October is the month in which - actually at the end of which - we celebrate "Reformation Day." It seems appropriate, then, to focus our attention on a reformation topic. What could be more 'reformation' than the Great Reformer?
I suspect that right about now you are looking for an article about Luther. He has been called the great reformer, but he wouldn't appreciate it if he heard it. He did not consider himself to be a reformer. He was a student and a teacher and a spokesman for the Gospel, but he did not consider himself a reformer. He considered himself to be a herald of what was right and good. For Martin Luther, Jesus Christ is the Great Reformer.
Martin didn't picture himself as a reformer or a church leader. He thought of Himself as a teacher. He wasn't THE Teacher, that was Christ, too. Later in his life, Matin Luther understood what had happened around him. He knew why people called him a reformer. But he always maintained that he was a tool in God's hand and that any reforming that got done was accomplished by Christ through His holy Word.
Jesus is the Great Reformer. We confess as much in the Catechism, in the meaning to the third article of the Apostles' Creed. Not only does He call us by the Gospel, through the Holy Spirit, and give us faith by enlightening us with His gifts, but He keeps us in the one true faith. He does it all by the Holy Spirit at work through the Word.
Whenever the Church needs to be reformed, Christ sends His preachers to proclaim the truth. What they say may not be welcome at all times by all parties, but His Word is the power through which God will accomplish change. It is the 'toolbox' of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus works through that Word whatever it is that He intends to work — "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."
That is not to say that everything that happens in the Church is what the Lord wills, or that it happens the way the Lord wants it done. Everything He does is what He wants done, and done the way He wants it done. People often have their own agendas, which are not always good or holy. But God knows everything that happens, and He is able to use it, even the really bad stuff, for His own purposes. What the Word of God accomplishes, however, is always the work of God.
Sometimes God works judgment on those that despise His Word and reject Him and His Gospel. In those cases, the Holy Word of God drives en to do horrible things. They cannot tolerate hearing it, so they attack, they run away, or they find methods for subverting the message and changing the teaching of the Church. Every denomination bears the marks of such subversive work in controversies, false doctrines either embraced or permitted in their midst, and unfaithful practices which arise in a church. These "plagues" upon the churches are one of the ways that God challenges His people to be faithful, while at the same time bringing greater condemnation on those who passively endure or openly embrace and advocate for teachings and practices that ought not to be tolerated among the people of God.
When the situation seems out of control and hopeless, then Jesus Christ will raise up a champion - a messenger of His to wield the sword of the Lord - in order to "reform" His church. Such men in our history include Luther, and Martin Chemnitz, and C.F.W. Walther. These men where not reformers, however, they were the servants of Christ, used as tools in the great work of His of cleansing and strengthening His Church. We know their names because of their stature among their contemporaries, but these men were no more significant, or powerful, than the thousands of faithful pastors and laymen that stood shoulder to shoulder with them, steadfastly clinging to the Word and 'holding up the prophet's hand', as it were.
The reformation under Christ is a reformation which takes place first in the hearts of men (by which I mean to refer to both males and females). He literally 're-forms' us. He starts by proclaiming His Word to us, and works from the inside out. First He crushes us. He hammers us with the Law, convincing us of our sins and our inability to be good enough to merit anything but wrath from God. Then He forgives us, when we have been humbled and repent. And with that forgiveness Jesus re-builds us - we even call it "conversion" - a change from one thing into something else. We are re-formed. That is the meaning of passages like Hosea 6:1, "Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us."
This reformation is not a one time thing, but is on-going daily. We need it as often as we sin. It is ours as often as we hear the Word of God, both Law and Gospel, and find ourselves turning again for forgiveness and comfort to Christ. We should do so daily, and when we do, we can use our baptism - drowning the old man in the waters of our baptism, in which we were claimed by Christ, and allowing God to raise up each day, through contrition and repentance and the knowledge of forgiveness, that new man who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
The reformation that we celebrate at the end of October is the restoration of the Gospel to public proclamation and to the daily life of the Church in its teaching and practice. The Gospel was not unknown at the time of Luther- it was simply not proclaimed or practiced publicly. The Holy Spirit never permitted faith in Christ to vanish from the Church, it simply did not hold center stage. It was, to take the theater analogy a little farther, tucked away in a prop closet somewhere. There were those who knew it by the Word, and the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word, but it was not generally known or deliberately proclaimed by very many.
Jesus used Luther to push the Gospel back into the center. First, Christ prepared Luther by the Law. You never heard of such a terrified monk as brother Martin. He prayed for hours. He whipped himself with various scourges until he bled, even passed out. He tried desperately to atone for his sins and come to the certainty that he was square with God and saved. He slept naked on cold stone floors in the middle of winter. He fasted until he could hardly stand. All these tortures because he knew he was unfit to come before God, and he had been taught, along with all of his fellow Catholics in those days, that such self-torment would reduce our guilt before God, and please Him, and induce God to forgive us.
It never worked, and Christ never allowed Luther to deceive himself into thinking that it did. Consequently, Luther hated God. He hated God boldly and fiercely for giving him such a hopeless life and task. Only when Jesus opened his eyes - enlightening Luther by the power of the Holy Spirit - did Luther understand that God never expected man to be able to achieve holy perfection by works or torments. God dealt with sin by sending His Son. Jesus did perfection, and then died for sin. Because He became sin who knew no sin of His own, God freely forgives them that take Him at His Word and promise and trust Him to do for us and give to us all that we need for life and peace. It was by grace through faith, the righteousness of God from faith to faith.
Once Luther was brought to understand that the righteousness God required of us was only possible by God's gift, and that God loved him so much that He was providing that gift through Christ, Luther found his peace and comfort. It was, as Luther wrote later, as if the gates of heaven had been thrown open before him. It is the same experience for any Christians today, when they find the Gospel opened to them, and understand at last why God set the Law before them. For such people, the rejection of the Gospel and of sound doctrine and practice by so many makes no sense at all.
The reformer is not Luther. Luther created nothing - he just wrote about it and preached about it and made the work of Jesus Christ that much more public. The Great Reformer is Jesus, who calls the Church into being, and shapes it according to His will by His great grace. Happy Reformation Day.
Yours in the Lord,
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