Learning from the Reformation: Saved by Faith Through Grace




A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Learning from the Reformation: Saved by Faith Through Grace

Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-27


October 15, 2017

If you had been hanging around the church in Luther’s time, and it was Stewardship Season or if the church was raising money for a building, you would have heard a different approach to stewardship in 1517 than the one you are hearing in 2017. And in fact, the church was raising money for a church building: Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

Raising money was a little easier in my mind because of the system of salvation that was taught by the church. Even good church people feared that they may not make it through the Pearly gates because of personal sin that prevented entry. Your sins followed you after death and a price had to be paid before given the entry to heaven. You had to be purged of your sins (hence purgatory) Many worried about their loved ones who died … that they may be stuck in purgatory.

But good news! For a price you could make a payment, called an indulgence, to “get out of purgatory” and head straight to heaven. For a price you could buy forgiveness of sins for yourself or a loved one stuck in purgatory. How is that for a fundraiser! It did pretty well.

John Tetzel was the one selling those indulgences at the time of Luther… He liked to brag that he had saved more souls by indulgences than the Apostle Peter by his preaching.  And here was his sales pitch to the common person…

“The dead cry, Pity us! Pity us! We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance…Will you leave us here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?”

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings

The soul from purgatory springs

Will you not then for a mere quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise?”

This was effective. That approach to fundraising helped raise funds for St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel… along with many other cathedrals.

Maybe it is something to consider when we have our next campaign to pay off the debt???   Forgiveness for sale for you… or your loved ones! Your Mom or Dad stuck in purgatory… you can help them out… literally… you can help them out of purgatory and get them a fast pass through the pearly gates.

If that didn’t work, they also had one other means of pressuring you for your money back then. If you didn’t pay your dues to the church, you were banned from the church without mercy. If you failed a second time, your whole family was banned and barred from fellowship of the church. That meant no baptizing your babies, no taking of communion and don’t come asking us to bury you if you have not paid your tithes. If you died without paying the church, you were simply thrown into the ground like a dead cat. No funeral for you!

Back then, very effective stewardship and fundraising. If we had that system, we wouldn’t have to worry at all about the budget! Fear of hell was a great motivator!

And if that sounds offensive to you, Luther would be proud and you are a great Protestant.  Luther protested because of the devastating effect this system and theology had in the lives of ordinary people. Instead of having to pay for forgiveness which made your relationship to God little more than a financial transaction like dealing with an institution… Luther said repentance is more about turning from sin to God… and that when a person turns from sin, places his or her trust in God, their sins are immediately and entirely forgiven without the absolution of the priest or the indulgence from a pope.Faith for Luther was not a divine legal transaction or a divine payoff for protection…  it was all about a relationship with the living God.

Luther believed in a personal God whose  relationship was more of Parent-Child… rather than CEO to client.  Out of love God’s desire was to save his children… whose grace was the source of salvation.

The breakthrough for Luther came when he read Romans. Paul makes it clear that “it is not any works of the law but only the grace of God in Christ that saves us.

 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement[e] by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Luther wanted people to know that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ is a gracious God… eager and ready to forgive.

This is the God of the prodigal… who is eager for the sinful and wondering child to come home and receive the party of forgiveness. Remember the story… the sinful son comes home… but the Father does not require him to pay him back what he took… the father does not even wait for the speech of repentance… the father forgives… throws a welcome home party to beat all welcome home parties… eager to restore the relationship. He loves his wayward son that much. (Get the point?!)

This is the God we sing of in that hymn Amazing grace, written by that old slave trader sinner, John Newton whose conversion was a result of his new understanding of God’s grace… So powerful is this grace… people who are both church people and non-church people love it… I’m fascinated that the secular world embraces this hymn… Mahalia Jackson, Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, The Byrds, Willie Nelson and others have sung it in concerts from small town theaters  to Carnegie Hall.

What is it that draws people to this song of faith? Could it be that  the world hungers for this message of grace…  that the world is tired of the message that God’s love has to be earned… and the world longs to know of an Amazing grace… that sounds like this:

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,

  I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind but now I see”


Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”

What is that song about? It is about Salvation through faith by grace… It is about finding peace of heart and mind and spirit as a gift of God. Peace with God is not something  you earn… or deserve… it is a gift. What a powerful message people long to hear…

Luther learned it from Paul… who came to realize we are saved, find peace of heart and mind, not through the law, not by our efforts, not by being good enough, not by being right about certain doctrines, not by ceremonies or church traditions, not even by being active in very good things like mission or being a good church person…

No, we are saved… find peace of heart and mind and spirit, by the grace of God, received through faith.

This was the discovery that saved Luther. Luther had feared God. He did everything he knew and everything the church told him to do to earn God’s love. It is said, that he wore himself out with prayer and fasting. He even wore out his mentors with endless and excessive confessions. Looking back on those days he said,

“I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work.”

 But even these superhuman efforts did not bring peace to his tormented soul. When he said his first mass, he was “utterly stupefied and terror-stricken” at the thought of standing before the Almighty God.

 What did bring peace was learning that salvation was a gift of God… That what God desires in the words of Hosea (6:6)  is “mercy and not sacrifice,  the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”

Luther believed it was out of that merciful, loving relationship good works would flow. He said, “Good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works”

Another way of putting it is that Luther flipped the system of salvation. John Tetzel went around saying, “Do this, buy this, and you and your loved ones will be forgiven”

Luther listened to Paul and said, “In Christ, you are already forgiven… you are already loved beyond your knowing… now… do this…”

Which is why I think Luther would be pleased with our Stewardship theme this year… “Let us Build a House”… based on this verse of a hymn:

“Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of faith, here the love of Christ shall end divisions, all are welcome in this place.

 Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat; a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet. Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space; as we share in Christ the feast that frees us: all are welcome in this place.”

Our stewardship is grace-based. Aren’t you glad you live in 2017 and not 1517?!

So when we ask you to pledge to this Church in 2017 we are asking you to help us build a house where God’s love and grace may dwell …  In this Lord’s house we will feed people with the Word of God, we will teach people about a gracious God who loves us more than any of us ever know (John 3:16)…  we will raise our children and youth and teach them about the loving ways of our Lord,  we will serve those who are suffering, we will help those who are hurting, we will provide a place where those who serve others in our community are welcome. With your support for this house, we will marry, bury and baptize people in the Lord’s name… offering the grace of God in each and every moment.

When we ask you to pledge and give to the church, we will not be asking you to pay off God out of fear… or secure a better reservation in heaven… we are asking you to give because God loves you and you love God… and we want others to know about this loving God and that giving to God’s house is one of the ways you can support this place whose finest hopes and dreams are to share God’s incredible love and amazing gift of grace and peace with the world. May we together build a house where God’s love may dwell indeed.  Amen.