The Festival of the Reformation - Matthew 11:12-15 (October 26, 2014)
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:12-15) With the preaching of the Baptizer the kingdom of God comes near. In baptismal water promising the remission of sins, what had long been foretold by seers and proclaimed by prophets is here at last. The Gospel of faith in God’s promises, specifically faith in the coming Messiah, had been hindered and hidden by the doctrine of the Scribes and Pharisees. The Law of Moses was never meant to give life to God’s people. It was given to show men the depth of their sin and the mercy of God is providing atonement for their sin. God never gave His Law so that by doing the Law men might gain their salvation. Yet this is what the Scribes and Pharisees had done. They turned the Gospel of the coming Messiah into Law. Instead of God gracious providing atonement for their sins in the Messiah, they taught that by striving to keep the unattainable Law of Moses, the Kingdom of Messiah would be brought about. God, in their estimation, was a fixed point. The Law became their tool for moving souls closer to God. Moses, in their view, shepherded souls through the heights of separation between God and man. In perceived obedience to the Law the Kingdom of God would come. Salvation from sin was made inaccessible by the Scribes and Pharisees. The certainty of salvation by faith in God’s promises was turned inside out into a reliance upon works of the Law. If man wants to earn His way into God’s good grace and favor, even to the smallest degree, this will either breed hideous doubt for one’s salvation or an equally monstrous spiritual arrogance.
In spite of this the Law and the Prophets foretold the true kingdom of God, which would not be brought about by the vain doings of man, but by God Himself. John’s person and preaching is the first wave of the coming of the Kingdom of heaven. It is followed by Christ’s person and preaching that in Him is full atonement for sin, pardon for guilt, and peace for the evil conscience. These men, with their preaching, obliterate the entire system of salvation by works of the Law which the Scribes and Pharisees had constructed. By the preaching of the Gospel, that men are forgiven solely by faith in Christ’s merits, and not by works of the Law in the slightest bit, the contraption and apparatus of the Scribes the Pharisees, which had barred so many from life with God, is demolished. This is how the kingdom of heaven forcefully advances. It does not advance through Jihad or physical warfare. The kingdom of heaven does not advance through the glories of advertising and marketing. The reign of God does not advance by youth programs, praise bands, and all the other tools of the entertainment industry. The kingdom of God forcefully advances by the preaching of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins by faith alone and not by works of the Law. The Gospel “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) There is no other power by which God infiltrates the world and enters in the dark, stubborn, recalcitrant hearts of men. The preaching of the pure Gospel, and that Gospel given to men through the Sacraments, as visible words of God, are the only means by which the Kingdom advances in this or any age.
“And forceful men lay hold of it.” Not violent men. Not wrathful and angry men. But men in whom the Gospel creates faith. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) This faith which the Gospel creates in our hearts is a living, busy, and active thing. The Gospel creates faith in the hearts of men and causes them to cast aside fear and timidity toward God so that man repents of His sin and desires forgiveness from God. The Gospel invites all men to believe that in Christ they have a good and loving God who forgives their sins by sheer grace. So men, having long lived under the false belief that salvation must earned, force their way to the front of the line to hear, believe, and imbibe the Holy Gospel. This was true in the day of John the Baptist and Christ. Crowds pressed upon John at the Jordan River to receive his baptism for repentance and remission of sins. Multitudes crowded around Jesus to hear His pure, unadulterated teaching about the Kingdom of God, which is the Gospel. Philip Melanchthon writes that “These hearers are not sluggish, not timid, not yielding to the threats and terrors of the Devil, but contending and doing battle against the Devil.” Having been deprived of the Gospel for years and having to earn the forgiveness of their sins through dead works, these men and women who hear John and Jesus flock to them, forcing themselves closer and closer to hear the Gospel.
It is the sole purpose of the Devil to hide and hinder the pure Gospel of the forgiveness of sins by faith alone in every age of the world. In the middle ages it was the Roman church who was the chief culprit in piling up false teachings and errant, confusing practices upon her people. Rome taught, and still teaches in our generation, that you must do all that is within your power to move closer toward God and God, seeing your love for Him will do the rest for your salvation. All Rome managed to accomplish was a slightly more complicated, and much more deceptive Rube-Goldberg machine for people to earn their salvation by works of the Law. “Leave family and vocation. Join the monastery and really live the God-pleasing life. Make pilgrimage to Rome, Jerusalem, or the Way of St. James to show God how serious you are in your piety. Buy indulgences. Make compulsory confession. Attend Divine Service on all the Days of Obligation and you will be earning merit before God.” These are man-made works, not even Divinely established good works. Yet they were taught to be meritorious for the sinner in different ways according to different schematics. It was Luther who would have none of this. So on All Hallow’s Eve, October 31, 1517, he nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He expected academic debate over the theses. That’s what academic theologians do to sharpen their thinking and hone their language. But there was no debate to be had. Rome would have none of that. So Luther was removed from the clergy roster, which also meant he was condemned to Hell and His doctrine anathematized. But to condemn the doctrine of Luther is to condemn the doctrine of Scriptures. And this is where Rome has been ever since.
It was not Luther’s intention or desire to start a new church. There is only one church after all, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church of the Creed. He wanted to reform the church, thus it is called the “Lutheran Reformation.” And it was, and still is all about the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins by faith alone and not by any works of the Law. They were called “Lutherans” by their detractors. Yet they called themselves “Evangelical” after the Evangel, Latin for Gospel. In Luther’s day the kingdom of God advanced forcefully, not with military might and political intrigue, but simply by the preaching, teaching, writing and publishing of the pure Gospel of faith alone in Christ. And in the sixteen century, as the Kingdom of God forcefully advanced, so also forceful men laid hold of the kingdom of God. As in the days of Christ when men flocked to Christ to hear the Gospel of God’s sheer grace and mercy, so too in Luther’s day. Luther’s doctrine was, and continues to be, the doctrine of the apostles and thus the doctrine of Christ upon which the church is built.
That is why we celebrate this day. Not because we like Lutheran heritage, music and art, though these things are grand and beautiful. Not because we are like so many other Protestants, simply ‘anti-Roman Catholic,’ for we keep the beautiful things of the Roman church where they do not contradict the Gospel and Word of God. Nor do we celebrate today the life of Luther for Luther’s sake. We celebrate the Reformation, and ought to always celebrate it, because through Luther, as through an instrument, the Lord Jesus forcefully advanced His kingdom by bringing the pure Gospel to light. Many rejected Luther’s doctrine then as many do today, even many who bear his name. Many will rail against the Lutheran church because she boldly states that her doctrine alone is the pure and unadulterated doctrine of Christ and the Apostles. Many will continue to persecute the truth of the Gospel by starving out faithful pastors and killing others through their demands of compliance to false doctrine. This is to be expected. As it was in the beginning it is now. But it will not be forevermore. Today we remember what started it all, those fateful hammer blows echoing off the Castle Church door.
Through John the Baptist, through Luther in the sixteenth century, and through faithful pastors and bishops in our age and for as long as God allows time to run its course, there will be a Church of the Reformation, preaching the pure Gospel of Christ. Though it be hid under false teachings of Rome, though it be abandoned by the megachurches for the sake of unorganic growth in numbers and dollars, though it be suppressed by those who bear its name, the Gospel of Christ will forcefully advance in every age of the world until Christ returns. God justifies sinners when they believe that God forgives their sins on account of Christ’s merits and worthiness. From Scripture alone we teach that we are saved by the grace of God alone, which is apprehended by faith alone, which clings to Christ alone for our salvation from sin, from death, and from all the power of the Devil. That is the Gospel that forcefully advances and is laid hold of by bold faith and confidence in Christ Jesus. Amen.