That is why the Reformation was needed. The church as we see it in this world is part of the world. The Church Militant, part of the one, holy Christian and Apostolic Church - the part that is in this world but not of this world - is hidden within the church we see in this world, but is not co-extensive with the church in this world. There are many in the church we see in this world who are not believers. Some of them think they are, and some know that they are not, but they have their reasons for being inside the earthly church. The many various denominations that exist, the sects of the church, and even some cults, are symptoms of this reality.
The church in the world, visible to us and audible by us in this world, is peopled both by Christians and enemies of Christ. For the sake of definition, we will count anyone who is not a true believer (a genuine Christian) as an enemy of Christ, for Christ says (Matthew 12:30), He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. The enemies of Christ want the church to be something else, to teach something other than the Gospel, to worship something or someone other than the true God, and to do anything but draw attention to the Gospel or give glory in any way to God through Jesus Christ. They would spend the energies and the resources of the church on anything other than the Gospel and upon anyone other than God's people.
The Church (note the capital "C") is happy to do good things in this world, imitating God and reflecting His love, but the enemies of Christ would silence any witness to God or confession of Christ, and use the energy and resources of the church in any way that disguises the source of the generosity of the church, or which advances agendas and dogmas hostile to the great truths of the Church. They also aim to change the focus of the church from Christ and forgiveness and the truth to something - anything - else.
The enemies of Christ within the church - and that includes everyone other than those that sincerely believe the Gospel and hope in Christ - are actually more numerous in the church we can see on earth than the true Christians, although not necessarily in every location where the church makes itself known. They are also patient, and having no real love for the truth and no sincere zeal for the Gospel, they work, both deliberately and sometimes unwittingly, for the overthrow of sound doctrine and wholesome practice within the church. They have no love for saving the lost, so they often aim their ambitions on administrative tasks and teaching positions which offer a secure living and some authority, and can disguise their lack of passion for the true goals of the church. From there they can influence the future generations and the plans for action of the organization they identify as the church. They often work as "change agents", offering, leading, and planning change in direction, methods, and doctrines. Over time, the enemies of the Gospel are invariably successful. Witness the moral and doctrinal decay in church body after church body. The passions which motivated the founders and even the next generation grow cold. Efficiency and something called "effectiveness" become vital watch-words and slogans, although neither efficiency or effectiveness in the true work of the Church of Jesus Christ is a common result of the programs and changes effected. The faithful saints eventually age and die away out of this veil of tears, entering eternal rest and glory with the Lord. Their heirs are left to carry on the battle against fresh hoards of the disciples of the enemies of the cross, but the often find that their organizations are weakened and their own preparedness is often diminished by the work of the ever-active wolves in sheep's clothing who have crept in, and often come to dominate the system, among them.
Slowly over time, the grace of God is diminished in the eyes of church body after church body. The Word of God is put to doubt, twisted by new and exciting teachings, and ignored by "churchmen" and "theologians" - the self-proclaimed prophets and teachers of the latter days. Deprived of consistent and faithful teachers, the people who fill the pews also grow weak in faith and in the knowledge of the things their parents and predecessors once held so dear. This process has been repeated time after time for more than a millennium. It happened after the time of the Apostles. It followed its course in the church of Rome before the time of Luther. This same thing has happened time and time again among the nominal followers of Luther and the Confessors. It has taken the usual course among the Protestants of the Reformed stripe. It is happening in the visible church today.
That is why the church is always in need of reformation. It is not that we do not know or cannot arrive at the truth. We possess the truth. The problem is that no body of men in this world can long retain the truth in all of its purity and power. Time and the weakness of our sinful flesh, and the demonic influence of the true enemy of the Cross, simply erodes the light of the Gospel among men just as dripping water slowly dissolves and erodes the hardest of rocks, given enough time.
But God is gracious. He continually moves men by His Holy Spirit, through His Word, to find and love the truth - and proclaim it new and fresh in every generation, calling men and women to faith and salvation by that precious Gospel. Sometimes God uses a man like Luther, and in His lovingkindness He leaves us a clear testimony to the truth and its nature and elements (and to Scripture), so that we may find and cling to such symbols and find re-assurance among men.
Such symbols include the Reformation emphases of "Sola Gratia", "Sola Fide", "Sola Scriptura", and "Solo Christo" (or, "Solus Christus"):, meaning "By grace alone", "Through Faith alone", as taught in "Scripture Alone", and "in connection with Christ Alone" (or "through Christ alone"). These phrases are a sort of shorthand for the entire truth of the Gospel, and are the substance of the Reformation we celebrate each year. They can be and have been abused and misused in the past at times, but they stand as reminders and a call to arms for those who understand the nature of the battle the church faces. Remember, the world hates the Gospel and is always seeking to distort it or destroy it. No one knows better than the old, evil foe that when the Gospel is distorted it ceases to be the Gospel.
There is nothing exclusively Lutheran about any of those Reformation slogans. They belong to the right understanding of the Christian faith. Lutherans have simply identified with them more commonly than others. I suppose that is natural, since the farther one wanders from historic Lutheranism, the farther one wanders from the foundations of the Christian faith itself.
Let me illustrate that point. Sola Gratia means "by grace alone". It reminds us that our salvation is by grace, that is, by God's free choosing of us with no cause for that choice in us that we can identify. Without that choice, we cannot believe, for faith is the work of the Holy Spirit in men, when and where it pleases Him, by means of the Word and the Sacraments. Our nature is hostile toward God and sinful since the time of Adam and Eve. We do not possess the ability to believe without God's working within us. More than that, He chose to send His Son while we were enemies and content to be lost and condemned. His love and His choice to rescue us are the only reasons that any of us have hope. Otherwise, we have each deserved death of both body and soul, and eternal destruction in hell, So our salvation, and our personal participation in that salvation is by grace alone.
Men have taken that "slogan" and tried to do things with it (caricature the doctrine) that are not justified by God's Word. They have tried to blame God for the damnation of those who do not believe. They have attempted to teach a sort of fatalism that suggests that since it is by grace, we should not be concerned with our eternal destination - you know, eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you will die. Some have seized upon it to teach a doctrine of universalism, believing that since it rests in God's hands, all must somehow be saved. Each of these distortions make sense to the human mind, but each ignores something of what God has clearly revealed. The phrase can be misused, but what it intends is merely to remind us of the truth of the grace of God, so that we do not become arrogant and begin to think that we are saved because we are somehow superior to others, in and of ourselves.
Sola Fide stands to point our hearts and minds to the truth that the riches of Christ are ours through faith alone. Faith is the "medium leptikon" or the "means of receiving" of the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. One might think of it as something like a pipe, through which the 'water' salvation flows. Just as pipes do not cause or earn or deserve the water flowing through them (for many pipes are empty because there is no water supplied to them), so faith is not a cause of forgiveness or of eternal life, nor a way of deserving them, but merely the conduit, the means by which we receive these blessings. Now if the Latin or Greek terms used by theologians (such as "medium leptikon") are confusing, ignore them, but remember the meanings behind them. The technical language is just a shorthand for the student of God's Word to summarize a lot of word with just a few.
Continuing our survey of the Reformation "slogans", Sola Scriptura is our reminder that everything we know about this wonderful Gospel is learned from Holy Scriptures. That is why Lutherans insist that Scriptures are the sole norm and source of all doctrine and practice in the Church. Because we are all infected with sin in the flesh, and naturally share the world's visceral hatred of the Gospel to some extent, mere men could not be entrusted with the truth. We would, as history so amply demonstrates, twist it and distort it to our own sinful ends. Scripture, on the other hand, is less flexible. Scripture preserves for us information that we could not know, because we were not there. Because God has inspired its writing, and has continued to preserve it among men, often in spite of the best efforts of those charged with preserving it, Scriptures can tell us what happened, and why, and what it all means. Because it is the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit works through it (something we learn from Scripture itself) we have an unfailing guide to knowledge about God, His will, and our salvation, and access to His saving power.
And that salvation is in connection with Jesus Christ alone. Although most men seem to think it is counter-intuitive, only in Christ is there salvation, and only in Christ can we know God in truth at all. Men have a lot of ideas about God, most of them quite unlike the reality of God, but only in Christ Jesus is God revealed to us. His grace is shown in Christ. His glory is revealed in Christ and the salvation He has wrought (that means "worked", but isn't "wrought" a cool word?). God's intentions toward us become clear only when we look at Christ, and when we study Him in Scriptures, we discover that the only contact we really have with God is in Christ and through Christ, and that other than Christ we don't know God at all - all we really know of God outside of Christ are our fears about Him or our foolish fantasies which bear no real resemblance to the Almighty as He is.
As I was saying, even in the church, or perhaps, especially in the church, the principle that the world hates the Gospel is hard at work. That hatred is guided by and serves the agenda of the devil, the original foe of both God and man. That hatred is at work all around us, and, when we are not on our guard, within us, to distort and destroy the work of God in Jesus Christ to rescue, redeem, and save us. There is nothing the devil can do about the redeem part. Jesus already did that. Everyone has been purchased at great price by His death and the receipt is His resurrection on Easter. That marvelous truth declares our redemption was accomplished. Your salvation is complete, just as Jesus declared from the cross. All the devil can do is lead men and women to reject it. Just as the one that believes and is baptized is saved, so the one that refuses to believe, or cannot because they have never heard, is condemned.
The battle against the distortions and lies and destruction of the proclamation of this wonderful good news of salvation is always on-going. Sometimes in history it goes rather poorly, at least as viewed by men. At other times, however, there is a moment of glorious triumph - say, as when Luther was lifted up by God's power to lead what we now call "the Reformation". Moments like those - that moment in history in particular - are so wonderful and refreshing, we have to pause and remember and give God thanks for them. And so we celebrate the Reformation!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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