Hammer blows of freedom
Within the Church we remain threatened by the idea that salvation can be bought- not with money, as a rule (though there are TV evangelists who still seem mired in Tetzel's heresy) but by the very kind of human merit whose rejection was the entire basis of Paul's letters to the Romans and Galatians. American Protestantism, in particular, is fond of the "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps" approach to life which confuses justification (God's declaration that we are righteous before Him by His unmerited love alone, received by trust in that love) with sanctification (the growth in holiness and holy living which is the result of justification). Even salvation by grace through faith, which biblically is God's doing from beginning to end, is turned into a "decision" or a "commitment" on our part.
But as Luther pointed out in his Theses, God cannot be bought. We owe him everything we have and everything we are- and more. As Paul points out in Romans 3:24-25, "...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."
Jesus has paid the full price of our sin and made a gift of His righteousness to us, who can never measure up by our own efforts or merits. By faith in the promise of forgiveness, rebirth, and eternal life He makes to each of us individually in baptism, we receive the benefit of His all-sufficient payment on our behalf of all the debt we will ever owe to God. There is no more debt to be paid. There are no more works to be done And it's from the gratitude that wells up in our heart as we live by that reality that we begin to literally overflow with the very good works we could never produce on our own, flowing not from guilt or fear-induced striving but from a heart changed by love and gratitude wrought by the indwelling Holy Spirit. As we live our lives in the new identity Christ bought for us with His blood, Christ Himself is formed in us, and we are conformed to Hia image.
All of this is ruined and short-circuited when we try to buy our own salvation, whether by money (as Tetzel effectively taught- a heresy even by the standards of the Roman church of his day) or by our own striving. As Jesus says in John 5, it is the branch that abides in the vine that bears fruit; if it tries to bear its own fruit apart from the branch, it withers and dies.
Reformation Day is a celebration of our dependence on God- and a rejection of the self-willed independence that is so beloved of our increasingly pagan society and of our own fallen natures. At the same time, it is a celebration on the infinite value God places on each and every one of us, who in the last analysis must derive our value and our dignity- as we have our very being- from God's gracious Hand, and from His hand alone.
Jesus is your righteousness. He is the only righteousness you will ever need. He does not grant permission to sin, as another contemporary heresy implies, but freedom from it- freedom not from the struggle against it, but from any possibility of losing that struggle as long as it continues.
It is a celebration of our dependence on God, but also of our independence from everything we eve need to fear, including our own selfishness and weakness.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. --Ephesians 2:8-10, ESV
"Salvation unto Us has Come"
by Paul Speratus, 1484-1551
1. Salvation unto us has come
By God's free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.
2. What God did in His Law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.
3. It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners should themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
4. From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our guilt was e'er increasing.
None can remove sin's poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart,-
So deep is our corruption.
5. Yet as the Law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and hath God's anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He hath for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father's vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.
6. Since Christ hath full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Thy death is now my life indeed,
For Thou hast paid my ransom.
7. Let me not doubt, but trust in Thee,
Thy Word cannot be broken;
Thy call rings out, "Come unto Me!"
No falsehood hast Thou spoken.
Baptized into Thy precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish.
8. The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes men conscience-stricken;
The Gospel then doth enter in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.
9. Faith clings to Jesus' cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
Yet faith alone doth justify,
Works serve thy neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.
10. All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God that saved us by His grace,-
All glory to His merit!
O Triune God in heaven above,
Who hast revealed Thy saving love,
Thy blessed name be hallowed.
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Rom. 3: 5
Author: Paul Speratus, 1523, cento
Translated by: composite
Titled: "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her"
Tune: "Es ist das Heil"
German melody, c. 1400