” of salvation that I would like to discuss today:  (1) by grace alone, (2) through faith alone, (3) in Christ alone.


The first “Sola” is “by grace alone” (Sola gratia).  The word “grace” in the NT is the same word for “gift” and even “joy.”  It describes all the gifts God has given us, from house and home to life and salvation.  But Martin Luther, especially as a young reformer, had not heard the word of pure grace.  He was taught that you must do something for salvation.  Even Holy Baptism itself was under attack.  It was believed by many in Luther’s day that Baptism gave life itself.  However, if you sinned, you might have to do penance as a “second plank” to climb back onto the churchly boat by your own effort.

It went something like this:  Suppose, for a moment, that young Johann was baptized as a baby.  But then, as an adult, suppose that he broke the sixth commandment in a public and scandalous way.  The right thing to do would be public repentance, absolution, and restoration for Johann’s public sin.  But thechurchofLuther’s day did not follow this approach.  Instead, sinners were terrified into prescribed amounts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so they could earn their way back into the church.

This did not sit well with Luther.  Lecturing and studying on Romans, the Psalms, and especially the Gospel of John, Luther discovered a truth that is as old as our unchanging God Himself:  It is by grace alone that you have seen saved.  From Baptism to confession to eternal life itself, it is all God’s gift to us.  It will not help to try to pray harder, to fast longer, or to give more alms to the poor.  These are all good things as expressions of our gratitude to God, but they will not work as Law, for we poor sinners will never fulfill the Law of God.  Rather, Luther put Baptism at the center of God’s grace.   After all, the font is where we were first immersed in God’s grace.  And everyone knows that no baby ever prayed, fasted, or gave alms to earn God’s favor.

Perhaps this is clearest in Luther’s famous “Flood Prayer,” a timeless prayer that no baptismal liturgy should be without.  Here Luther focuses on the Bible stories dealing with water, and applies them to your Baptism.  Luther’s prayer mentions three water stories from the Bible:  Noah and the flood, the exodus through the Red Sea, and the Baptism of our Lord in the River Jordan.  In each story, sin and sinners are drowned and die, while God’s people live.  Luther then applies this pattern of death and resurrection to you and to me, praying, “[Grant that] through this saving flood [of Holy Baptism] all sin in [him] which has been inherited from Adam . . . would be drowned and die.”  It’s that simple, isn’t it?  You can’t “work off” your sin, for your works are as filthy rags.  You can’t deny it, for it will only fester.  And you cannot save yourselves, for you are born in sin and bound to die.  So God drowns our sin through Holy Baptism.  And then the prayer for life:  “Grant that [he] be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian church . . . so that, with all believers, [he] would be declared worthy of eternal life.  As the hymn puts it, “By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless;  My soul, believe and doubt it not” (TLH 373.1).


But God’s grace will not help us until it is personally given and applied to us.  This brings us to the second Sola, “through faith alone” (Sola fide).   Where grace focuses on God’s gifts of salvation, faith focuses on the good news that they are joyfully received.  God gives and we joyfully receive His gifts.  Still under the umbrella of grace, faith clings to God’s promises, apart from works, and says, “The gift of forgiveness is mine.”

As with “By grace alone,” the church Luther inherited did not fare well with the “faith alone” idea.  The church developed a curious practice called “indulgences.”  According to this custom, believers could purchase their own salvation, or even spring a friend or relative from purgatory a bit early, by giving money to the church.  Many of you have heard of the preacher, John Tetzel, who came toWittenbergto collect money to build St. Peter’s Basilica inRome.  He went a bit overboard, supposedly claiming that he could absolve the man who violated the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, and eventually ended up under house arrest.

And what about today?  It is tempting to assume that indulgences, the practice of literally buying salvation, also passed away with other Medieval superstitions, such as the Magical Talisman and the witch trials.  But it is not so.  Just last year, for instance, the Vatican issued an indulgence for World Youth Day in Madrid.  The plenary or full indulgence was granted “to the faithful who devoutly participate in any of the sacred functions or pious practices during the ‘26th World Youth Day’ taking place in Madrid.”  As I read the document, those who volunteered basically “worked off” their sins and were allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper.  And what of those who were not in Madrid for the youth event?  A partial indulgence was “granted to the faithful wherever they are during the course of the [youth] gathering, who . . . raise their prayers to God . . .” (quoted in Logia 21:4, p. 63).  Yes, Dearly Beloved, indulgences are alive and well, even for those who are willing to set up tables and hand out brochures at a youth gathering.

How do the faithful sons of the Reformation respond?  Think, once again, of confession and absolution.  Luther says in the Small Catechism that it has two parts:  (1) we confess our sins, and (2) we receive absolution or forgiveness.  On a practical level, penitent sinners hear the words, “I forgive you all your sins” and, recalling Christ’s death and resurrection, we believe that God’s forgiveness is ours, through faith.  Your bulletin cover shows Luther nailing his famous Ninety-five Theses to the castle door inWittenberg.  (In Luther’s day, that was how one blogged or tweeted.)  The first of his 95 statements says, “When our Lord and Master said, ‘Repent,’ He meant the entire life of the believer should be one of repentance.”  That is to say, the entire life of the believer should be one of repenting of his sins and hearing the word of forgiveness.  It’s all the activity of faith, isn’t it?  Joyfully receiving what God gives by grace.

Today’s Epistle lesson describes an angel flying overheard, preaching the eternal Gospel to every living creature.  Through the years, many have interpreted this angel as Martin Luther.  I fear this idea is a bit narrow, since a multitude of preachers have brought the Gospel to this earth.  But we can certainly include Luther in this image, for His message of justification through faith is the eternal Gospel itself, “proclaimed to every nation and tribe and language and people.”  As the hymn puts it, “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone / And rests in Him unceasing” (TLH 377.9).


Finally, faith (what we believe) must be in someone or something.  Imagine praying the Nicene Creed, for instance, and stopping after the words “I believe,” but not having something to fill in the blank!  We must believe in something, viz., we believe in “one God, the Father Almighty . . . . and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.”  This brings us to the third Sola of our salvation, “In Christ alone” (Solus Christus).

It should not surprise us that theMedievalChurch, which was by and large short on grace and faith, was also short on Christ.  Consider, for a moment, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Luther’s day.  The liturgy was primarily conducted in Latin, even among German folk.  Due to superstitions and misunderstandings, many laity did not receive the chalice.  So people who needed Jesus’ true Body and Blood could not fully participate in the spoken liturgy or receive the complete Sacrament.

But even more offensive than these oddities was the reason behind them.  ThechurchofLuther’s early days believed that the Lord’s Supper (they’d say “the Mass”) was not God’s gift to us, but our presentation to God.  They actually believed that the point of the Lord’s Supper was for the church to re-sacrifice Christ, hence the phrase, “The Sacrifice of theMass.”  So where our liturgy is all about God coming to us, their liturgy was really about our coming before God, sacrificing the One who was already sacrificed, and apparently walking home knowing that we did our duty by attending the Mass.

Luther read something entirely different in the New Testament.  The promise of Christ is to give life and salvation to those who eat His Body and drink His Blood.  The command is to do this in His memory, not as a sacrifice.  In short, the Sacrament is all about Christ.  As sure as He saved us by His bloody Passion, so now He offers the gifts of His cross in the Lord’s Supper.

What did this mean on a practical level for Grandma Herrmann any given Sunday?  Luther removed something called “The Cannon of the Mass,” i.e., the language in the Communion liturgy that talks about how we are sacrificing Christ.  What was left?  Christ.  Gospel.  Gift.  Indeed, the omission of sacrificial language in the Roman liturgy was one of Luther’s greatest gifts to the church.  The Lord’s Supper liturgy that you have in your hymnal is basically an English version of the one Luther knew, and not far from what an earlier generation of Christian knew in the days of Constantine the Great.  From the Preface to the Sanctus to the Agnus Dei;  from the consecration, distribution, and reception of the elements, the Lord’s Supper is all about putting Christ Himself in your mouth, so that He is in you and you are in Him.  As the hymn puts it, “In Thee Alone, O Christ, my Lord, My hope on earth remaineth” (TLH 319.1).

+ + +

Today’s Gospel Lesson says the Kingdom of heaven suffering violence here and now, as the violent take it by force.  Think, for a moment, of the violence suffered by the faithful preachers mentioned in this short Gospel Lesson:  John the Baptist was beheaded, a gift for an exotic dancer in Herod’s court;  the prophets were persecuted unto death;  and Elijah was left to die in the wilderness, fed by Ravens, and pursued by an evil king and queen.  The Reformation was equally violent, from martyrdoms to wars to turningEuropeupside down.  But it was worth every drop of blood, for the Reformation is an ongoing fight for the right Gospel and confession.  To paraphrase Jesus, “From the days of Luther until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.  But for those who take refuge in the three “Sola’s” of the Lutheran Church – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone – there is the peace that passes all understanding in Him who is the resurrection and the life.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear!  + INJ + Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

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