(Revised version of a sermon preached on November 2, 2014.)
Four-hundred and ninety-nine years ago this Saturday, Martin Luther nailed his disputation on the castle door in Wittenburg. What was it all about? It was about the plain truth that just as saints still struggle with sin, the Church still struggles to rightly preach and practice the gospel. Luther’s efforts to restore the gospel to the Roman Catholic Church arose when he saw the Church’s failure to rightly preach and practice the gospel.
It is important to remember that Luther had first-hand experience with the Church’s confusion over the gospel. He had tried to practice what the church preached about forgiveness of sin, and found no peace with God. After his discovery of salvation by grace through faith, he confronted the Church with its failure to rightly preach and practice the gospel.
Here’s how that came about. Albert of Brandenburg, was a son of one of the noble families in Germany and an elector of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He also served in the Church as bishop of Magdeburg. In those days the pope would raise money for his enterprises by charging fees to noblemen who wanted a church office. Albert was offered a chance to be bishop of Mainz, and he wanted that office. So he negotiated with Pope Leo X who settled with him on the price of 10,000 ducats. Albert had to borrow the money for this fee and related expenses. Pope Leo agreed to a plan to help Albert pay this debt through the sale of indulgences in Albert’s territory. For 8 years. Half of the proceeds would go to Albert to pay off his debt, and the other half to Pope Leo to help finance his work on the basilica of St Peter’s.
Albert was Luther’s own bishop. Luther probably didn’t know the details of the arrangement, but probably knew that half the indulgence income would go to Albert. It wasn’t just the financial aspect that troubled Luther. Indulgences were originally imposed to spur the penitent to be truly contrite. But the Church redefined them as payment for temporal penalties, and a means of acquiring merit. This led to the popular idea that they were good works that removed punishment for sin, even without true contrition. This is what scandalized Luther. Luther saw that these falsehoods would give the people false hope of salvation for themselves and their loved ones. This would lead to spiritual complacency and worse, damnation.
He wrote this:
Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers. (Theses 32)
A false gospel had arisen! We should wonder: how could the Church of Jesus Christ get so confused about the nature of the gospel? How could the Church of Jesus Christ be so disordered in its practice of the gospel?
Luther understood at least part of the reason. He wrote a disputation on his concerns, asking for scholarly dialogue. We call it “The 95 Theses.” On the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, he posted his disputation on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. He also sent a copy to Albert, his bishop, with a letter pleading that Albert correct these abuses.
Luther realized how the church had reached this condition: church leaders were sinning even as they preached and practiced the gospel. Listen to what he wrote in theses 62, 63 and 64:
62: The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
63: This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, because it makes the first to be last.
64: While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.
Luther saw that the Church is tempted to gratify the flesh even as it preaches and practices the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was doing something similar to what the apostle Paul did for the churches of Galatia: he was clarifying the gospel…and teaching them how to preach it and practice it.
The gospel deals with overwhelming realities: a holy God…sin…grace…forgiveness. We do not readily understand or even accept these realities. We find them uncomfortable. And…the Devil always aims his barbs at us: trying to deflect our understanding and practice of the gospel. When we are preaching and practicing the gospel, it is not as if we are automatically put into some sin-free zone. We ourselves will face numerous temptations, temptations that arise from our own flesh. Paul, in Galatians, identifies some of the temptations we must watch for.
Temptations to Misrepresent the Gospel (Galatians 2:11-14)
Peter was the first apostle to really understand the fact that the gospel of Christ was for Gentiles, as well as Jews, bringing Gentiles into the Church. He had a depth understanding of the gospel, but he hadn’t worked out its implications in all of his life…and when the brethren from James came from Jerusalem…he wouldn’t eat with them. He knew the truth, but in a difficult situation, he failed to practice it. He was still growing. He needed a brother like Paul to rebuke his compromise of the gospel.
Church leaders can misunderstand the implications of the gospel. When new circumstances arise, we can become disoriented and fumble the ball. Satan attacks the heart of the Church: the gospel. He attacks God’s Word; that is his standard operating procedure.
Temptation to Harshness (Galatians 6:1)
There is another temptation we must always be aware of: temptation to treat sinners harshly. Suppose someone admits a sin to us out of great sorrow for that sin, and they are mindful of the seriousness of their offense to God and mindful of its effects on his people. We aren’t to respond with some rebuke designed to run them through a the wringer of conviction. The Holy Spirit’s work of convincing them of their sin has already begun. Our part is to gently lead them on the way of full repentance, and to strengthen them in their walk with Christ.
Sometimes we want a person to know just how bad their sin is, and how much it has hurt us. They need to know these things at some point, to some degree. But when a bro or sis is already aware of the basic reality of their sin…it may be later before they can confront more fully its how bad it is, and its impact on others. We must not jump the gun here.
In fact, we need to be careful of trying to show someone how bad their sin is. God himself never makes any sinner know just how bad their sin is. There have been moments when great men were given a deep sense of their sin and the sins of others. Remember Isaiah. It leads people to despair…but God quickly intervenes.
Let us be careful. A sinner needs to have some real sense of their sin: its violation of God’s law, its profanation of his name, its destructive effects on family and the church, and its destructive effects on the sinner himself.
But when the Holy Spirit has begun this work of conviction in earnest, our job is to step in gently & be used by the Spirit to continue the process of spiritual renewal. We are called to gently guide repentant sinners as they go forward with their lives. They need all the prayers and support we can give as they go on to face what is ahead of them.
There is something else we must watch for:
The Temptation to Pride (Galatians 6:3-5)
At the root, this involves putting oneself in another category from the sinner. “I…wouldn’t have done that!” This is pride, because it is comparing oneself with the other, claiming to be above such a sin. This is very dangerous. It shows a lack of awareness of our own frailty. There is no understanding of the sinner’s plight, of their frailty, of their obvious need for help. There is no gospel…only law!
We are tempted to pride in another way. We can be proud of our Reformation heritage, glad we understand salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, to the glory of God alone! We feel confident dealing with sin. We understand the gospel, and we understand how to apply the gospel. This is dangerous thinking!
We may have a wonderful doctrinal framework for the gospel. But that doesn’t mean that we have a solid, deep understanding of all of those realities. A Christian might think that since he’s got Matthew 18 memorized, he knows all he needs to deal with an offending brother. Foolishness! It’s one thing to know the procedure that Jesus gives; but to use Matthew 18 well takes a lot of prayer, other biblical knowledge, wisdom, and a deep love of God and love for the sinner. The gospel is the power of God at work. Following a Matthew 18 method is not enough.
We never become experts at the gospel. Jesus Christ is the expert. We are His servants. We will spend our whole lives learning the depths of God’s holiness, our sin, its various effects on us, our loved ones and the world. Our focus must always be on the gospel as the power of God: it is his sovereign, gracious working by the HS that is key, not our knowledge or maturity. Let us be humble before every, single matter of sin and forgiveness. Because without the power of the HS at work, our best thoughts and actions are nothing, and accomplish nothing!
The amazing thing is that by grace, the Holy Spirit does work, even through our shallow grasp of these things. When we acknowledge our limitations and trust in God’s grace and power alone, He works and we grow in grace. And people are renewed!
Christ teaches us the deep things of the gospel as we learn to speak and practice the gospel together. He teaches us more and more about the holiness of God, the appalling wickedness of sin, listening to a sinner and loving them, the intricacies of the human heart, and the powerful and wonderful grace of God.
But Christ doesn’t just teach us with words; he teaches us by his actions. And He gives us bread and wine, to remind us that we will never be experts at dealing with our sin. He alone is the expert. Only He can help us love a brother or sister who has sinned.
He knows the evil of our sins more than we will ever know. And He died and lives to teach us to how to speak and practice the gospel ~ with each other, and with the sinners who are all around us.