THE GREATEST DOCTRINE
For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Romans 3:28
TODAY we encounter some of the most thrilling Scripture readings of the church year; words from God that will "...strengthen our weak hands and make our feeble knees strong.." (Is. 35)
In Psalm 46, the Psalm of the Lutheran Reformation, we are assured that though the mountains should crumble and fall into the sea; though all that is stable and dependable should be swallowed up by all that is insecure and hostile, that even then we can be calm. Even then we can rest. Even then we can be at ease because the Lord of hosts is with us, because the God of Jacob, the God of Promise, the God who gave His one and only Son to suffer sin's penalty for us, is our refuge, our strength, and very present help in trouble!
In today's second reading from Revelation we learn that the gospel of our salvation is not a temporal or limited one, but an eternal one instead; a gospel that has no beginning and no end. It is the gospel that existed in the mind of God before the foundation of the world, and that made its first appearance on earth as the "tree of life in the Garden;" one that will continue to be preached and believed until the end of the age, and the gospel that can never be extinguished however wicked, clever or determined its enemies might happen to be.
As the gospel had no beginning, neither does it have an end, but will still be active in heaven for all eternity. The tender mercy of God that saved us from all our enemies will fill us with gladness beyond telling, and keep us in perfect peace as we serve our dear Lord in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.
In today's Gospel reading we hear these immortal words of our Lord Jesus Christ, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Jesus Himself is that Word. Jesus Himself is that truth; not Jesus as a notion or as a five-letter word, but Jesus crowned with thorns, covered with stripes and pierced with nail and spear; the Son of God and Son of man who was handed over for our trespasses and raised again for our justification. He is the truth and God's word of absolution to every sinner for every sin. On that you can rely. In that you can place your full faith and trust, now and at the hour of death, but lest our joy be anything less than complete on this Reformation Sunday, let us especially learn today's Epistle lesson: "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law." This, dear Christians, is the chief doctrine of the holy catholic and apostolic faith; the teaching by which the church stands or falls, and the principle that energizes every other teaching, ethic, ritual or practice that we hold so dear.
This teaching is one that every Christian should know, believe, understand and be thoroughly conversant in, not because entrance into heaven is gained by doctrinal examination, but so that we might comfort ourselves with it when sin and death and sorrow overwhelm us: and so that we can correct even the church as often as she might stray from it.
There is no harder doctrine to believe, teach, confess or retain than this one because it is at terrible odds with human reason. Though, on the one hand, we wish we could have everything in life for free, we know that this is not the case. We know that life is unrelenting. We know that if you want to have anything in this world, you have to pay the price. You have to expend labor, energy, time, skill and mental energy or you will starve to death penniless on the street, because contrary to the dreamers and schemers of this world, there "ain't" no such thing as a free lunch. Whatsoever a man sows that also shall he reap, and if any should not work neither should he eat.
Those are the heartless realities of life in this world, but in God's economy everything is different. Salvation is a gift, one bought and paid for by our Lord's suffering, death and resurrection; one that is given to otherwise lost and condemned violators without money and without cost. There is no currency that can purchase the gift of heaven for you, but one that is made ours by faith and by faith alone. Therefore St. Paul spends a great deal of time teaching us his inspired truth that: a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Neither should you consider faith a good work, for it is not. Instead it is the Spirit's gift by which we receive the inheritance.
Yes, "a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law." That is St. Paul's conclusion, so everything we believe, teach, confess and practice proceeds from this pivotal truth. The baptism you receive, you receive by faith, whether newborn babe or wizened adult. No one can obtain the gifts that baptism gives without the faith that the Holy Spirit gives and supplies. It is faith that moves us to worship, to gladly hear and learn God's word, to celebrate the Blessed Sacrament, believing what seems impossible: that this bread and this cup are the body and blood of Christ that grant us the remission of sins, life, salvation and intimate unity with Christ our heavenly Bridegroom. Finally it is by faith that we take up our cross each day and follow Jesus in a life of self-denial, service to God and the selfless kindness of our neighbor, for works are the fruit and evidence of faith and faith without works is dead.
Therefore we conclude, along with St. Paul on the Reformation Sunday, that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Amen.
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras