Sunday 26 October 2014, 9:00 am Service
Its the same old question. What must I do in order to make God love me? What do I need to do in order to be saved? What does God require of me? How can I please God, and what happens if I fail to please God? The same old question. Paul struggled with it in the first century. Martin Luther struggled with it in the sixteenth century. Now in the twenty-first century, we are still struggling with it. What is the law? What is faith? And how on earth do they relate to one another?
Christians have taken many different stands on this issue. On the one hand, many Christians say that we must follow the law, the rules set forth by God for us to follow. We must do the right thing. We must follow each commandment. Why? Because in the end, God will judge us based on how well we did. If we have lived up to the divine standard, then we will be rewarded; we will spend eternity with God in bliss in heaven. If we fail, then we will be punished; we will spend eternity in the unrelenting fires of hell.
But other Christians say that it doesn’t have to do with works at all. Salvation doesn’t come from following the commandments or the words of Jesus, it comes from faith in Jesus as a personal savior. So long as you believe in Jesus, then you are going to heaven. If you don’t believe in Jesus, then you are going to hell. And it doesn’t matter what you do, or how you have lived your life, so long as you have accepted Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for your sins.
For Martin Luther, back in medieval Germany, these questions had life and death consequences, and he was tormented by them both day and night. Luther was an Augustinian monk, a priest, and a professor. He spent all of his life, every moment, trying to live a life worthy of God, trying to live as God would want him to live. He dedicated himself wholeheartedly to spiritual disciplines. He fasted. He spent hours praying. He went on spiritual pilgrimages. He went frequently to confession. And yet he was plagued by the feeling that he was unworthy of God’s love, that he was damned by his own sins. No matter what he did, he could not earn God’s love and forgiveness.
Many people today have a hard time with this very same thing. If we try to do the right thing with our lives, if we try to live as moral, ethical people, we can never seem to get it right. We make mistakes. We try to be nice, but we end up hurting people. We try to show love, but it is never enough. We try to conquer our addictions, but they just keep showing up uninvited. We try to fix the world’s problems — hunger, war, disease — but the problems are too big and we always fail. We try, and we try, and we try — but it is never enough. We always fall short of the standard of perfection.
And so in our complete and utter failure, we turn on ourselves. We blame ourselves for not being good enough. If I could only try harder. If I could only pray harder. If I could just stop messing up. It’s my choice, isn’t it? I could do the right thing if I chose to and really committed myself. If I used my time better than I do. If I could just cut out that sinful part of me that I don’t want anymore. If only I could just… if only… then everything would be alright. Then I would be worthy of love. Then God would love me. Then I could finally love myself.
Martin Luther—monk, priest, professor—was teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. He was about as old as I am now when he was studying and teaching the scriptures: Psalms, Hebrews, Galatians, and the book we heard today: Romans. And as he was reading and studying and lecturing, he started to discover something new. It was something that he had never been taught before, something that no one he knew had ever heard of. In reality, it was not completely new, but at that particular point in history it had been forgotten. And Luther called it Justification by Faith.
What Luther was discovering was that no matter how hard we try to do the right thing, no matter how hard we work to do what God wants us to do, we never fully succeed, and can never earn God’s approval. And yet, God still loves us. God still forgives us. God still takes our broken relationship with God and makes it right again, makes it pure again, makes it justified again. And it is not by anything that we do. No, it is by the faith of Jesus Christ. Just as Paul writes, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, yet they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” So it is not my own actions that make me saved, it is not anything that I do, because I can never do enough to earn perfection. No, it is God’s free gift that offers me hope, that heals my relationship with God, that sets things right. It is God’s free gift of grace through faith.
That is Good News! That is the heart of the Gospel message. Even though I am a sinner, even though I fall short, God still loves we. God wants to make things right between us. God wants to forgive me and call me back home and accept me as a beloved child. And God wants the same thing for every single person on earth. God wants us to be free from all of the guilt and torment that we subject ourselves to. God wants to set us loose from the burden of the sin that we insist on carrying around with us. God wants to accept us and welcome us home. And God is doing it, right now. That is Good News!
But we humans are sly creatures, aren’t we. We are always looking for a good deal, looking for a handy loophole. And it seems that Martin Luther, and Paul, and by extension God, have just offered us a big loophole. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. If God’s love and forgiveness isn’t based on what I do, but comes as a free gift, then I don’t have to do anything. I can do whatever I want, anything that my greedy little heart desires, and God will still forgive me. God will still accept me. So why shouldn’t I just go ahead and do whatever I want, live the most greedy, self-indulgent, gluttonous, lustful, debauched, conceited, selfish life that I can dream up for myself. It doesn’t matter, right? God will forgive me.
But that’s not the way that God’s grace and faith work. God’s grace may be free, but it is not cheap. You see, the problem is that when you accept God’s grace into your life, you get something else in the process. You get God. A direct relationship with God in your life. That is the cost of God’s gift of grace. You have to deal with God butting in to your life, even when you least expect it or want it.
And so we Christians are free from the law of works. We are free from it. But God sets us free from the law of works in order to make us open to the law of love. God sets us free from doing good works out of fear of divine retribution and opens us to the grace and love of God that call us to do good works in response to and as extension of God’s love. It is no longer out of fear or guilt that we act. It is out of love and devotion and praise and thankfulness.
Luther put it this way. He wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
God offers us a wonderful gift: freedom from our sins. And in response, we do good works and avoid evil. Not because we have to, or because it is a condition of our freedom, but because we want to, because we are transformed by the love of God, and we desire to be faithful to God, because God has been so incredibly faithful to us. Thanks be to God!