Posted on October 31st, 2017
The Five-hundredth Anniversary of the Reformation
When your baby boy bonks his head, what matters? When your husband lies dead, what matters? When you sit with Job on a dung-heap, children gone, possessions gone, sores covering your stinking body, what matters?
Job’s own answer, through a long struggle of pain and torment, was this: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He shall stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”
The Redeemer is Jesus. Jesus is what matters when you hold tightly to your sick child. Jesus is what matters when the coffin of your father descends into the earth. Jesus is what matters when your own life is in total crisis.
The church on earth has a way of losing focus. The church on earth has a way of losing sight of Jesus. When ethnicity and culture become the identity of a church, that church loses sight of Jesus. When secular politics becomes the identity of a church, that church loses sight of Jesus. When socializing or social actions becomes the identity of a church, that church loses sight of Jesus. A thousand things can rise up to become more important than Jesus in His own church.
In Luther’s day, the church had forgotten how to repent.
In Luther’s day, the church had forgotten how to repent. Money and certain actions defined repentance and earned forgiveness. Repentance was a thing you did, not a change of heart and life. What set the Reformation in motion was this simple statement Luther posted on the door of the Schloßkirch in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That beginning of the 95 Theses generated a repentance movement that could not be stopped. While previous reformers like Jan Hus were tortured and killed, God’s grace saw fit to protect Luther from martyrdom. But we must never make this repentance movement about Luther.
The repentance movement we call the Reformation was not about Luther. The repentance movement we call the Reformation was not about Germany. The Reformation was about pointing people back to Jesus. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
For 500 years, even Reformation churches have forgotten the point. In Germany this summer I found Luther’s face plastered everywhere, on billboards and beer steins, his words becoming slogans twisted beyond recognition to sell gaudy trinkets.
Luther is remembered as a hero of personal freedom, a hero of nationalism, a leader of rebellion or revolution. Beyond any doubt Luther would be horrified by all of that. What would he say to us? While the context for Reformation has changed, the need for it has increased. Were Luther here to preach to us today, would he thunder against Pope Francis or President Trump, Angela Merkel or Harvey Weinstein? I imagine he would have some choice words for all of them – but his fire would be aimed first and foremost at us. The very same words with which he began the Ninety-five Theses would still apply: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Does your entire life demonstrate repentance? Or are you holding parts of your life back? Do you think you stand higher than those medieval peasants who dropped coins into a box imagining they’d escape purgatory? Or do you not see that they recognized sins had a cost? You imagine a quick prayer grants you freedom to keep on sinning. We all get a good giggle out of Luther’s colorful quotations, while imbibing a steady diet of filth streaming in from every direction.
The Reformation spawned an educational system so that every peasant boy could read the Bible. Inheriting that legacy, you have a college education but cannot be bothered to read the Bible diligently. You have time to play soccer but no time to pray. You have money for mansions but no money for missions. You want everyone else to change, but you spend no effort applying the Catechism’s Table of Duties to your own life.
The most important words of Luther were not his but Christ’s: “Repent!” “Change your mind,” Jesus is saying to you. “Turn and become different.” The call to Reformation goes to you and your heart.
That kind of Reformation leads to joy, for when we throw ourselves, weak and helpless, at the feet of Jesus, we hear Him say, “Don’t be afraid. I forgive you, I will be with you, in every trouble.”
It seems like there is more trouble than ever. False teachers plague the church. The world spins deeper into madness and decay. Christianity in the West is in rapid decline.
But we still have everything we need. We have Christ and His Gospel. We have Baptism and Christ’s Supper. We have the Bible, and unlike most of the church’s history, we have the money for everyone to own a Bible and the education to read it. “Every celebration of the Reformation is also a time of thanksgiving for the Holy Scriptures” (Löhe). God has given us this treasure, and it is rich. It has everything you need. When you are afraid, there is Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to You!” When you are sad, the Scriptures say to you, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” When you come to any new morning, we have words to praise Him, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” And when you are dying, “Lord Jesus, remember me in Your kingdom; into Your hands I commend my spirit.”
And everywhere are the Lord’s promises to you: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
And daily you have the Lord’s guidance: “Little children, love one another.” “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with all men.”
The true and faithful Reformation was not a revolution.
So that we would have all these rich treasures, the true and faithful Reformation was not a revolution. Some smashed crucifixes; Lutherans kept them, for there we have a picture of Jesus saving us. Some threw out the church year, but Lutherans kept it, knowing that we need to remember the Advent of our Lord, His suffering in Lent, His death on Good Friday, His resurrection on Easter, His Ascension, and His gift of the Spirit on Pentecost. Some made Baptism and the Lord’s Supper into works that humans do to obey God, but Lutherans kept the Bible’s emphasis on God giving us His gifts. The Reformation was conservative; we weren’t starting a new church but going back to the old and true catholic church.
The Reformation was conservative; we weren’t starting a new church but going back to the old and true catholic church.
We still need Reformation. 500 years later, we are not yet united with our old brothers and sisters in the Roman or Greek churches. We have work to do.
We still need Reformation. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a good confession of faith and outstanding people, but she has challenges. We have work to do.
We still need Reformation. God has blessed our Immanuel congregation, but each one of us needs to grow in prayer and good works and charity. We have work to do.
We still need Reformation. The world needs Jesus. We have work to do.
And we will work, because God has called us to work. But above all else, He is the author and finisher of the work. We do work, but everything depends on Him. He is what matters.
I had hoped to come up with something really profound and eloquent for this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But all I have is this: Jesus is what matters, and His Word and Promises are the heart of the Reformation message. He is what matters when your child is sick, when your father is dead, when you are in trouble.
Repent of your sins. Keep the Reformation going. Receive Christ’s gifts. Rejoice.
Repent. Reform. Receive. Rejoice.