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Undeserved Grace

November 1, 2016

Reformation Sundayla-reforma

by Rev. Enzo Pellini

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile,  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—  he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith.  For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

Romans 3:21-28

Today we commemorate Reformation day. What reform are we referring to? And for what church? In fact, most Protestant Christians recognize that the task carried out by Martin Luther 500 years ago, due to a personal and spiritual need and because he occupied a clerical position of importance, led to a schism in the Christian church that was known until that time as the western Christian church.

Clearly, Martin Luther was the first person, by God’s will, that had great influence on many people so the church could revise and amend certain aspects that did not agree exactly with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For this reason, the first people faithful to Luther’s ideas and those who shared his concerns and vision for church reform were incorrectly called Lutherans.
Luther never wanted a church to bear his name. In any case he said, if Christians should need a name, they could be called ‘evangelicals’ because its doctrine would be based on the ‘Evangels’ or the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But, we know the outcome of this story that what was a spiritual concern soon created a schism in the church that came to play a role not just in the realm of religious, but also on political and economic levels.
This even led other reformers elsewhere in Europe to also have the courage to seek changes in the church, since the church had become an ecclesial and political regime throughout Europe.

We can talk for hours about the history of the Protestant Reformation. We can agree or disagree with the consequences of history that we today call Lutherans. But it is most important that we rescue the essence of the reform started by Martin Luther: to return to the source. This is what it means “to reform”. The church must return again and again to its essence, the original message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All other books and traditions, customs and history of the church are good and important to our lives, as long as they are not contradicting the gospel of Jesus Christ. The most important name we must remember from Martin Luther is being able to call ourselves ‘evangelicals’, because we want to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the founding verses of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is contained in the reading for today’s preaching, precisely in verse 28: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
We do not know whether or not the church of Luther’s time was aware of the words of this verse from the Epistle to the Romans. Like Edison, for example, who found that he could use the power present in nature and channel it to create the first electric light bulb, Martin Luther was a kind of Middle Ages genius too in the religious sense. He rediscovered, from a simple and honest rereading of the gospel that God saves man for free, without works and sacrifices, unlike what many still, unfortunately, do not understand.
And this was nothing new; it had been preached by the apostle Paul over a thousand years earlier.

But are we now aware of this? In the past this verse was used as a fight slogan against the papal church of Luther’s time, which used to preach fairly different from this. But today, what does this verse really mean for us? It may even have an enlightening significance for each of us here today.

What does this mean: ‘we are justified by faith’? Let us consider these phrases deeply. The apostle uses a legal term, or legal jargon: to justify. To justify means to be found righteous. This means if a jury finds a defendant ‘just’; it means that it finds him innocent. When a jury or judge in a judgment declares a defendant innocent or not guilty, that means that that person has been ‘justified’. And Paul is thinking of the judgment day that will take place at the end of time. In the same Bible we read that there will be a final judgment: “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27) Jesus himself says: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (Mt 25: 32ff)

But God, unlike any human judge or jury, is a God who exercises just and perfect justice and is a God of love. The only condition God requires of every human being to be found righteous (or not guilty) in that trial is to have faith in Jesus Christ. Having faith in Jesus Christ means that you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that God Himself sent him to the world that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16). That is what it means to have faith.
That is the main condition to be found just in the final judgment. That is the main condition for salvation and to be with God in his kingdom. Works, merits, or superhuman sacrifices to obtain God’s favour and approval are not necessary for going to heaven.

Of course God wants us to be holy, that is, becoming more perfect, more honest and dedicated with our will and doing actions that please him. But that is a process, a path that takes years of our lives and in which a few will be more fit and better than others. But those accumulated merits do not serve as a foundation for salvation. Salvation is achieved in an instant, it is free, and it is given by God’s grace. It is a godsend for those who choose to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and as their personal saviour.

There are many evangelicals who today, 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, still do not understand this because perhaps no one has ever presented it to them in a simple way.
This is the main intention of the reformation, to reach everyone with the simple and direct word of the Gospel. This was one of the Martin Luther’s intentions.

Do you think that you’re saved and you will inherit eternal life as a gift from God? If you are sure and if you already believe it, then you can understand the message of the Protestant Reformation very well. You have even understood the apostle’s verse for today: we are justified by faith. We are saved when we believe in Jesus Christ. Do you have that confidence in your heart? Because if you really believe in God and love Jesus Christ with all your heart and confess that he is the Son of God, you must now rest assured that you are already saved.

The good works we will do in life will come as a consequence of loving God, reading the Bible and accepting that what is contained in it is His will and that is what God wants you to do for your life to please him. But it is not your works that will take you to heaven.

If today we can leave the church with that assurance in our hearts and with that joy, we will not only understand the words of the apostle, but we will have understood the simple intention of Martin Luther that prompted him to preach to reform the church.

The church, if we want to be faithful to Luther, must constantly be reformed in order to present more and more directly and honestly the source, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church must rid itself of all obstacles for achieving faith so that people may nourish themselves by listening to the simple word of Christ’s gospel.

Let us ask God on this day to give us the courage to put the gospel message first in our church as the teaching and doctrine we want to take care of the most. Amen

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