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The Celebration of Reformation Sunday

Web posted on October 25, 2014

Sunday Peace

By Rev Robert Lyon

Many Protestant churches will be observing 26 October as Reformation Sunday. Almost 600 years ago, on the eve of All Saints (that's Hallowe'en) 31 October 1517, tradition says the Reverend Dr Martin Luther posted on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenburg, Germany a list of 95 "Theses" (points for debate) in which he objected to the fact that Pope Leo X was promoting a vastly expanded sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a pardon by which you were supposed to be able to buy someone's soul out of purgatory. Those indulgences were not just bad theology; they were also a fraud, because their real purpose was to raise money for the construction of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Luther posted his 95 Theses because it was not only unfair to have German peasants paying for Italian luxury, but it was also giving those German peasants a wrong-headed notion of salvation. Within months, Luther's Theses had been translated and circulated throughout Europe, and within a decade Luther found himself organizing a protesting or "protestant" Church. A "reformed" Church.

When a movement "goes viral" like that, you can be sure there's some compelling idea driving it. The compelling idea in this case was Luther's rediscovery of the Biblical concept of "Justification by Faith". That concept says we are justified before God because of our faith in Jesus, not because of any good we have done or any merit we have achieved.

A lot of things were changing back there in the Sixteenth Century. The most obvious were the conflicts that divided the Church into Roman Catholics and Protestants. But there were further disputes that divided the Protestants into Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists. On top of that, the Reformation was the religious side of a larger societal shift that included the political reorganizaton of Europe, the rise of capitalism in voyages of discovery to the New World, and the rise of a new intellectualism in the Renascence and the beginnings of modern science. In the graphic arts, you see a shift where a peasant at a kitchen table, saying grace over a loaf of bread, has become as proper a subject for a painting as a saint with a halo.

From the dispute over indulgences, the Reformers moved on to other issues, including the sacraments, how God exercises his sovereignty, the organization of the church, and the relationship between church and state. These were issues that threatened religious and political establishments so greatly that men went to war over them, and sent their opponents to the Tower or burnt them at the stake.

But those nasty things were the outward manifestations of change. The real Reformation, as Luther experienced it and as you and I can still experience it, was something simple, and peace-making, and profoundly interior. It was the experience, not just the doctrine, of knowing that one has been justified by faith.

Back in his student days, Luther was traveling to university on horseback during a thunderstorm. A lightning bolt struck nearby and he cried out, "Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!" He later told his father (who wanted him to become a lawyer) that he was terrified of death and divine judgment.

As a monk, Luther could never shake a sense of spiritual despair. The abbot of the monastery decided that Luther was too introspective and needed an academic challenge. So Luther earned a doctorate in theology and became professor of Bible at the University of Wittenburg. It was while teaching a course on Paul's letter to the Romans that Luther came to understand Paul's concept of Justification by Faith.

Luther already knew the bad news: "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in [God's] sight, for by the law [comes] the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). The law is an effective teacher. It teaches us what we ought to do, but it also reminds us that we don't do it. "I have," writes Paul, "a desire to do what is right, but I cannot fulfill it" (Romans 7:18). That's a recipe for spiritual despair. Despair at seeing a goal that you want to achieve, that you think you ought to be able to achieve, and coming to realize that you can't achieve it.

If you've ever had misgivings about your own score at doing right, you can imagine how Luther must have felt when he finally understood the good news: "But now ... apart from the law ... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe ... they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins" (Romans 3:21-25).

Luther saw that what he had to do was not to "be good enough" but to trust that Jesus (who really was "good enough") had made a "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice" for Luther's sins and everyone else's. And Luther saw that that if he so believed, God would credit him with nothing less than the goodness of Christ. That is the doctrine of Justification by Faith, whose rediscovery we celebrate on Reformation Sunday.

For the last fifteen years we have had even more cause for celebration. On 31 October 1999, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation assembled in Augsburg, Germany, and together they signed the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification". The central passage of that Declaration says: "Together we confess: by grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works." The declaration acknowledges that any good works we do are our response to God's grace, not the cause of our receiving it. In 2006 the World Methodist Council also signed the Declaration.

Thank God that six centuries after Luther, Catholics and Protestants are "singing from the same song sheet" on this critical teaching, and the nastiness of former times has given way to mutual respect and ecumenical fellowship. But as important as it is to have a document that makes peace at the institutional level, what's more important is the peace that Luther found at a profoundly interior and personal level. That came from his discovery that "being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ", because "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 5:1 and 8:1).


A very readable biography of Dr Luther and his influence on the Reformation is Roland Bainton's book "Here I Stand". It should be available from your public library. The Wikipedia article "Martin Luther" is also an excellent read.

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at nm@bbs42.net


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