Friday, October 27, 2017

Mark's thoughts: A Reformation, not a Revolution

On October 31, the Lutheran Church will celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation that began when Martin Luther posted the Ninety Five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Martin Luther had no idea regarding what was about to happen.  He had no intention to cause the Reformation.  At that moment, key parts of his theology were still being formed.  

We summarize Luther’s Reformation around the three sola’s (Latin for “alone”): Scripture alone; grace alone; and, faith alone.  On these points Luther offered a needed reforming of the Church.  The source of revelation from God can only be found in God’s Word – in the Scriptures – and not in the tradition of the Church.  We are saved only because of God’s undeserved favor towards us.  We are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ.  
Forgiveness and salvation does not involve our effort in any way, as St. Paul had written in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” 

By the early 1520’s, Luther recognized that what was happening was a reformation of the Church.  The Gospel was being lifted up out of all the debris that the medieval Church had piled upon it.  Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone were giving people the comfort and assurance of forgiveness and salvation that is found in the Scriptures.  All that contradicted this was being removed from what was becoming the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

This brought about great changes. The medieval practice of Christianity was built around actions that where meant to acquire merit for individuals in order pay off the temporal penalty they owed.  They were taught that the guilt of their sin was forgiven, but that a penalty was still owed God because the act of sinning offended Him.  After confessing sins and receiving absolution, penance was assigned – actions that a person was to do in order provide satisfaction for this penalty. 

However, the penance assigned was never sufficient to pay off all of the penalty.  So in the later medieval period most of the Church’s life was centered around activities meant to address this need.   People paid for Masses to be said on their behalf. They went on pilgrimages.  They joined monasteries and nunneries. They bought indulgences. 

Lutherans did away with all of this.  Yet while it is easy to focus upon the great change that took place in the Lutheran Reformation, we also need to remember how much stayed the same.  Luther and the Lutherans were aiming for a Reformation, not a Revolution.  They were removing those things contrary to Scripture and the Gospel.  But they were also committed to retaining all that was true and taught the faith.  The Lutherans did not wish to be anything other than what they had always been: catholic. They embraced the catholic (universal) teaching of the Church.  They confessed the three catholic Creeds.  They confessed the Sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar.  They retained the liturgy, the lectionary and vestments worn by the pastor.

In our celebration of the Reformation we rejoice in how much changed as the Gospel became clear once again. But we also rejoice in how much stayed the same.  The fact that both of these occurred at the same time has made the Lutheran Church a precious treasure and blessing to us.  


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