Why is Reformation Day so important?
C.S. Lewis, in his appendix to the book The Abolition of Man showed how nearly every single culture in the world; every single philosophy; every single world religion espoused one particular axiom. In effect, C.S. Lewis showed that the axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a universal truth and teaching found in every culture and teaching. That’s a rather astounding thing considering how diverse cultures are throughout the world. It’s rather astounding since they all begin with different assumptions about how the world works and how it came into being. It’s rather astounding that as varied and as different as we are as human beings, there is one universal thing we all claim to grasp and understand. We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
But there is an interesting corollary to this universal axiom. It’s a corollary that is not usually talked about in various academic circles. Because if the axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is indeed a universal teaching, the corollary which follows is, no one does it. No one does to others what we would like them to do unto us.
Think about it. Think about it really hard, and think about it honestly. How many of us are as patient with others as we would like them to be patient with us? How many of us as are considerate of others as we would like them to be considerate of us? How many of us are forgiving of others as we would like them to be forgiving of us? How many of us truly talk as kindly of others as we would like them to talk kindly of us? How many of us are as generous to others as we would like them to be generous to us? And the list goes on and on and on. If we are honest with ourselves, we do not even come close to following this universal axiom.
And if we are honest with ourselves, we know we have no excuses. We know what we should do. We know how we should act. But we don’t do it. Either because we can’t or because we won’t.
St. Paul knew this. He knew it well, and so he penned these words from the third chapter of the book of Romans, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”
What is Paul saying? He’s saying exactly what I just said about doing unto others. We know we should, but we know we don’t. And when we are honest with ourselves, we are silenced. We know we have no room to talk. We know we have no room to tell anyone else to shape up because we are out of shape. We know we have no room to condemn anyone else for failing to follow the teaching because we don’t follow it ourselves. Our mouth’s are silenced. And if this axiom comes from God–which most folks believe it does, then we must be held accountable to God because we have broken His command.
And here’s where things begin to get a little interesting. Because here is where Christianity begins to make a clean break with the rest of the world. Every other philosophy and every other religion’s answer to accountability is thus, “Try harder.” Yep, you heard right. If you aren’t doing such a good job of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, try harder. Work harder. Try to be a better person. Satisfy God and justify yourself by following that command.
And why shouldn’t that be the answer? I mean, that is what we are taught from the time we are infants and throughout adulthood. When you are starting to walk and you fall down, parents say, “Get up and try it again. Sooner or later, you will get it!” When our kids have trouble in school learning math or reading or writing, we say, “Practice, work harder. You will get it!” When we start working at a job and not doing so well at it, our supervisor (if he or she is patient) says, “Keep after it. You will figure it out before too long.” Over and over and over, we get told this. Over and over and over, we implement it. Sometimes we are successful, and oftentimes we get the idea in our heads that if we simply just keep trying; if we just keep after it long enough; things will come together and we can accomplish anything! Nothing can ever hold us back! And where does that lead us if we truly have this mindset? Where does this lead us in regards to others who struggle and have a hard time? Do we become patient with them? Do we become understanding with them? Do we offer them positive encouragement over and over and over? Maybe some of the time, but certainly not always. For it is far too easy to become contemptuous and angry at those who don’t seem to get it as quickly as ourselves. It is far too easy to become self-righteous and say, “I was able to do it; they should be able to do it too.” And we look down our nose at others. Do unto others...do you like it when others look down their nose at you? Of course not. Very few do. But this is inevitably where “try harder” gets you. It gets you right back to breaking the command–the very place you tried to get away from to begin with.
Christianity is different; however. Christianity offers a different path. Instead of try harder, Paul lays out the alternative:
“For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Following the law doesn’t justify us. It only leads to despair or self-righteousness. It cannot break us out of the cycle. It can only show us what we have done wrong. I wouldn’t know I was breaking the speed limit unless I saw the speed limit sign. Because there is a sign, I know I am breaking the law! Slowing down doesn’t justify me from having broken the law in the first place!! So what does? What does justify me? What makes things right?
“21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” The answer Paul gives is, “It’s not your actions. It’s Jesus’ actions.” By breaking the command of God, you have earned His punishment. You have earned His anger and His wrath. You must pay the price for doing what you know to be wrong. God cannot allow such breaking of the command to go unpunished because then God would not be just. But instead of you facing the punishment; instead of you facing God’s wrath, Jesus–the God made flesh–stepped in on your behalf. Jesus, offered Himself to die and endure the wrath of God upon the cross so that you wouldn’t have to. This is the sacrifice of atonement Paul spoke of. He took your place. He took the punishment which you were destined for. You couldn’t do unto others; Jesus did.
In some ways this doesn’t make sense to our way of thinking. If you commit the crime, you should be held accountable. If you do the wrong, you should face the punishment. If you break the law, you should face justice. On one level, we know this very, very well. But let me put it to you another way–a way I think you may grasp very easily. Most of us who are parents have a rule for our children: don’t play in the street! It’s a pretty hard and fast rule for many of us. Now, what parent who sees his child playing in the street with a car approaching would allow the car to run over the child because, after all, the child broke the rule and deserves what he or she gets? What parent would allow his or her child to be gravely injured or to die because the rule got broken? What parent would allow this tragedy to befall his son or daughter? None that I know of. And yet, I know of many a parent, who would gladly and willingly run into the street, breaking the parent’s own rule to save his or her child. I know many a parent who would gladly die to save his or her child from immanent death. Take my life instead because I love my child. The answer would not be try harder to follow mommy and daddy’s rule. The answer at that point–when the rule is already broken and death is immanent–is save your child even at the expense of your own life.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved by Him.”
And now, we put our trust in this saving action. We put our faith in this saving action. We do not trust ourselves to follow the commands because we know we cannot fully accomplish them. Instead, we throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus who did follow the commands and who took our place.
“Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” And since we are justified–we are made right by what Jesus has done and not what we do, can we boast? Can we brag about how well we have done unto others? Can we brag about how well we have followed the Law and made ourselves right with God? Can we brag that we have done enough to warrant God’s love for us? No. We can’t. Because we did nothing. Jesus did everything. We are justified apart from the works of the Law. We are justified by Jesus and trust in His action not our own.
Oh, there are more than a few folks–even within the church–who would like us to operate the way the world works. There are more than a few folks–even within the church–who would like to think our salvation is contingent upon our actions and our ability to follow the Law. They would gladly tell us to get our lives in order lest we find ourselves damned. They would gladly tell us we must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God lest we incur God’s wrath. They would gladly tell us to stop drinking, smoking, dancing, and expressing our sexuality or the devil will play with our souls for eternity. They would gladly tell us we must give 10% of our income to the church or God will strike us down. They will gladly tell us God sends things like the Ebola virus or famine or drought to punish us for what we do–hoping that we will repent and cease our destructive behavior. They will gladly try to rope us back into trying to be like every other philosophy or religion that is out there. They will gladly try to get us to try harder.
But that is why we need Reformation Day. That is why we need to be reminded of the Gospel. This is why we need the Martin Luther’s of the world–we need to be reminded that Christianity is not basically about what we do, but about what God has done through Jesus Christ saving you by His grace through faith. Amen.