Dear Church Family,
Yesterday was the official date of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In our Sunday morning worship services throughout the month of October, we looked at several of the distinctive marks of the reform that Martin Luther brought to the Church. So, I thought I would take this opportunity to review some of those things that we talked about.
Justification by faith alone
The central theme of Martin Luther’s reformation was one of doctrine: a clear understanding and teaching of the gospel. Specifically, that man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone. While agonizing over his own sin, and through his study of the Scriptures, Luther finally came to realize this truth. One text that was critical to his breakthrough is from the first chapter of the book of Romans:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:16-17)
Thus arriving at the biblical conclusion that we are justified by faith as God imputes Christ’s righteousness to His people, Luther declared that Christians are simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously righteous and a sinner”). We confess that we are still sinners (1 John 1:8-2:2), yet we are also declared righteous by faith in Christ.
Worship as Christian discipleship
In contrast to the Roman Catholic view of the Mass, Luther came to see worship as a means of growing in grace, essential to Christian discipleship (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:18-21). There are three emphases in Luther’s reform of worship that were a result of this shift.
First, Luther rightly recognized that worship is a benificium (“a gift” from God), rather than a sacrificium (a “sacrificial work” on man’s part). He came to see that the Mass and other rites of the church were presumptive works of man who sought to “wrest heaven from God…just as though He must serve us and were our debtor, and we His liege lords” (Luther’s Large Catechism, I, 22).
Second, while the Mass centered on the sacraments, Luther sought to make the preaching of the Word central in worship and the means by which God saved: “For neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel” (Luther’s Large Catechism, II, 38).
Third, Luther sought to bring the whole of the congregation into participation in worship. In addition to translating the New Testament into German, Luther also wrote many hymns. Where once the service was conducted entirely in Latin (and mostly by the priest), Luther wrote hymns in the common tongue of the people that were meant to be sung by all. He included the singing of Psalms and hymns in the arsenal of spiritual warfare: For, as Luther wrote, “Undoubtedly, you will not start a stronger incense or other fumigation against the devil than by being engaged upon God’s commandments and words, and speaking, singing, or thinking of them. For this is indeed the true holy water and holy sign from which he flees, and by which he may be driven away” (Luther’s Larger Catechism, Introduction, 10).
A Theology of the Cross
In protest against the selling of indulgencies and other abuses of the Church, Luther published his ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517; however, it wasn’t until several months later at the Heidelberg Disputation on April 26, 1518, that Luther gave a more full expression to his understanding of a “theology of the cross” as compared to a “theology of glory”:
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
20. he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
Jesus spoke of how He, as the Christ and Son of Man, must suffer many things, be rejected by men, killed, and then after three days rise again. Here, Jesus was articulating what Luther might have called a “theology of the cross.” Yet, the Apostle Peter had bought into a “theology of glory,” rebuking Jesus for speaking in such a way. In response, our Lord rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests but on man’s” (Mark 8:27-38).
So, with the Apostle Paul, Luther argued that God’s power is perfected in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10); therefore, we ought not to look to man’s interests (any form or worldly wisdom or power), but to God’s interests (the foolishness of the gospel). Ministers of the gospel – and all believers – are to boast in nothing else but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).
In a recent article, written for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Michael Horton argues that modern evangelicalism is more a product of the Radical Anabaptist movement (which has its roots in medieval mysticism) then it is of the Reformation. In the conclusion of his article, Horton asks:
So what exactly are we celebrating in this year of the Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary? Are we rejoicing in the reformation of the church’s doctrine and worship, away from human-centered religion to a faith centered on the Triune God and the gospel of his saving grace in Christ alone, received through faith alone, communicated through the word and the sacraments alone? Or are we celebrating the Radical enthusiasm that our culture mistakes as the Reformation: the autonomous self, individualism, free will, and inner experience and reason?
I tend to agree with Horton’s conclusions (I encourage you to read the entire article online here). As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we have many things to be grateful for. And, it behooves us to remember what the Reformation was really all about by returning to the teachings of the magisterial Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. It’s why it’s so important to be a part of a confessional church that adheres to a Reformed confession (in our case, the Westminster Confession of Faith) as a summary of the doctrines that are taught in the Scriptures. As Horton encourages us, “Now that we have tried Radical Protestantism for several centuries, the best way of celebrating the Reformation would be to give it a chance again to be heard.”
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch