Ephesians 2:8-9 (Reformation Sunday)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
October 28, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text for Reformation Sunday is Ephesians 2:8-9:
“For by grace you are saved through faith. And this is not from you; it is the gift of God; not from works, so that no one should boast.”
The year was 1517. Martin Luther remembered it this way: “It happened in the year 1517 that a preaching monk called Johann Tetzel, a great ranter, made his appearance. [He] went around selling indulgences, selling grace for money, as dearly or as cheaply as he could, to the best of his ability. At that time I was a preacher here in the monastery and a fledgling doctor fervent and enthusiastic for Holy Scripture. . . . I heard what dreadful and abominable articles Tetzel was preaching, and some of them I shall mention now; namely: That he had such great grace and power from the pope that even if someone seduced the holy Virgin Mary and made her conceive, he could forgive him, provided he placed the necessary sum in the box. . . . Again, that if St. Peter were here now, he would not have greater grace or power than [Tetzel] had. . . . Again, that if anyone put money in the box for a soul in purgatory, the soul would fly to heaven as soon as the coin clinked on the bottom. . . . He did an abominable amount of this, and it was all for the sake of money. . . . Then I wrote a letter with the Theses to the bishop of Magdeburg, admonishing and beseeching him to stop Tetzel and prevent this stupid thing from being preached. . . . I can still lay my hands on that letter, but I never received an answer.”
The Theses which Luther mentioned here are the now-famous Ninety-Five Theses that he nailed to the Wittenberg castle church door on All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517. Officially titled a “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” Luther called for academic and theological debate on this practice of selling the forgiveness of sins. In a 1518 sermon on “Indulgence and Grace” Luther preached, “It is a great error for anyone to think that he can make satisfaction for his sins since God always freely forgives them out of his priceless grace.”
The church of Luther’s day said that a person had to make satisfaction for their sins in order to earn or merit the temporal forgiveness of those sins. The church taught that Jesus’ death on the cross took care of the eternal punishment for sin, but the individual had to work off the earthly punishment or risk spending time in what is known as Purgatory. So if you died before you had worked off your earthly punishment of sin, the church proclaimed that your soul would not enter directly into Paradise with Christ, but would go to a place of “purging” or Purgatory, so that you would continue to work off your outstanding debt at which point you could go into heaven with the Lord.
So that a soul would not have to spend countless ages in Purgatory, the church allowed for another’s good works to be transferred to the soul in Purgatory. Part of that system was the indulgence. If you did the right things, attended Mass, said the right prayers, you could earn time out of Purgatory for yourself or for loved ones. At the time of Luther, the selling of indulgences was in vogue. These indulgences being sold by folks like Johann Tetzel were plenary indulgences, ones that would release a person from the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further work would be required in Purgatory! “As soon as the coin in the coffer clinks, the soul from Purgatory springs,” was Tetzel’s sales pitch.
Now lest you think indulgences and Purgatory are a thing of the past, earlier this month the Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI decreed a Plenary Indulgence for the occasion of their Year of Faith. It’s valid from October 11 of this year until November 24, 2013. It’s for the “temporal punishment of sins, imparted by the mercy of God and applicable also to the souls of deceased faithful.” It may be obtained “by all faithful who, truly repentant, take Sacramental Confession and the [Lord’s Supper] and pray in accordance with the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff.” To get it, you don’t have to pay anything, but you have to do something. The Roman faithful can attend at least three sermons during the Holy Missions, or at least three lessons on the Acts of the Second Vatican Council or the articles of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They can visit, in a pilgrimage, a papal basilica, a Christian catacomb, a cathedral church or a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Holy Apostles or patron saints. So here again is the offer for forgiveness, removing the earthly punishment for sins, as long as a person does these things to earn it.
Yet, as Martin Luther came to know in the Gospel, there is no buying, earning, or meriting forgiveness of sins, temporal or eternal. Forgiveness that brings people salvation from all sin, death, and the power of the devil is a free gift from God.
However, people often struggle with the concept of “free.” We grow up being taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch. You want something; you work for it. You earn that pay raise. You win that position on the team. You study to make that grade an A. After all, in America you don’t get something for nothing. You get it through hard work, sweat and toil, and with your hard-earned dollars and cents. Shouldn’t salvation be the same way? Shouldn’t we get from God what we earn and deserve for our work? “I give to charity. I help my elderly neighbors. I’m kind to children and animals. I’m a morally upstanding citizen. I go to church. C’mon God, what do I get for that?”
Nothing. Nada, zip, zilch.
You are saved from all sins, death, and from the power of the devil by grace alone—not from your thinking, speaking, or doing. The fact that you have the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation has not one thing to do with you or what you have done or even what you haven’t done. It’s not a matter of arrogance on our part, a “look how good I have been,” or “look at all the pious things I have done” sort of issue. It’s a grace issue, a faith issue, a free gift matter.
If God let us have what we deserve, it wouldn’t be time off for good behavior. It wouldn’t be an indulgence. It wouldn’t be forgiveness or eternal life. If God let us have what we have earned, it would be physical and eternal death. It would be an eternity, not in a place of purging, but in a place of unquenchable fire. Out of His great love for you and me, God decided that we should not get what we deserve. And so He gifted to us His only Son.
Jesus took upon Himself God’s wrath against our sins. Hanging on the cross, Jesus suffered our death and our hell. As we heard in Romans 3 in our Epistle lesson, God put forward Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement on our behalf. This means that Jesus died on the cross, shedding His blood to purchase our forgiveness of sins, saving us from both temporal and eternal punishment for our sins! This means that there isn’t any punishment for sin left for us to serve or work off. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “We have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . .For by a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being made holy.” Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, God says, “I will remember their sins no more!” We are completely forgiven! And “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10:11, 14, 17-18)
As Luther stated before, “It is a great error for anyone to think that he can make satisfaction for his sins since God always freely forgives them out of his priceless grace.” Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead on the third day has won our forgiveness of sins so that there is no need to try to earn or buy or do anything to finish the job. There is no place of Purgatory because Christ has completely set us free from the guilt and punishment of all our sins. There is nothing left to be paid or to be done by us. Jesus did it all! There is no need to buy an indulgence or to do pious things to try and earn God’s forgiveness and rescue from sin’s punishment. Jesus has already accomplished that for you! The gift of forgiveness and eternal life that the Lord Jesus bestows on you is yours by grace—a completely free gift—that is received by you as the Holy Spirit creates faith in your heart to trust that it is so.
Even faith in Jesus is not from us! “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:14-15, 17) Faith, too, is the gift of God given to us by the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel! And that’s what Christianity is all about. It’s about trusting in Jesus who has given us everything we need in His Word to be saved from sin, Satan, and death.
Being a Christian means being gifted by God with the forgiveness of sins and the eternal life which Jesus won for us with His death and resurrection. Being a Christian means being gifted saving faith that trusts that Jesus did die on the cross for you and rose again from the dead for you, winning for you forgiveness, life, and salvation. And that’s also what it means to be a Lutheran. Being a Lutheran means being a Christian who confesses that we are saved by God’s grace alone through the gift of faith alone because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ alone, apart from any works, so that we should not boast in ourselves, but always in Jesus our Savior.
As we celebrate the Reformation of the Church today and this week, we celebrate the gift of God’s grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus Christ alone, as we receive His forgiveness and eternal life through Scripture alone. To God alone be the glory! Amen.