On this second Sunday in our sermon series on the core tenets of the Reformation, we are taking a look at what was meant by Luther's statement, "sola fide" - by faith alone. Now, as I mentioned last week, none of these five solas which are printed on the front of your bulletin fully captures the message of the Reformation...it takes all of them - intertwined together to do that. So, today, as we look at faith, it is, by definition, related to grace, in that we are saved by grace through faith- not of our own doing.
For Martin Luther and his reformation colleagues, this message had been lost within the church. Salvation and righteousness through faith had given over to a works-oriented doctrine known as the practice of indulgences - which was basically the use of money or good deeds in order to purchase a higher status with God. More specifically, in the middle ages, Christians could pay money to the church in order to buy indulgences for their deceased loved ones. The benefit of an indulgence was that it was believed to reduce the amount of punishment one received for their sins while in Purgatory. So, in essence, forgiveness was purchased, rather than given freely by God. It could also be earned by doing good deeds.
I am not an expert on Catholic theology, so it's not clear to me whether these indulgences were always for someone else, or if you could store some up for yourself when you die. Either way, the practice of purchasing indulgences ended in 1567 so you can't buy them today. I'm not sure whether they can still be earned by good deeds though.
Needless to say, Luther was outraged by this practice. ..particularly in light of Paul's letters. For the Reformation movement, the heart of the gospel is this: there is not one thing we can do to earn or lose God's forgiveness or our salvation. It is a gift from God. Likewise, we cannot earn, work or buy our righteousness, It, too, is a gift. Therefore, the reformers believed it was an abuse of power and position for the church to require anything...money or deeds or for the sacraments to be carried out in a certain way in order for God's grace to be effective.
Grace already is effective. Mercy is. The unconditional love of God is. The salvation promised to the Jews, extended to the gentiles...is. All of it already is. Not by what we do, but by what God has done through Jesus Christ.
Conditional grace, based on what we give or do or say, was one of the greatest points of contention for the Reformation...but long before that...it was Paul's was preaching against it to the first century Christians.
Granted, the leaders at the various churches in the region were not in the practice of receiving indulgences, but there was most certainly a similar mindset among some of the early Christians. You see, there was a thought among some that to be Jewish and circumcised earned one favor over the Gentile Christians who were not circumcised. There was a thought among Christians that to observe certain dietary restrictions was to be more favored than those who did not. There was a thought among early Christians that to know and believe certain things was to be more favored by God.
Sadly some things may never change. I mean, even now, among Christians, we are guilty of thinking that certain beliefs, politics, or actions make us more Christian than those who do not share our beliefs and politics or those who take a different action. If you don't believe this is true, take a look at the social media chatter after last week's NFL games.
But folks, according to Paul's understanding of the gospel, all sin and all fall short of the glory of God. No one has it right...no one gains righteousness by their own power or doing. No one gets to boast. Following the Torah Law, breaking the Torah Law, being complete outside the Law...none of it brings salvation or righteousness. As one translation of this scripture passage says," For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are."
This was the message Paul wanted the church to know...it's the message that Luther wanted the church to know...and it is the lesson we still need to know. Our salvation...our righteous...our new transformed life...these do not come to us because of what we do...they are a gift to us because of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ. God's grace saves us. God's grace transforms us. God's grace makes us righteous before him. All of which has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ...through his obedient faith in God and in God's salvation covenant...the unwavering faith which led him to the cross and into death.
This is the faith by which we receive God's grace. Jesus' faith which revealed God grace to the world...faith which fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and sealed the covenant between God and God's people. The faith by which the world was radically and fundamentally changed forever. All thanks be to God.
Last week, we talked about how God's gift of grace is the transformative force that moves us from the state of sin and deadness (the once you were state) to the now you are state..one of new life, wholeness and peace? I think we called grace the bridge between the two....well, this thing we call faith is how get across that bridge.
So exactly what is faith? Most people would say that it means to trust...or to believe. But, I wonder do you think that those words carry with them some level of decision on our part? Like, I choose to trust or not trust. I choose to believe or not believe. Yet, if we say that faith is a gift from God, then do we really choose to have it or is it more about the state of our spirit? It's a difficult theological question, to which I don't necessarily know the answer.
However, I do know this...we cannot force ourselves to have faith in God. Scripture is clear that like grace, faith is a gift. If there is something we do in order to have faith, it is that we must open ourselves up to God's Spirit at work in us...creating and growing our faith. We must be willing to do our part.
I remember having a conversation once with a very bright young man...raised in the church...lived a life that was very kind and compassionate, accepting of others, slow-to-anger, all those wonderful virtues...but he said he did not have faith in God. He lived this way because it felt right, but he did not consider it to be in response to God's love. He wasn't sure that there is a God much less that God loved him personally. When I asked him more about it, he said, "I wish I believed in God...I wish I had faith...it would be so much easier to say that I do...but I don't. And I can't make myself have it."
This was heartbreaking to hear...but it was also very telling. This wasn't just a rebellious young man denying God. This was someone who was really troubled by his lack of faith at that point in his life. His honesty made me think about others who may have at one point or another struggled with their faith.
It's not as uncommon as one might think. Many people, when devastated by tragedy, betrayal, loss, find that their faith is shaken. They want to have faith in Christ...to trust in his promises...but they struggle to make it so. This is especially true when the path out of the situation is unclear...when it seems that no one understands or cares...when the pain is so deep it feels as if it will ever end. We lose hope...and our faith is compromised.
Perhaps some of us have been there ourselves...I know I have.
Hebrews 11 says that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see...but I suspect I'm not alone in saying that I've had my own moments of doubt and uncertainty. You know, times in our lives when God feels so far away...and our faith-life, as we like to call it, is dull or non-existent. Those of us who have experienced the reality of weak faith are ever so grateful that our salvation and righteousness do not depend on our ability to have perfect faith. Thanks be to God, Jesus has taken care of that for us.
However, living fully into our salvation and righteousness in the here-and-now does require us to have faith in Jesus Christ...to be sure of his gospel...to hope in God's promises...to believe Jesus teachings...to trust in his power, not our own. As I said earlier, it is faith that allows God's grace to transform us.
Likewise, as we read in the passage from James, our transformed lives will reveal our faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, folks, we should never really ever have to say we have faith in Jesus, our lives should clearly show it. When our faith is in Christ, our works, our actions, or deeds, whatever you want to call it...our living out...will reflect the One in whom we place our trust.
We will display his compassion. We will provide his ministry to the poor. We will offer the same radical welcome he offered to those who were considered outcasts and sinners. We will love the way Jesus loved, not so we will be loved...not so we will be saved...not so we will be deemed righteous. We will do it because we already are.
But what about the reality of times when our faith is weak? What do we do then? The short answer is that we pray...we ask God to increase it. We ask the Holy Spirit to grow our faith and help us live out the faith we proclaim...to make it real in our lives.
But...here's the thing about that request for more faith...asking God for more faith is sort of like asking God for more patience. The only way we can know that we have patience...is to be in situations where we must demonstrate our increased patience. The same seems to be true with faith. If we ask God to increase our faith, it's not likely that God is going to say OK...your faith is increased and leave it that. No, God is going to allow us to continue to find ourselves in need of faith and will increase it as we need it. And apparently folks, according to scripture, we don't need all that much faith to create amazing transformation...only the size of a mustard seed. According to scripture, even that amount will move mountains.
So, when we are buried in the depths of doubt and uncertainty...when we are feeling alone and afraid...when we're overwhelmed and don't feel God's presence...all it takes is a tiny step toward faith...be that an ask...or a specific act of faith...and God will increase it.
Nonetheless, for those occasional times when we can't take that first step forward, all is not lost. There are some proven things we can do, in addition to praying, that will help renew and strengthen our faith. For one thing, faith increases when we remember God's faithfulness...when we remember what God has done for his people...how God has provided. Faith increases when we remember the stories...stories from scriptures and stories from the lives of others around us. The more we remember stories about how God is kind and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, the more we will have faith in that love for us. The more we remember stories of God healing and welcoming and restoring people to community through Jesus...the more we will have faith that he will do the same for us.
Likewise, witnessing someone living out their faith in God can also help bolster our own. For example, let's say you're facing a difficult medical diagnosis and struggling to have faith that God is with you. When you see another person with similar concerns be confident in God providence, it gives you a boost of hope...and faith in our own situation. When we surround ourselves with those who live their faith, we are inspired toward faith.
Our faith also seems to increase when we express gratitude. Finding just the littlest evidence of hope and being thankful for it goes a long, long way toward increasing our faith.
Finally, when our faith is lacking, we might just have to, as they say, fake it 'til we make it. Now, to be honest...I'm not sure if this is scriptural or not, but it's been my experience that sometimes when our faith is weak, we have to just rally the tiny little glimmer that we have...take the leap...and see what happens. God will not fail to provide what we need. He never has and he never will.
Rest assured: For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith and this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God. All glory be to God. Amen.