Sermon on Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law


10-28-2012 NBW Sermon <—-click here to listen along.  The difference between listening to a sermon and reading a sermon is the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing a bullet.

Happy Reformation Sunday, or as I like to call it: Lutheran Pridefulness Sunday, a day in the liturgical year where we celebrate the protestant reformation and there is indeed a lot to celebrate.  We’ve come a long way Baby. For instance:  We Protestants are no longer under the Pope.  Our clergy can marry.  We let people read the Bible for themselves.  Not only that, but many denominations now ordain the ladies and the gays. That is to say, we are not nearly as ignorant as our forebears and so today we celebrate ourselves.

Yet what do the texts assigned for today talk about?  Sin. What we get on Reformation Day is not a victory parade for the Protestant Reformation, but a lot of talk about sin and law. All sin and fall short of the glory of God and all who sin are slaves to sin and that through the law comes knowledge of sin. Sin, sin, sin. Obviously the people who decide what the readings are for things like, Reformation Sunday, didn’t get the memo that what we are really celebrating is our own awesomeness and how much more clever we modern Christians are than those who came before us who naively believed in things like sin and Law.

Plus, in an age of self-care and therapy and high self esteem and especially in so-called progressive Christianity, sin is not such a popular topic. As a matter of fact, in the Lutheran church planting business these days, there is a trend toward eliminating the confession and absolution at the beginning of our liturgies.  Why?  Because it’s a downer and people don’t want to hear they are sinners.

I personally think that’s a shame, but I should confess that, at the age of 26 — a decade after leaving my conservative Christian upbringing — when first I experienced the confession and absolution in a Lutheran liturgy, I thought it was hogwash.  I hated the part where everyone in church stood up and said what bad people they are, and the pastor, from the distance of the chancel and the purity of their white robe said, “God forgives you”—Why should I care if someone says to me that some God I may or may not really believe in has erased the check marks against me for things I may or may not even think are so-called “sins?”

And my suspicion is that this was because when I heard “you are a sinner” what I really heard is, “you are a bad, immoral person” and hey, if I am someone who doesn’t cheat on their taxes or their spouse and doesn’t murder or steal then I don’t really want to spend my Sunday mornings having someone in a white robe imply that I do.

But Martin Luther had a way of talking about sin that makes a whole lot more sense to me now. He reminds us that sin is bigger than simple immorality. Sin, according to Luther, is being curved in on self without a thought for God or the neighbor. In that case, sin is missing the mark and it’s all the ways we put our selves in the place of God. It can be alcoholism or passive aggression.  It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others.  Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should.  And anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me is what we call The Law, the Law being the very thing Paul in his letter to the Romans said reveals sin.  The “shoulds” in our lives are the things that make us see how far off the mark we are.

No matter what we think the “shoulds” are – personal morality and family values and niceness and conservative political convictions or inclusivity and recycling and eating local and progressive political convictions…there is always always, no matter how hard we try,  a gap between our ideal self and our actual self.

And usually no one but us knows just HOW short we fall from the glory of God.  But we know; and in those moments alone when again we are beating ourselves up or trying to deny it or again making promises of self-improvement, in those solitary moments we know.

It looks like every feminist who in secret hates her body and every televangelist who’s really addicted to porn and every social worker who doesn’t actually look into the eyes of the homeless man they pass every day on the corner.  They all know what the law can do to us.  How cruel the distance between our ideal self and out actual self can feel. And that feeling of not ever really hitting the mark, whatever mark that is, is the feeling of the Law convicting you.

Martin Luther knew what it felt like for the Law to convict him, accuse him, leave him with nowhere to rest.  And if you want to know what really sparked the Protestant Reformation it is the fact that feeling this way, Luther read that passage we just heard from Romans since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift

And he believed it to be true and because he believed that God’s grace is a gift he no longer accepted what the church had for so long taught: that we are really saved by the works of the Law.  The medieval church had pawned off Law as Gospel and Luther dared to know the difference and then he become a preacher of Grace and that changed everything.  But here’s the thing: pawning off Law as Gospel isn’t a medieval thing and it’s not a Catholic thing.  It’s a human thing and we do it all the time. The church does is, we do it, society does it.  It’s like a disease.

So, in celebration of Reformation Sunday I offer you a way to spot the difference between Law and Gospel: You can tell the Law because it is almost always and if-then proposition –  If you follow all the rules in the Bible God then will love you and you will be happy.  If you lose 20 pounds then you will be worthy to be loved.  If you live a perfectly righteous Green eco lifestyle then you will be worthy of taking up space in the planet.  If you never have a racist or sexist or homophobic thought then you will be worthy of calling other people out on their racism and sexism and homophobia.  The Law is always conditional and it is never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as Gospel there can never be life and happiness and worthiness.  Under the Law there are only 2 options: pride and despair.  When fulfilling the “shoulds” is the only thing that determines our worthiness we are either prideful about our ability to follow the rules compared to others or we despair at our inability to perfectly do anything.  Either way, it’s still bondage.

And that’s why the Gospel is different.  The Gospel is not an if-then proposition.  It’s more Wizard of Oz than that.  The Gospel is a because because because because proposition.  Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge and thereforetherefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help plan or healthy living or social justice work “shoulds” can ever do.

This, is why we will never get rid of the confession and absolution in the liturgy. It’s Law that puts us in the position of hearing Gospel.  It is a moment when truth is spoken, without apology and without heistation and perhaps for the only time all week, and it will crush you and then put you back together.  It re-forms us.  It’s re-formation. And this is most certainly true. Amen.


About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at

  • Randy Freund

    Loved the Reformation sermon…sent to me by my 25 year old nephew – who is trying to figure out what he likes about Luther. . .

  • Paul Gochnour

    Pastor, Love it. Especially the “because” sentence. It rivals any of Paul’s sentences – both in length and content.

  • Margaret

    love the Wizard of Oz comparison. Can’t help but try to compare the gospel to Wicked now :)

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Wasn’t Luther kind of a jerk? You can call him a product of his times, I suppose, but you’d think that a godly man tapping into objective morality wouldn’t have written On the Jews and their Lies.

  • R Plavo

    Although the caricature of the medieval Catholic Church pawning Law off as Gospel is probably true, yet there are many indications that it is not totally true; two things come to my mind: Luther read Romans because that line was pointed out to him by his “spriitual director” Staupitz; he was certainly within the Catholic tradition; and the popular hymn “Dies Irae” has several references to grace being freely given, especially with the line: “remember dear Jesus, I am the cause of your coming”

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  • Karen Wilson, AiM

    Thanks, Nadia, for reclaiming the confession and absolution. For me, hearing “I…declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins” combined with physically holding and consuming Christ’s gift of forgiveness through his body and blood, is akin to receiving the best Christmas present – heart bursting with joy and wonderment and awe. I am then refueled for another week of “living” as a human who thinks she is trying to get it right, while working hard to save my own skin. Amazing that God sees through this daily malarky and unconditionally loves us anyway :)

  • David

    I think you are making an important distinction. The if-then proposition of the Law suggests that the love of God is conditional. The Gospel presents the love of God as unconditional. We are all sinners and have fallen short, but the love of God offers grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

    I have a problem with the obsession with sin and punishment in some segments of Christianity. That is not because I do not think sin is quite real and I am quite guilty of falling short of the ideal. Rather, it presents God as something to be feared. Sin and Hell need to be prominently featured as a motivational guides to “correct” belief and behavior. Christ calls me to bask in God’s love, worship with joy, and listen to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit as I strive to become more like Christ. Give me the Gospel over the Law any day.

  • http://none Dick Mintzlaff

    My daughter sent me this post and as I told her I can hear myself saying every word of it. Great sermon!!

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  • BabyRaptor

    Yeah. God created you with free will, knowing you would fail and he would “have to” punish you. That’s love right there. And then he got a guilty conscience and decided to offer a (potential) way out of this horrible catch-22. That’s grace.

    Sorry. Don’t buy it.

  • Rohmeo

    Nadia, I’m with you on 90% of what you said here. But you’re introduction, which I’m sure was partly a sarcastic teaser, somewhat takes the punch out of the rest of your sermon. Throwing out some of the things we have come a long way from the Reformation period ending with woman pastors & gay pastors back-to-back? And then claiming we are not as ignorant as our forebears? No matter where you stand on those issues to me it’s a little reckless to loop those 2 things in together when you clearly take seriously being a faithful expositor of the Gospel in the rest of your sermon. 1 is more of a wisdom argument (woman in the pulpits) that’s more of a secondary issue and the other is a sin argument (gay clergy). I’m assuming your position on gay clergy from your statement but it doesn’t resonate with the rest of the piece where you clearly seem to be in line with defining “Sin.” I appreciate the focus on Sin myself not because it makes me feel like crap instead of staying positive like so many claim it’s damaging, but I don’t trust myself to rest in celebration more than reflection. It keeps us grounded and I would argue more joyful because of how thankful the gift of Grace is! it’s not about us (Law magnets)… it’s about Him (Gospel)!

    • The Believer

      I agree, Rohmeo, I think including gay clergy was just off the mark there.

    • fws

      aw. get a sense of sarcasm! She was being sarcastic. It was a confession of…. sin!

      “WE are so much smarter and wiser than those who came before us!”

      If you read the sermon a little more slowly, you will see that she is saying that even our best stuff, our righteousness, our correct views, are all marred by the sin of pride.
      The point was not at all about gays and pastors in stilhettos and who is right about that.
      It was that , even when we are completely right, we are smug and self congratulatory, and condescending towards others, whether our spiritual ancestors who were “so quaint and not as smart as us” or others…..

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  • http://FB Donna

    Thank you.

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  • fws

    Dear Pastor Weber,

    I am sending this sermon out as the very best Lutheran Reformation sermon I have ever heard.

    I started Reading the Lutheran Confessions and Chemnitz at age 16 . In the original latin and german (!).
    The greek new testament starting at age 18.
    I therefore felt well qualified to make this deal with God as a Young (um….gay…) Lutheran:

    If I could get my doctrines JUST right, then God would save me from the sin of being gay that was certainly sending me to hell ( note: A-sexual would describe me till around age 26. I was that messed up… ).
    Only a young Lutheran could cook up such a deal with the Almighty!
    Salvation by means of the good work of pure doctrine.
    I remember thinking it was like a house of cards. “If I get one card wrong….”
    It was of course exactly that.
    It led, just as you (and Apology III) says.., to wild swings from despair to selfrighteous judgementalism and back,
    Despair finally won out and I dropped out of church quietly.

    So here is how my personal story connects with your sermon: It was , exactly, that confession and absolution at the beginning of the Lutheran Common Service that called me back to the Lutheran Church.

    Here was my reasoning:

    The pastor did not know all my shit. But God? He did. And he called and sent the pastor.
    And the pastor said “as a called and ordained servant of the Word, I forgive you ALL your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

    So I decided to hold God to his Promise. With nothing in my hands ( I let go of my Project to stop being gay)
    And I resolved to return to a Lutheran Church.
    And I needed to be completely honest with the pastor.
    What does darkness (hiding and lieing) have to do with Light?

    I went, ready to be the dog eating the crumbs from the master´s table and be denied the Holy Supper and slink outta church from the last back pew at the end of the service.
    Why? I had exhausted every other option short of going back to Church. I was unwilling to go back.
    But I could only hear THOSE words, among others who were so unlike me, there in a Lutheran Church.

    So here I am. Reading your sermon. And I am so very, very happy.

    I sense that you are drinking deeply from the Apology, especially art II, III and IV and the Catechisms that I love so very much.

    I am so grateful for that. I have prayed to see this day for so very long dear pastor BW.
    Someone who includes gays and the rest of us as a demand of Law. and mercy.
    Inclusion is a demand of mercy and justice. It is necessary in every way.
    But: It is not the Gospel.
    And so it is, that I get to hear from the mouth of a sent one (you) that “for YOU!” that turns Law into Gospel for ME!

    PS: Apply Apology VII & VIII on those neo-confessionals who don´t accept pastors in stilhettos. It is Two Kingdoms, aka Law Gospel distinction, applied to the doctrine of the Church .

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  • KingGeorge

    Yes, very true, sinful humanity is unable to keep the Law. So saint Paul writes that the Law made us aware of our inability to keep God’s holy standard. The gospel makes us aware that Christ has become our holiness and we live each day in the knowledge that he has fulfilled the demands of the Law. But the new testament is full of commands that the followers of Christ are expected to obey. We can’t wash away these commandments , which some interpret as just another attempt at legalism , and just speak about God’s love, mercy, and grace.

  • saltofearth

    You are missing it totally, I cannot worship your definition of God either. Reread this piece. God created us free from sin. Despite that we sinned. God is not saying here is your way out if…then statement. He is saying i love you, you are mine and nothing you can do to screw that up is going to change that. Now go live in that gift.