“Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”
This statement is not from some medieval writing against which Martin Luther and the Reformation were reacting at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Instead, it is a quote from the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. And actually it is an improvement over what Luther had been taught – at least the first sentence is.
The basic issue that we see here, is whether the actions of man play some role in receiving salvation. Now Martin Luther had been trained in one school of theology that said that if you did what was in you in making the first move, then God gave you grace which equipped you to work with him in ways that led to salvation. Another school of theology said that God had to make the first move. That is the theology we hear in the current catechism of the Roman Catholic church. And on this point, it is exactly right. Only God can make the first move that leads to conversion.
However both schools of medieval theology went on to say the same thing the current Roman Catholic catechism still says: that equipped by God’s grace we can and must be involved in the merit that leads ultimately to the status of eternal life. On this view only God’s grace makes it possible, but if you are going to be saved your action needed.
This principle that your action is necessary for salvation was even more apparent in a place where we Lutherans today would least expect it: absolution. The medieval teaching was that absolution forgave the guilt of sin. The good news was this meant you were going to be saved. However, it did not remove the penalty of sin. And here you owed God something. You had to do penance in order to make amends. If during your life you didn’t do enough penance, then you were going to be saved … but first you had to go to purgatory.
Now this is still the teaching of the Roman Catholic church – they have just toned down the rhetoric a little. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” So if you haven’t done enough penance, a little more purification is necessary. Of course the catechism then adds: “The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of cleansing fire.” Purification by cleansing fire because I haven’t done enough – that doesn’t sound like much fun. And an absolution that can’t provide the guarantee of immediate reception of eternal life doesn’t sound like the real forgiveness of sins.
This is the reality that Martin Luther encountered at the beginning of the 1500’s. He was taught a faith that spoke about God’s grace and gave it a central role. However, it was also a faith that required human action in order to attain full salvation. Martin Luther threw himself into this. He went all the way. He did what any person who was really serious about his salvation did – he became a monk. He did the life of a monk with all the vigor and commitment one can imagine.
But Luther learned from hard experience that when your actions are part of the way you are saved, you can never be certain. How can you ever know if you have done enough? How can you ever know if you have done it well enough? You can’t because everything we do is marred by sin. Our text this morning is from Romans chapter 3. Earlier in this chapter the apostle Paul had written, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Ever since the Fall when Adam and Even disobeyed God, sin has been a power that controls us and causes us to commit sins. As Paul says in our text, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
This is who we are apart from Christ. And even as those who have been given regeneration through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism – even as those in whom the Holy Spirit has worked faith – we still struggle against sin and fail. Paul writes in chapter seven, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Even as believers in Christ we must say with Paul, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
The law and doing can never be part of the reason we are saved – not even just a little part. As Paul says in our text, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
But what Luther discovered in Romans is that human actions have nothing to do with our salvation. Paul goes on to say, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
God’s righteousness, his saving action to put all things right, has been revealed in Jesus Christ. God is the righteous and just judge who will render the verdict against all who sin on the Last Day. But the apostle says that we are justified by God’s grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. To be justified is to be declared not guilty – to be declared innocent. Paul says that already now we are justified – already now we stand innocent before God.
This has nothing to do with our doing – our action. The apostle hammers this point home when he says that is “by God’s grace as a gift.” It has occurred has a result of God’s undeserved favor towards us. It has occurred as a gift that God gives to us, when we can do nothing.
This forgiveness and salvation is a gracious gift. But that doesn’t mean it has come at no cost. Instead Paul tells us that it is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” God has redeemed you from sin. He has freed you.
But this does not mean he has ignored your sin. That is not possible for the just God.
Instead God put forward his Son Jesus Christ on the cross as the means of providing atonement. The apostle says later, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The just God directs his judgment and wrath against sinners. Jesus Christ took all our sin and became the sinner before God for us. In Christ, God judged our sin as Jesus suffered and died on the cross.
Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. Jesus Christ suffered death for us as he won forgiveness for our every sin. And then in Jesus, God also defeated death as he raised him from the dead on the third day. Raised from the dead, the Lord Jesus will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.
This redemption – this freedom from sin and death is now received as a gift. It is received by faith in Jesus Christ. It is received by faith alone. We are justified by trusting and believing in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord. Because of faith in Jesus, we already know the verdict of the Last Day – it is innocent, not guilty!
And let’s be clear. When Paul talks about faith this is not just another form of doing. Instead, when it comes to our standing before God, faith is the opposite of doing. Paul says in the next chapter: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”
Luther in the Reformation helped to return the Church to the truth that we are justified by faith alone. He confessed what St Paul had written, that works have nothing to do with our standing before God. But like St. Paul, he also confessed that faith can never remain alone. Because when we turn to consider our neighbor, faith now becomes a works machine which acts in love towards others.
In the preface that he wrote for Romans, Luther said: “O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them and is constantly doing them.”
And so the Reformation insight led Luther out of the monastery, and eventually, into marriage. It led him to an understanding of vocation – that God has placed us in stations and positions in life where he uses us to serve and care for others. Freed from having to do things in order guarantee our salvation, we are free to love and serve others where God has placed us. Faith acts in love. As Paul went on to say later in Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
As we celebrate the Reformation, we give thanks to God for his servant Martin Luther through whom the Gospel proclaimed by Paul rang forth again. All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. But we are justified by his grace as a gift. We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Lord.