What is the popular message coming from our pulpits? What are our children taught in their Sunday School lessons? Do our churches beat out the one-two-three rhythm of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? Is the Christian life taught as one of daily repentance and forgiveness of sins? Or have sermonizers become a Johnny-One-Note, proclaiming that Christianity is primarily about morality and obedience to God's laws? That the aim and goal of the Christian life is to experience a meaningful relationship with God in order to become holy as our God is holy? Can one still find a church that teaches that Christianity, and the Christian life, can be summed up as: "We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone?" Is justification still THE doctrine on which the Church stands or falls? Do we preach saving faith, which is the Gospel itself?
If one looks at churches both large and small, churches in the old European world and new churches established these past two hundred plus years in the United States, what will he discover? Is the saving Gospel preached and taught as a matter of life and death for churches and every individual person? Where there is no Gospel preached the churches die as one by one, Christian faith, saving faith, faith that produces hope and charity, is destroyed.
This is Martin Luther's profound catechetical teaching, that the Church is built on, sustained, kept and preserved, and made holy by the Spirit's life-creating Gospel message. That sinners are "called by the Spirit through the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts, sanctified, and kept in the one true faith."
Where there is no Gospel, then the Spirit, like a thunderstorm, has passed over and moved on to another place. Where there is no Gospel, then God's Word of Law cannot be preached in all it's sin-accusing, mouth-stopping, deadly force. Where there is no Gospel the Spirit's gifts are quickly replaced with pious human artifacts and holiness is made-over into a spiritual self-improvement project. Gospel-less sinners are Spirit-less sinners, are Christ-less, are graceless sinners, no matter how pious, religious, and holy they appear to others.
When our churches are set up as religious sweat shops, with pastors and ministers fashioning themselves as spiritual entrepreneurs, then the worst sinners must be excluded from the congregation. Sins are classified in order to determine which sinners must be excluded, which ones must show true contrition before they are re-admitted to the assembly, and which ones have earned conditional forgiveness through their actions. How often does one witness this in our churches? How often has a church and its ministers attempted to set up Christianity as a religion of morals and obedience to God's laws rather than repent and pray the Spirit would return and breathe on them His life-giving Gospel?
How many churches can one find at present that preach a gospel message: "Be holy as your God is holy, and purify your doctrine that our church may be without spot or blemish?" All because they are not possessed by the Spirit of the Gospel. One common example happened in the early church. A group known as the the Donatists demanded that at least the clergy should be pure and holy, free from sin. And, as the Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse said, "Whenever the attempt has been made to create an ideal church, the end result has always been bitter diappointment. The community of saints turns into a community of Pharisees."
Only where our churches preach the simple, life-giving, life-saving, life-renewing message of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (which is nothing else than the proclamation that all our sin is forgiven by God on account of Christ) can a church claim with any validity to be the Christian Church, a biblical church, and an assembly of believers where the Spirit "has mercy upon whom He has mercy." Only then is the foundational teaching of the Lutheran Reformers preserved that a Christian is “at the same time sinner and saint.”
But why bother? Why beat the drum of "grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone" in pulpit and classroom? Why not compromise? Why not allow that morality and obedience to God's laws can stand on equal footing with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Because we sin much and the consequence of our being curved in on ourselves is death. In fact, this is why the Church must never repent of preaching the Gospel. Why our churches must never allow any other teaching to enjoy equal status with the Gospel. Why justification is more than a matter of personal taste. It's a matter of our death and life.
Jesus' bloody suffering and death for us proves one time for all time that we cannot receive forgiveness often enough. Our need to receive forgiveness is so great that it cost God's Son His life. The blood, and the forsakeness, and the hellish three days silence, and the thunderous ejection from the tomb prove that the aim and goal of Christianity, of every Christian's life, is Christ Jesus. He is the Lamb of God Whose blood covers the sin of the world. He is the Word that declares sinners righteous for His Name's sake. He is the Good News that produces faith and love, repentance and forgiveness in every dead-man-walking sinner.
The Gospel of Christ is what the Church is built on, sustained on, kept and preserved on, and how His Spirit creates saints. Sinners who are "called by the Spirit through the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts, sanctified, and kept in the one true faith." Saints justified by the Gospel proclamation, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.