Today is Reformation Sunday. Next Tuesday is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. It became the triggering event that led to a reformation in the church.
Many people are confused about what the word reformation means. Reformation is not the same as revolution. It is not about innovation. It is not about creativity. Reformation is about getting back to the basics. Reformation is about going back to the truth.
Most of the time, when we Lutherans say Reformation, we mean the sixteenth century reformation in Europe. While that reformation was important … while that reformation was a great event in world history, it is NOT the only reformation. In fact, there have been many reformations. We can find several of them in the Old Testament. For example:
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. … 3And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. 4He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. … 5He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. (2 Kings 18:1,3-4a, 5) Hezekiah led people back to the truth. He brought back the true worship of the true God. That is what reformation is about … getting back to the truth.
Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. … 3In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord." And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it … before the king.
11When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. 12And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king's servant, saying, 13"Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us." (2 Kings 22:1-13) Josiah's ancestors had strayed so far from the Lord that the Book of the Law got lost in the temple. When Josiah learned what the Book of the Law said, he and the members of his court became reformers. They were getting back to the truth.
There are many reformations in the Bible. Israel often strayed from the Lord, and God often sent a reformer to bring them back to the truth. In a way, Jesus Christ Himself was the greatest of all reformers, for He led the people back to the truth. In today's Gospel, we heard Him say, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
After Jesus ascended, He sent many people to lead the church back to the truth. Martin Luther is one of a long line of reformers that God used to bring a straying church back to the truth. We could say that because we are always straying from the truth, we always need reforming. We always need to get back to the truth. Reformation is not about starting something new. Instead, it is about getting back to the way things are supposed to be.
When Luther posted the 95 Theses, He had no intention of being a reformer. He only wanted to host a scholarly debate on indulgences. The 95 Theses were simply the points he wanted to debate. He not only posted them on the door of the church, but he also mailed them to people that he thought would be interested in the topic. He had no idea that he was exposing the corruption in the church. He had no idea that the church hierarchy would respond so aggressively.
As the church reacted to Luther's posting, they forced Luther to study the words of Holy Scripture in order to defend himself. As Luther immersed himself in Holy Scripture, he discovered a way of salvation that was very different from the teachings he had received as he grew up. The teaching that he received growing up filled him with terror and dread over his sins and the punishment he deserved. The teaching he discovered in Holy Scripture filled him with confidence in his salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Holy Scriptures taught Martin Luther that he had absolutely nothing to do with his salivation. Instead, Justification before God is solely through the righteousness of Christ, imputed to the believer, without the works of the law. If our salvation depends on Christ and Christ alone, then it is done. Jesus promised, and He died to keep that promise. It is just as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: There is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:22-25)
Luther began to find this teaching everywhere in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah wrote: 4Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6) Then there is the promise the Lord made to Abraham: "In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." (Genesis 22:18)
Our enemies, the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, do not want you to know this truth. They continually tempt you to stray from it. They continually try to convince you that you don't need Jesus for salvation. The teachings of our enemies come in many ways. Never the less, in the end, they all want you to believe that you don't need the Jesus of the Bible.
The Universalist reasons that a loving god would never send people to hell. Therefore, everyone will go to heaven.
Others try to explain that the laws in the Bible were written for the primitive people of long ago. Since we have become so advanced, we no longer need to keep those laws.
Others judge themselves by the behavior of their other people. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' (Luke 18:11-12) I once tried to convince a police officer not to give me a ticket because other people were driving faster than I was. I think that only made him mad.
Then there are the "good outweighs the bad" people. "Yes, I know I've done some really bad things, but I've also done a lot of good things. The good outweighs the bad, right?" I once saw a movie about a doctor who had an incredible knowledge of human anatomy. He used this knowledge to treat hundreds of thousands of patients. He saved the lives of thousands. Everyone thought of him as a miracle worker. Then the people learned that his knowledge of the human body came from the "experiments" he conducted in NAZI concentration camps. Eventually, the world court found him guilty of crimes against humanity. He spent the rest of his life in prison. After all the lives he saved, he was still guilty.
There are countless other ways in which our enemies try to convince us that we do not need Jesus. Paul's words in today's epistle tell us otherwise. By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God's] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. These words and many other verses in the bible tell us that there is nothing that we are on our own … nothing that we can do in our own strength … nothing that will earn or merit eternal life. Instead, God's divine law condemns us and shows our sin.
Our enemies constantly tempt us to stray. This is the reason God continually sends reformers … people to call us back to the truth. This is the reason pastors need to constantly follow the example of Paul who wrote, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2) We need to constantly proclaim Christ crucified … not Christ the life coach … not Christ the divine example … not Christ who was merely a good man, but Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, who led a perfect life and then exchanged His righteousness for your sin with His suffering and death on the cross … who rose from the dead to give you absolute certainty of eternal life … that even though you die, He will raise you and all the dead, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.
The posting of the 95 Theses was like a small sound that triggers an avalanche. There are times when the deep snow accumulates in the mountains, and the smallest sound can trigger an avalanche of incredible power. Laughter, a sneeze, a shout, a baby's cry, and suddenly it is as if the side of the mountain has come to life … villages buried … lives lost … and so forth. In October of 1517, all of Europe was like a mountain piled high with snow. Luther's 95 Theses set off a historical avalanche that we still feel today … an avalanche that restored the Gospel to the church and gave us comfort and confidence in our salvation. We give thanks for Martin Luther and his fellow reformers on this day. We also remember that we still stray, and God still works reformation in us to bring us back to the truth in His word. Amen
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