Five hundred years ago this October 31, Martin Luther inadvertently launched the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. One of his core convictions, derived from scripture, is that we are justified by faith alone. We Methodists share his conviction that we can do nothing to earn or merit God’s saving grace. It is only on the basis of what Christ has done through his life, death, and resurrection that we’re saved. Why does this doctrine remain relevant today? Why do we still need to hear this message? That’s what this sermon is about.
Sermon Text: Galatians 2:11-14; 3:1-6
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Nearly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed a document, now known as the Ninety-five Theses, to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It wasn’t unusual to nail things to that door; it was the equivalent of a community bulletin board—a way of making announcements, or in this case inviting church officials to debate him. In this document, he took issue with a particular practice in his church—the Roman Catholic church—that he believed was unbiblical, un-Christian, and needed to be reformed. Little did he know that this action would launch what would become the Protestant Reformation.
A couple of centuries later, in England, it would even enable the establishment of our own Methodist church.
As Methodists, we are Protestants. And I know that’s just a label, and we probably haven’t thought much about what it means aside from knowing that it means, “Not Catholic.” But in this new sermon series, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Protestantism, I want to talk about the five core convictions that nearly all of us Protestants have in common. Because I believe they’re still relevant today. And I believe if we take each of them to heart they will help us fall in love with and glorify our Lord Jesus more and become more faithful followers of him.
So let’s begin today with the Protestant conviction that in Latin is known as Sola Fide: that we are justified by faith alone.
First, what does it mean to be “justified.” Justification happens the moment we place our faith in Christ, and his atoning work on the cross, and his resurrection. When we are justified, God forgives us of all our sins—past, present, and future—such that we can be confident right now that we will be saved. We can be confident right now that when we die and stand before God in final judgment, he will pronounce the following verdict over our sins: Not guilty. We can be confident right now that we will spend eternity in heaven with our Lord. We Methodists like to refer to this confidence as assurance. As Paul says in Romans 8, after we’re justified, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” One Methodist pastor gave me this mnemonic device that I still find helpful: When we’re justified, it’s “just as if we’d never sinned.”
And how are we justified? Through faith in Jesus Christ… Alone.
And this is the main meaning of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. False teachers had infiltrated these churches that Paul had started on one of his missionary journeys. And in Paul’s absence, they were teaching these Galatian Christians that they cannot be justified unless or until their men get circumcised; and they follow Jewish dietary laws; and they observe all the Jewish holy days and festivals. Yes, they still need to place their faith in Jesus and his atoning work on the cross in order to be saved. But they also need to do these other things to be saved.
And Paul, in his most impassioned writing in the New Testament, says no. In fact, he says that if he, or some other apostle, or if even an angel from heaven should come to them and preach a different gospel from the one that he preached to them years earlier when they first got saved, “let him be accursed.”
To help his readers understand why, in today’s scripture Paul describes an incident that happened some years earlier, in Antioch where Paul was based. The apostle Peter had come to visit Paul’s church. And while he was there, Peter was happily sharing meals with Gentile Christians. This was not something that Jews normally did. Why? Because Gentiles didn’t follow Jewish purity laws and dietary laws and were ritually unclean, according to the law of Moses. So if Jews ate with Gentiles, they risked making themselves unclean. But the gospel changed all that, as Peter himself understood. As Paul says later in this letter, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” All of us, through faith in Christ and nothing else, are completely equal in the eyes of God; there are no “second-class” Christians. We are all the same—we are all beloved children of God, and brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But while Peter was still in Antioch, Paul says in verse 12, “certain men came from James” to the church there. James was the brother of Jesus and the apostle who wrote the New Testament letter—and these men, like the false teachers in the churches in Galatia, had misunderstood the gospel. James didn’t misunderstand, but they did. When they showed up, Peter got scared. He was worried about what these other people would think of him if they saw him eating with Gentiles. So he changed his behavior. He withdrew from the Gentiles, stopped eating with them, and started acting again as if the ceremonial laws in the law of Moses still applied. And suddenly Peter wouldn’t fellowship with these Christians unless or until they got circumcised, and fulfilled other ceremonial aspects of the Law. And Peter’s example caused other Jewish Christians in the church to follow suit.
So Paul, who was afraid of no man, saw what was happening. He writes, “I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” In other words, “Peter, you’re breaking the law of Moses in a million different ways, yet somehow you want Gentiles to start following the law? Physician, heal thyself! You’re being a hypocrite.”
So Paul uses this incident with Peter to make the following point: If you believe that keeping God’s law, even just a small part of it—or performing any good work—plays any role in your salvation, you have utterly misunderstood the gospel of Jesus Christ. You have misunderstood what Christ accomplished for you: he lived the life of perfect obedience to his Father that we were unable to live. And he took our sins upon himself and paid the penalty for them, on the cross—in our place. One ancient Christian writer called this the “sweet exchange”: on the cross, Christ exchanges our sins for his righteousness. He takes our sins upon himself and gives us his righteousness in return.
And how does Christ give us his righteousness?
Think of it like this: Queen Elizabeth’s husband is who? Prince Philip. So even though he married the queen, he didn’t become King Philip. On the other hand, when Elizabeth’s grandson, Prince William, finally becomes king, the woman who married him, the lovely Catherine Middleton—Duchess “Kate”—will become Queen. She will become Queen Catherine. Her husband the king will bestow upon her that title—and all the privileges that come with it. Because all that the husband has now also belongs to his wife—including his royal status.
That makes sense, right? Now, think about the metaphor that the Bible uses in both Old and New Testaments to describe the relationship between God and his people. It’s of a husband and wife. We Christians are called what? The “bride” of Christ. In Ephesians 5, Paul compares the relationship of husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church. It’s no exaggeration to say that when we unite with Christ through faith—as two of our children did today as represented by their baptism—it’s as if we are married to Jesus. And what is his becomes ours—just as Duchess Kate will inherit Prince William’s royal status, so we Christians inherit Christ’s righteousness. Remember what I said earlier? From God’s perspective, when we’re justified, it’s “just as if” we had never sinned; because Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness. Not because we did anything to earn it or deserve it.
I told you a few weeks ago about my friend David, who is Catholic. Years ago, when I was in seminary, I pastored a small Methodist church down in Forsyth, Georgia, for three years. And one weekend David and his family came to visit us. We were living in a parsonage next to the church. I was excited that David would get to see the reason that I had uprooted my family, gone back to school, drastically changed my life. He would get to see me in action as a pastor. And he was excited, too. Only… when he arrived at my house on Saturday afternoon he told me that he and his family would have to go down to Macon, to the Catholic church there, later that evening and attend Mass. And then they’d come back up to Forsyth on Saturday night and spend the rest of the weekend with us. So they were happy to go to church with us, but first they had to go to Mass.
And this really bothered me at the time: “Is my church not good enough that you can’t come to it for one Sunday without also going to Mass?” That’s what I wanted to ask.
Of course, I now see that David was acting in a way that was completely consistent with his Catholic faith. He wouldn’t dare miss Mass! Why? Because as a Catholic he doesn’t believe—sadly—in justification by faith alone. He doesn’t believe that it’s on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, rather than our own, that we’re made acceptable to God. Faith is a part of it, of course, but it isn’t all of it. Instead, David believes that he needs to go to Mass, go to confession, do all the other things required of Catholics, week after week. And receive a little bit of grace and a little bit of grace and a little bit of grace. Until finally, after he dies, he hopes he’ll have merited through his good works enough of this grace to go to heaven. And to go there without spending a considerable amount of time in purgatory first! No Catholic can know for sure their eternal destiny before they die. Because they have to add to faith these good works, and they can’t know how much of these good works is enough.
Look, I don’t doubt for a moment that my friend David is saved, although he probably would. I don’t doubt for a moment that because of his faith in Christ he will be saved. But how can my friend know peace in his life with this nagging thought in the back of his mind: “What if I haven’t done enough?” And how can he love and trust and glorify our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ knowing that, in spite of his faith, in spite of his years of “following the rules” that his church has laid before him, he could reach the end of his life only to find that he missed the goal toward which he’d been striving all his life—heaven—because in addition to his faith, he hadn’t done enough to be saved?
I don’t believe that will happen to him. Because I know the gospel, and I know that we’re justified by faith alone and not works. But my friend thinks that’s at least a possibility. And that’s got to affect the way he feels about Jesus, right? How can he not be a little afraid of him?
I share this story because I want you to see, by contrast, what we have in the pure gospel of salvation by grace through faith! Do we believe it? Do we really?
I did not grow up Methodist. Always Protestant, but not Methodist. I was a Baptist. Let me tell you about someone I knew from youth group back then. His name was Ricky. He was cool and popular and good-looking and always had cute girls fawning over him, so naturally I hated him even though I wanted to be like him. Anyway, in the Baptist tradition, when the preacher gives an altar call, a part of that invitation is to “rededicate” your life to Christ. This was for those who are already Christians, but whose life has gotten off course, and they’re telling God publicly that they want to repent and make a new start. I’m not against that; it’s just not a big part of our Methodist tradition.
Anyway, every winter on youth retreat and every summer at youth camp, on the night when the pastor would issue an altar call, you could count on Ricky walking down the aisle—in tears—to rededicate his life to Christ. And when he did that, a part of me would think, “I may not be as cool as Ricky, but at least I’ve never cried in front of my fellow youth!” But Ricky would tearfully rededicate his life to Christ, repent of his sins, start over again… Every year, twice a year, like clockwork. We’d all sort of roll our eyes… There goes Ricky again! Walking down the aisle. It was sort of a joke to us. It wasn’t a joke to Ricky, but it was to us.
If I were his pastor now, and I saw how plagued he was by his guilty conscience, I would remind him of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I would remind him that the basis upon which we’re accepted by God isn’t what we do—or what we fail to do. It’s what Christ has done for us, through his life, death, and resurrection. And I would also gently tell him that walking down an aisle and rededicating your life doesn’t save you either—because even that can become like a “good work” that we have to perform in order to be saved. No, we believe that Christ saves us. And we receive this gift of salvation by faith. And we can be confident, so long as keep trusting in him, we can be confident that he’s not going to take that gift away!
That’s what I would tell him now. But you know what I was thinking back then—along with some of my fellow youth? “Ricky, what’s your problem? Get it right this time! Get your act together! Stop messing up so badly that you need to constantly ‘rededicate’ your life every time we have a retreat or youth camp!”
We were so dumb. Because you know what we were really meant? “Ricky, you need to be at least as good as we are. You need to be at least as righteous as we are. Stop messing up worse than we mess up.” In other words, we had our own standards of righteousness by which we judged ourselves and others—and so long as we lived up to these standards, and followed these little laws, we would feel accepted by God… forgiven by God… loved by God.
Just follow these rules… Obey these laws… Sure, Ricky couldn’t live up to these standards, but we can! Aren’t we something? Aren’t we special? No need to “rededicate” our lives here. No, sir! God loves us… look at all the good things we do, and all the bad things we avoid doing!
And then when we fall below those standards and break those little laws—oh, the guilt, the self-loathing!
I hope you see my point. Just because we say we believe in justification by faith alone doesn’t mean that we really believe it.
All of us have serious problems. None of us “gets it right” most of the time. None of us has our act together most of the time. All of us have messed up so badly that we all need to rededicate our lives to Christ every day, if not every hour. None of us can do anything to deserve or merit God’s love or forgiveness.
We’re a mess, let’s face it.
Thank God that he sent his Son Jesus into the world to save us in spite of that fact. That’s the gospel truth. Amen?
1. Romans 8:16 ESV
2. Galatians 3:28 ESV