Matthew 22:15-22 (34-46)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (2:1-8)
Picture with me the most evil person you can. Historic or not. The most evil.
Got them in mind?
Okay, now, if, on their death bed, they have a change of mind and soul, and had faith in Jesus – would they go to heaven? Even with having not one single good deed their entire life?
If you answer yes – you may be Protestant.
If you answered no – you may be Roman Catholic.
The 500th Anniversary of the start of the Reformation is this October 31st. And it is from that time we get the phrase ‘Sola fide,’ faith alone, and salvation through faith alone is the a root of the division among Protestants and Roman Catholics.
But back in 1517, there was no division here in the Western church. But there was a monk named Martin Luther who was thinking that no matter what he did, he wouldn’t get into heaven.
He could never be good enough.
Martin Luther was from a middle class family in what is now Germany. At his parents’ wish, Martin went into law to be a lawyer. But it’s not where his heart lay. He was obsessed with religion. But the clergy couldn’t marry and carry on family names and lineages. Lawyers could. Clergy gave up their lands. Lawyers did not.
One day, Martin, as a young man, was caught in a thunderstorm and lightening was hitting the ground all around him. He felt his life flashing before his eyes- quite literally. So he cried out to Saint Anne – save me! Pray to God for me! If you save me from this storm, I will be a monk! I’ll stop running away from religion! And the storm subsided. Martin wasn’t injured. So several days later, he left law school and joined a monastery.
To say his parents were happy is a bold faced lie.
Martin still loved studying, and read everything he could to do about religion.
“Many Christians of the late Middle Ages had a great fear of demons and devils, and were terrified of ending up in hell. Mortality rates were high and life was very uncertain due to disease, accidents, childbirth and wars. Luther shared those fears and his first years in the monastery he was tormented with the idea that all men were hopeless sinners in the sight of God and unworthy of salvation… Luther followed all the requirements of the cloister – prayer, fasting, living a spartan life – but carried everything to such an extreme that his superiors were worried about him.
He wore out his confessor with marathon sessions of confessing, going over every thought in detail, then starting again from the beginning. His confessor, Father Staupitz,” – think of that for a moment. His name is Stop-Itz! And stop-it is just what he told Luther. He said, “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive- parricide, blasphemy, adultery -instead of all these peccadilloes.” ((https://www.uncommon-travel-germany.com/martin-luther-biography.html))
And still the weight of feeling unworthy before God weighed so heavily on Martin Luther.
See, the church taught that when one was truly sorry for their sins, and confessed them, a representative of God could forgive those sins.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Then a person had to pay back to debt they owed God for the sins. Every sin carries a different weight of debt, and priests sometimes kept books with lists of sins and what the debt was for that sin.
Lie? Pray 10 Hail Marys with your rosary.
Kill someone? Time to go on a Crusade and offer your life in return for the life you took. Or pay for someone else to go on a Crusade in your stead.
Other ways of paying off debt, for yourself or on behalf of others (like, say, your son or daughter), was to go view or touch relics. Relics are an item a holy person owned, or a piece of that holy person. By being in their presence, it’s like some of their holiness could wear off on you. And you could pray to them, or to other saints, to intercede for you. To talk with God on your behalf. And to negotiate to lower that amount you owe for all those sins.
And you could visit holy sites, pilgrimages.
And you could give money or land or even your children to the church.
But was it ever enough? How could you be sure you were going to heaven and not hell?
It wasn’t ever enough for Martin Luther.
He wrote, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”
He realized that even if he sat doing nothing, he was still sinning. Sloth. Or he was thinking unholy thoughts. Or he could have been doing something charitable and he wasn’t.
And he couldn’t pay off the debt of Original Sin.
And always feeling like he was a worm, and nothing, and never good enough for God, and feeling God was punishing people in life and in death, made the monk Martin Luther begin to hate God.
Could anyone make it to heaven? Luther was beginning to think the answer was no.
He wasn’t the only one. Perhaps pastorally, somewhere between Jesus and Martin Luther, the church had begun to teach about Purgatory.
Where would a death-bed confession from an evil person send that soul? The church 500 years ago likely would have answered “Did that person receive forgiveness for their sins after confessing faith, and their sins, and asking for forgiveness? If yes – they had Final Rights… then they died without sin… but with a MAJOR debt. So they are not perfect enough for heaven, but may be given the opportunity to choose purgatory versus hell.”
Everyone Luther saw was going to purgatory because everyone was sinning. Purgatory is where those sins are purged, removed, and soul made fully clean. It was hell, but temporary hell versus the hell of eternity.
So how long does someone end up in temporary hell? It depends on what the living on earth do for the departed. Praying for the dead, giving offerings in their names, lighting candles for them, or getting Indulgences. These are given by clergy as a remission, a payment, of some of the time owed. Sometimes it was wrote out as “The name signed below is given an indulgence of 40 years.” Meaning, it was worth as if the person had lived 40 years as a good Christian.
Remember – we are talking about teachings 500 years ago. Modern Roman Catholic ideas on purgatory and indulgences and heaven and hell are, of course, 500 years more advanced and changed and refined. Just as none of us -I hope!- today preach and think just like Martin Luther… who really hated farmers and Jews, among many other categories of people.
Anyways – hell below, heaven above, and purgatory in between is how Martin Luther’s world understood things. The sinful and unrepentant below, the sinful but repentant in the middle, and the sinless and united with Jesus above.
If you answered that if someone has faith in Jesus before they die, that they’ll be in heaven… regardless if the whole rest of their lives they were evil…Then you’re thinking like Martin Luther in his later years.
After decades of beating himself up, Martin Luther read the works of Saint Augustine, from 300 AD. And he read the book of Romans extensively. Older Luther wrote, “I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’
Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.” (Luther’s Writings 34:336-337)
Martin Luther had discovered “sola fide,” Faith alone. The righteous live by faith.
Faith alone, in Christ alone, means God alone gives grace, gives salvation.
No one is good enough for heaven. But God chooses to look at us as if we are Jesus, if we have faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. No works, no deeds, no payments, no prayers, nothing we do on Earth, or in purgatory, will ever cleanse us of all sin. But God loves us anyways. And we can receive this gift of love, which we cannot lose, if we accept Jesus as our Savior. Jesus stands in for all that sin debt.
Martin Luther was so happy and released from his torment that he told EVERYONE about his discovery. We’re going to talk next week about how not everyone thought Martin Luther’s sharing was caring.
This week – we’re looking at sola fide. At solo, only, alone fidelity, faith, or trust.
Luther’s revelation is that NO ONE is good enough for heaven. NO ONE can get to heaven on their own merits. You can’t be a good enough person to stand in the presence of God. Somehow, in someway, you’re always carrying sin. Not a single person living or dead besides Christ is sinless.
But… Jesus promises us life with God, and reunion. So how is that possible?
It must be, Martin concludes, that even though we are sinners, and guilty – God chooses to look at us as if we are Jesus.
And we have to trust this.
No dogmas, no creeds, no teachings, no indulgences, no special prayers get us into heaven. Nothing we do gets us there. This is God’s gift and in faith we receive it through Christ.
That also means there is no one more or less holy, more or less worthy. You either have faith, and receive the gift offered to you – or you don’t and reject the gift. And if received… there isn’t an organization to heaven.
You can’t be the first or the last in heaven. We’re equals. The greatest sinner and the greatest saint are all equals.
So, you might think like Paul – and ask – why should we ever live a life of love and charity then, if love and charity don’t give us rewards?
Some Protestants answered, like the Methodist, that good works are our way of becoming holy and ready for heaven while alive.
But Luther’s answer was we can’t be perfect. Instead, good works, faith works, are our response to God’s love. It is our work to bring the Reign of God closer. It is our voluntary choice to walk closer to God’s Way.
So Jesus, today, in our scripture, tells us to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.
What belongs to God? Our hearts, souls, and minds.
What more we give is out of love and in response to God’s love. It is not required. It is not demanded. It will not earn us Heaven because Heaven is already gifted to us – and we cannot get “more” or it or “less” of it.
So… it is a lie that you have to tithe to be Christian. It is a lie that you have to give money to a church to get into heaven. It is also a lie that willing money to a church safeguards you a place in heaven. Churches promising you a place in the afterlife that have a price tag attached are churches abusing your faith and… working as a cult.
God wants your hearts, souls, and minds. If you choose to support your church, that is your choice. It ain’t giving you more heaven.
It is a lie that if Betty gets 100k likes on Facebook God is going to heal her. Betty is a precious child of God and God wants to best for her whether she gets 100k digital thumbs up or none. Facebook pages doing this gather up all your likes, and then sell the page that used to belong to ‘Betty’ to another business, who changes the name, and then fills your Facebook feed with their advertisements. (Because you clicked ‘like’ on the page when it was for Betty.)
Don’t give Betty a thumbs up. Give a local charity money, or time, or donations if you feel moved to compassion.
What about the posts and messages saying “FORWARD IF YOU LOVE JESUS! Forward to 10 people in 5 minutes to prove you love the Lord!”
Nothing you post, don’t post, forward, or don’t forward, proves your love to God. Don’t get trapped in the guilt and in the manipulation. Don’t start thinking your deeds – or lack thereof – predicates, determines, whether or not you’re heaven-bound.
Salvation, peace, unity, reunion with God is through faith alone.
Trust you are loved.
And let that trust, that love, guide your actions.
Let your deeds be faith deeds. Deeds you do out of your faith – not guilt deeds, or shame deeds, or hoping-for-more-heaven-deeds.
You’re good enough. Right now. You’re good enough tomorrow and tomorrow and eternally. God loves you. Right now.
No signing on the dotted line, honking, cross-wearing, movie-watching, radio-station listening, political candidate support or anything else required.
The classical Protestant belief is that faith alone is all that is required.