Summary: Reformation Sunday sermon -- you have a choice between performance-based religion or a pardon-based relationship.

The Greatness of God’s Grace

Romans 5:20-21

Rev. Brian Bill


Note: I used the sermon by Ray Pritchard called, “Martin Luther’s Highway to Heaven” for background information for this opening first-person monologue:

Good morning. My name is Marty. I’d like to tell you a little about my story. I grew up knowing about God but when I was 21-years-old I had a life-changing experience. One day I was out walking on the road during a thunderstorm and was struck by lightning. I knew I wasn’t living like I should and believed that God was trying to get my attention so I left everything and joined a monastery.

Life as a monk was anything but easy. We’d get up about 2:00 a.m. every day – that’s even earlier than your pastors wake up! As soon as we crawled out of bed we would pray and sing, followed by a time of meditation. We’d then pray some more and sing some more. Next we’d have breakfast and then morning prayers. We’d work all morning and then after lunch we had another time of prayer and singing followed by a brief nap. Then came more prayer and singing and meditation, after which we had supper. In the evening we’d pray some more and sing some more and then meditate one last time. My life was filled with religious ritual, ceremony and solitude, penance and poverty.

I was willing to live like this because I was on a desperate search for peace. Some days I felt that all these rituals were helping me but most of the time I was gripped with fear that I wasn’t doing enough. I knew I was a sinner and that God was holy and that I would never measure up. But I kept trying my best. In fact, my brothers referred to me as “a monk of the monks.” When praise and prayer didn’t rid me of the dread in my life, I started confessing every sin I could remember. This might be hard for you to believe, but there were times I would spend six hours a day in confession! This only led to more guilt and despair because I knew I couldn’t remember all my sins. And if I couldn’t remember all of them, how could I truly be forgiven? My transgressions were tearing me up and my wayward heart was wiping me out.

In my despair I decided to travel to Rome, which in my day was the center of the religious world. But I was surprised and then shocked and then sickened by what I saw. I won’t go into it all now but I remember thinking, “If there was a Hell, Rome was built upon it.” Outside one of the buildings I saw some ancient stairs that had been transported from Jerusalem. Apparently Jesus had walked on this same staircase outside Pilate’s hall. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would come and climb those 28 stairs on their hands and knees. I decided to do the same thing, hoping this act of devotion would help alleviate my agony. I got on my hands and knees and started crawling up each stair, kissing each one as I recited the Lord’s Prayer at each stop. When I got to the top I questioned what this had to do with appeasing a righteous and holy God. I felt foolish and emptier than ever.

The turning point in my life came when my friend Johann asked me to teach the Bible. Ironically, I had never really studied the Bible before. I was excited because I could use my Hebrew and Greek and Latin to really dig in. The first book I was assigned to teach was the Book of Psalms, followed by Romans and Galatians. It was when I was studying the Book of Romans that I came across this phrase in the first chapter: “The righteous will live by faith.” I was both excited and yet skeptical because it all seemed too simple. I understand you’ve been studying Romans as well. I hope that it has radically redirected your life, like it has mine.

Allow me to read from my journal: “My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him…then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sincere mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning…this passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven” (Roland Bainton, “Here I Stand,” 49-50).

I tried to change things within the church because I had been changed within but after much study and prayer, 489 years ago this Tuesday I posted 95 statements on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That might sound strange to you but that’s how we did it back then. Today you’d probably just post something like this on an online discussion board. I was hoping to engender public comment and discussion. It worked. I had no idea that these statements would bring forth a movement that would change the course of world history. If I were to read these theses to you, you’d find most of them to be out-of-date, but I have to tell you that they were burning issues in my day. I was particularly upset about the sale of indulgences, which was a system whereby people could pay their way out of purgatory, and I also addressed the abuse of authority by religious leaders.

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