Sometimes I need to go into my daughter’s room to get something. More often than not, it ends up becoming an archaeological dig as I wade through the layers of stuff. I don’t always find what I’m looking for, and I sometimes discover things I didn’t know I had lost. Nearly five-hundred years ago, when Martin Luther went digging into the Bible, he found that he was wading through layers of church tradition and came upon something that was lost; he rediscovered that God justifies sinners by grace through faith apart from any good works done by us. In other words, Luther found in the Scriptures that we are completely and totally at the mercy of God in Christ.
The cross of Jesus Christ is our only means of salvation from what ails us because the cross is an attack on human sin. Luther discovered that we all have layers and layers of stuff that have grown around our hearts to the degree that we no longer see the sheer grace of God in Christ alone to meet the most pressing needs of our lives. In the centuries before Martin Luther and John Calvin came into history, God’s grace had gradually become something of a supplement to whatever is left of our human willpower.
Apart from Jesus we are addicted to ourselves; and, the cross is the intervention we need to help us in order to confront our constant me-ism. We might sometimes justify ourselves with the fact that we do good works. However, one of the legacies of the Reformation is that good works do not earn us deliverance from sin. What is more, Luther said that our good deeds are the greatest hindrance to our salvation because we have the tendency to trust in those good deeds instead of the death of Christ. So, Luther actually called our good works a mortal sin that sets off God’s wrath and leads straight to hell. In other words, doing good deeds are deadly if they are done as a means of approaching God. It is only through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, his death for us while we were still sinners, not when we were lovely and looking fine with all our pious actions, that we are saved. Luther had this to say in his Heidelberg Disputation: “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom are under God’s wrath! God can only be found in suffering and the cross. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”
God does not come to us in our beauty and goodness; instead, he comes to us in our ugliness and sin. While we were still sinners, ungodly, enemies of God, powerless to save ourselves, Christ died on the cross for us (Romans 5:6-11). We might spend too much of our time and effort concerned about looking good and doing good things in order to present ourselves acceptable to each other and even to God. But that is the very sin, Luther said, that sends people to hell. Places of damnation are actually reserved for those outwardly righteous persons who trusted all their lives in themselves and how they looked to others without a thought at all about justification, reconciliation, and being restored to God through Christ.
Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout, is a person who has good deeds but knows nothing of God’s grace. It is a completely human tendency to decide which sinful actions are trivial and which are the biggie sins. Yet, the only way of approaching God is by seeing our true ugliness, our rebellious hearts, and that the only hope of salvation is through the cross of Christ. We are justified by God and restored to relationship with him because of Jesus, and not for any other reason. A new relationship is established based solely in God’s grace.
When we grasp this truth, even a little bit, it should cause us to repent of our good works done apart from faith. When there is humility that leads to a total turning to Jesus, there is a revival to new life in God, and a personal reformation around the doctrine of grace instead of the doctrine of my glorious works that I perform.
We, then, as the people of God, saved and justified through the blood of Jesus, ought to be the most joyful and grateful people on the planet. We have salvation from the deception of our hearts to life in Christ! Apathy and lethargy in the church to the things of God are the twin evils that reign in the place of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ.
There is nothing more God can do to show us that he loves us than by actually dying for us, and by doing so, satisfying his own wrath against the sin which seeks to destroy us. The late Brennan Manning once told the story about how he got the name "Brennan." While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, and went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together. One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan's life was spared.
When Brennan became a priest he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So he took on the name "Brennan." Years later he went to visit Ray's mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, "Do you think Ray loved me?" Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan's face and shouted, "What more could he have done for you?" Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, does God really love me? And Jesus' mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, "What more could he have done for you?"
The cross of Jesus is God's way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder: Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me? We tend to ask those questions when we are trusting in ourselves, because we never really know where we stand. Let the doubts roll away. No matter how bad or how good we are, the path of suffering of our Lord Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all.
This is what we call the gospel, the good news that Jesus suffered and died for all the bad things we have done, and all the good things we have done to try and justify ourselves before God and each other. Week after week for the past 2,000 years, God’s people have been gathered together to worship this same Lord Jesus who died on the cross. The only thing left for us to do, since Jesus has done it all for us, is to offer our lives to him. In doing so, the spirit of the Reformation lives on.