Summary: No, we're not saved by our works, but GOD's works!
If you had the chance to look at the bulletin before the service and noticed the sermon theme, you may be a bit puzzled. “Saved by Works”? How can a Lutheran pastor preach about being saved by works, and on Reformation of all Sundays! Today is when you expect to hear how Martin Luther rediscovered the biblical truth that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus, not saved by any of our efforts. But I stand by my sermon theme because we are saved by works – God’s works of course. Our sermon text from Romans 3 highlights what those works are and teaches us that while we have no hand in securing our eternal salvation, we can be absolutely certain of it.
Let me continue by reviewing a little Reformation history with you. Most historians mark October 31, 1517 as the beginning of the Reformation. That’s when a German monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses or statements on a church door which served as a bulletin board for academics in the eastern German town of Wittenberg. Luther was concerned that the church in his day taught that one could get right with God if he tried hard enough to obey God’s commands. Luther had tried that. He had even left behind a promising career as a lawyer to join a monastery. But instead feeling satisfied that he was well on his way to heaven because of choices like these, Luther felt himself sliding uncontrollably towards God’s eternal anger, like a wagon full of potatoes careening down a hill towards a mighty oak tree. The reason Luther felt this way is because the better acquainted he became with God’s law, the better able he was to see his sin. That’s the point that the Apostle Paul was getting at in our text when he wrote: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20).
As I watch our new building being constructed, I’m glad to see how often the workmen use a level. This instrument lets them know when they’ve poured too much concrete in one area or nailed a piece of wood at the wrong angle. Without a level, the church floor would slant and the concrete crack. Likewise God wants us to line ourselves up next to the straight edge of his law and commands. What will it show? Just how crooked we are! Unfortunately we don’t usually compare our actions and attitudes with God’s law as carefully as Luther did. We’re like the boy who scrubs his hands and therefore thinks he’s ready and “washed” for dinner, but when his mother sees him she sends him back to the washroom. Why? Because his face is smeared with mud – something the boy wouldn’t have missed had he bothered to look in the mirror (David Kuske).
Likewise I may pat myself on the back for having regular family devotions, but conveniently overlook how I’m often just trying to get through them as if reading God’s Word is not a blessing but an obligation, like reading the kids’ school agendas. What sins would the law reveal if you would carefully line it up next to your life? How about the disappointment you feel when no one thanks you for the meal you made? You’re disappointed because you believe that you ought to be recognized for the kind things you do for others. But doesn’t this attitude reveal how egocentric you really are? You think that the world does revolve around you. The straight edge of God’s law also reveals that sin doesn’t start when we misuse our hands by punching a sibling for example; it starts when we misuse what we’ve got between the ears like when we entertain sinful thoughts (John Jeske).
If I have not hit upon a sin that you struggle with, then consider this verse from our text. “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Paul did not say “all of them have sinned.” He said “all have sinned.” ALL - not just the mafia in Russia, or the terrorists of the Middle East, or the drug dealers downtown. I have sinned. You have sinned. We ALL fall short of God’s approval because we harbor bitterness, shave the truth to our advantage, fail to put the best construction on our sister’s words, and roll our eyes when our parents ask us to do something. God should chuck sinners like us onto the rubbish heap just as you would throw a rotten tomato into the compost rather than judging it “good enough” to serve to guests. And this is where Luther was stuck for many years. He knew he deserved to be punished for his sins. And so he tried harder to be better behaved but continued to fail and continued to despair of any hope of eternal salvation.