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Friday, October 20, 2017

Reformation 500 years: A Fish Rots from the Head


As a fellow sinner with the rest of humankind, but a saved sinner because of my Lord Jesus Christ, I look today at the 500 year celebration of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, wondering if the church of Jesus Christ in 2017, and our church here at MWC, needs reformation. And I suggest we answer that with a simple Yes, or a simple No!


The church at the time of Luther, was of course what we call the Roman Catholic Church and ... it was quite rotten, with a rot that began at the top and filtered down. This is generally the nature of rot in any organization ... and in the church at that time, the rot was in the leadership ... and as God always does, He raised up someone to point it out to the leadership. In a new book by Nelson Mandela (and completed by his co-writer Mandla Langa) and released this week (buy Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years here), Mandela points out that leadership should always be listening not only to its praise singers but also to its critics; and leadership should constantly be self-critical. The RCC in 1500's failed miserably in these two areas. But are we any better today?

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

Luther and the Protestant reformers believed that centuries of church tradition had placed a heavy burden on the backs of believers, and pointing to verses like this one, they reminded Christians that the gospel of Christ is meant to free people from guilt and sin. I'm not sure 500 years on, that we've changed much ... the church is still perceived as an organization that sometimes takes great delight in pointing out the sin in others but doesn't identify the sin in itself first. we're quite good at saying "No" to the sin in the world, but "Yes" to the sin in our midst. When last did someone rebuke you for your sin? 

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’


Historians use 31 October 1517 – the date when Martin Luther presented 95 arguments/criticisms of the state of the church, and this date is now seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. There were, of course, precursors, especially the Englishman John Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards. We have our own Lollards' Pit here in Norwich, where these "heretics" who emphasised the primacy of Scripture, were burnt or hanged. Almost exactly one century later, God raised up Martin Luther.

Initially Luther was working to reform the Catholic Church, not trying to start a new church. (I am indebted to historian Bruce Shelley for the following way of describing Luther's thinking). Luther brought creative theological answers to four critical questions:

                How can a person be saved?
                Where does religious authority lie?
What is the church?
What is the essence of Christian living?

Luther’s reply to the question of how a person can be saved was unequivocal: “By grace through faith alone!” His own deepening understanding of this answer came as he began his work as a teaching theologian at the newly founded University of Wittenberg. In 1515 he lectured on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Then for two years – 1516-1517 – he lectured on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The powerful message of salvation by faith in these two letters began to work its way into Luther’s heart and soul. The great turning point came as he  meditated long and hard on Romans 1:17. He later recalled, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the righteous shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God saves us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

He found that this idea permeated all Scripture:

 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God –

but the righteous person will live by faith


This past week in our home groups we've looked at the story of the prostitute Rahab and how she was saved by faith. To Luther, faith was not merely intellectual agreement that Jesus is Lord, as it had been for most Roman Catholic priests. Rather it was a grateful wholehearted response of one’s entire being to the love of God in Christ. John Wesley, 200 years after Luther, would remind folk that the devil and his demons believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Faith/belief is more than just something in your head ... it's something that shakes up your whole body and impassions and invigorates you ... sets you on fire. 500 years on, I don't always see much of that ... in many places, church becomes like any other business and people in the church don't always look or behave very differently to people who aren't in the church ... and the rot sets in.

So one of the great cornerstones of the Protestant Reformation was: sola fide, faith alone, but a faith that does something inside you.  Luther knew that by emphasising alone he was adding a word to Scripture, but he believed that the situation in the church at the time demanded the addition and that it was, in fact, in perfect accord with Scripture. 

   
As to the second question, where does religious authority lie, Luther’s forthright response rested on sola Scriptura, the Scripture alone:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness

During an 18 day debate with John Eck of Liepzieg, Luther declared, “A council or synod may sometimes err. Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.” Later, when he was asked to recant what he had written, he responded, “My conscience is captive to the word of God,” adding that unless he were convicted by Scripture and plain reason, he could not recant, for he did not accept the authority of popes and councils. “I will not recant anything,” he declared to the court, “for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

By stressing the primacy of the Word of God as contained in Scripture, Luther was not rejecting the teaching of councils or the great writers of Christian thought. But he was making them subject to Scripture: any time there is a discrepancy between the two, he said, the Bible is to be regarded as the authoritative source of faith and practice.

Luther backed his emphasis on “Scripture alone” by translating the entire Bible into German, thus making Scripture accessible to his people, and he encouraged people, ordinary people, to read the Bible, cover to cover.

As to the third question, - What is the church – Luther replied that the entire community of faith are priests before God. 

you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

This doctrine of the priesthood of all believers tied directly into his stress upon the primacy of Scripture, for Luther urged all Christians (as priest unto God) to read the Bible; and he insisted that they were competent, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to understand it properly. In taking this stance he rejected the papal claim to have the exclusive right to interpret Scripture. This was one of the most provocative and controversial beliefs of the reformers, because every Christian is considered part of the “priesthood,” there was no Scriptural basis for the office of priesthood as the Roman Catholic church understood it. This remains a key distinction between these branches of Christianity to this day.

Further, he rejected the supposed superiority of popes, bishops, priests and monks over the common people, insisting that all Christians are consecrated priests by baptism and that the only difference among Christians is one of "job description." He maintained that the work of priests and members of religious orders is not one bit more sacred in the sight of God than the work of a farmer in his fields or of that farmers wife in her household duties.

This leads directly to Luther’s answer to the fourth question: What is the essence of Christian living? Unsurprisingly, we find the answer by simply looking at the Scriptures ... I'll just go to two that we've already looked:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

To the question What is the essence of Christian living he replied, doing good works, serving God in any useful calling, whether ordained or lay. While not disapproving of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which all priests were required to take, Luther found no grounds for them in Scripture; and by insisting that all work is sacred, he undercut the fundamental reasoning behind monasteries and nunneries. He saw family life as being just as sacred as single monastic life, and he helped arrange marriages for those who left the cloistered life. He himself married a former nun and theirs was a happy home and several children were born into it. When the family gathered around the table, they were typically joined by Luther’s students, who admiringly recorded his “table talk.” All this had a way of erasing the line between things sacred and things secular. Indeed it was Luther’s contention that all useful and good things are sacred.

We praise and thank God on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation for raising up a man like Martin Luther. But remember, a fish rots from the head down ... was there any rot in Luther? Well, yes, he was fiercely antisemitic. Luther urged the destruction of Jews. He outlined his ideas in his book On the Jews and Their Lies which included setting fire to synagogues and schools, the confiscation of Jewish books, burning their homes to the ground, rabbis banned from teaching on pain of death, cash and jewelry confiscated and expulsion of Jews from German lands (read from his works here). Luther’s wishes would eventually materialise four hundred years later in 1938, which became known as Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass. This state sponsored persecution occurred on Luther’s birthday. At that time Lutheran Bishop Martin Sasse quoted Luther in a pamphlet inciting the people against the Jews. His views conformed with those of Goebbels—similar to what Luther preached in his penultimate sermon. Many of Sasse’s church colleagues claimed that the swastika on church altars was a source of inspiration and Lutheran clergy were given the task to complete Luther’s mission against “world enemy”, the Jews.

As we've seen recently in our Old Old Stories series, we all have our dark side ... last week we saw Noah's, this week we see Luther's. But what is your dark side (your rot), and does your church have a dark side? And if you are in a position of leadership (in your home, church, workplace) is your rot affecting your home, your church, your workplace?

On the anniversary of 500 years of Reformation, I call the church of Jesus Christ and every Christian, to ongoing re-formation (more on that next Sunday evening).



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