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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Saved To Serve

Reformation Sunday

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:31-36

As you read the Gospels you notice that very often Jesus is dealing with people who need correction, change, repentance, enlightenment or a new perspective on their beliefs or traditions. These people were often very religious, even leaders of the synagogues who were well versed in the scriptures. They were people who believed in God, and were intelligent enough, but they often were wrong, or misguided, or slaves to tradition.

But when Jesus tried to correct these people, He often met resistance. As we heard in our Gospel lesson, Jesus had said, “If you hold to my teachings… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And those people asked Him what on Earth He was talking about: “We’re Abraham’s descendants! We’ve never been slaves of anyone! What do you mean, we’ll be set free?”

The people who said this to Jesus were people who had believed in Him. They weren’t outsiders who needed to be converted. They had taken the first step. Now Jesus wanted them to take the next step. “If you hold to my teaching,” He said, “you are really my disciples.” Discipleship is more than a start. It’s a calling that continues. Real freedom means to continue in doing the will of God. It’s following Jesus, not just getting started!

Today is Reformation Sunday. We remember what happened over 500 years ago. God raised up a priest by the name of Martin Luther who challenged the church to recover something he felt it had neglected or covered up. The Reformation didn’t end when Luther died. The church needs to be continually reformed.

The main teaching that came out of Luther’s theology was justification by faith. Lutherans believe strongly in justification by faith. Most Christians do. The key verses of our faith are Ephesians 2:8 and 9: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Justification by faith means that we are accepted and forgiven by God, not because we are good, or because we’ve earned it, but because God loves us. Our salvation is by grace alone. We are asked to believe it, to receive it. Sinners are justified by faith in what God has done. This is expressed in one of our hymns: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Justification by faith means you can’t earn your salvation. You can’t buy it. It’s a gift. God initiates it. Jesus Christ died for it. God completes it. Salvation is a work of God!

But I wonder if our emphasis on justification by faith has stifled the call to discipleship!? So, as a result, we have churches full of people who have been baptized and confirmed, where few have taken up the cross to follow Jesus! I believe we forget the verse that follows what I called “The key verses of our faith.” Listen to the whole truth: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” We could call that step one. Then Paul continued with step two. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

In other words, we’ve been saved to serve!

The primary focus of the Christian religion is the Kingdom of God. Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God; that was His primary message. Everything else was a means to that end. His death on the cross was in order to bring the Kingdom of God to this world. God is glorified when the kingdom comes. And so, we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”

Everything we do and teach in the church needs to be examined by how it leads us to join God, so that the kingdom might come. That’s what God’s love is about. That’s what justification by faith is about.

But, as I asked a few minutes ago, has our emphasis on justification by faith stifled the call to discipleship? Has it served as an escape from doing the “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”? Has grace become cheap? Has justification become an end in itself?

Let me give you some examples of what I mean:

A distorted emphasis on justification by faith has resulted in a church that gathers people who believe in God but are not following Jesus. We have insisted so much that our works won’t save us, that there’s too little emphasis on the call to follow Christ. My Greek professor, Dr. Voelz, liked to tell the story of the old Lutheran man who was dying. His pastor asked him if he was ready to die. “Yes, I am,” he assured the pastor.” The pastor wasn’t convinced, based on the life old Joe had lived, so he asked him, “Are you saved, Joe?” “Yes, pastor, I’m sure I’m saved.” Still not convinced, the pastor asked him, “How do you know you’re saved?” And old Joe said, “Pastor, I know I’m saved; I’ve never done a good work in my life!” 😊

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it well in his book, “The Cost of Discipleship”: “We Lutherans have gathered like eagles ‘round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison that killed the life of following Christ… We have given away the Word and Sacraments wholesale; we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without asking awkward questions or insisting on strict conditions… We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus was hardly ever heard.”

The emphasis on justification by faith, while neglecting Jesus’ call to “Come, follow me,” has led to an individualistic, private kind of religion. Many people see salvation as only “me and Jesus.” But they fail to realize that when you let Jesus come into your life, He never comes alone! He always brings your neighbor with Him!

We have 311 members on our congregation list, counting men, women, and children. Out of 311, about 108 come at least 12 times a year – with a few more coming a couple of times a year for some reason or other. Out of the 108 that we’re not surprised to see on a Sunday morning, our average attendance is 88 – including visitors and guests. Why? For one reason, many people see the church as a place where we can slip in and slip out, without any commitment to the Christian community. After all, they’re justified by their individual faith. They say, “My faith is between me and God. I can worship God as well or better on the golf course or in my bed. I don’t need the church.” That is heresy!!

A distorted use of justification by faith has resulted in Christians accepting the cultural and moral values of society, with little concern about justice and righteousness. For example, a few of us started a “Lutherans for Life” chapter here about 3 years ago, because we want to educate people about the decaying values in our country regarding abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, and to give support to women in crisis pregnancy situations. Though there are no set dues to belong to this national organization of our church body – you can be a member for a dollar a year if you want – there are still only a few of us that care enough to join. So, the group has no real voice! Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matt. 25:45)

One more example: A distorted use of justification by faith too often means failing to teach about the judgment found in the scriptures. No one wants to be called a “hellfire and brimstone” preacher. I certainly don’t want that reputation. Pastors don’t want to send people home feeling guilty or upset, or they will probably quit the church! So, we’ve bent over backward to avoid the word of judgment. We don’t talk about the weeping and gnashing of teeth like Jesus did. But isn’t the cross about God’s judgment, as well as God’s grace? But we’d rather hear a word of promise, not judgment!

The scriptures, for example, say that to withhold the tithes from God is to rob God, and robbing God brings judgment. But we say, “Give what you want and then ask God to forgive you. After all, we’re justified by faith, not works!”

So, what do we say to all this? Is there any good news? Of course, there is! We need God’s forgiveness, and His grace is there for us. God will forgive us. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in what Jesus accomplished on the cross!

Why? So that we might be faithful in our worship of Him. So that we will serve Him by serving our neighbor. So that we might accomplish the works we’re to do as our share in the work of God’s kingdom. So that we might take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The good news is that God has not given up on us. The call to follow Jesus is still heard. Jesus comes to us today as He came to the Jews who believed in Him, and He says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples, then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

We are justified by faith. That’s God’s business. Now we’re called to continue in God’s way by serving others. That’s our business. May God help us!


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