Reformation 2008 (October 26, 2008)
“The Reformation is for Today!” (Psalm 46)
In the Holy Name of Jesus, through whom we are saved by grace alone, by faith alone, and revealed to us in Scripture alone. Amen.
Our text this morning is from the Psalm assigned for the Festival of the Reformation, Psalm 46. The Psalm begins with these words: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." And it ends like this: "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress."
Martin Luther based his hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” on those words. He understood the need to rely on God alone as his refuge and strength when it seemed as though the entire church and the empire was against him.
Things didn’t start out that way. Luther wanted to be a good monk, a faithful priest, a loyal churchman. He never thought that his words would some day lead to his excommunication with a price on his head as an outlaw and a heretic. But Luther’s intensive study of God’s Word led him to confess the truth in spite of what years of medieval tradition and superstition had led the Church to believe and teach.
The match that started the fire was struck on October 31, 1517. On that day, Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. These 95 statements questioned the practice of selling indulgences ... a full or partial remission of sins which could be bought at a price. You could purchase these for yourself or on behalf of your dead relatives who were in purgatory … the place it was believed that souls went to be “purged” of the sins they did not confess while here on earth. As the saying went, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory flings.” Luther was incensed that forgiveness was being bought and sold like any other commodity, especially since it was being done without a care for repentance and faith in the heart.
The 95 Theses were followed by other writings of Luther that questioned certain abuses in the Church. In 1521, he was called before the Diet of Worms, an assembly of all the representatives of the empire at the city of Worms in Germany. There he was told that he must recant what he had written. But Luther could not take back what he had written, and his famous words have echoed down the corridors of time: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 185)
The Reformation of the Church continued from there. Other people confessed the truth of God’s Word and were condemned for it. Important writings of the Lutheran Reformers became official documents that formed the basis of what it means to be Lutheran—which really is simply being “biblical”—and these writings were published in the Book of Concord of 1580.
But that was the 16th Century, right? We’re now in the 21st Century. What significance does the Reformation have for today? Here are three reasons why the 16th Century Reformation is for today. The Reformation is for today because it is CONTEMPORARY … it is CONFESSIONAL … and it is COMFORTING.
The Reformation is for today because it is…CONTEMPORARY. In the Psalm, David says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Notice he says, “God IS” … not “was” or “might be” or “will be.” He IS our refuge. He IS a mighty fortress. He is VERY PRESENT to help us … right now.
That’s the truth of God’s Word. And the truth of God’s Word never changes. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” His truth is the same now as it was in the 1st Century, the 16th Century, and the 21st Century.
Many of the issues dealt with in the 16th Century Reformation are still around today. That’s why we’ve been studying some of the documents in the Book of Concord in our Sunday morning Bible class.
For example, one of the documents in this book is called the Formula of Concord. In many places it sounds very contemporary. Two of the issues it deals with are the doctrines of Original Sin and Free Will. Today, there are churches who in their practice deny that man is absolutely spiritually dead in their sin, and they attribute to man the ability to choose by an act of their will to believe in Christ. Instead, the Formula teaches the biblical doctrine that man’s spiritual nature is totally corrupt because of sin, and that we have no power in and of ourselves to choose to believe. It is all God’s doing. He chooses us and through his Word instills faith in our hearts.
Also, the Formula of Concord sounds very contemporary when it addresses the issue of ceremonies and rituals in the church. Many churches today, even some of our sister Lutheran churches, are throwing away the liturgy and using songs with false doctrine. It has become “every man for himself” in worship. Now, the Formula makes it clear that nowhere in the Scriptures are church ceremonies commanded or forbidden. But that doesn’t mean that we should throw them out willy-nilly. They are used for the purpose of reverence and awe, good order, instruction, and the edification of the worshippers. Besides, much of the liturgy is based on God’s Word, and if you throw it out, you are throwing away something that has edified the Church since the earliest centuries after Christ and strengthened the faith of millions upon millions of Christians … because it is God’s Word that we read and pray and chant and sing together in the Divine Service, the place where God serves US.
The Reformation is for today because it is…CONFESSIONAL … not in the sense of confessing sin, but confessing the truth … speaking the truth of God’s Word. The antiphon of today’s Introit is from Psalm 119, where David says, “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings.” Martin Luther certainly did this at the Diet of Worms, as he stood before the emperor, Charles V, and refused to deny his writings and the teachings contained in them. Nine years later, several German princes and city councils gave their confession of faith before Charles at the Diet of Augsburg. The document they presented is what is now known as the Augsburg Confession, which is the first of the Lutheran Confessions.
Faith cannot help but confess what it believes. In 2 Corinthians 4:13, St. Paul says, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak.” Also, in Romans 10:10, he says, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Confessing your faith is a natural, Spirit-led result of being justified by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.
Fear of rejection and ridicule often keeps us from confessing our faith. We need to repent of being worried more about what people think about us than what God thinks of us. And then, compelled by Christ’s love for us, we will not be afraid to proclaim the message of the cross. Most of us will never get the chance to “speak of [God’s] testimonies before kings.” But the Lord daily gives us opportunities to be “Confessional Lutherans,” speaking of God’s testimonies before friends and family with clarity and conviction.
Finally, the Reformation is for today because it is…COMFORTING. David, after saying “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” then declared “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.” David knew that he had nothing to fear in spite of whatever trouble was brewing around him.
In Luther’s day, Christ was presented as a fearful judge and the giver of a new Law. Luther trembled when he heard from the Scriptures about “the righteousness of God.” He knew he could never measure up to God’s holy standard. Entering the monastery failed to bring him the comfort he expected, because as hard as he tried to be good and holy, he could never get past the sin in his own heart.
But when Luther was a professor at the University of Wittenberg, studying and teaching the Bible, he recovered a truth that had long been lost and neglected. God’s righteousness does not primarily refer to his holiness and anger over sin. It primarily refers to his gracious will to save mankind.
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans was significant in this understanding of God’s righteousness. Listen again to the words of today’s Epistle lesson, from Romans chapter 3: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [which means “an atoning sacrifice”… a “covering over” of our sins] by his blood, to be received by faith.”
To be “justified” means to be declared not guilty in God’s sight … to be considered righteous. This has nothing to do with keeping God’s Law, as Paul says right before the passage I just read: “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” It is all a gift of God’s undeserved love towards us sinners. It’s a gift of grace. Jesus took our sin upon himself at the cross. His shed blood was the price we owed to God for our disobedience to his Law. Now, the shed blood of God’s Son covers over our sin, and God the Father gives us the righteousness of Christ. You receive this all by faith … by trusting in Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.
In our world today, you often hear the refrain, “You gotta have faith,” or you hear people say, “I’m relying on my faith” ... “I don’t know where I’d be without my faith.” But that’s the wrong emphasis, isn’t it? Faith is sort of like a trick-or-treater’s bag. After a busy night of trick-or-treating, you don’t go around and say, “Wow, look at the cool bag that I used. I really relied on this bag tonight!” That’s silly. Instead, you say, “Oh, man, look at all the great candy I got!” You could care less about the bag. All that matters now is what’s inside it. Likewise, faith is necessary to receive the gifts that God gives to you. But once you have faith, all that matters is what God has given you ... forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, Himself! All that matters is Jesus! (illustration adapted from Klemet Preus’ book The Fire and the Staff, p. 72)
Faith itself is a gift of grace. It’s not something we have to stir up inside ourselves. It is simply the hand that receives all of the gifts that God pours into it. That’s comforting. Now, we can stop acting like a hamster on a wheel in his cage, running and running and running trying to justify ourselves and our sin. It gets us no where. Instead, we can get off the wheel of our own efforts and rely on God’s grace in Christ. He is our “refuge and strength” from sin and death and hell. He is our “very present help” when we are troubled by doubt and despair. God is “very present” with his saving love through this Word that is preached to you. And Christ, your Savior is “very present” for you in the Sacrament with the very same Body and Blood that justifies you. That is the comforting truth that sets us free.
And that is the most important reason why the Reformation is for today. How much more contemporary is the forgiveness of sins? We need it today and every day until Jesus returns. May we courageously confess that comforting truth. Here we stand. We cannot do otherwise. God help us. Amen.