The Sunday of the Reformation: Abiding in the Word of Christ

Readings: Revelation 14:6-7, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Hymns: 658, 656, 582, 645, 676, 655

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today, the Church observes the Reformation of the Church. We do so on the last Sunday in October because, on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther began the Reformation when he nailed the 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany. When doing so, Luther did not know that this would result in a substantial reformation of the Christian Church, nor did he know that it would change his life and the entire world. Yet, this was God’s will, for God raised up a man to bring the Church back to its firm foundation on the Word of God, just as God had done numerous times in Bible history by raising up judges, prophets, and apostles.

When different people reflect on the Reformation and its purpose, there will be differing views on its impact and usefulness for today. Some will reason, “Since Martin Luther changed church tradition, then it is up to us to keep on changing church tradition.” This view is often held by those who do not want to be bound by the Word of God. They figure that since the world around us is continually changing, then matters of faith should also be continually changing. They don’t see the Reformation as God’s way to restore the Church back to the Word of God. Instead, they see the Church as something that must always evolve to match the world around it.

It may seem right to get the church to match the world, but the world is filled with sin. Matching the church to a sinful world does not result in greater faithfulness or more Christians. Instead, as the Church attempts to be relevant to the world, it actually becomes irrelevant. Why attend a religious organization that simply matches the sinful world? What hope is there in that?

      This past week, Pope Francis got into some trouble. Evidently last year he said he approves of same-sex civil unions and that the church should follow suit. This was edited out of his recording and those words were not released—until last week. This, of course, goes against the teaching of Holy Scripture and their church and ours.

But in the Roman Catholic Church, they believe the Pope has an authority not granted by Scripture. The Pope can actually declare new teachings for their church. Pope Francis did not do this when commenting on same-sex unions, but his words reveal his position on the matter and perhaps the direction he wishes to take the church. His position is nothing more than matching the ways of the sinful world.

As Lutherans, we reject the notion that one man on top can change Christian teaching (or doctrine). If the pope or a council or a voters’ assembly could decide new teachings on theological matters, what would we be able to trust as real and true? How would we distinguish between the opposing teachings of two popes or two councils or two voters assemblies?

Instead of getting confused by who is right, we do not submit ourselves to the authority of individuals. Instead, we submit ourselves to the authority of Scripture. And we submit ourselves only to those authorities (that is, pastors) who submit themselves to God’s Word.

Remember the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

We enjoy many freedoms in our country. We ought to cherish our rights and freedoms. We have, for over two hundred years, been willing to fight for our rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Despite the freedoms guaranteed in our Bill of Rights, they have not set us free from the one thing that enslaves us beyond all measure. For those who live apart from the grace of Christ, they do not realize how terribly enslaved they are. They do not recognize the depths by which they are enslaved to their sin. They do not know the upcoming judgment that their sin brings upon themselves.

But that is precisely why Jesus came. He came to save us from our sin. As it is written, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24).

As wonderful as our freedoms are in this country, they do not free us from our sin. But Jesus does. He redeemed us by His Blood. He paid for our sins on the cross. He justifies us by grace through faith in Him. This freedom—which we could not earn and could not achieve—and do not deserve—is given to us for free.

What’s the catch? There is none. Really. Jesus in love took our sins upon Himself and went to the cross and died, making the ransom payment for our sin. In Christ, our sins are truly released from us. We, who were once enslaved to sin leading to death, are now children of God who will receive eternal life. We are no longer bound to Satan and His lies, but we are children of God. Because Christ is risen, even death is swallowed up in victory.

These teachings, which may seem ever so basic to us Lutherans, were not widely understood at the time of Reformation and, sadly, are not widely understood in many Christian churches around the globe. Many churches, while calling themselves Christian, do not keep Christ at the center, nor do they teach that the Scriptures alone reveal to us God’s saving work and His ways.

Instead of jumping on those bandwagons, we believe God’s will is revealed in the Holy Bible. Scripture is the Word of God. It is the sole source and norm of any legitimate Christian teaching.

Consider again what Jesus teaches. He doesn’t teach us to abide in the ways of the world or abide in what we feel or think or abide in the teachings of a particular church denomination. He teaches us to abide in His Word. His Word is what is written is Scripture. And when we abide in the Word of Christ, then we will know the truth.

I’ve had many conversations with people wondering how to know what is right and what is not. They get confused when they hear one preacher say this and another say that. For a Roman Catholic they may be confused because they learned the Pope himself approves of same-sex civil unions, but the American bishops condemned the Pope’s position. So, who to believe? Jesus teaches us. Abide in His Word—the Word of Christ. Jesus never lies. He will never fail you. He has, after all, defeated Satan, risen from the dead, and reigns to all eternity! If He can do that, His Word will certainly be trustworthy and true.

To know His Word—to distinguish God’s Word from man’s word—it is necessary to learn God’s Word. That is, it is necessary to abide in His Word. Doing this involves reading the Bible and going to Church to hear the Word read and preached. It is also good to attend Bible study and read doctrinally pure devotional material and Christian literature. Sadly, there is too much out there that contains man’s word and mixes Biblical truths with error. Many books sold at Christian bookstores have false teachings. Instead of browsing for books to read at these stores, unsure of what is good and what is not, check out our church’s own library. Or talk to me about the kinds of Christian reading you are interested in and I can help you find good books. It is good when Christians desire to grow in their knowledge and understanding of the Word of God. And it is good when Christians have this opportunity without having to wade through the confusing array of books that appear Christian but are not doctrinally pure.

Since today is our annual observance of the Reformation, we should answer the question, “How should we remember the Reformation?” We don’t do so by trying to constantly reform the church to match society. We also don’t do so by idolizing individuals like Luther who were so instrumental with the Reformation. Instead, we give God the glory and give Him thanks for all that He has done in Church history to ensure that, today, we have the pure Word of God. We also look at what Luther actually did and rejoice in how God continues to work in His Church. God was at work as the Church was reformed back to doctrinal purity. God was at work as the Church was reformed to again rightly understand the Lord’s Supper as the means by which Christ Jesus gives His Body and His Blood under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. God was at work as people learned they were not saved by their works, but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. God was at work when the people were liberated from the bondage of man’s ways and were taught the truth of God’s Word.

We rejoice that God continues to be at work in His Church today. Across the globe you will find churches which are truly concerned with keeping the message of God’s Word pure, keeping Christ front and center, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, and administering the Sacraments in accordance with Christ’s institution.

I would like to close with a quote from Martin Luther, which he published 500 years ago this coming month. He wrote, “One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11:25, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live’; and John 8:36, ‘So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’… The soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing” (AE 31:345).

So if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed!  Amen.           

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen