Can I Know That I Am Accepted?

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Sun, 10/29/2017 - 8:15pm

Can I Know That God Accepts Me?

Romans 3:21-28


Steve Hollaway

Harbor Church

October 29, 2017, Reformation Sunday


            This month we are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, marked from the day before All Saints’ Day in 1517 when Martin Luther supposedly posted his 95 debating points on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, for public discussion. More importantly, those challenges to the practices and authority of the Roman Catholic Church were published widely using the newly invented printing presses, and Luther became the first media celebrity.

            As a historical event, the Reformation is about authority. Luther took authority away from the Pope and the traditions of the church, and gave it to the scriptures and thus to the consciences of those who read the Bible in their own language. Much of the history is political: the breakup of the Roman church which had dominated most of Europe, the rise of nationalism and Luther’s alliances with certain princes and their armies. There were some dark sides to Luther’s movement, including wars declared against Jews and peasants and the Anabaptists, who were more radical than Luther in their theology. But for this morning, let’s put that aside.

            The core question for Luther was not political but personal. The question he struggled with as a young adult was “How can I know that I am forgiven?” How can I know that I am right with God? How can I know that I am accepted?

            Those are questions that haven’t gone away, because we know, as Luther did, that even if much about God is hidden to us, one thing we know is that God is holy and good. We know that God is better than we are. We each come to understand that far from meeting God’s moral standards, we don’t even meet our own moral standards. Assuming that the universe operates on a principle of karma or “you reap what you sow” or “what goes around comes around,” we are in big trouble.

            You don’t even have to know the word “sin” to understand that you are out of synch with your own ideals and the best version of yourself. Most of us sense that we are out of touch with something beyond ourselves. We are not all that we were intended to be, and we live in a world that is not “the way it’s supposed to be.” Does anyone other than a narcissist say that he’s never needed to be forgiven? Does anyone look at the world through such rose-colored glasses that she says that “everything is beautiful” just as it is.

            Luther grew up in medieval Catholicism, which was strong on guilt and ritual and superstition. Like both Catholic and Lutheran kids today, he grew up feeling guilty. For Martin, it was worse than for most. He was driven both by a desire to be good and by a demanding father, so he went to the university and was starting law school, full of doubt about whether this would deal with his fundamental questions. One day in the woods he was struck by ball lightning, scared out of his wits, and promised God that if God rescued him, he would become a monk. Maybe, on some level, that’s what Martin wanted to do, to work on the questions that really mattered to him.

            But in the monastery, he drove the abbot crazy. He would confess his sins every day, sometimes several times a day or for hours at a stretch. He never seemed to be able to believe that he was forgiven. He knew that there was still desire in him to do things that were wrong, so how could he be reconciled to God? Fortunately for Luther, he was so intelligent that he was sent to do his Ph.D. in Bible and tasked with teaching the New Testament. It was while he was teaching a class on Romans that a light went on for him. He encountered—in a way he never had in his church experience—the way the Apostle Paul formulated the good news of Jesus Christ. It became clear to Luther that Paul the sinner had become confident that his sin had been forgiven by God once and for all because of what Jesus did on the cross. The way we become right with God is not by striving to follow the rules but by having in faith in what God unilaterally did for us. This is not what church tradition had taught him, so Luther pushed to get back to basics, back to the Bible and the good-news message of forgiveness. In Germany, Lutheran churches are still called “evangelical,” from the Greek word euangelion, which means good news.

            It changes everything about your Christian experience if instead of striving to do enough good works to make yourself acceptable to God, you start with the understanding that God has already accepted you—that the penalty for your sins has been taken care of, once and for all, by Jesus’ sacrifice, so there is nothing keeping you from being accepted by God now, and nothing to keep you out of heaven. Does God want a life of good deeds of mercy and justice? Sure, but that life is a result of our experience of God’s mercy and justice, not a way to get to that standing with God. Human life is not about being good enough for God to love you. Human life starts with the reality of God’s love and the only way we can wind up without God’s love is if we choose to reject it. If we insist on seeing life as a moral rat-race or hamster-wheel, we will never experience the joyful life God intends for us. God has lifted us up out of the rat race and placed us in high meadows beside still waters. God has set us free from the Devil, whom Luther and the New Testament understood to be the Accuser, the one who puts in our heads all those thoughts about how God cannot love us.

            Maybe that way of thinking about God making us right with himself—out of sheer grace and by means of faith—is old hat to you, but it certainly wasn’t the Christianity that Luther had experienced. He experienced a church that was still under law, not the good news of grace. He experienced a church that had a check list of things you had to do and a running tally of merits you’d earned for your good deeds.

            It is very hard to talk about Luther and the Reformation without sounding anti-Catholic. We like to think that the post-Vatican II Church has changed a lot—and it has—but there are still fundamental teachings that are at odds with Luther and—I would say—the Apostle Paul in Romans. Let me mention just four bullet points of Catholic doctrine still taught today:

  • Humans cooperate with God for our salvation; we do our part and God adds the rest, which is called grace.
  • We are judged on the basis of good works.
  • There is not just one sacrifice on the cross; there are continual sacrifices offered by priests in the Eucharist.
  • Forgiveness is a sacrament regulated by the church rather than God’s personal response to our repentance.

Luther taught sola gratia: we are saved by grace alone, not by our own effort. He taught sola fides:we receive that gracious forgiveness by faith alone, and not on the basis of good works. The one sacrifice God provided on the cross is the final sacrifice which made all of us right with God, so no other sacrifice is needed. Forgiveness is the free gift of God and does not require a priest to mediate between God and us.

            A few years ago, the Roman Catholic Church and a union of Lutheran churches issued a joint statement on “Justification by Faith.” The media attention made it sound like the Catholics had declared “Luther was right,” but unfortunately the emphasis on the human element in salvation comes through loud and clear in that statement. The Vatican has specifically said that none of the condemnations of Protestant doctrine adopted in the Council of Trent (1554-65) have changed. They can’t be changed. Here are three of those condemnations that are still believed, at least officially:

Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification . . . let him be condemned.

Canon XII: If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy, which remits sin for Christ’s sake, or that it is this trust alone by which we are justified, let him be condemned.

Canon XIV: If anyone says that a man is absolved and justified because . . . he confidently believes that he is absolved and justified . . . and that through this faith alone absolution and justification is effected, let him be condemned.

            My whole life as a pastor has taken place in areas that were majority Catholic. I’ve met progressive Catholics and charismatic Catholics, but most of the time when I’ve asked Catholic believers, “Do you think you are going to heaven?” the response has been “I hope so,” or “I hope I’m good enough.” I’ve participated in ecumenically-oriented Catholic funerals where I was asked to give the eulogy and share Communion. But at most Catholic funerals the emphasis was that the deceased was saved by the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist along with penance and extreme unction. And among the laypeople, the general view is that Mrs. X is going to heaven because she was a good person.

            Here’s what I’ve also found: many of the mainline Protestants in those same areas also believe that your relationship to God depends on “being a good person.” God is some kind of Scorekeeper in the Sky. Remember the oft-quoted football poem by Grantland Rice, from over 100 years ago:

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.

These people are living under the law and not under grace.

On the other hand, many of the evangelical Protestants in those areas have believed that “accepting Jesus” is a work necessary to salvation. They use the nonbiblical image of “inviting Jesus into your heart” and insist that those who have not done it are not saved.

            The truth is that we are made right with God neither by good works nor by some act of believing on our part. We are made right with God by what God did in offering Jesus as a sacrifice. Faith is not something you do to save yourself; faith is believing that God has already saved you by what God did. You are made right with God by God’s grace made effective in our lives by our faith. We receive the gift of being accepted by God by believing that we are accepted on the basis of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice, not by anything that we did to earn it. That is the core of what Luther’s Reformation was about, and it is what Luther said is the heart of the gospel, found in the verses we read from Romans 3.

            The experience of grace is the experience of coming to understand deep down—deeper than rational propositions—that God loves you and has accepted you. I like the way the German-American Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich expressed this in a sermon published in 1948 with the title “You Are Accepted.” He was trying to speak to nonbelievers at midcentury in the language of existential thought and psychology rather than biblical jargon. I still find his words moving, and I want to close with a small piece of that sermon:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”