THE REFORMATION AT 500 YEARS
In the September 2017 issue of Grace Notes, I suggested several activites you could participate in to make your Reformation more meaningful. I recently watched the movie on PBS titled Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World, and can highly recommend both it and the similar video/movie titled A Return to Grace: Luther's Life and Legacy. If you miss the present showings, you should be able to order the PBS DVD at this web-page: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dvd-martin-luther-the-idea-that-changed-the-world/30876943?ean-0841887035156; and the Northwestern Publishing House version here: http://online.nph.net/returntograce.
What was the Reformation all about, and is it still relevant today? As the movies correctly narrate, Luther's initial impetus was not the doctrines of sola Scriptura (that church doctrine should be establish only on the basis of Holy Scripture, not on human philosophy, the writings of Christian theologians, the legislation of church councils, or the edicts of popes and bishops) or sola fide (that a person is justified before God only by faith in Christ and his merits, not on the basis of a person's good works, obedience to the law, or personal virtues). The impetus was the abuse in the area of church practice which we today call "Confession and Absolution." The Roman Catholic Church was selling "indulgences" in order to release the faithful from the various penalties that had been prescribed by canon law for sins of all types. Luther was shocked when he ran into this practice in his own pastoral care of the members of his parish. His members were buying indulgences from traveling salesmen authorized by the archbishop and the pope. Luther believed that it was a form of "extortion" to threaten people with enternal punishment -- or with temporal punishment for thousands of years in purgatory -- and then to tell people they could be released from that punishment by paying a fee to the church.
As the church's leadership began to prosecute Luther for his opposition to their policies, he began to do research into the basis of indulgences. He found that the current practices were contrary to canon law, and furthermore, he found that canon law -- which was the accumulated edicts of popes and bishops and the legislation of church councils -- was contrary to Scripture and to the best and most revered theologians of the church. The theologians where he found the most support were in the early church, including Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Hilary of Poitiers. His study of the history of theology convinced him that the church had slowly, but surely, drifed away from its Scriptural moorings. He decided that the only way to purge the church of its abuses was to return to a thoroughly Scriptural theology and practice, i.e., on the basis of the principle of Sola Scriptura.
As a professor of Bible at Wittenberg University, Luther was mentally and emotionally immersed in the Bible. As he continued to study Scriptures, with an eye to the cause of the abuses in the church, he discovered in 1518 -- after the posting of the 95 Theses -- that God judges a person only on the basis of his faith in Christ, since no one except Christ can achieve the sort of perfection that God rquires for life eternal with Him. The cause of a person's salvation is thus only the merits of Christ, achieved and acquired for the salvation of the world through Jesus' suffering and death on the cross. The merits of Christ are imputed only to those who believe in Jesus and His word and promises, and this imputation happens only by faith. Although good works and obedience follow from faith, God does not factor them into his consideration of a person's righteousness. The only righteousness that we have is Jesus' righteousness and that is received only by faith. This is the Lutheran doctrine of sola fide.
Luther's theological breakthroughs, as represented by the principles of sola Scriptura and sola fide, were widely accepted by theologians and scholars throughout Europe. In states where the theologians and secular rulers agreed on Luther's insights, those states became Protestant. By 1540, this included many of the Swiss cantons, most of central Germany, all of northern Germany, Prussia, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Transylvania, all of the Scandinavian countries, and England. Some theologians felt that Luther went too far in giving credit for salvation only to God, and none to man. The great humanist scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, believed that faith is a product of the human will, and that therefore man contributes something to his own salvation. Luther countered with his epochal treatise On the Bondage of the Will in which he proved that faith itself is a gift of God, and that "I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him" (Small Catechism, Explanation to the Third Article). This is the Lutheran doctrine of sola gratia.
Is the Reformation still relevant today? The recent movies do a great job of explaining a number of political and social breakthroughs that occurred due to Luther and his Reformation and which no one really wants to reverse today. Who wants to burn heretics, pagans, or practitioners of the occult at the stake? Who wants to give the pope the power to appoint or remove presidents, senators, or kings? Who wants to give the pope the power to command armies as their "Commander in Chief"? Who wants to relive the wars of religion in the late 16th and early 17th century? Who wants to give the church the power to censor the news, books, theater, and other media -- and to burn books and their authors? At least in Europe and the Americas, these medieval nightmares are -- God willing -- long behind us!
Is the Reformation still relevant today in the area of church life? Many people believe that Luther's theological concerns are no longer relevant. As a result, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church jointly signed the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (aka JDDJ; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification). The World Methodist Council adopted the JDDJ statement in 2006 and the World Communion of Reformed Churches adopted the JDDJ this year. The latter Communion includes "80 million members of Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting, and Waldensian churches."
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod(LCMS) and the Wisconsin Ev.Lutheran Synod(WELS), and their global ecclesiastical allies, have not adopted the JDDJ statement and have publicly opposed it. We believe that the JDDJ compromises and annuls Luther's key insights of sola fide and sola gratia, and have done so on the basis of church authorities that are contrary to sola Scriptura. Those of us in the LCMS and WELS still uphold Luther's key insights, and in facet, we uphold and affirm the entire 1580/84 Book of Concord. Luther's insights and breakthroughs still live on in our churches--thank God!--as a testimony to the rest of the world and for the benefit of our members.
Yours in Christ,