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.”
Our 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.
Christianity 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.
For the 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.
Naturally, 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.
A primary 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 sin.
This 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.
The answer, 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 person.
Martin 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.
In his 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 to flesh.
Only the 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 do.”
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.
By calling 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.”
In Christ, 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 church.
It didn’t 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!
When 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.
Instead, 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.
You can 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.”
True 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.
And true 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.