Today in churches across this country, well at least in Lutheran churches (well, at least in some Lutheran churches), they are taking a moment to step aside from the normal flow of things to focus on an event in time 499 years ago in a little town in Germany. On All Hallows Eve in 1517, a young and energetic Augustinian monk and professor of theology named Martin Luther, nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg an invitation to debate on the topic of the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. An indulgence was a way to reduce the amount of punishment one must undergo for their sins. In Luther’s day the church would sell them to fill the its coffers. So, Luther invites discussion on this issue by putting forward 95 theses that ought to be considered. Little did he know or expect at the time, but this simple act, this honest attempt to resolve a problem that had robbed so many of the sweet assurance of the Gospel, would prove to be the beginning of the great Reformation of the church.
So today we celebrate Reformation Day. But Reformation Day isn’t really about the 95 Theses or even about Martin Luther, per se. Rather this day is about the message of the Reformation, the heart and center of it all. Today is about the answer to the question the troubled conscience asks when it cries out, “what must I do to be saved?” And the answer has nothing to do with the buying of an indulgence or obedience to an institution or a certain moral character or who you vote for or how hard you work or how diligently you pray. The answer is found in Jesus alone. You are saved, you are declared to be righteous before God by grace through faith in Christ alone. Christ alone justifies each and every one of you!
That good word, that 200 proof Gospel is what Reformation Day is really all about. Today is for giving thanks to God for continuing to use people like Luther and the other reformers who were willing to risk being burned at the stake to make sure that this Gospel would never cease to be proclaimed. Today we rally around the free gift of salvation and boldly bear witness to the source of our hope and confidence. Now in the summer of 1518 Luther was summoned to appear before the leaders of the Augustinian order in the town of Heidelberg. Here he was given the opportunity to articulate his views. His opening assertion was shocking and defined what the Reformation was about. He said, “The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.” The law of God is not a means to gain heaven but in fact it will only hinder us. It will bind and devour us.
To explain this, to work through this spirit of the Reformation, I thought perhaps it would be useful to examine a narrative from the Word of God that depicts this reality. My favorite story to retell is the tale of Daniel in the lions’ den. Most of us know this story to some extent. We are all generally familiar with what happens, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon preached on it. This is a shame because it’s a great story of the central teaching of the Reformation.
Darrius the Mede had become king of Babylon where Daniel resided. Darius set over his kingdom 120 satraps, or officials to help him rule. Over those satraps were 3 presidents, one of which was Daniel. And Daniel, a faithful follower of the one true God, excelled among his peers. Darius loved him for it. In fact, he wanted to set Daniel over the whole kingdom. Now the other guys didn’t like this and began to scheme how they might bring Daniel down. They couldn’t find any fault or error in him, so they figured that they must tie it to his God, to his worship. Then they would destroy their greatest competition.
What they did was petition the king to establish a law where no one was allowed to worship any other god, except the king, for 30 days. And if they do, why then they would be cast into the lion’s den to be devoured. Now the king went along with this and he established an injunction bound up in a law, the law of the Medes and Persians. This law could not be revoked – not even by the king. Now Daniel learned about this but doesn’t pay it any mind. He continued as he had always done; he faced toward Jerusalem, got on his knees, prayed and gave thanks to God. As we well know, the other presidents caught him in the act. This was their plan the whole time. They delivered Daniel to the king to be cast into the lions’ den. They remind the king again and again that the law must be kept, the law cannot be broken, not even by a king. And so, though Darius loved Daniel, he had no choice but to throw him to the lions.
The law brings with it death. It doesn’t care about love and gratitude. All it knows is justice. Now when God’s holy and perfect law speaks about you, what does it have to say? If a man-made law according to the traditions of the Medes and Persians can sentence a man to death by lion, what does God’s law say about your fate? To take a hold of the law of God and believe that by it we will obtain some sort of righteousness is a foolish task. The law uncovers again and again our inability to keep it. Tell me, are there times when you’ve lived as if you matter more than your God? Have you always honored God’s name as you should? Have you loved one another as He first loved you? Are there people that you have hurt? Are there those whom you have failed to help when you could? Are your thoughts and desires free from lust and greed and anger? If you have failed in just one part of the law, then you are guilty of it all and into the lions’ den you must go. There is no hope in the law and to return to it as a source of salvation is to drive you deeper into despair of eternal life.
This is exactly what the church was doing to people in the days of Luther. To the broken and hurting sinner the law was given yet again as a means of salvation. In one way or another hope was turned inward. Security was a matter of will and salvation had to do with morality. The law enslaves us, like it enslaved Daniel, like it enslaved the king Darius. The law must be satisfied.
Darius and the other officials sealed the opening of the lions’ den and spent a sleepless and helpless night weeping over Daniel. In the early morning, he rushed back to the lion’s den and cried out for Daniel. To the shock of all he heard Daniel answer. “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths.” The law was satisfied; Daniel went to the lion’s den but God delivered him by shutting the lions’ mouths. Salvation wasn’t in the Law. It wasn’t in the work of Daniel. It wasn’t found in the decrees of the king. Salvation came from outside of the whole system. It came from God alone.
And so, the divine law of God demands that you face death and destruction for your transgressions. Your condemnation however is not to be cast to the lions, but to face eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth beyond the grave. This law is not set aside; it is not forgotten or discarded. But still there is hope, hope that comes from outside of you. Outside of your works, outside of your feelings, outside of your love. Hope comes to you as the incarnate Word of God. His only begotten Son in the flesh for your salvation. You see this is why he suffers and dies. He who knew no sin becomes your sin. As your sin the Law must be satisfied, it must remain whole, so he dies. He dies and endures all the wrath of God because that is just, that is right, that is the law.
This is the message of the Reformation. Outside of us, God has shut the lions’ mouths. He has satisfied the law by sacrificing His own Son in your place. That broken flesh, that flowing blood has done it all and it has declared you to be righteous before God. In His resurrection from the dead He has broken the law’s hold upon you and with it he gives you the promise of life everlasting. In your baptism, you died with him. His death became your death and His death met the demands of the law. The law is satisfied; eternal life is yours in Christ alone! This is your hope. This is your joy.
And here’s the amazing thing, as if this wasn’t good enough. That ability to shut the lions’ mouth he has given to you as well. You now are bearers of the good news of the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ alone. And so, you will see the lions circling around a brother or sister in Christ. You will see them getting ready to feed, for sins demand justice. Remember, you can deliver them; not by works of the law but by the gift of grace, by the declaration of righteousness by faith alone. Don’t point them to their own works. Don’t simply encourage them to try harder. Tell them of the One who died in their place. Tell them what you hear this very day. Tell them that in the name of Christ I forgive you all of your sins. So, go in peace for you are free. And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.