Staying With The Reformation
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John 8:36 “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… What does it mean to be Lutheran? That question seems to be harder and harder to answer these days. There many different “flavors” of Lutheranism in our day; there is a great variety of teaching and practice that leads to confusion about who we are. What does it really mean to be Lutheran?
The best way to answer that question is to go back to Martin Luther himself and to the Scriptural teaching that he confessed and proclaimed. The events that took place in the days of the Reformation in the 1500’s are key factors in determining our Lutheran identity today. Two events in particular are defining moments in the Reformation and which give shape to what it means for us to be Lutheran today.
The first set of events you are probably already familiar with. Martin Luther was a monk in Wittenberg, Germany, struggling with his own sinfulness and how he could become righteous before God and be saved. He knew the words of this morning’s Epistle very well, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” By the Holy Spirit working through the Scriptures, Luther was coming to the understanding that righteousness is not something we can acquire by our good works, but rather that it is a gift of God given through Christ. We are saved by grace alone through trusting in God’s promises.
In 1517 a preacher named John Tetzel was sent by the pope to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. He came near Wittenberg with his message that by purchasing certain indulgences which he had from the pope, people could, in effect, buy the forgiveness of sins. These indulgences could also help dead relatives out of their supposed suffering in purgatory. Tetzel had a saying: “As soon as the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!”
Luther vehemently criticized these indulgences, not only because he saw them as the church’s way of defrauding the people out of their money, but also because he had come to believe that this practice was contrary to the Gospel. Christ was being robbed of His glory because salvation and forgiveness depended at least in part on human works. This was and still is contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, and it is contrary to Christian faith, which trusts in Christ alone.
In response to Tetzel’s preaching, Luther wrote the now famous 95 theses which He posted on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. These theses, or statements for debate, criticized the sale of indulgences and the false teaching of the pope which lay behind them; in essence, they mark the beginning of the Reformation.
Even though Luther got into hot water over this, still for the next four years he continued to write and preach and flesh out the teaching of the Gospel that was dawning on him. But in 1521 he was called to stand trial before the Emperor himself. The pope’s representatives at the trial called on him to recant – to take back his teaching – and repent. For a moment Luther faltered. He asked for a day’s time to answer. But when he returned the next day and was again asked to recant, he spoke boldly in the face of those who could very well have executed him as a heretic. He said, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning – and my conscience is captive to the Word of God – I cannot and will not recant.” Then Luther added, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”
Therefore, first of all, to be Lutheran is to reject the authority of the Pope which he has arrogated to himself apart from the Word of God. It is to reject the false teaching that Christ has done only part of the job of salvation and that we must complete the job through our own deeds of holiness. To be Lutheran, rather, is to believe according to the Scriptures that our own works earn us nothing before God. And therefore, it is to believe boldly and confidently that we are saved only by God’s undeserved kindness and mercy, through the holy, precious blood of Christ and His innocent suffering and death for us. It is to place your faith entirely in Jesus Christ alone. It is to know that heaven is yours because Christ has done all that is necessary to make a place for you there.
That, dear Christian friends, is the first side of the Lutheran coin. But this coin has another side which perhaps has been less familiar to us but is equally important. This flip side of the coin is well illustrated by another important event that happened a few years later in the Reformation. While Luther was preaching and teaching in Germany, there was a preacher in Switzerland named Ulrich Zwingli who joined Luther’s cause and seemed to be on his side in the battle.
But there were some important differences that surfaced between the teaching of Luther and Zwingli. In rejecting the errors of the pope, Zwingli also ended up rejecting some of the truths of the Scriptures which the pope happened to have right. He was, to coin a phrase, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In particular, Zwingli rejected the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. He taught that the bread and the wine were only symbols or representations of Christ’s body and blood. Luther, on the other hand, taught that Christ’s words meant exactly what they said, “This is my body; this is my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Through their writings, Luther and Zwingli debated vigorously back and forth. Luther made himself very clear; those who tried to turn communion into a mere symbolic ceremony Luther called “an instrument of the devil.” It was satanic, he said, to change the meaning of the words of Christ and to undo what Jesus had instituted. Finally, Luther and Zwingli met in the city of Marburg. They were able to come to agreement on seemingly everything except the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
Luther wrote with a piece of chalk on the table the words, “Hoc est corpus meum,” Latin for “this is my body.” Then he covered the words with a fine cloth as if it were communion on the altar. He insisted that those words stood firm and true against all human reasoning, and he demanded to be shown from Scripture that they were not true. This Zwingli could not do. For Luther, human logic and human wisdom were servants of God’s Word. Just because the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament cannot be explained does not render it untrue. God’s Word says so, and therefore we believe it, even though it is beyond the ability of our human minds to comprehend. Luther would not allow human wisdom and reasoning to re-interpret the Scriptures. Christ and His Word are supreme.
And so the Reformation battle developed on two fronts. On the one side were the false teachings of the Pope. On the other side were the false teachings of the Zwinglians and other such Protestants who wanted to throw out everything that appeared to be popish or Roman Catholic, and who were denying the Scriptural teaching on the Sacraments. These Protestants preferred inward and spiritual things to external things. Out of one side of their mouth they confessed faith in the Gospel of Christ, but out of the other side of their mouth they rejected the Gospel way in which Christ comes to us in Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Luther made it abundantly clear – and he is still correct – that the Holy Spirit does not come to anyone through the inner spirituality of their heart. The Spirit comes, rather, in the ways Christ has promised, through the outward preaching of the Gospel and the external administration of the Sacraments. Faith is not a good work which has to climb up to heaven in order to attain Christ. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit which simply receives Christ as He comes right down to where we are.
This, then, is the flip side of the Lutheran coin. Not only do we believe that we are saved by grace alone through Christ’s death and resurrection alone, we also believe that Christ’s salvation is given to us by grace alone through Baptism and Absolution and the Lord’s Supper –by Christ’s working, not ours. The Holy Spirit is given in Baptism to create faith in us and give us new life. Christ is physically and literally present in Communion to forgive our sins and strengthen our faith.
Zwinglians and other Protestants reject these Scriptural truths. They say that Jesus earned forgiveness of our sins on the cross. They may even use the term “grace alone,” but then they add the human work of choosing to follow Christ or asking Him into your heart or committing your life to God, or something like that: “Jesus did His part, now you must do your part to get your salvation and especially to keep it.” In effect, then, those teachings are no different than what the pope was saying – that Jesus only did most of the job of salvation and that man must finish it off by his own doing. For the assurance of salvation, man is directed not only to what Christ has done but also to whether or not a person is truly following Christ and living a Christian life. The Sacraments are substituted by human works.
We Lutherans, then, are an odd bunch; we don’t fit into the contemporary religious scene very well. We’re not Roman Catholic; we do not accept the Pope’s authority to establish new doctrines apart from the Word of God, we reject prayer to Mary and the saints, and we believe, as the Epistle says, that “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).
But we’re not Protestant, either, for we embrace the Sacraments as being at the very heart of our faith and not mere add-ons to the Gospel that you can do without. We see in Baptism not just a ceremony but the very essence of our daily living, dying to ourselves and rising with Christ to new life. With Luther we keep private confession and absolution as a means of applying the forgiveness of sins to the penitent sinner. We adorn the preaching of God’s Word and the body and blood of Christ with the reverence of the historic liturgy, with robes and candles, crucifixes and the sign of the cross, and whatever else enriches and lifts up the proclamation of the pure Gospel. Like Luther we do not throw out good traditions and practices; we embrace the good things that have been handed down to us, and we reform those things where errors have crept in that are contrary to the Gospel. That’s why it’s called the Reformation. We don’t see ourselves merely as individual believers but as those who are a part of the one holy church of Christ that spans the centuries.
There is a Latin saying, “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda,” which means “The Church is always being reformed.” The Holy Spirit is continually calling His people back to the truth of the Gospel. The same battles that Luther faced in the 16th century we continue to face today. We must continuously proclaim the Gospel in all its fullness – that on the cross Jesus Christ finished the work of our salvation completely, that nothing more needs to be added, and that the Holy Spirit gives that salvation to us in the spoken Word and the external Sacraments, in which Christ is truly present in the flesh to forgive us and bestow His life to us. Anything less than that is not the Scriptural Gospel. The official agreements that some Lutheran church bodies have made in the last 20-30 years are not only contrary to the name “Lutheran” but are also contrary to the Holy Spirit, for they compromise the Gospel.
And finally, we must recognize that we ourselves are in continual need of Reformation. We dare not become like those in the Gospel who prided themselves on being Abraham’s descendants. We dare not say with proud hearts, “I’ve been a Lutheran all my life!” as if the name of Luther can save us. Our faith is not in some 16th century German monk but in Christ alone. We dare not think that just because we are church members that we no longer need to repent. We must continually acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” Then, with penitent and trusting hearts, we will eagerly and gladly look to Christ for help and receive the freedom only He can give.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus Christ has freed you from your sins by His blood. He has paid the price to release you from your bondage to death and the devil. By His sacrifice you are declared righteous before the throne of God. You are holy in His sight. Believe that Gospel. Abide in the truth of Christ. For “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” To Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.