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Guilt, justice and the power of forgiveness

October 30, 2009 No Comment

by Robert Bugbee

Our evangelical Lutheran church was started in the strangest way. It didn’t begin at a conference table or by decree of a high-placed cleric. It began with a monk, agonizing with his face down on the stone floor of a monastery cell. “My sin, my sin,” he moaned. “Who could ever rescue me from it?”

Martin Luther received his answer after a long period of praying, studying and wrestling. It came shining through God’s words, especially those recorded by St. Paul in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”. No mention here of your fasting, your praying, your church-going. Nothing about your effort at all! Everything comes from the Gospel, the Good News flash of the Jesus who laid His life down in your place, and was then raised from the dead by the glory of His Father. Everything comes through the sounding of this Good News. It goes to work on rebellious hearts, giving us sincere sorrow over the sins of our lives and childlike trust in Christ, our Rescuer. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

Lutheran Christians pause each year on October 31 (or the Sunday before it) to remember the time when that monk began to “go public” with this message. At times their commemoration went off the track, almost making it seem as though Martin Luther is the big star of Reformation Day, or as if our Lutheran churches had a reason to be proud or arrogant toward others. If those kinds of things were the focus of Reformation Day, then we should probably do away with it.

You’ll find the heartbeat of this festival perhaps best of all in the beautiful Holy Gospel reading appointed for Reformation Day, John 8:31-36. “If you continue in my Word,” said Jesus, “you are really my disciples” (vs. 32). A few verses later, Our Lord declares, “…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (vs. 36). It’s great Good News from God! If the Jesus who bled and died for you calls you free—you are free! Even if persuasive voices in our society tell you it’s deluded and foolish to waste your time with such an old-fashioned faith, you’re free! If your guilt feelings keep saying you’re worthless and God could not possibly want you, you’re free! The shed blood of Jesus bought and paid for your freedom. It is brought near to you by the Word that comes from God, who does not lie.

Lately I’ve followed newspaper pieces where articulate voices push the idea that churches ought to give up on a strong Gospel message, because it doesn’t work any more. Writers claim contemporary people aren’t interested in such things. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m convinced that much of the church today is in trouble precisely for the opposite reason. It’s become far too common to walk away from the Scriptural message calling people everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to Christ for pardon. The message sorely needed by the world is far more specific than vague talk about our love of other people, or some generic brand of acceptance and inclusivity. The message containing God’s dynamite takes people to the wounds of Jesus, the cross of Jesus, and the open tomb of Jesus.

By this ancient Gospel—which is always fresh and new—Christ sets people free from sin. He begins freeing them from their guilt. He even frees them from the rat race of following fads about what gives life meaning. That’s the real glory of Reformation Day, brought to light again nearly 500 years ago by a little-known monk and his co-workers. When our churches proclaim this Christ … faithfully and winsomely … in their own midst and to their neighbours, the Son just keeps doing His liberating thing. Let’s not be ashamed of it, nor grow tired of this Good News.

As Reformation Day comes again, the holy writer has strong guidance about how to celebrate our heritage in a healthy way: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life … and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

Rev. Robert Bugbee is president of Lutheran Church–Canada

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