Salvation unto us has come by God’s free grace and favor.” This is the glorious Gospel of Reformation Day. We haven’t come together to celebrate Lutheranism and honor ourselves, but we are here to hear the saving Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We hear this Gospel as we remember that we dwell in the Church Militant, the Church that must, for a time, endure the attacks of Satan. “Though with a scornful wonder the world sees us oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” God has set watchmen who guard against the sad divisions of Satan, watchmen who never hold their peace, proclaiming “‘Surely your Salvation is coming;’ soon your weeping shall be replaced with song, ‘and the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.’”
So we endure these days with that distant triumph song stealing on our ears, though occasionally it may be muffled by the din of battle. Jesus has told us that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” The violence done to the Kingdom is violence done against the Gospel of Christ. Violence is done when the “false, misleading dream that … sinners could themselves redeem” is heralded as truth. “From the days of John the Baptist,” even from Satan’s first slithering appearance until this very day, he has been working that violence. He has tried to get generation after generation to forget the Gospel, to look at the Law as something we could obey, and something that could gain us God’s favor. But works righteousness is only a small part of Satan’s violence. Ultimately he strives to get us to deny God’s existence, and even his own existence! If the world believes there is no God and no devil, no heaven and no hell, Satan can wreak the greatest havoc on the Kingdom of Heaven by making men confess that there is no Kingdom.
But we know the Kingdom cannot be overtaken. The gates of hell may war against the Kingdom, against the Church, but they cannot overtake her, for they cannot overcome the Church’s Lord and Head. But Satan does his best. He scowls fierce as he will. He sends out heresy after heresy, fosters schism after schism. His devils fill all the world, all eager to devour us.
For this reason, the Reformation was not a one-time event. The Reformation did not start in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 Theses and end in 1580 when the Book of Concord was published. No, the Reformation is an ongoing event, something that must happen in every generation. It happened before Luther and will continue after you and I have joined the Church Triumphant. The Church is always being reformed according to the Word of God. Because Satan does not stop his infectious, violent spread of false doctrine, the Christian Church throughout the world can never be lax. Each denomination, people of every tribe and tongue and people and nation must study the Word of God, they must know it and apply it. Everything we say and do—here at Epiphany; in the English District; in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod; in the Christian Church throughout the world—everything must be measured against the inerrant standard of the Word of God. If something obscures the Gospel, it must be eliminated. If it interprets and teaches the Word wrongly, it must be reformed according to the Word of God.
But this message of reformation is not only for congregations and church bodies; it is for us individually, as well. We all must examine ourselves according to the Word of God. Where are our beliefs out of line with the Word? When do we read Scripture and say, “I know what God said about this topic, but He can’t really mean that.” Or worse: “I know what God said about this topic, but I couldn’t care less!” What actions transgress God’s Law? Where do we try to justify our actions, saying that given the situation, the sin was necessary, justifiable, excusable? We’re all more guilty than we care to admit, because we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We all need repentance and a reformation according to the Word of God.
And thanks be to God that He loves you enough to do that reforming! You cannot “remove sin’s poisoned dart,” nor can you ever fulfill the Law. For this life of sin, you deserve death. But Christ came, became man, became your Brother, and obeyed the Law for you. But it was not enough for the Law to be obeyed; its demands needed to be fulfilled. So Christ Jesus became sin for you and He was set forth as the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice that stayed the Father’s vengeance. He died in your stead. By His Blood, shed for you, your sins previously committed—and the ones you will commit until you are relieved of this sinful flesh—are passed over and washed away forever. “His death is now [your] life indeed, for [He] has paid [your] ransom.”
This life-giving gift of Christ is received by faith. This faith, then, is what justifies in God’s eyes. And He is the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” because He gives this faith by the Holy Spirit at work in the Gospel, because “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). So boasting is excluded because justification comes by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, faith which you cannot cause, because is the gift of the Holy Spirit alone.
To keep you in this one true faith unto life everlasting, the Holy Spirit comes to you continuously through the gifts Christ has left to His Church: the gifts of Absolution, of the Word, of Baptism, and of the Lord’s Supper. Through these gifts, these means whereby forgiveness is given and faith is strengthened, faith is pointed to Jesus Christ, its Fount and Source. And when faith is always found at the feet of its Maker, the necessary reformations happen, and you are kept as God’s “Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord.”
Your faith thus strengthened, “though the earth be removed and through the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” and Satan attempts his violence against the Kingdom of Heaven, you are kept steadfast, protected, comforted, defended, and given saving peace by Jesus Christ. He is your Refuge and Strength, your very present Help in trouble. Though you bide this time in the Church Militant, you are guided by the King of Heaven, the One who has already battled and defeated Satan forever. His victory is your victory by faith. So let Satan take your “life, goods, fame, child, and wife. Let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won; the Kingdom [yours] remaineth.”
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.