“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
With that thesis, the first of 95, a 34 year old Augustinian friar, priest, professor of theology at Wittenberg University named Martin Luther sparked what came to be called the Reformation of the western catholic church, one of the most significant moments in the history of the church. The issue at hand was indulgences, papal letters granting parole from purgatory at a price, backed by the saints’ treasury of merit. It was a brilliant fund raiser. It literally built St. Peter’s in Rome and lined the treasure of the papacy. And it was also an insult and affront to Christ and His blood shed for the world.
Luther never wanted a church with his name on it. He simply wanted to reform the only church that he knew. He said churches should be called Christian, after Christ the only Head of the church. Of himself, he said, “I’m nothing more than a foul sack of maggots.” He never wanted a movement, much less a church or church body, named after him. He never sought to be a reformer. As he put it, “I’m not a reformer. Jesus Christ is the only Reformer of the Church.” He would have been appalled when shortly after his death people identified the angel of Revelation 14 with Luther himself.
Luther simply wanted to be faithful. Faithful to Christ and to the Scriptures. He wanted to be a faithful son of the Church. He wasn’t an innovator, seeking to toss out the tradition for something new. He wasn’t a rebel, shaking his fist at the institutional church and its leaders. He wasn’t a romantic, believing that by starting from scratch he could recover some kind of pure and perfect church.
Luther was a reluctant reformer. The way of reformation is hard and lonely. Reformers don’t leave, though, like Luther, they may be shown the door. Reformers stay put and know when to leave well enough alone. Reformers work from within. They aren’t content with slapping a coat of paint or applying a thin veneer of change. They go to the heart of the matter. They diagnose the symptoms and name the disease. They stick with it. They can do no other. Reformers are conservative. They change as little as possible and only what is absolutely necessary. Reformers are driven not by fame or celebrity but by principle and conviction. As Luther said at his trial, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”
The first of Luther’s 95 theses says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Reformers understand that reformation begins with repentance. Reformers are repentant as they are reluctant, knowing that sin is unavoidable, error is always a stray syllable away, and unintended consequences are the order of the day. Peasants revolt, families are split, people are hurt.
Luther didn’t want to do this. He would have been content to spend his days in the classroom teaching students, in the pulpit preaching sermons, in the music room playing his lute, in the woodshop working at his lathe, at home with his wife Katy and his children. He didn’t want to be a reformer of the church.
Reformation is lonely worl with constant criticism and doubt. Some people say you’ve gone too far. Others say you’re not going far enough. People cheer you from the sidelines but refuse to join the battle. And in the end, good friend betray you and roll you under the reformation bus. And there are always those lingering doubts that haunt you late at night when you can’t sleep. They haunted Luther. Was he the only one who saw this? Perhaps he was wrong. There was always the voice in the back of his mind, echoing the voices of his critics ringing in his ears, “Are you the only one, Martin? And why you, of all people?”
Reformation is heartbreaking work, and in the end, you rarely see the fruits of your labors. It’s been 498 years since Luther posted his theses. The papacy is quite alive and well, as the recent papal visit demonstrates, though modern popes seem to have learned a thing or two from the Reformation. And the church is still in need of reformation. Today more than ever.
By way of contrast, the apostle Paul wasn’t a reformer; he was a religious radical. A bull in the china shop of religion. Paul radically overturned the entire pharasaic tradition, the religious system in which he had been raised with this one little sentence: We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. For the pharisees, for whom the Torah was one of works and the way in which to be righteous before God is to do righteousness, this was utter heresy. It got Paul kicked out of the synagogue and earned the ire of his rabbinic classmates.
Faith alone apart from works justifies the sinner before God. Not your works, but Christ’s work. Not your righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness. Not your blood, sweat, or tears but Jesus’ blood, shed once for all on the cross. Not your monastic exercises or evangelical enthusiasms. Nothing but faith in Christ’s righteousness given you as a gift.
If you’re going to go the way of works, then you must go the way of the Law. The way of the Law is not your stairway to heaven. The Law is not your friend or advocate. The Law is what the prosecutor uses against you. It is there to silence all religious boasting, every claim made to obligate God. The Law is there to shut every mouth and empty every hand, to sweep away every credential we might hold before God and hold the whole world accountable. You think you have sins, the Law will amplify them and make them sinful beyond measure. You think you have good works to show God, the Law will show the sin in them too. Don’t be surprised at that. As Luther said, “God must forgive our good works lest they condemn us.” They may be good in the eyes of men, but they’re done by a sinner. They have old Adam’s greasy fingerprints all over them.
The Law is our spiritual MRI, peering deeply into the heart of all that we think, do, and say. It goes under the surface symptom of sins to the corrupted condition of Sin that drives us, the heart unbuckled from God. The heart that does not fear, love, and trust in God above all things and being unhooked from God, it covets, lusts, envies, hates, murders, adulterates, imagines and motivates all manner of perversion, evil, lies, steals, and slander. That’s what comes out of that unbuckled heart and why a sinner cannot stand before God on his own merits. Luther caught a glimpse of that diagnosis and it terrified him. It was like looking at a CAT scan showing a body riddled with cancer. The Law shows a body of death riddled with Sin. We think we’re free, but we’re actually enslaved. “The one who sins is enslaved to Sin,” as Jesus said.
As a monastic, Luther was accustomed to go to confession every day. He was known to go mutliple times in a single day, running back to confession with yet another sin to confess or something he had forgotten, to the point where his father confessor Johann von Staupitz finally said to him, “Martin, Martin. Stop looking at your sin and look to Christ.” In a sense, the Reformation for Luther began there. Stop looking at your sin, and your good works, and the law, and look to Christ. See Him not as Judge but as Savior. See Him not holding the scales of justice in His hands, weighing your sins and merits, but holding the scars that saved you, the wounds He endured to rescue you, the death He died to free you. “If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.”
Christ became Sin for us to free us from Sin. Christ went to Death for us to free us from Death. He became what we are, a sinner,, so that in Him, we might become who He is, a saint. Our Sin for Jesus’ righteousness. What Luther called a “happy exchange,” a “sweet swap.” And anything but a deal. A bargain, yes. But not a deal. No dealing. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Faith means trust that the deed is done, the deal is sealed, all bets are off. “It is finished.” Jesus said so.
It’s tempting boast. Too many Reformation services go down that road and become a kind of Lutheran Pride Parade. It’s only two years to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We’ll see what happens. But what is there to boast of in view of the blood of Christ? What can we offer in view of the righteousness of Christ offered to us? What becomes of our boasting? It’s excluded. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.
So what then is the best way to celebrate the Reformation? Rejoice? Well, there’s cause for rejoicing in the Gospel being preached, in sinners being justified. Reflect? It’s a good time to reflect on our heritage and the tradition of the Reformation of which we are heirs. How about repent? It is the first of the 95 theses, after all!
Repent of the pride that so easily shoves God’s Word aside in favor of other things more urgent, more pressing, more entertaining.
Repent of our shallow thankfulness for the Word, the water, the Body and Blood. Luther said the Gospel is like a local rain that showers for a while and then moves on. It’s happened in the lands of the Reformation. Luther noted that the chief reason the Gospel moves on is ingratitude. Thanklessness. “The Word they still shall let remain, nor any thanks have for it.”
Repent that we’ve become like the grandchildren in a rich family who have completely forgotten how hard Grandpa and Grandma worked, the sacrifices they made, and have taken the Reformation tradition for granted.
Repent that we have been content to let our catechism and confession sit on a shelf so we can boast of having the “pure doctrine,” and like that servant in the parable of the talents, “we’ve kept our talent pure and untarnished.”
Repent that all we’ve learned of grace is, as one person summarized it, “I ain’t gotta do nothing,” rather than seeing in grace the freedom to do the mercy of God for otherws without fear of failure.
Rpent, that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus with lips and lives that show the world what free people in Christ look like and how they live.
Repent because that’s how free people baptized in Christ live. They die and rise daily in Baptism. Old Adam dies, Christ rises. It’s the only way to live and die and rise to live forever.
Repent, because in so repentance we get our eyes off of ourselves and our sins and our works and on to Jesus where they belong. We come to a renewed recognition of who we are as sinners and who Christ is as Savior of sinners. The Lamb who is always slain and lives, who constantly takes away the sin of the world, who sets captives free, who breaks the chains of Sin and the bars of Death, who welcomes home prodigal sons and prostituted daughters and tax agents and lepers, who silences storms and calms the seas and raises the dead and reconciles the worst of our messed up world in one bloody death on a very Good Friday and says “It is finished.” Who hauls you by grace into the rebirthing and renewing water of Baptism. Who puts His Body and Blood into your mouths, the fruit of His sacrifice and says “this is for you.”
That’s what Luther discovered and what he learned from St. Paul and wanted the church of his day to proclaim and the world know: That a sinner is justified by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, apart from works.
That’s freedom. True freedom. And if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.
In the name of Jesus,