Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Marks thoughts: October 31 - A day of joy and sadness

Today we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.  Certainly this is a day of great joy for Lutherans.  We give thanks to God that he used his servant, Martin Luther, to make the Gospel clear once again.  In the Reformation themes of Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone we see that forgiveness and salvation are the gift that God gives us apart from anything that we do.

Today is a day of joy.  Yet one does not understand Luther and the Reformation if this is not also a day of sadness.  It was not Luther’s goal to create a division in the Church.  He sought to reform the Church by returning her to the biblical teaching of the Scriptures alone.  Luther wanted a catholic reformation – one that retained all that was good and true in the Church’s faith and practice.

Luther was not seeking a revolution.  Yet this also occurred.  In the theology of the radical Reformation, Zwingli and Calvin and their heirs such as Arminius and Wesley, a completely new version of Christianity was created.  For fifteen hundred years no Christian had denied that God actually does something in Holy Baptism or that the Sacrament of the Altar is the miracle of Christ’s true body and blood.  Yet now, in areas such as where I live, it is the dominant form of Christianity. This is a tragedy.

At the time of the Reformation, there was only the Catholic Church.  Luther was a Catholic.  The Roman Catholic church today is not the exact same church as the one at the time of the Reformation.  In important areas, the Roman Catholic church has proven Luther to be correct.  The Scripture and the liturgy of the Mass are now in the language that people can understand.  The blood of Christ is received by the people in many Roman Catholic parishes. 

In many areas, the theology of the Catholic Church was not a monolithic entity at the beginning of the sixteenth century.  The Reformation began in response to the practice of penance, yet in his book Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation, Thomas Tentler points out that there were in fact three different theologies that explained the relationship between absolution and penance.  In practice, many priests serving as confessors combined two of them.  The start of the process of salvation was understood differently in the theology of Thomas Aquinas and in the school exemplified by Gabriel Biel.

The Roman Catholic church is herself a product of the Reformation.  The specific positions taken by the Council of Trent and the manner in which they were expressed, were shaped and formed in response to the Reformation.   The Council of Trent sent the Roman Catholic church on a trajectory that has received further development in Vatican I and II. 

The Roman Catholic church is not the exact same church as the Catholic Church at the beginning of the sixteenth century.  The division between her and the Lutheran Church should sadden any Lutheran.  To share so much catholic teaching and practice, and yet not be in the same fellowship is a tragedy as well. 

Five hundred years later, it is legitimate to ask whether the Reformation still matters. Lutherans who confess Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone may wonder whether the issues that existed in the sixteenth century still exist today.  A brief look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church soon provides the answer to this. Below are relevant quotations that deal with the key Reformation issues concerning the source of revelation, justification, penance and purgatory, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Sadly the divide has actually expanded due to the Marian dogmatic assertions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which so dramatically illustrate the contradictory views about God’s revelation.

I. Revelation

A. 82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.

B.  891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed," and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith." This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

II. Justification

A. 1999 The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification:48

B. 2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.
III. Penance
A. 1446 Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace."

B. 1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."
C. 1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
D. What is an indulgence? "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."
E. "An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

IV. Purgatory

A. 1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

B. 1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

V. Sacrament of the Altar

1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different." "And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory."

VI. Mary

A. 491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

B. 493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God "the All-Holy" (Panagia), and celebrate her as "free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature". By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.

C. 966 "Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death." The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians:

D. 971 "All generations will call me blessed": "The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship." The Church rightly honors "the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of 'Mother of God,' to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. . . . This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration."516 The liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and Marian prayer, such as the rosary, an "epitome of the whole Gospel," express this devotion to the Virgin Mary.

E. 2682 Because of Mary's singular cooperation with the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary, to magnify with her the great things the Lord has done for her, and to entrust supplications and praises to her.

Festival of the Reformation

Today is the Festival of the Reformation.  In October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five theses – or statements – to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany.  By this simple action, Luther initiated the Reformation.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Church was called back to the truth that she can only live by Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone.  Today, we are reminded again that Scripture alone is the source of doctrine and practice in the Church.  We are reminded that salvation occurs on the basis of God’s grace alone – His undeserved love and favor towards us.  We are reminded that salvation occurs on the basis of faith alone – faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection for us.

Scripture reading:
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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—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 by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
(Romans 3:19-28)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and gracious Lord, pour out Your Holy Spirit on Your faithful people.  Keep us steadfast in Your grace and truth, protect and deliver us in times of temptation, defend us against all enemies, and grant to Your Church Your saving peace; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermn for the Festival of the Reformation - Rom 3:19-28

                                                                                                Rom 3:19-28

            How many times had Martin Luther done the exact same thing? How many times had he posted the invitation to a disputation –  a debate? The church door was the bulletin board.  It was the place you posted items so that the academic community of the University of Wittenberg could see them.  Luther was posting an invitation to a disputation along with the specific items he wanted to discuss. 
            Disputations were an important way that theology was done in the sixteenth century. There was nothing unusual about Luther’s action. The introduction to the Ninety-Five Theses reflects this fact as Luther wrote: “Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place.  He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter.”
            In one sense, the Ninety-Five Theses were a failure.  No debate ever took place at the University of Wittenberg as Luther had intended.  Of course, 500 years later we think of them as being incredibly successful.  After all, they started the Reformation.
            However on that day in 1517, Luther had no such intention.  He had no such expectation.  I first read the Ninety-Five Theses when I was at Concordia College, Ann Arbor as a pre-seminary student.  I was excited finally to read this key document that had started the Reformation!  And it was a complete letdown.  Honestly, they are really not all that interesting.  They are a discussion of guilt, penalty, indulgences and purgatory – the standard stuff of late medieval theology and practice.
            The irony of celebrating 2017 as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that Luther had not yet made his Reformation breakthrough in 1517.  Certainly the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses started the process of the Reformation and Luther’s thought was developing, but he wasn’t actually there yet.
            The central issue of the Reformation was this: Does a Christian have to do something in order to have the full blessing of salvation?  The theology of the medieval church said, yes.  Doctrine had been developed to explain and justify practice to related penance.  A person went to confession.  They confessed their sins and received absolution.
            But that was not the end of it. The medieval church had said that absolution forgave the guilt of sin. The good news was that you were not going to be eternally damned. However, because your sin had offended God, you still owed him a penalty that had to be paid. That’s what penance was all about.  It was the penalty that you owed God. The priest assigned a penance that you were to do.  But because medieval theology taught that it was a mortal sin if you didn’t complete the assigned penance, confessors assigned a small penance you could be sure to do.
            But that didn’t cover the full amount that you owed – not even close. And the bad news was that if you died and still owed penance, you were going to purgatory.  There you would be purged by fire in intense suffering until it was all paid off.  Only then would you enjoy the full blessing of salvation.
            The Church was very clear in teaching that it was much easier to offer the needed satisfaction now during this life rather than suffering in purgatory.  People were very motivated to do as much as they could to get rid of the penance they owed And so when John Tetzel came into a nearby area selling plenary indulgences – a guarantee that the entire amount of penalty was removed – he found many buyers.  Some of those buyers came from Wittenberg, and so Luther learned about what was happening.
            Medieval theology was based on the idea that you had a part to play.  God’s grace was a kind of supernatural substance that equipped you to do your part.  Your effort was necessary both in being saved and to pay off the penance you owed. The practice of the late medieval Church was built around activities that did this: paying for Masses; going on pilgrimages; buying indulgences.
            Yet that was only for people who weren’t really serious about their eternal welfare.  If you were, then there was only one course of action to take: you had to become a monk or a nun.  Martin Luther was really serious.  He had joined the Observant Augustinian Order. And there he learned first by experience and then by study what the apostle Paul is responding to in our text.
            Paul begins our text by saying, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.”  The words “But now” establish a contrast. Paul wants us to know that what God has done in Jesus Christ has changed everything.  He says that the “the righteousness of God” has been manifested apart from the law.
            The phrase “the righteousness of God” had been a source of torture for Luther.  He understood it to mean the righteousness that God demands. God is holy.  He demanded holiness from those who wanted to live with him.  After all, Jesus had said, “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Luther strove to avoid sin.  Where there was sin, it could be forgiven. But of course that left you with penance to do.
            His time in the monastery taught Luther a painful lesson: his effort was never good enough. He fell into sin.  His efforts only piled up more penance that he had to do.  Doing only brought the prospect of more doing in the empty hope of avoiding the fires of purgatory.
            It didn’t take a genius to recognize that Luther was exceptionally gifted. So the Augustinian order had him work toward his doctorate in theology, and during that process he began to teach at the University of Wittenberg.  He began to lecture on the Scriptures, and this study led Luther to understand why works and doing could never offer peace and comfort.  Paul says, “but now” in our text because he has just described the presence of sin in our life.  Ever since the Fall, sin had been a power that controlled us. 
            Earlier in the chapter Paul had stated, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Apart from Christ sin is not just something you do.  It is something that rules you. The apostle goes on to quote Scripture which says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
            Because this is the case, works and doing can never justify the sinner.  It can never offer you peace.   The law is about doing, and just before our text, Paul had said, “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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law shows you your sin. When you run through the Ten Commandments they show you that you have earned nothing except God’s judgment.
            Yet as Luther studied God’s Word he began to realize that “the righteous of God” is not something demanded by God.  Instead it is something that God gives.  It is his saving action in Jesus Christ to put all things right.  It is God’s doing, not our own, because it is a matter of grace alone. 
            And here grace is not some supernatural substance created by the imagination of medieval theology.  Instead it is the grace of the New Testament – the undeserved loving favor of God who gives you forgiveness and salvation as a gift.  It is the gift of forgiveness won by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for you – a gift that is now received by faith. As Paul says in our text, “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 by his blood, to be received by faith.”
            Medieval theology could offer the Christian nothing except uncertainty.  That’s how it is when you try to deal with God on the basis of your works. The question never goes away: “Have I done enough?  Have I done it well enough?”  Uncertainty will always be there because the nagging answer is, “No.”
            Yet when we confess our sin and inability, we are freed to receive God’s gift in Christ.  By his death and resurrection Jesus has accomplished what we never could.  Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law. The saving action of God has redeemed you.  He has freed you from sin, death and the devil, and so you know that you can be certain about where you stand with God.
            Paul says that already now you are justified.  This means that because of Christ you already know the verdict of the Last Day.  You know that when our Lord returns in glory you will stand before his judgment seat.  But because he has already now taken away your sins and made you righteous, there is nothing to fear.  Instead, it is something that will be part of your final victory and vindication.
            Martin Luther didn’t go to that Wittenberg church door in order to start the Reformation.  But that’s what God used him to do.  He used Luther to turn his Church away from the traditions of men and back to the Scriptures alone – to the word of God.  He used Luther to restore the Gospel – to restore grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone to the life of his church.
            The five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation is a time to celebrate.  These are precious gifts that we have received.  But they are not like family heirlooms that have been passed down to us and are now displayed in a breakfront in the house – never disturbed except by some occasional dusting.
            In order for the Reformation to be a blessing to us we must return to the first of the Ninety-Five Theses, now understood in its full Reformation sense.  There Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” 
            We live in a world that wants to know nothing about sin.  “Freedom” its motto – you are free to do what you want.  Yet this self chosen freedom is really slavery to sin and all the destruction it causes.  We must reject the world’s way of looking at things and recognize that all of human existence is moving towards the day when everyone will indeed appear before the judgment seat of God.  He will justly judge on the basis of his law – on the basis of the way he has ordered his creation.  The great surprise for many will be that the almighty God doesn’t care if you can’t believe in “that kind of God”; or if you don’t believe in “those kind of rules.” The almighty God is the Creator.  He is the Judge, and many people are in for a very rude surprise.
            For the Reformation to be a blessing to us, we must confess this sin for what it really is – sin against God.  We must repent and seek to turn away from this sin, even as we turn in faith to Jesus Christ.  For the God who is the Judge who is also the One who sent his Son into the world to redeem us from sin.  He is the One who already now says that we are justified because of his grace alone.  He gives forgiveness and salvation received by faith alone.  There is nothing that we have to do. There is nothing that we can do. It is his Gospel gift and so it is as certain and sure as God himself.