There are many different religions
in the world. There is Christianity,
Judaism and Islam. There is Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. There is Taoism, Shintoism and Zoroastrianism. There are many different practices of local
religions such as animism and ancestor worship.
It’s pretty confusing, trying to
understand their different teachings and practices. However, the Lutheran theologian Francis
Pieper made a very helpful observation.
Pieper noted that it is actually very simple. There are, in fact, only two religions in the world. There is the religion of the Law. And there
is the religion of the Gospel.
The religion of the Law is every
religion of the world except Christianity.
Every one of these religions says that their version of “salvation” is
based on what you do. Now this is very obvious in a theistic
religion like Islam. There, the final
judgment before Allah is clearly based on deeds. But it is also true in a religion like Buddhism
which doesn’t even believe in a god.
Instead “salvation” is the recognition that all of this is
nothingness. Yet here too, this
“salvation” is based on the effort of your
perception and insight. It is
something you must do.
Christianity, on the other hand, is
the religion of the Gospel. It is
entirely based on what God has done for you. It says that you can’t do anything. Instead salvation is a gift that God gives
in his Son Jesus Christ.
You find the religion of the law
everywhere for a very simple reason: we are hardwired to think this way. God ordered his creation and he created us to
think and live according to this ordering. As St.Paul told the Romans, “For when Gentiles, who do not have
the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even
though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written
on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their
conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to
my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
experience in the world confirms this.
You must do something, to get something.
Many of you will go to work tomorrow morning. I doubt that most of you are going to do so
solely because you enjoy it. If I gave
you the choice and said that instead you could do whatever you want each day
and still get paid, I don’t think that many of you would say that we were just
going to go to work anyway.
You must do
something to get something. And the fact
of the matter is that when it comes to religion, people like it when they are
able to claim that they have done something. After all, then they get the
credit. They can feel good about their own abilities and the way they apply
them to the important subject of religion.
is the religion of the Gospel. But that
has never stopped people from trying to bring the Law in through the back door.
A challenge of Christian theology and practice has always been the temptation
to add human works into the equation.
reasons I have just mentioned, it has happened on a regular basis. Developments that had begun during the early
Church in the west accelerated in the medieval period. Scholars have noted that
Christianity in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century had a “book
keeping” mentality. The Christian life was defined by the attempt to accrue as
much merit as possible.
the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was not completely overlooked. It was taught that he made forgiveness
possible. But salvation was explained as
a process of working with God’s grace – of being equipped by God’s grace to do
things that led to salvation.
focus was the distinction the medieval church made between the guilt of sin and
its punishment. A Christian was to
confess his or her sins. The priest’s
absolution forgave the guilt of the sin, and so the sin would no longer prevent
salvation. But it did not forgive the
penalty for the sin – the debt a person owed to God for offending him by the
penalty was addressed through penance that the priest assigned. But here was
the problem. The absolution was negated
and the whole process itself became a mortal sin if a person didn’t do the
assigned penance. So priests would
assign something very small, like saying some Our Fathers, to make sure it
would be done. Yet this didn’t cover the
total penance owed – not even close. The
penalty not dealt with before death, still existed. It had to be paid through purification in
purgatory. People found themselves
facing thousands upon thousands of years in the suffering of purgatory’s fires
before they could enter heaven.
then, was to do as much as you could to pay off this penance during your
lifetime. Christians fasted, and went on
pilgrimages, and paid for Masses to be said.
They bought indulgences that promised to take care of these
penalties. They became monks and nuns
because this life was certain to address far more penance than just being a lay
Luther believed this theology and threw himself into practicing it. He became a monk and lived that life
rigorously. But Luther discovered that
none of this brought peace. It didn’t because you could never know if you had
done enough. It didn’t because no matter
how hard you try, you can never avoid stumbling in more sin which produced the
continual need for more penance.
study of God’s Word, Luther finally realized why this was the case. We hear it
in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone
who commits sin is a slave to sin.” The
problem is sin. When we talk about sin
and its slavery, we don’t just mean individual acts that break God’s law. Jesus said in chapter three: “Truly, truly, I
say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the
kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is
born of the Spirit is spirit.” The flesh - sinful, fallen nature – gives birth
Spirit of God can give us rebirth. Only the Spirit can make us children of
God. And even then, the flesh – the old
Adam in us – is not completely destroyed.
Instead, as Paul told the Galatians, “For the desires of the flesh are
against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for
these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to
This is the
reason that the way of doing – the way of works – can never provide peace with
God. This is the reason that it can never provide certainty about salvation.
You know this from your own experience. Despite
your best intentions you continue to think angry thoughts, speak hurtful words,
and do nothing when you should help.
In our text
Jesus states, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you
will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Luther rediscovered the truth of the Gospel.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has done everything that
needs to be done for our forgiveness and salvation.
you to faith through the work of the Spirit – by giving you rebirth through
water and the Spirit – he has given it all to you. As Luther said when he
preached on this text: “This freedom is attained when I have faith in Christ
and believe that he suffered and died for me. This is what liberates me from
sin – not I myself, fasting, the life of a monk or nun, the Mass, pilgrimage,
or the intercession of Mary or other saints; but it is solely Christ’s redemptive
work. For no one else was born of Mary, died, was buried, rose from the dead,
and ascended into heaven than this one Man, Christ. Outside of him there is no one in heaven or
on earth, not even any angel, who could help us.”
God has given you forgiveness, salvation, eternal life – all of it right now. It is his gift, a gift
received by faith alone. And this faith itself is also God’s gift to you. This is the good news that Martin Luther and
the Reformation rediscovered. This is
the great blessing that we continue to enjoy to this day in the Lutheran
take long for Martin Luther to discover an unintended consequence of his
reforming work. The emphasis that
salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, and not by works soon led
many people to a conclusion – a conclusion they gladly embraced. They decided
that there was no reason to do works at all!
talking about this error, Martin Luther was beside himself. This was not what
God’s Word taught! This was not what Luther taught. No, Christians were no
longer to join monasteries or nunneries; they were no longer to go on pilgrimages;
they were no longer to give money for indulgences or for Masses. They were no
longer to do these things invented by the church to gain merit.
the doing they were now to undertake was service in the vocations – the
callings - that God had established; the callings into which God has placed
each Christian. These were things that
were not self chosen. These were things
that did not serve the self, but instead served others. These were things that
sought no merit. Instead they were faith
active in love.
find no better summary of Luther’s teaching than in the Post-Communion Collect
he wrote – the one that we will use today. It says, “We give thanks to You,
almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we
implore You that of your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love for another.” Faith in
God and love for the neighbor – it is the same basic apostolic teaching that
St. John shared in his first letter when he said, “And
this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ
and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”
Lutheran Reformation teaching provides the clear good news of the Gospel. As Jesus says in our text today, “So if the
Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
By God’s grace, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has set you
free. This is a gift. Faith itself is a
gift, something you cannot do by your own reason or strength, but instead
worked by the Holy Spirit. It is God’s
doing from beginning to end and so it is certain and sure. You have it now.
Lutheran Reformation teaching also says that this faith now works in love for
others. It confesses what Jesus said at
the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another:
just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The Gospel alone is the reason we are
saved. Works having nothing to do with
being saved. And because of the Gospel we now seek to love others in the way
that God’s law describes.