Do you stay up late tossing and turning because of something wrong you did?
Do you struggle with guilt and anxiety about what God will do to you?
Introducing a brand-new product made just for you: The Indulgence.
That’s right folks now you can have the assurance that your sins are forgiven on this certificate looking paper!
Display it in your living room.
Over your sofa.
On your desktop and work.
…and viola – proof that you have God’s forgiveness.
What’s that? A produce like this might cost millions? Usually it would. But now it can be yours for one easy payment of $49.95. That’s $49.95 for forgiveness assurance of up to 100 sins!
Are you heavy sinner? No worries. Get the deluxe edition for only $99.95 and double your sin count.
Need more for next month? With our new app -- you can set up recurring payments so that an indulgence will be sent to your home without having to think about it.
Want to gift one for a relative? These make great Christmas presents for the ornery teenager in your house.
And if you are order right now – we’ll throw in this mini certificate of forgiveness – good up to 10 free swear word sins – absolutely FREE!
So what are your waiting for?
Get your indulgence and get on the road to a guilt-free existence!
Because that sounded ridiculous.
Even made up.
Surely, that’s never really happened, right?
500 years ago, that’s exactly what was happening.
500 years ago, people were eating this up.
500 years ago, this ridiculous practice was the only thing that made sense.
Today we’re celebrating the Reformation – a time when God used a simple monk to reform these ideas and return the truth to the truth about forgiveness. Our goal in this sermon is: (1) learn why this buying God’s forgiveness isn’t as archaic and ridiculous as it sounds (2) see from Scripture why it’ll never work and (3) learn about the only way to know true forgiveness. Before we begin, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. Heart of the Problem
Let’s do a bit of church history. Leo X was pope in Rome. He was the head of the only Christian organization that was in existence in the early 16th century – the Roman Catholic church. And…he was getting short on money. Under his reign, he had plans to build a Cathedral – St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – a beautiful piece of architectural to help people reflect on God (and how awesome Pope Leo X was).
The problem? He had run out of money. The Medici family, who had been funding the construction of the incredible building, stopped funding the incredible building. Leo was stuck. How would he finish his basilica? How would he finish his building?
The answer was the indulgence. Pieces of paper signed by the Pope guaranteeing the buyer forgiveness for a certain number of sins. The proceeds? They would go to fund the unfinished basilica project under the following guise:
It is by INDULGENCES that you are saved.
Sound shady? It is.
Surely no one would fall fort it, right?
Enter Johann Tetzel. He might not look like much, but he was essentially the ShamWow guy of 16th century Europe. He was an infomercial king! He was a skilled orator and skilled salesmen. He would travel into towns. He’d set up shop. He’d start doing his best informercial:
Buy you’re indulgence now and you won’t have to pay for your sin in hell later.
If you aren’t worried about your sin, what about your dead Aunt Flo? What if she’s stuck in hell and this piece of paper is what springs her to heaven?
LOOK! The Pope guaranteed it. It must be true!
And Tetzel sold.
And people bought.
And people were convinced that it was by INDULGENCES that they were saved.
But...to be fair, this really isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds.
Husbands, have you ever forgotten an important event with your wife? Maybe an anniversary or a birthday or an anniversary of the first time that you ate at an Italian restaurant? What do you do? You buy some flowers, do the dishes, give his wife a massage and hope that after a few days of doing that – everything is ok.
Naturally people assume that is how it works with God. “I’ve done wrong, but I’ll just do some good things to make up for the bad things and tip the eternal scales in my favor.” It’s not surprising then that the Catholic church in the 16th century taught a version of this in their churches: It is by WORKS that you are saved.
And suddenly everyone is playing a divine game of addition and subtraction. “Let’s see. I opened the door with prayer (that’s good), but then I was rude to my wife (bad). I helped an old lady across the street (good), but I told my friends that she smelled (bad). I listened to my wife (good), but really, I was just thinking about the football game the whole time (bad).
Well, if you do this long enough you’ll realize one very important thing:
There is no peace in the spiritual balancing game of good works.
Because that was good. I think.
And that was wrong. I think.
And that was good, but then I got angry in the middle of it and ended up with more sin when I started than I had to begin with!
So what people needed was an improvement.
They needed something that was bigger.
Something that was worth more.
Something that could really outweigh sin.
Enter the church with another idea and another adjective: It is by CHURCH WORKS that you are saved.
Kinda like the Power Rangers – a bigger, better power.
The bigger better power for 16th century people was the “church work”.
Say the Lord’s prayer 10 times a day for forgiveness.
Say the Lord’s prayer in the church 10 times a day for extra forgiveness.
Buy a picture of Jesus and say the Lord’s prayer in front of that in the church for extra, extra forgiveness.
Because of this theological theory, men became monks. Women became nuns. Men took vows of silence and women took vows of celibacy. People everywhere listened to whatever the priest told them to do: Cross themselves – say 10 Hail Mary’s – hold onto a rosary real tight – even…buy an indulgence….
And suddenly, we’re back where we started. The indulgence wasn’t crazy. It was just the grossest abuse of human idea of works righteousness.
The idea that works are what save you.
An idea --- might I add – that hasn’t left us in the 21st century.
An idea – might I add – that hasn’t left the church in the 21st century.
An idea – might I add – that might not have left us.
II. The Truth about Works Righteousness
You’ve got your bulletins in your folder. There should be a blank spot. Here’s a quick question that I want you to answer. You have 30 seconds to answer.
Will you be in heaven? And if so, why?
What was your answer?
I’m a good person.
I try really hard.
I’m better than that guy.
If that was your answer, what are you basing heaven on? Yourself. Your works. Cause – that’s the exact same thing the church was telling people to do.
And maybe your answer is more sophisticated. And you said: I’m not just a good person, I serve at a church. I’ve been an usher for years. That’s how I know I’m going to heaven.
But isn’t that just basing your faith on church works? Are they really any better?
And maybe you’ve gone all the way and thought: But I gave 10% of my income at this church for years. Look at the 3rd hymnal from the front. Inside is MY Family’s name! I paid for it. And I know I’ll be in heaven because of it.
AKA – I know it, because of my indulgence.
This whole works righteousness thing is not a 16th century thing.
Because it’s a human thing.
It’ll always be around.
And it’ll always be wrong.
Because here’s what the Bible has to say about our works:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. (Ephesians 2:1)
Notice what the Bible calls us: dead. Obviously, not physically, because here we are. But spiritually dead. Think about what it means that we are spiritually dead. It means we were motionless. It means we were rotting. It means we were decomposing.
And it means we couldn’t do…anything.
Because just this past week I saw a dead squirrel on the side of the road.
Do you know what it was doing? Nuttin. (Get it?)
Bad joke aside – dead things don’t do anything.
Dead things can’t do anything.
Spiritually dead human beings cannot do anything toward spiritual salvation.
Yesterday, I was at the Food Bank. We were sorting donations of sweet potatoes. And some of them were disgusting. They were filled with mold. They were rotting. They were squishy at the touch.
And I was thinking – even the best cooks couldn’t make anything good with that stuff. If you took those rotten sweet potatoes home and mixed them and baked them and put them into the oven and made sweet potato pie -- it would still taste awful.
That’s the reality of being dead in sin – even our best – is still rotten to the core. It’s selfish. It’s done for our own sake. It’s done so that I feel good and I get closer to heaven, not simply because I love that person.
Which means we don’t earn heaven.
The only thing we have earned with our works?
We were by nature objects of wrath. (Ephesians 2:3)
Because our works are tainted by sin.
Because we are tainted by sin.
Because we are dead in sin.
And God hates sin.
To put it simply – It is by works you CANNOT BE saved.
III. The Truth About What Saves
Which is devastating.
Especially if you’ve been basing your whole eternity on your own good works.
That’s what Martin Luther had done.
Martin Luther was a 16th century man. He had gone to school to be a lawyer. He had learned that wrong was wrong and that wrong deserved punishment.
And he knew he had done wrong…and deserved punishment.
And so, he tried to do good works! But even when he did the good works he did so with a heart that hated God for making him do the good works --- thus spoiling the good works – and leaving him in worse straights than before.
So, he became a monk! He did a church work. But that didn’t help. The vows of silence didn’t keep his thoughts from sin. The time alone didn’t keep his thoughts form hating others.
So, he heard of indulgences! And he saw a promise of heaven. And he saw that with a simple paper he could have guilt removed.
And he thought - this is crazy!
And he thought – this can’t be the way!
And he thought – I wonder what the Bible has to say about this.
Now remember – back then the Bible wasn’t available in thousands of languages via a cell phone app.
It was written in 3 languages – (Hebrew, Greek and Latin) and it was only at the monastery chained to a wall. So, for centuries people just accepted whatever priests told them because they didn’t know any better.
They accepted work righteousness, because they didn’t know any better.
But when Luther was in the monastery he no longer had to accept it.
He could read it for himself.
And what he found was vastly different from what was being taught:
Because of God’s great love or us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ – even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.
Did you see that?
It’s not works righteousness at all. But something entirely different.
It says: God made us alive with Christ! It makes sense. We were dead – dead can’t do anything. Dead definitely can’t bring itself back to life.
But you know who could? How about the guy who made Jairus dead daughter sit up?
How about the guy who made a young man in a coffin stand on his feet?
How about the guy who made Lazarus dead in the grave for 4 days come walking out like he was just checking the place out on House Hunters?
How about the guy who said: “Kill me and I’ll come back to life,” so they killed him and then – he came back to life?
God made us alive with Christ! He gave us spiritual life by paying God’s wrath. He died. He suffered the payment for our sin. He suffered the complete payment for our sin!
And if you’re thinking: “But my sins are pretty big,” look at what it says here: God is rich in mercy. He’s a tycoon. He’s a gazillionaire of mercy. He has so much that it covers completely the payment for your sin! It covers completely the payment for your little sins. It covers completely the payment for your big, nasty, ugly sins that you hope no one else finds out about.
It's like Scrooge McDuck. Remember him from Duck Tales? He had this gigantic 40-story tower that he filled with gold coins. He had so many gold coins that he would put on a swim suit and go swimming in his wealth.
That’s God and his mercy. He’s swimming in mercy. He doles out that mercy to you through Jesus Christ.
But, pastor, surely, he only gives that out to the people he likes.
Surely, he only gives it out to the people who do church things.
Surely, he only gives it out to the people who do enough good church things.
Look at the passages again: Because of his God’s great love for us.
It doesn’t say: “Because we did enough good works.”
It doesn’t say: “Because we served enough cookies at church…”
It doesn’t say: “Because I said enough Hail Mary’s OR memorized the Lord’s prayer…”
It doesn’t say: “Because I gave enough money…”
Because of God’s great love.
Because he loved you.
Because he wanted to save you.
Because he loved you, he died and paid the ultimate price to save you.
It changes our salvation equation.
God’s not telling you to pay for his love.
God’s telling you that he already paid it for you:
It is by GRACE you have been saved through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God! (Eph. 2:8)
And Martin Luther? When he read this, it changed his life.
His guilt was removed.
His conscience was unburdened.
He was free.
So…On October 31st, 1517. He marched through the streets of Wittenberg. He pulled his cloak close to his nose.
He marched right up to the main doors of the castle church – the big castle church – the church that thousands attended – the doors that thousands passed.
He marched up.
He knew he’d get in some trouble.
But he also knew Jesus had gotten him out of worse trouble.
So, he pounded.
He pounded a list calling out the false teaching of indulgences and the false practices of the church.
His goal? Bring people back to the truth.
Bring people back to God’s grace.
Here we are 500 years later.
God’s grace is still the truth.
God’s grace is still what saves.
Jesus died for you.
Brothers and sisters, may we return to GRACE and NEVER leave. Because it is by grace we have been saved! Amen.