Reformation Sunday Sermon (1993)

Reformation Day
Texts: Romans 3:19-28;
John 8:31-36; Jer. 31:31-34

SAVED BY THE FAITH OF JESUS CHRIST

Consider John. He’s fifty-five years-old, at the peak of his business career, awaiting his first grandchild, and…he has cancer. In fact, he’s not doing well in his struggle against the disease. Something else you should know about John is that he never has attended church regularly. He believes in God, mind you; but now, as he fights this battle against cancer, God feels very far away. God seems very distant. But John receives a visit from a well-meaning Christian friend who says to him, “Just have faith in Jesus, and let him into your life, John, and he will help you fight this thing.” With John wondering where God is, is that a helpful thing to say?

Or consider Jane. She is a thirty-five year-old mother of two small children, who has just gone through a messy divorce. Jane has been a regular church-goer most of her life; but to compound her emotional turmoil, she has just begun to have memories of being sexually abused as a young child by her father, and her faith in God has been shaken to the core. How could God have let this happen to her? Where was God when she needed protection from her own father? Jane, too, receives a visit from a well-meaning Christian friend who says to her, “Have faith in Jesus, and he will bring you through this.” Again, is that a helpful thing to say?

As Christians, we believe that faith in Jesus Christ can help us with the burdens of life. But I’ve begun with the examples of John and Jane so that we might consider those times in our lives when it is all we can do to survive. When it is so hard to do the simplest things, is it helpful to hear that there is something else we have to do, namely, believe in Jesus? Do John and Jane, for instance, hear the call to faith as something to help unburden them? Or do they, with God feeling distant in their lives, instead experience it as another burden to add to their load? Circumstances may be such in their lives that they don’t feel close to God, or Jesus, and so the call to faith is something else to do that they can’t do. The call to faith is another difficult work to do rather than an experience of God’s grace.

We celebrate Reformation Day today, and the Reformation was waged around the issue of works vs. faith. The experience of people in the Church of Martin Luther’s day was that one had to earn salvation by doing certain works. Luther said, “No, we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by faith alone, not by anything we do.” But what has happened subsequently throughout the Protestant churches, I think, is a revival of something we must do to be saved, namely, believe in Jesus. Our examples of John and Jane show us how believing in Jesus might seem like one basic thing to have to do in order to be ‘saved’ from their ordeals. So I wonder if the Reformation has gotten off track a bit, by instead of eliminating works, simply reducing our works down to only one. In modern Protestantism, haven’t we reduced the works you must do in order to be saved down to one: believing in Jesus? That’s certainly simpler, but is it what God intended? Is that really how we are saved?

Let’s look at our second lesson from Romans 3, which has become the banner text of the Reformation. It testifies to God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, as opposed to any religion that lays down laws about what we must do to earn salvation. Rightness with God is not something we earn but something God shows forth on the cross and grants to us as a free gift of his grace. Verses 21-22, for instance, sum it all up in a nutshell:

But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is disclosed by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

“Through faith in Jesus Christ” — that has been the theme of the entire Reformation.

Yet, if people like John and Jane experience the call to faith as a work, where has the Reformation gotten off track? Let me suggest one little change in this theme of the Reformation, that we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ. It requires a very brief lesson in New Testament Greek. The original of that all-important phrase in verse 22 is [holding up poster with the Greek and English]: “dia pisteos Hiesou Christou.” Compare that to the English: “through faith in Jesus Christ.” You may notice a different number of words, four in Greek and five in English. The word “in” does not appear in the Greek. That’s because the Greek phrase is what grammarians call a genitive construction. For the rest of us non-grammarians, it simply means that the phrase shows possession — in this case, it is “faith” that is being possessed by someone. Now, the problem in translating the Greek is that you have at least two choices of who is doing the possessing, of who possesses the faith. The choice made by our translators is that the context implies that it is us, the believers, who possess faith in Jesus Christ. In this case, it is through our faith that saves us. But the other choice — and, actually, the more common way of translating such a phrase — is to make it Jesus Christ who possesses the saving faith. [Holding up second poster:] We are saved “through Jesus Christ’s faith,” or “through the faith of Jesus Christ.”

This seemingly little difference in translation can make a big, big difference to the theme of the Reformation: rather than being saved through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are saved by the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s not that these two are mutually exclusive. Obviously, we cannot be saved if we do not receive faith at some point. Yet putting the emphasis on Christ’s faith makes our faith a matter of grace, not a matter of our own choosing. Yours and my faith is not something that we decided one day to choose on our own. It is not something we have done. Rather, it was something done to us. It was Christ who had the faith that saves us, a faith in God that took him all the way to the cross; and because he is risen, he can give that faith to us! St. Paul uses the phrase over and over: “Christ living in us.” That power of saving faith is not something we have done; it is something Christ has accomplished and then given to us through the Holy Spirit. That faith, because of Jesus, comes to dwell in us! Now, that’s really radical grace!

Let us come at this matter of law vs. grace from another angle. With regards to our children, we rightly talk a lot these days about self-esteem. Think about that children’s time this morning with the analogy of the coloring book. Our children begin with someone else’s picture to guide them and first learn to stay in those lines. But as they gain confidence and self-esteem, they are able to begin drawing their own pictures. The inspiration comes from within, not from a picture already on the page. What’s at stake with self-esteem is that our children become internally motivated to be the persons they were created to be, to do the things they were created to do. Until they fully develop that internal motivation, we resort to external motivation. We offer rewards for good behavior; negative consequences for bad behavior. We lay down rules as boundaries to guide them. But we also know that if they were internally motivated to do the good they should, we would no longer have to set the rules and offer rewards. Jeremiah’s way of saying it was to say that the law be written on their hearts.

But how do our children come to be internally motivated? Our answer these days is: self-esteem. When a person comes to feel sufficiently good about themselves, then what issues forth is the good deeds of a good person. And how do our children come to have self-esteem? Basically, I think the answer is: by knowing that they are loved. But this is also somewhat elusive. As parents we do our best to stand by our children through thick and thin; we encourage them; we try to be a consistent presence of caring in their lives. When they truly come to have faith that they are lovable and good, then they can come to love themselves as good. But the frustrating and elusive thing is that we cannot force that to happen; we cannot make them feel loved. There are no magic formulas; it does not happen overnight. It seems to come rather mysteriously as sheer gift, as grace. When we witness it happening in our children, when they have that self-esteem to be internally motivated to be the people that God created them to be, we must accept it as a miracle of God’s grace.

Jesus Christ came to express to us that our heavenly Father would like all of us to have the self-esteem we need to truly be the persons he created us to be. He began with external motivations, such as the law of Moses, but in Christ Jesus he came to write that law on our hearts. It wasn’t just through the message Jesus proclaimed; but it was through his very presence among us on this earth, a presence of caring that went to the lengths of the cross and did so with the faith that New Life waited on the other side. It is Christ’s faithfulness that grants us the grace of having the faith that we are truly lovable and good.

Hear it again: what grants us that grace of having faith? Not our faith, not our believing, not any of our actions. It is the faith of Christ, who enfleshed God’s living presence in this world, which grants us that grace of having the law written upon our hearts, so that we might live as the people we were created to be. It is not something we do, but is something done to us. Because he is risen, our Lord still comes to us in Word and Sacrament. He comes to us through those who already have received the gift of faith and who share the Good News with us. He comes to us in this holy meal that we are about to partake, to feed us with that very faithfulness that empowered him to serve to the extent of offering up his body and pouring out his blood for us. Through Word and bread and wine, he comes to dwell within us.

In closing, let us go back to where we began, with John and Jane. There is nothing John and Jane can do to make their situations more bearable, even believing in Jesus. Having faith in Jesus would make things more bearable, yes, but if they are lacking that faith when the crisis hits, it is difficult to make themselves have faith. There is nothing they can do. But there is something we can do: as people graced with that faith of Christ, we can bear that caring and persistent presence of God’s love to them, in the flesh, through ourselves. When we who already have that gift of faith bear to them God’s eternal love through our loving and caring, we make it possible for Christ’s faith to come to them. They are graced with the faith that God does love them no matter what. It comes not by telling them to believe, as if it is something they choose to do. But it comes through that Word of God’s love made incarnate in this world, first through Jesus, and now through Christ’s faith living in us. That is a most precious gift we have to share one another and with all the Johns and Janes of this world! Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Howell, MI, October 31, 1993

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