Repentance, Faith, and Good Works
Normally, the Reformation Day Gospel reading comes John chapter 8, where Jesus teaches “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This text gives us reason to celebrate and boast in the Reformation. For the lie of the Catholic Church about salvation was confronted with the truth. We celebrate the truth that the doctrine of justification by grace through faith was taught in Christ’s holy church again. Thus, we should rejoice and sing! For where the Word of God is correctly taught and received, Jesus provides truth and freedom, through which the Holy Spirit works to establish, confirm, and strengthen faith.
This morning we read from Matthew 11. This optional assigned reading describes the heart of the Reformation too. Because this reading describes how hard-hearted sinners receive God’s word. Ultimately, they reject it. God played the flute, but no one came dancing. God sang the dirge, but no one came in mourning. This is to say – God sent His Word to be proclaimed, and people didn’t respond appropriately. His Word fell on a lot of deaf ears!
The Pharisees thought John the Baptist’s preaching was too harsh, because the law he preached was too hard to accomplish! He preached that fire and brimstone kind of Law, the kind that burned your ears. Sinners hate that message. But it was God’s message, and they ignored it. Because they thought, ‘well, we aren’t that bad! Everyone makes mistakes!’ Thus, they were well on their way to shape God’s Law into something they could handle. Unfortunately, this only prevents the Gospel from being Gospel. A weak Law doesn’t produce salvation by grace. A weak law produces salvation completely dependent upon YOU. But the truth of the matter is that salvation must fully depend on Jesus – what He did, what He says, and what He gives to you.
So, they didn’t like God’s messenger John the Baptist. He was too harsh. But they hated Jesus even more. The Pharisees thought Jesus’ ministry was too welcoming of all the wrong kinds of people. He welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. However, the Pharisees never saw the change in those prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners after encountering Jesus. Or at least, they didn’t understand it. No longer was there that willingness to walk in their adultery, thievery, or disobedience to God. Rather, through Christ’s healing, they became something new and different altogether. There was a new obedience to God. They started to follow Christ, their Master and Savior. The Pharisees heard God’s Word and they refused to respond, because it required a change of their heart and life. They refused to repent.
That’s what makes this an appropriate Reformation text. The very first thesis Luther posted on the Wittenburg church door said: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent (Matthew 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” If we hear the Word of God and have no response to it – are we really hearing it? Are we really living the tenets of the Reformation? Which are salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, taught by Scripture alone, who reveals Christ alone?
With the observance of Reformation, we observe the same Pharisaical phenomenon. The Roman Catholic Church heard God’s Word and refused to repent of its heresy. And so, we observe a battle between Satan, and Christ’s bride, the church. Satan corrupted the teachings of the Roman Catholic church. He taught about a false Christ. Because Christ’s atonement on the cross was somehow incomplete for salvation. And that your works were needed to fill up the cup of salvation. This battle really dealt with the second article of our Creeds and understanding the salvific role of Jesus. That was the theological war of the 16th century.
But now, the tide has shifted. A different war over doctrine has broken out between Satan and the church. Satan’s poisonous temptations have once again corrupted the pure doctrine that Scripture teaches. And this is no academic squabble. Souls are at risk.
In the past, Satan influenced the Roman Catholic Church to despair over their sins by convincing them to emphasize salvation through works. This made people feel so uncomfortable about Jesus’ role as Savior that they questioned the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.
Now it seems as if the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Satan has convinced the church to believe, teach, and confess that one CAN be comfortable in their sins, and still be a Christian. It’s a form of an ancient heresy called ‘antinomianism’. This literally means “against God’s Law.” But many people call what’s taught and practiced today, ‘soft’ antinomianism. And it’s not as if they reject God’s Law altogether. Rather, they accept the 1st and 2nd uses of the law – the curb and the mirror. They particularly emphasize the second function, that the Law reveals our sin to us. However, they reject the 3rd use of the Law – that is, the guiding function of God’s Law. That the Law describes how God wants Christians to live. One who practices soft antinomianism will say, “I make mistakes, I can’t ever be perfect. So, I’m just going to continue living in my sin and not respond to God’s Law.” Or, they operate under the principle “God accepts me for who I am” and then never read the parts of Scripture about how the fruits of the Spirit grow the Christian. They conduct their “Christian” lives by the fool’s proverb “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” When they’re confronted with God’s Word, and it challenges their behaviors– they can’t admit their wrong. So, instead of complete despair over their sins and the fear of hell, people have become comfortable with their sins, and eventually, don’t even know they have sin. They have a false faith, with a false repentance, because they have a false god.
Unfortunately, many perceive this old trope ‘I’m a sinner, I’m a sinner – okay forgive my sins so I can leave and go do some more sinning’, as “Lutheran doctrine.” But it’s not. It’s unbiblical. Satan has convinced many to read Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Satan would have us read that but never get to verse 10 which says, “For we are HIS workmanship, created in Christ Jesus FOR good works, which God prepared beforehand, that WE SHOULD WALK IN THEM.”
We can’t leave verse 10 out of our doctrines and life – and the Lutheran Confessions don’t allow us to. The Formula of Concord says the following…
“We believe, teach, and confess that good works should be entirely excluded from the question about salvation, just as they are excluded from the article of justification before God.”
“We also believe, teach, and confess that all people, but especially those who are born again and renewed by the Holy Spirit are obligated to do good works.”
“We also believe, teach, and confess that when it is said, “the regenerate do good works from a free spirit” this is not to be understood as though it were an option for the regenerate person to do or not to do good works when he wants, as though a person could still retain faith if he intentionally perseveres in sins.”
They later say, “we reject and condemn the teaching that faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are not lost by willful sin, but that the saints and elect retain the Holy Spirit even though they fall into adultery and other sins, and persist in them.”
Here it is taught that if sin is done intentionally, faith and the Holy Spirit no longer remain. Genuine repentance is needed for the Holy Spirit to work a real true faith, and not an intellectual milk-toast version of it. The Bible reference cited is 1 John 2 – “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. BY THIS we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which HE walked.”
So, how are we to act in accordance with God’s Law? The Confessions teach: “In other words, the free spirit does not obey from fear of punishment, like a servant, but from love of righteousness, like children.”
This is correct teaching and doctrine – just as Luther posted in the 95 theses on the first Reformation Day. Luther realized that since we sin daily, we daily need to ask God to drown the sinner in us who loves our sins – and to ask God to resurrect the new man we are in Christ Jesus. That’s what repentance is. Turning away from your sin because it disgusts you. You hate that your fleshly passions desire this and the inner man living under the new obedience can’t believe you’d want to live that way. This causes the inner man to curb the fleshly passions, to turn to the grace and forgiveness of God who forgives your sins in Christ. Through a genuine confession and true faith in Him, Jesus’ own obedience and righteousness are gifted freely to you! And we need this! Every week, day, hour, minute, second – because we don’t just make mistakes occasionally. We’re sinners. And Sin warrants death and eternal condemnation. That’s why we rely on Christ alone for salvation. Because the one who knew no sin became sin for us, in our place, in our stead!
Jesus frees us from the bondage of sin, not to go back to it! He doesn’t want us to be like a dog who returns back to its own vomit! He’s freed us from sin, death, and devil, that we might be in Him, and He in us. That changes us – who we are, what our identity is. And since we obviously aren’t very good at knowing instinctively how to live a God pleasing life – God gives His Word. He sends messengers. Most importantly, He gives the Holy Spirit, that you might have a new obedience to God.
Through His word, God’s singing a dirge and He invites us to mourn. Through His word, God’s playing the flute, and invites us to dance. Let’s respond rightly to His Word -for that’s what the Reformation is all about. Let’s respond to His Law with contrition, confession, and repentance. And let’s respond to His Gospel with a faith that trust Christ alone for salvation.