Reformation Sunday. Five days before Reformation Day proper, but Concordia Publishing House put it on the bulletin insert, so why not? Besides, you probably wouldn’t have shown up for a Thursday night service anyway, being busy with that great holiday known as Halloween.
Reformation Day, October 31, the Eve of All Hallows (that is, All Saints) is the day when in 1517 an Augustinian friar and professor of theology at Wittenberg University named Dr. Martin Luther posted 95 theses in Latin concerning the practice of indulgence selling on the church door. Luther wanted to discuss what he saw were abuses in the church and a misunderstanding of the Gospel.
Well, someone got hold of a copy of the 95 theses, translated them into German, slapped them on Guttenberg’s printing press, and circulated them all over Germany where they became a manifesto for rebellion against Rome. Luther got excommunicated three years later for preaching the Gospel of Jesus in the church; the churches in the German lands were cut off from Rome, and the rest is, as they say, history. A divided western church with hundreds if not thousands of protestant sects and a big, bloated bureaucracy in Rome. Not a pretty sight.
Of course, the NT continually reminds us that the church always appears weak in this world, that the cross of Jesus remains a stumbling block to the unbelieving world, and that the doctrine of the justification of the sinner before God by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake alone rankles the religious world as much today as it did nearly 500 years ago, or for that matter nearly 2000 years ago when St. Paul preached it.
Reformation Day is not a day for gloating and boasting, as we have nothing to boast about. It’s not a day for Catholic bashing or a Protestant happy dance in the end zone after scoring the winning touchdown. It’s not the birthday of the Lutheran Church nor is there really such a thing as a Lutheran Church. There is simply the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that clings to Christ in faith and proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ, regardless of what the signboard outside may say. And that church is visibly and audibly marked by God Himself where believers gather around the preached Word of the Gospel and the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. There God is having His Church.
Reformation Day is a good day for a bit of a “values check”, a self-reflection and self-examination of the church in our own day, and ourselves as a congregation, to see if we’ve drifted from the core and central teaching that is the hub of the Christian faith. If you put your ear to the track of Lutheranism today, you begin to wonder how “Lutheran” the Lutheran church is today. If Luther were among us, would he be nailing 95 theses to the door of our Lutheran churches? Would he even recognize the church that he so passionately and courageously tried to reform?
There are those who agonize over the division of Christianity into sects and schisms, and even blame Luther and the reformers for this. But the reality is that the church has always had its divisions, great and small. Five hundred years before the Reformation the church was divided between Rome and the East. Even the pages of the NT record divisions among the apostles, sometimes settled, sometimes not so settled. The apostle Paul wrote to the divided Corinthian congregation “there must be divisions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” (1 Cor 11). Wherever the Word of God is preached, there will be division, if for no other reason than sinners are preaching and hearing it. God has entrusted His teaching to sinful and fallible men, and He seems fine with that. The church always appears weak and divided in this world, and it must, lest we begin to worship the Bride of Christ instead of Christ Himself.
We are already one through faith in Christ. There is only one holy, catholic, and apostolic church on earth. And though we may appear to be hopelessly divided and weak, nevertheless our unity is found not in ourselves but in Christ alone. We will see and experience that for ourselves one day, in the Resurrection. But not one day sooner. Now we must confess, “We believe in one holy church” precisely because we do not see one holy church.
There is a saying that is popular among the cool Christians during these latter days of October. “The church is always being reformed.” Ecclesia semper reformanda est. It sounds so much cooler in Latin, doesn’t it? That can be understood in a good and a not so good way. It can mean that the church must always be changing with the times, keeping step with the culture, striving to be relevant, never standing still. Or that Luther and the boys got off to a good start but it’s up to us to keep the Reformation ball rolling in our day. That would be the not so good way.
The good way is saying “the church is always being called back by God to the bedrock, foundation, core teaching that makes the Christian church Christian. Namely, that a sinner is justified by faith, that is, trust in the completed work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the Flesh and His death and resurrection for the Sin of the world, by faith apart from works of the Law. Faith alone.
The Law can’t save you. The Law can’t commend you to God. The Law can, and does, keep you in line, show you your sin, magnify and amplify your sin to utter sinfulness, instruct and guide you, but it cannot justify you before God. “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the Law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.”
It couldn’t get much plainer than that, could it? The Law cannot forgive, the Law cannot justify, the Law cannot save. It will accuse you, it will damn you, it will kill you. It can’t make you better, it can’t turn a sinner into a saint, it won’t commend you to God. And yet every religion in the world, save one, attempts to use some version of the Law, whether written in a book or written in the heart, to justify oneself before God.
You do it too. I do. Whenever we attempt to justify ourselves by our actions, when we attempt to atone for our sins or try to appease God, we are using the Law against God, and God will have none of it. The Law will shut your mouth before God. The Law will hold you accountable before the highest court of justice. The Law will show you your Sin to a depth that you cannot bear to see. You think that your problem is that you have problems? Think again. The law says, “You are the problem.”
In Luther’s day, it was all about merit. Your sins and your merits. Kind of like bad karma and good karma. Your merits had to outweigh your sins on the scales of God’s justice, and Jesus was holding the scales. And if you fell short, well ten thousand years in purgatory for you. Unless, of course, you buy this indulgence letter. Or perhaps you can negotiate with the saints to give you some of their extra merits. Or better even, the blessed Virgin who has lots of extra merits. Or best of all, Christ Himself who is brimming over with merit. It was all about transaction, this for that, merits for sins. Bookkeeping. The Law. No one will be justified in God’s sight by the Law.
The solution is not in yourself. It’s in Christ. There is a way of God’s righteousness, a way for a sinner to stand before God holy and righteous, not with his own righteousness but with the righteousness of another, the way Jacob stood before his father Isaac disguised as his older brother Esau and obtained the blessing. We stand before God clothed with Jesus’ robe of righteousness.
Listen to this sentence from Romans and follow it closely: “For there is no distinction. All have sinned. All fall short of the glory of God. All are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” That’s it in a nutshell. The Gospel. The core of Christianity apart from which Christianity is just another religion among religions. No one else has this. That you, a convicted sinner, guilty as guilty can be, stand before God and are declared innocent by the blood of Another who died for you. To the unbelieving ear this is outrageous, scandalous, perverse, barbarous, crazy. Certainly no way to run a religion. It’s bad for morals, they say. Telling people that they are justified solely because God says so for Jesus’ sake.
Where’s the talk of “transformation”, of progress, of the victorious life, of climbing the ladder of holiness to God? Shouldn’t it be that God has done His part and now we must do our part? Yes. Our part is to die. The old man in Adam must die. God has declared him to be dead. He’s filled out the baptismal death certificate. And now he must die and the Law will gradually curb, mirror, and instruct him to death. But a new man has risen in Christ. His baptismal birth certificate is also filled out. He’s God’s child. He’s born from above. He needs no law because he is pure and holy and righteous. He keeps the law perfectly. He is without sin. That’s you in Christ. You as you really are before God. You as you will be in the resurrection.
The life we now live in this flesh of ours, we live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave Himself up for us. We no longer live, as far as God is concerned. Christ lives in us. And every day we need to remind ourselves and be reminded that we are dead and alive at one and the same time. Dead to Sin, alive to God in Christ.
The life we now live as justified sinners is a life of “being simul,” simultaneously righteous in Christ and sinful in Adam. We are Adam and Christ at one and the same time. Christ wearing an Adam suit. Our good works, the works that Christ does in and through us, are hopelessly soiled with sin. That doesn’t mean we don’t and shouldn’t do them. Our neighbor needs them. They are God’s goodness and mercy through us to him. But they are acts done by the hands of a sinner. They are words spoken by the unclean lips of a sinner. Whatever we do has Adam’s fingerprints on it. It can’t be held up to God. We have nothing for which to boast. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
So don’t let any one of you so-called Lutherans say on your deathbed, “I have lived a good life.” No, you haven’t. You fall short of the glory of God and deserve to be damned. But thanks be to God in Christ that you aren’t. Before God, it is faith alone in Christ alone. “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” That is the reforming Word for a distracted church. That is the Word that calls us back to the core, to the cross. When we are distracted by everything that needs to be done, by everything that’s going on in the world, this is the Word that tells us to be quiet before God and hear what He has to say to us. You are holy and righteous in Christ Jesus who died for you. You are covered with a righteousness not your own.
You are justified by grace alone through faith alone for Jesus’ sake alone. That’s worth having a Reformation.
In the name of Jesus,