500 years ago this coming Tuesday, on October 31, 1517, a Roman Catholic, Augustinian monk and university professor named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 Theses to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. These theses were 95 statements that not only challenged the authority of the Pope, but challenged the sale of indulgences by the church.
Indulgences were pieces of paper that could be purchased to guarantee the forgiveness of sins, so that the purchaser could present the indulgence to a priest in lieu of having to make confession. An indulgence also could be used to help a loved one be promoted from purgatory into heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains purgatory as “the state of those who die in God’s grace and friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.”
While we as protestants reject the doctrine of purgatory, in 16th century Europe, it was widely if not universally accepted.
In order to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel was enlisted by the church to sell indulgences throughout the German countryside. In order to increase sales, Tetzel came up with a clever marketing slogan that said, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Before 1517, Martin Luther probably would have had no problem with indulgences, and may have even bought one for himself. But something had happened during his study of Scripture that caused him to change his views.
At the time, Luther was serving as the Chair of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. While he previously had taught philosophy, his supervisor changed Luther’s appointment to teach theology, in which, rather than teach Greco-Roman philosophers, he would have to study the Bible.
Eventually, he came across Romans 1:17, wherein he made the great discovery—unearthing a truth so beautiful, so powerful and so glorious that, in his own words, he says, “I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates… Thus, that place in Paul was for me truly the [door] into paradise.”
While there are others we consider pre-Reformers such as John Wycliff in England in the 14th century and the Czech, John Hus, in the early 15th century, it was Luther’s discovery of those open doors—in combination with the invention of Guetenberg’s printing press which made it possible to distribute Luther’s discovery throughout Europe— that led to what we now call the Protestant Reformation, which recovered the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
The good news is that those doors into paradise are still open to any who will pass through, which is what I want for us this morning. Yes, I want us to grasp the intellectual truth of these open doors, but even more, I want us to experience the deepest desire of the human heart, which is live in a land where the glory of God’s grace is the very oxygen that sustains our souls.
I want us to make the same discovery of grace as Martin Luther and at the same place where the doors were opened to him. That place is Romans 1:16-17.
I. The Courage of Paul (v. 16a)
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel,
Our English word gospel is translated from the Greek word, “evangelion,” which literally means good news. Today this word evangelion shows up in words such as evangelical and evangelism.
In the first century AD, an evangelion was a proclamation of a major event that had a positive impact on an entire community. For example, when a King would return from battle in victory, a herald would precede the king into the capital city crying out, “Evangelion, evangelion!”
The evangelion of God’s kingdom is that Jesus has achieved victory over sin and death through his crucifixion and resurrection. In the gospel, a sinner may be justified before God, reconciled as a beloved son or daughter, indwelt by the Holy Spirit with the hope of eternal joy. I want to emphasize that this is not the result of something we accomplish, earn or deserve, but is the result of something Jesus accomplished that we receive as a gift.
So, why would someone be ashamed of this kind of good news? Why is it a bold statement for Paul to say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel”?
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that, in his day, the preaching of a crucified Messiah was considered “a stumbling block” to the Jews. The word that is translated “stumbling block” in 1 Cor. 1:23 is from the Greek word scandalon, from which we get scandal. For the Jew, the idea of a crucified Messiah was a scandal. It was offensive.
In the same verse in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul tells us that for non-Jews, called Gentiles, the preaching of a crucified Jesus was considered “foolishness,” intellectually inferior to the Greco-Roman philosophers.
Can you see why it took courage to expose himself as a disciple of Jesus as his core, primary identity. He was a brilliant Jew. By following Jesus, not only would he make people angry with his views, he would be ridiculed as intellectually inferior!
If you are going to live with your core identity as a disciple of Jesus, and not compartmentalize it, you and I are going to run the risk of offending people, making them angry because of the views we hold and decisions we will make; you also will run the risk of having people make fun of you or dismiss you as intellectually inferior, especially in a university context.
To not be ashamed of the gospel takes courage—the courage of someone who is convinced that something is true. For the Christian, it is the truth of this gospel—that proclaims sinners are reconciled to God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
II. The Power of the Gospel (v. 16b)
16b because it [the gospel] is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
When the Coast Guard rescues people from a sinking ship, we say that they were saved.
It is the same way in the gospel.
Salvation is a rescue—not a rescue from the physical torment of drowning, but from the spiritual torment of hell.
Paul says that it is a rescue that is accomplished by the power of God revealed in what he calls the gospel.
This is all of God. And it is all of grace. We do not achieve this. We receive this—by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Note also in verse 16 that this rescue—this glorious grace—is for everyone who believes.
Everyone means anyone. Without exception the doors are open to whomever will pass through. The way we pay through is to believe the news—the announcement… the proclamation of salvation in Christ alone—trusting that he has fully atoned, completely paid your sin debt and has credited to you his very own record of righteousness.
The question is “will you believe?” Will you receive this news as God’s gift to you?
III. The Righteousness of God (v. 17a)
17 For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (NIV, “from first to last”),
The phrase the righteousness of God is at the very epicenter—the heart—of the gospel message.
In fact, it is this phrase that Martin Luther considered the very gate into paradise. At one time it has been closed to him, because he previously understood it to mean the righteousness of God that we must attain in this life by conforming our lives to the acceptable standard of God’s law. The problem is that as hard as Luther tried, even as a very disciplined monk, he could not achieve the standard God demands for entrance into heaven.
And neither can we.
Imagine that in order to attend college you had to score a perfect 2400 on the SAT or a 36 on the ACT? While there are a few people out of a thousand who may succeed at standardized test perfection, when it comes to moral perfection, there is only one who scored perfectly. That’s Jesus.
The rest of us fall miserably short.
This is why Luther was so perplexed by the phrase “the righteousness of God.”
Until he realized that in the gospel, God is not demanding we achieve the perfect score to be admitted to heaven’s fellowship. God is providing the perfect score for us—the record that Jesus achieved through his perfect obedience to the Father.
When Luther realized that God was providing what he requires, and that salvation was not by human works but by God’s grace in the works of Jesus, this is when Luther said, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open [doors]!”
And so we enter the kingdom through the means of faith, receiving the benefits of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection by believing that the new gospel realities of grace are not just true, but that they are true for me.
But what about after we are converted as a believer—as a follower of Jesus? What then?
We continue believing. We continue abiding in the reality that Jesus is my sin-bearer. That Jesus’ righteousness is my righteousness. He is my justifier, sustainer and sanctifier. This is what is meant by the phrase in verse 17, “from faith to faith” and why the NIV translates it “from first to last.”
We are saved through faith and we continue to live and grow by that same faith in the finished and glorious work of Jesus.
IV. The Life of Faith (v. 17b)
just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
In this last half of verse 17, Paul is quoting the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, who writing in the 600s BC, received a revelation from the LORD that a rival nation, the Babylonians, would soon crush Judah and exile its inhabitants in same way that Assyria had crushed the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in the previous century.
Habakkuk would be tempted to interpret the heart of God through these historical events as the LORD rejecting his people. But God wasn’t rejecting his people, he was restoring his people, albeit with an unexpected instrument.
Habakkuk is urged not to judge God’s heart by external circumstances, but by the promises of grace that were to be received by faith.
The same is true for us and is why “the righteous (God’s redeemed people) must live by faith.” With ongoing trust in God’s redemptive promises.
Today, the primary application to “live by faith” is for me to believe that I am justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That through the unexpected instrument of a cross, that God wasn’t rejecting, but restoring… God was unlocking the doors into paradise, which is exactly what he told the thief on the cross who believed, “Today, you will be with me in paradise!”
This means that right now, in this moment, and in moments when I have fallen on my face in my sin, that even in that moment, because of Jesus covering me in his perfect righteousness, I am declared holy.
The way to get up from a fall is not to struggle back up by making promises that you will not fall down again—the way to get back up is, in that moment, to believe that you are forgiven of that. You don’t have to do penance or beat yourself up, because Jesus was beaten for you.
It is by his wounds you are healed.
We don’t have to get re-forgiven. Through the finished work of Jesus where he said, “It is finished!,” we are forgiven of past, present and future sin debt—all the ways that we have and will reject the wisdom, ways and will of God.
Living by faith in the now is to claim the gospel true for you. Right now. Not in part, but the whole.
In 1873 Horatio Spafford wrote a hymn that speaks to this. Many of you know it. We actually are going to close the service with it this morning. It is Well with My Soul. One stanza stands out as of my favorite lines in all hymnody.
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!— My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
The real hero of the Reformation whom we celebrate is not Martin Luther. He nailed paper to a door, and yes, that changed the world, but God has nailed our sins to a cross, and that has changed eternity. The hero of the Reformation—and of all history—is Jesus.
Is he your hero and my hero?
Can we sing with Horatio Spafford, “My sin is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more?
Because this is the song that we sing as we pass through the open doors into paradise, and it is the song we continue to sing once we are in as those who have been saved—rescued by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.