Gospel freedom is often a Reformation truth we take for granted.
Wade R. Johnston
What has become the most memorable Reformation truth of our hymns, the most powerful of our preachments, the most lasting in our conversations as brothers and sisters? What was the point of Luther’s Reformation? It’s the very thing we so easily take for granted, that the church in every age has been tempted to move beyond, that resonates so poorly with our fallen human nature: that Christ was crucified for sinners—and you qualify.
How can we take this for granted? Can we forget both what we were and what we are? We were dead in trespasses and sins, lost, condemned under the law, slaves to iniquity, under God’s wrath. We were that way before we could walk or talk, cheat or steal. We were born that way. Now we are children of God. We have been redeemed, forgiven, ransomed, set free. We have been born that way, born again in the waters of Holy Baptism. We are this, not on our own, but in Christ, by grace, through faith, which is the gift of God through the Word.
At the heart of Luther’s message is the distinction in Lutheran theology, law and gospel. The law kills. The gospel makes alive. The law accuses. The gospel pardons. The law exposes. The gospel clothes. The law says “do,” and it can never be completely done, and the gospel says “done,” and all that is done is freely given, completed by Christ who died and rose for us.
Saint and sinner
We find freedom in this gospel. And yet we remain sinner-saints this side of the grave. That is, while we are children of God, the sinful flesh still hangs around our neck, the old Adam still kicks and screams, tempts and prods. For this reason, we can take the gospel for granted. The old Adam tugs and pushes us back under the law or into lawless immorality.
Perhaps we want to let works back into salvation, to do something—any something, even just a little—to help Christ out, to climb the ladder to heaven just a little under our own power. The other temptation is that we want to plunge into lawlessness, to abuse our freedom, to live as though we have been freed to sin and not freed from sin.
Whatever the case, freedom can be scary, and life as a sinner-saint is a struggle. We can easily get distracted, sidetracked, bored, or ungrateful with God’s good gifts and his gospel.
Freedom to live
As we celebrate this 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, now is the time to refocus and to reclaim our freedom, not by doing, but by receiving and by hearing. And Christ is still speaking. The Word is still living. The Spirit is still active. The church is still standing. The pulpit, altar, and font still call out, “Freedom, freedom, here is true freedom, freedom to live life in a world given back to you, all as a gift, all in Christ, all for your neighbor. You need nothing more. You are free from sin to live for Jesus and others.”
The gospel isn’t just a set of facts; it’s a force. It’s a force that stakes claims and declares realities. Luther realized this. The righteous live by faith. That’s right, they live! Confident in their standing before God, the righteous are set free to stand in grace, walk in the Spirit, and serve with the trust that no work is too small in Christ’s sight, no neighbor too unworthy, no audience too slight. The Christian is called out of point-keeping and ladder-climbing and kudos-earning into spontaneous, selfless, joyous service to Christ and neighbor—not for salvation, but as one saved. The Christian is free. Free to be a father or mother, to enjoy a meal, to dance, to sing, to do his or her job, to talk and listen and laugh, not in order to be something, but rather having been declared, already being, something—namely, God’s own child.
When everything is a gift, all that is left is freedom and joy and peace, even in suffering. Enamored with Christ, who first loved us and gave himself for us, we receive the world and all that is in it back again from his pierced hands for what it is. We look forward to a new heaven and a new world that will transcend anything here or anything we can imagine. We can let today be today, this world be this world, and thus live freely in the moment and in this life, even as we pine for the new Jerusalem that awaits.
Next time you find yourself less than impressed with the church’s chief message and gift to the world, Christ crucified for sinners, remember that you qualify. Ask yourself if you’ve fallen back into slavery, whether to sin or to work-righteousness; whether you’ve been living tit-for-tat, as someone with no tomorrow or with a today that is less than a gift. And then remember you’ve been buried to such fruitless effort; that you’ve been baptized into new life; and that you are a son or daughter of the Jesus Christ who died your death, not for you to live in chains, but to set you free.
One of my favorite prayers is a short one: “Jesus, be Jesus for me.” Jesus is Jesus for me. And Jesus is Jesus for you. That is the whole point of the Scriptures. Jesus came to be Jesus for us.
So, look around. See the world around you. See it for what it is, your family, your friends, your job—all of it. It’s for you, from Jesus. It’s a world given back to a sinner declared a saint, to a dead man or woman brought back to life.
Wade Johnston, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Nain, West Allis, Wisconsin.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the ninth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.
Luther still speaks
Richard E. Lauersdorf
As the Reformation continued, Luther voiced a deep concern. In a sermon on John 7:37-39, he warned, “When the Word of God first arose, twelve or fifteen years ago, people diligently listened to it, and everybody was glad that ‘good works’ were no longer to plague them. They said: God be praised that we now have water to drink. For then we were thirsty, and the doctrine tasted fine; we drank of it and found it a precious teaching. But now we are sated; we are tired of the drink and are surfeited with it” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, #3817).
“Familiarity breeds contempt,” states an old proverb. This can happen also with the “pearl” of the Reformation, the teaching that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ’s work of redemption. The more we hear this saving truth the more it might fade in value in our sight.
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” the pastor preaches in every sermon. Having heard it all before, we might be tempted just to nod nonchalantly. “Jesus died for me,” we teach our children. But again that blessed truth can become a sentence recited only by rote instead of with joy.
Our itching ears may want something new, something more modern and relevant. Something that centers on man’s efforts instead of on God’s timeless grace. Something that addresses the needs in society instead of the thirst of the soul.
This month as we celebrate the Reformation, may the Lord of the church give us a renewed thirst for the gospel water of life.
Richard Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.
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Author: Wade R. Johnston & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017
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