The Festival of the Reformation
October 31, 2010
Text: Romans 3:19-28
Dear Friends in Christ,
A day like this poses a problem for the preacher. Do you tell the story of the Reformation and preach a rather poor sermon because you took so much time telling the story, or do you simply preach the text and leave everyone wondering what you are celebrating? Inevitably, you try to strike a balance. You succeed this more or less depending on the year.
Reformation Day marks the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses or statements on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. That seems like a mundane event. Such a posting must have happened a dozen or more times a year in the university town. But this day, someone unknown to history recognized their potential importance, copied them down and took them to a printer. They were quickly translated from Latin into German and circulated throughout Germany. What followed was an explosion of nuclear proportions. The western Church shattered like a piece of glass.
Luther was a reluctant and a conservative reformer. He wanted the church look as close to what it had looked before. He retained everything that he could - even some things that did not have Christ’s clear command. For example, in Luther’s day one had to come to private confession before coming to the Lord’s Supper. They retained the same vestments that they had always worn. The liturgy was largely unchanged, though some parts were now in German. Some parts were left in Latin. Many thought that Luther didn’t go far enough. Some wanted to purge the church of everything Roman. Some wanted revolution. Some wanted to completely withdraw from the world. So the majority, around Europe who broke from Rome did not follow Luther. Thus we have many confessional groups that formed at that time, with names like Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, Mennonite and so forth.
The Christian Church in 1517 was nearly 1500 years old, having been born on Pentecost in the year 33 A.D. With the collapse of the Roman Empire that took place in the 400's, a great deal of learning was lost. Distant Ireland became the place where books were preserved for future generations. In the years that followed, many priests could not read, let alone the people. In this context, many of the things that were taught changed. But there were also those who remembered the truth. There were those few who read the Scriptures. You had competing schools of theology. These often attached themselves to the various monastic orders. Dominican scholars like Thomas Aquinas were prominent. They stressed the importance of good works and dependence upon the church. That dependence upon the church, over the centuries transformed from trust in the Word preach and the Sacraments administered to trust in the earthly institution. Others, like the Augustinians and the Franciscans gave the grace of God a higher place. Two point we must take from this. First the true theology was preserved but in isolated places like the Augustinian monasteries. Secondly, this situation confused church officials, including the Pope himself, who initially saw Luther’s complaint as nothing more than an Augustinian versus Dominican dispute.
How was Luther revolutionary? He made his arguments from Scripture in the language of the people. He didn’t just dispute with scholars. Luther was one of the few men who had read the text of Scripture and one of the even fewer who could read it in Greek. He would soon master Hebrew as well. In 1522, Luther published his translation of the New Testament. The whole Bible followed twelve years later. With the use of the printing press and movable type, a technology less than a century old, Luther’s work spread to all who could read and in many cases all who could hear. Now all could see what Luther himself had found when he studied the Scriptures.
For Luther, the key was his study of the book of Romans in preparation for his lecture series of 1515 - 1516. Here he found the whole counsel of God in digest form, clearly articulated. The text confirmed something he already believed - that God is indeed holy. God hates sin and those who sin. He learned something else that had understood intuitively. The grip of sin is unbreakable. It is hopeless for man to struggle against sin. We cannot do it. Thus all man are lost and damned. All men are consumed by their sin. St. Paul puts simply, “Now 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... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...” St. Paul tells that the works of the law cannot save us. We cannot make up for our sins. Even if we committed no actual sins, we would still be born under the curse of Adam’s sin. We human beings had no answer, no way to free ourselves. But God has a simple and elegant solution, as St. Paul also explains. “[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.” Propitiation is one those twenty dollar words. Maybe with inflation it’s a hundred dollar word. It means satisfaction. Christ’s blood satisfies the demands of God’s law. Christ’s blood pays the full debt of our sins. All who trust in Christ as Savior from sin and death, have this as a free gift.
The danger, as Luther quickly realized with his own parishioners, is that many will treat grace casually and live as libertines. We struggle with this to this day. That is why we must understand what St. Paul means when he speaks of the Glory of God. God is holy and righteous. God is to be feared. His retribution is limitless. We see this in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues wrought against Egypt, and the slaughter of the Assyrian army before Jerusalem. We ought to have great fear of coming under God’s anger. The grace of God should not remove that fear. This is what happens when people become libertines and wantonly sin. They have no fear of God. The fear of God is to remain. But, the grace of God is our hope in the face of our terror. We are right to be terrified of God. We are right to tremble before the holy things of God, such as His Word and Sacraments. Luther himself, never lost his fear of God. He continued to warn about the wrath of God until the day he died. But He also spoke the sweet words of Grace. God has put away your sins, in Christ Jesus, you will not die.
So how can we summarize the Lutheran Reformation? What does it mean for us. We still have churches and clergy. We still have liturgy. We still are dependant upon God’s Word and Sacraments. Luther did not proclaim an end to all structures or total freedom. But He did restore a balance to the Church. God is still be feared as our righteous and holy judge. But God is also be loved, as the One who Sent His Son, God in the flesh, to die in our place and pay for our sins.