Among the 95 Theses that Martin Luther posted to the door of the Wittenberg Church on this day in 1517, is this:
62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
As Reformed Christians, we are familiar with Luther’s protest against the common Catholic practice at the time of selling indulgences. In this way the church raised money from people who were primarily poor and uneducated, by persuading them that a donation would free a loved one from purgatory.
Besides being a kind of extortion from the least able to pay, the sale of indulgences outraged Luther because it was so contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture — people are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.
These days, we don’t sell indulgences in the church. I think the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t even do it anymore. But I fear there are other things that have distracted us from the Gospel as the true treasure of the Church.
I’d like for us to turn to 2 Corinthians 4, starting at verse 7:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, by not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
What is this great treasure Paul refers to here? Let’s look at the previous verses. Paul has been talking about being a minister of a new covenant. Chapter 4, verse 1:
“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
In the church today, we feel as if we are being attacked from all sides so that we are distracted from the central purpose we have — to share the good news of the love of Christ demonstrated for us in his life, death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.
We are rightfully distressed by the “anything goes” culture around us, so we try to work within the political system for change — not realizing that we get sucked into the worldliness of politics and the lust for power. We forget that our greatest treasure isn’t political power but the Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
We rightfully want to attract the unsaved to our churches, so we spend millions of dollars to make them less “church-like” and more like big auditoriums where worship resembles a highly polished stage show. We forget that our greatest treasure isn’t in our church buildings or our slick sound and video systems, but it’s the simple Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
So … we know what our treasure is NOT. But what is the treasure that we hold so dearly in our fragile jars of clay?
The Gospel is the good news of the grace of God.
One of my favorite TV shows is “My Name is Earl.” Earl is a guy on a mission of self-redemption. He believes in Karma. Which is a Hindu principle that basically means if you do good, then good comes back to you, and if you do bad, then bad comes back to you. And Earl’s been a pretty bad guy for most of his life — not downright evil, you’d say, but selfish, and pretty much doing whatever he wanted to make life easier for himself. So Earl’s got this list of all the bad stuff he’s ever done, and each week he sets out to make amends for one of the things on his list.
Usually things go terribly, hilariously awry for Earl. He finds that it’s not always easy to make up for his past sins. But occasionally, Earl finds something that’s a lot like grace — he finds forgiveness and something more.
In one of my favorite episodes, Earl decides to apologize to a girl he made fun of in school because of her mustache. He looks her up and finds she is working as a bearded lady in the circus. She lives in a community with other circus freaks. Earl becomes friends with all of the circus people, and in the process discovers that they are much more than their physical oddities. He also helps them withdraw from their self-imposed isolation and participate in the wider world. In showing grace to others, Earl finds some for himself.
Grace is truly good news. Grace is what sets Christianity apart from every other world religion. Every religion except Christianity offers a path to earn approval from God. Only through Christ does God approach man, freely offering His love and forgiveness by faith. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, that no one should boast.”
Even after we become Christians, we need to be constantly reminded that we are saved by faith. We walk by faith. We are sanctified by faith. It is not that we are once saved by faith and then left on our own to earn God’s approval. The sacrifice of the cross is once for all, effective for all who believe for all time. Effective to save us and effective to make us more like Jesus.
Grace sets us free from the cycle of guilt when we fail to do as we should. Nothing we do can ever make God love us less. Nothing we do can ever make God love us more.
People who have received grace are also people who show grace to others. The gospel of grace is our treasure. It is so precious that we hold it ever close to our hearts. And it is so bountiful, that it cannot keep from spilling out of these humble jars of clay that are our lives. Lives saturated in the grace of God cannot help but stand out in this world. So that as we are hard pressed, perplexed or persecuted, the power our God is evident in our lives.
The Gospel is the good news of the glory of God.
The gospel glorifies God because it demonstrates:
• His perfect justice and holiness
• His perfect love and mercy
The cross shows us both aspects of God’s character. God loves us like a father loves his children. Yet our behavior repulses Him. How can this be reconciled?
By the perfect sacrifice. God Himself taking on the form of man, taking on true humanity, laying aside for a time his glory — suffering, dying and rising from the dead. Thus purchasing our redemption.
That is why, all around the throne of God, the angels and living creatures sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth, and wisdom and strength, and honor and glory and praise.”
God is glorified by using the least and the smallest and the weakest. He is glorified when the gospel is evident in our little jars of clay. For He says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” We glorify him when we live as people of grace … receivers of grace and givers of grace.
Jesus never spoke of grace directly. He talked about it in parables … a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field. And He lived it every moment … healing the sick and forgiving sinners. Grace isn’t for people who’ve got it all together. It’s for us … broken as we are. And it’s for us to show to others who are broken as we are.
“The greatest treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”
The gospel of grace was such a treasure for Martin Luther because he had become obsessed and weighed down by his sense of sin and guilt. He wrote:
“Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God. I also could not believe that I had pleased him with my works. Far from loving that righteous God who punished sinners, I actually loathed him. I was a good monk, and kept my order so strictly that if ever a monk could get to heaven by monastic discipline, I was that monk. All my companions in the monastery would confirm this … And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.”
The gospel of grace sets us free from that guilt and doubting. It sets us free to live lives that are pleasing to God out of gratitude for his love and grace. It sets us free to offer that grace to others.
Too often, we take advantage of Reformation Day to congratulate ourselves for being Reformed. “Whew! We are SOOOO glad we’re not Catholic!” There’s a not-so-subtle air of smugness and self-satisfaction in knowing that we have the truth of “saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.”
But how often have we forgotten that? We Reformed types can fall into our own little realms of legalism that are just as deadly as anything the indulgence sellers ever burdened people with. Rules. Rules that have no bearing on “sola Scriptura.” Rules about hair length, hem length, beards, mustaches, dancing, card playing, which TV shows to watch, what music to listen to, what to eat, what to drink, who to be friends with. That’s not living by grace.
If that’s the face of Christianity that we’re showing to the world, then no wonder they want no part of it. What broken people need is grace, not more rules to follow.
Let me remind you that if Spirit of God hadn’t opened your eyes, you’d be just as clueless as the people who rejected Luther’s teaching back in 1517. The gospel would still be veiled to you. We’re not the unique recipients of God’s special truth just because we’re Reformed. We don’t have a corner on the truth market. We’re just beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.
Instead of being puffed up, I hope that remembering the Reformation humbles us today. I pray that we grow in our appreciation of God’s grace toward us. And that we treat the Gospel as the treasure that it is. Even though we are just simple jars of clay, may our awareness of God’s grace be a powerful witness to those around us.