October is the month of the Reformation observances. This year, Reformation Day is on a Sunday, so more pastors will preach on it, hopefully. Many will tell the exciting story about Luther nailing the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, challenging the church of his day and raising the banner of the Reformation. The only problem with that is that it really wasn't all that exciting at the time. Luther had no intention of starting the Reformation. He was simply inviting the other priests and scholars of his day into an ordinary discussion about some assertions he had written down - the Theses - dealing with the nature of the living one's Christian faith, and with certain errors or abuses that had crept into the practice of the church.
The troubles Luther saw, back in the day, were bureaucratic things that were twisting the teaching and worshiping life of the church, slipping by, or so Luther seemed to have thought, unnoticed by the Pope and the venerable leadership of the Holy Mother Church. The Reformation was God's idea, not Luther's. The broad public interest in Luther's theses was unexpected, and not always just theological. Some printers translated Luther's theses and printed them out as a money-making gambit. They saw the controversial nature of what Luther had written - in Latin - and gambled that people would enjoy reading what Luther had to say, and they might make a little profit. Their gamble paid off, and the controversy spread.
Soon, the little debate began to interfere with the cash-flow of the current capital campaign of the church in Rome, called "the sale of indulgences", and of all of her agents in Luther's general area. The scholar's debate was now a public controversy, and a stumbling block in the path of the "stewardship program" of the local bishops. Church leaders and Indulgence Peddlers (often priests and monks) began to take heated issue with Luther and his assessment of the value of indulgences sold and of the practice of selling them, and they forced the debate to examine some of the root issues, such as: what is the Gospel? How does forgiveness work? What is the source of authority for proper teaching? Fundamental issues like those began to bubble up, and before anyone could get a handle on the situation, significant issues were in play, and passions were aroused, and people began to understand that the troubles in the debate were not merely local, nor restricted just to a bad practice here or there, but were fundamental to the faith and rose to the very highest levels in the Holy Roman Catholic Church itself. They began to choose up sides. Suddenly, we had a Reformation movement on our hands!
From five centuries distance in time, it seems so sudden, so quick, and so exciting. It was centuries in coming, and in those centuries, men who thought like Luther were usually burned at the stake. God had a hand in preventing that this time. The Reformation did not spring fully-formed into existence in a day or a week. It consumed the life of Martin Luther from 1517 to 1546. After his death, it was nearly destroyed by men who wanted peace above all else, and other men who were willing to kill thousands of people to silence Lutheran theology. The Book of Concord of 1580 was part of the Reformation process, even though the new confession was formally declared in 1530 with the reading of the Augsburg Confession before the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It was exciting, but only in the way that the constant threat of death is exciting.
Men and women died for a long time because they dared to be Lutheran (which was not just a slogan on a Tee-shirt back then). The Thirty Years War was fought (strangely enough, for thirty years or so) over the right to be a Lutheran if that was your faith. If you wonder why there was such an animosity between Lutherans and Catholics for so long, chalk it up to Lutheran families remembering how the other side butchered their relatives and suppressed their religion during that long conflict. When it was over, rulers still controlled what religion was permitted in their lands, and if the ruler changed his religion, he or she would force everyone else in their kingdom to change too, usually. Many of the founders of the Missouri Synod fled to America because the ruler of Prussia decided that Lutherans and other non-Lutheran Protestants all had to join into one church body and use the same liturgies and sing the same hymns and teach the same religious doctrines under penalty of law, and it was not Lutheran doctrine that he supported.
The Reformation is still going on today. Some "Lutherans" want to imitate the Protestants around us and be generic Christians, forgetting those things that marks us as distinctively Lutheran and which connect us to the Church throughout history. Others want to return to "Holy Mother Church" either in doctrine and practice, or by surrendering our denomination entirely and simply going home to Rome. Liberation theologians have overwhelmed some church bodies, like the ELCA, and want to make Lutheranism all about "social justice", as they define it, and focus our aspirations on simply improving (as they define improvement) life in the here and now. Then there are those who, like me, want the Lutheran church to return to the foundation of Lutheran doctrine, and practice consistent with what we believe, teach, and confess, and stand united once again in the mainstream of the historic Christian faith and confession.
We are not really trying to reform the Catholic church any longer. Some people are, but their goals are different than a Lutheran's would be, and the Roman Church has proven itself to be pretty resistant to the Christian faith. They have their religion, which they would argue is the Christian faith, and they aren't much impressed by theological arguments or Scriptural challenges. They have the Pope, after all, and he is the keeper of all things Roman.
Our goal is not really to reform the Protestant ranks either. They are welcome to the truth, and they are invited to join us at any time, but they have their own agendas, and stepping backwards (as they would perceive it) to the authority of the Word of God, to the creeds and to the historic liturgy is not all that inviting to them. Having no doctrinal foundation as a touchstone has served the ambitious among them for far too long to be tied down to something as mundane as the truth.
Our reformation is ours. Like Luther, we are calling any and to all who are interested in standing on God's truth back to the Word of God. In a world where bigger is generally accepted to be better, we are about the truth of God's Word and the consistent confession of the faith in all that we do and say, instead of just larger congregations, for example. The church usually gets in trouble when it focuses on size, or on income, or on public approbation. Even when we focus on something as essential sounding as "missions", we tend to do the sorts of things that do not serve us well. Our focus needs to be on the Gospel, which is to say, the Word of God, which is also to say, on Jesus Christ.
If we want to take our place in the Reformation, we need to start where Luther started, in Thesis #1: Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite (Repent!), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance. Our lives have to begin with a rediscovery of repentance. The age we live in isn't very big on the idea of sin, and repentance is almost an unheard of thing. The Christian, on the other hand, is to begin his or her approach to life with the understanding that he or she is a sinner, in need of a Savior. If we start from that perspective, we can short-circuit a lot of talk about "rights" and "what I deserve" and "what I want".
What I need is forgiveness, and a church that proclaims it to me honestly. I need the sort of place that encourages me with the truth, and doesn't try to entertain me or meet my "felt needs", but shows me my sin and then brings me to God's grace and fills me up with His gifts. I need to be taught about reality as it is, not as it would be if I had my way. I need to know about God and how He works and what His will for me is like. I need to be reminded to pray, because prayer only comes easily to me when I am in trouble or danger of some sort that I feel and dread. The true danger, the danger of sin, doesn't frighten me until it is too late to turn back. I need regular reminders.
I also need to be reminded of my duty to my neighbor. Selfishness is the easiest thing in the world. The only time being generous feels good to me is when someone is watching and I am getting all the credit and praise. When it makes me feel good about myself, or causes others to admire me, then generosity I can afford is pleasing to do. The sort of generosity that actually costs me something dear, however, is not fun or natural, particularly if no one is noticing that it is being done by me! It is only really possible when I remember the love of God for me and the price of His generosity in forgiving me and saving me. The reformation that we need is the reformation that holds Christ and His cross before our eyes - and not just to make us feel good, but to remind us who it is that we are following - and where.
None of that reformation is possible if I begin anywhere but with repentance. Without the knowledge of my sins, the cross is just a piece of jewelry. I really need to understand how deeply flawed I am and how guilty I have become, and how much I need a Savior before I can find any joy in the Gospel. With repentance and forgiveness prominent in my mind, the passion for sound doctrine and clear preaching will doubtlessly follow. I suspect that a great deal of the confusion in the church arises out of the diminished sense of the need for repentance, and corresponding diminution of the sense of urgency for the Gospel. And if the Gospel is not urgent for you, it is not likely that it will seem all that urgent for others, which will impact mission outreach negatively.
Much of what I read about our culture today talks about the loss of interest in the organized church, but insists that the hunger for the spiritual is no smaller than it ever was. People today are looking for something genuine, and personal interaction. It sounds like our post-modern age is looking for the same things people have always looked for, but they no longer have the expectation of finding it in the church buildings, nor do they really trust that any organization is necessarily going to meet their needs. They have grown up without that expectation or with the experience of churches that lost their focus on Christ and replaced it with programs and entertainment, or other agendas.
What the world around us needs is to meet real Christians, people for whom the Gospel is real, and vital, and clear. Doctrine is essential to those who know the truth, because sound doctrine teaches that truth and makes it something we can deliver to the neighbor and the next generation without losing the power it brought to us. Those who have forgotten repentance often forget sound doctrine as well because once you lose track of precisely why your religion is precious, it becomes very reasonable to iron out those difficult truths and challenging teachings and make everything seem much more palatable and "user friendly". But the world around us doesn't need to meet the kind of Christians that have a personal and very flexible religion. They need something solid and reliable, that won't change on them as the culture shifts. A foundation needs to be strong and stable or the things built on it shift and collapse.
So the world needs to meet Christians who know the solid foundation of Christ, which is only solid when you see your sins and the great danger they present, and repent of them, and then know Christ, and His grace and forgiveness, and genuinely trust in Him. For some of you, that sounds like the religion you already have, and you wonder why we need a reformation. Well, not everyone needs to turn back to the true foundation because they never left it - for which they owe God great thanks. Church after church, and denomination after denomination have left it, though. So the reformation is still needed.
Remember, proper reformation never takes you somewhere new. It always takes you home, to the way things ought to be, which is usually to take you back. That is why we started with Thesis #1. We need to keep Christ clearly in our minds, and understand just how precious and important His work for us is, and His grace and forgiveness is for us. Our nature will always try to tell us that repentance was 'back then', and now we are good to go. God's Word tells us a different story. It says that 'we daily sin much', and are in need of the constant reformation of repentance and forgiveness. Without it, we will inevitably make too much of ourselves, and far too little of Christ and the cross.
We also need to keep an eye on the church around us, doing our part to keep it on the foundation of God's Word and not merely human opinions about God's Word. It is far too easy to lose one's focus and wander away into self-made religious ideas. The church has been doing that for two thousand years, over and over again. Celebrating the Reformation of Luther's time helps us keep that task in mind.
Yours in the Lord,
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