“How Do We Get God’s Grace?” (Romans 3:19-28)

Reformation Day (Observed)
October 28, 2018

“How Do We Get God’s Grace?” (Romans 3:19-28)

On the last Sunday in October every year, we celebrate Reformation Day. For on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed Ninety-five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, thus starting the great Reformation of the Christian church. Last year, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of that momentous event, and there were huge celebrations around the world. This year, 2018, is the 501st anniversary, so the occasion is toned down accordingly. But we still have something to celebrate. Indeed, 1517 was just the beginning of the Reformation. Every year now we will have the 500th anniversary of some significant event during that time period.

The biggest Reformation event that occurred in 1518, which we celebrate the 500th anniversary of this year, is the Heidelberg Disputation. Let me explain. After Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses in October 1517, the publication and spread of these theses caused a worldwide sensation. Luther was upsetting the applecart! He was challenging the practice of indulgences, and thus he was challenging the authority of the Pope and the Roman Church! This caught everyone’s attention. People wanted to know more. What was this little monk, a professor at a little university in Germany–what was this Luther fellow saying? Brother Martin was a member of the Augustinian order, and so his teaching would be the topic for discussion at the conference of the Augustinians, to be held in Heidelberg, Germany, in the spring of 1518.

Now why is this important for us today? Because the theses that Luther put forward at Heidelberg exposed the errors of the medieval Roman Catholic Church–even more so than did the Ninety-five Theses of six months earlier. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther powerfully takes apart the errors that were being taught, and he brings to light the truth of the gospel. And it is this gospel, this good news of God’s grace in Christ–the message of justification by faith apart from works of the law—that stands ever firm and trustworthy for us today. And it revolves around this question: “How Do We Get God’s Grace?”

I have said many times that the worst mistake the Roman Catholic Church ever made was to assign Martin Luther to teach the Bible. But that’s what they did. And Luther took to the task like a duck takes to water. The more he read and studied and learned and taught, the more Luther came to realize that the theology he had been taught in the Roman Church did not line up square with what the Scriptures taught.

Let me give you a prime example. The theology that was current in Luther’s day, in which he himself had been trained, was what we call medieval Scholasticism. The Scholastics were prominent theologians of the several centuries leading up to Luther’s time. And one of their main teachings was on how people get God’s grace. What makes a person a good candidate to receive God’s grace? And their answer–the answer of the Scholastics–was encapsulated in this Latin saying: “Facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam.” “Facienti quod in se est,” “To the one who does that which is within him”; “Deus non denegat gratiam,” “God does not deny grace.” “To the one who does that which is within him, God does not deny grace.”

Do you see what that was saying? It’s saying that if you just do the best you can, the best that’s within you, God will recognize that and reward you with some of his grace. So try hard, do the best you can, and maybe, just maybe, it will be good enough for you to earn God’s grace. You do your part, and God will do his. And this will boost you on your way to doing enough to merit even more grace, and so on and so on.

Now on the surface, this may sound reasonable to man’s way of thinking. God will reward good people. Do your best, try hard, and you can earn your way into God’s favor. This is how human beings naturally think. And naturally, I want to think I’m doing well enough for God to be pleased with me. I’m certainly better than that bad guy down the street or in the news.

But the more Luther thought about this idea of the Scholastics, “To the one who does that which is within him, God does not deny grace,” the more he saw it didn’t line up with Scripture. And that is what he puts forward in the Heidelberg Disputation. We’ll take a look at a few of these theses now, and we’ll see how the truth of God’s Word sets our thinking straight.

Thesis 1: “The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.” Here Luther is taking up the paradox that while the law of God is the very best way for us humans to live—to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves; that’s great—if we rely on our keeping of the law to advance us to a righteous standing before God, we’re barking up the wrong tree. Because we don’t keep the law well enough to earn anything from God. The law will only condemn us.

We heard that in the Epistle from Romans 3: “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 the Scholastics were teaching that man could earn God’s grace by doing works of the law. So Luther takes that notion head on. Thesis 16: “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.” “By doing what is in him”: Here Luther quotes that Scholastic formula, and he says it’s a bunch of hooey!

Luther continues: “While a person is doing what is in him, he sins and seeks himself in everything.” Here Luther is saying the same as what St. Paul says in Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” In other words, if you do that which is within you, what is in you is sin. And that won’t get you anywhere but to hell. What’s more, if you then rely on your doing what is in you, if you pride yourself on that to gain points with God, you are even more lost in your condition. “What then shall we do?” Luther asks. “Having heard this, fall down and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection.” You won’t find salvation in your works. You will find it in Christ.

Thesis 18: “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.” God brings us low, he shows us our sin, not simply in order to humiliate us, but so that we would recognize our need for a righteousness outside of ourselves. Our righteousness, our keeping of the law, our good works, are not good enough. A few years later, Luther would put this truth in the form of a stanza from the hymn we just sang:

My own good works all came to naught,
No grace or merit gaining;
Free will against God’s judgment fought,
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left only death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered.

So if not in our good works, if not in our keeping of the law, where then do we find the righteousness, grace, and merit that we need? Luther tells us in Thesis 25: “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.” It’s not your doing. It’s what Christ has done! Put your faith in that! Put your faith in him!

It’s like we heard in Romans 3: The righteousness of God comes “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, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” It’s what Jesus did on the cross that will save you! His works, not yours! Jesus, the sinless Son of God, did keep the law perfectly, in your stead and on your behalf. And then he took your sins upon himself and suffered the punishment the law demands–again, in your stead, on your behalf. His holy blood cleanses you from all your sins. You are forgiven! You are free! Receive this gift through faith, through trust in the saving work of Christ for you. There is your righteousness. There is your salvation. There is your eternal life. In Christ.

Luther goes on. Thesis 26: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” You see, if you rely on your keeping of the law, you will never know you have done enough. Because you haven’t. And that is a terrible place to be–in uncertainty, in despair. But “grace says, ‘believe this,’ and everything is already done.” It’s a done deal. Jesus completed the work when he cried out from the cross, “It is finished!” Mission accomplished! Salvation won! It’s a sure thing. It’s a free gift. And it’s yours.

Luther sums up the whole Heidelberg Disputation in this one beautiful paragraph: “Therefore, it is the sweetest righteousness of God the Father that he does not save imaginary, but rather, real sinners, sustaining us in spite of our sins and accepting our works and our lives which are all deserving of rejection until he perfects and saves us. Meanwhile we live under the protection and the shadow of his wings and escape his judgment through his mercy, not through our righteousness.”

How wonderful that is! What good news this is! Dear friend, are you willing to be a real sinner before God? Yes? Good! Now you’re in the right place to receive his grace. For God loves real sinners, and he gives them his grace. Romans 5 says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Dear friends, you don’t earn God’s love and his grace by doing that which is within you. Luther tried that as a monk, and it didn’t work. Rather, what Luther discovered from God’s Word is that you receive God’s grace as a free gift, through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s what this Reformation Day is all about. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

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Published in: on October 27, 2018 at 10:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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