The Reformation, Five Centuries Later

Luthers 95 Theses2By Pr. Rich Futrell

One year passes and another begins, 500-hundred years’ worth since Luther tacked his 95 theses on Wittenberg’s wooden door.  Through those statements, he wanted a debate about indulgences shortening someone’s time in Purgatory.  Today, most don’t understand the fracas, which followed, fracturing Europe.  On both sides, Lutheran and Roman-Catholic, people put their lives at risk to confess their understanding of the Faith.  Such fervor!

Not so today.  Those who bear the name “Christian” often flit from one congregation to another, not attending a church because they will find the truth proclaimed, taught, and practiced.  No, most choose based on preference, on feelings or friendliness.  Perhaps, we become like Pontius Pilate in this Church-splintered age: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

Don’t misunderstand me.  The social dynamics at work within a house of worship are significant—but also secondary.  Like faith in the Christian brings about faith-filled deeds, so too in the congregation.  What creates and strengthens trust in Christ must come first.

Consider the possibility of our idolatry as being “choice.”  If true, what are we to make of the Reformation?  For Luther didn’t teach “choice” but relying on the world’s divine Redeemer.

Well, all Christians trust in Christ, we think.  Hooray!  The Reformation succeeded!  Let’s find out.

A recent Pew Research Center poll reports most American Protestants, 52%, believe good works and faith are necessary for eternal life.  The Lutheran Confessions differ.  Yes, good works are necessary—but not to be saved.  For if you must “do” something to earn your salvation, your eternity is now by something other than “faith alone.”  “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves—it [referring to faith] is God’s gift” (Ephesians 2:8).  Wow, we can’t even take credit for our faith, which also is a gift from God!

By comparison, of the U.S. Roman-Catholics surveyed, 81% think both good deeds and faith are necessary for salvation.  So the Reformation did not succeed.  For most Protestants think salvation relies on their works in some way, which means they are still Roman-Catholic at heart.  Yes, we still need the Reformation!

A theologian, Philip Carey, who describes himself as a “High-Church Anglican,” asserts Lutheranism challenges Protestants more than Catholics!

Protestants love to talk about “accepting Christ by faith,” … however, it is presented as a decision we must make, as if it were by our own free will.  Luther, by contrast, hates the very idea of free will when it is applied to matters of salvation …  For anything we do is something about which we can ask, “Am I doing it well enough?”  And for Luther the answer is always “not well enough to save you from damnation.”  No act of our free will, and hence no decision of ours [as expressed in the “sinner’s prayer”], is an exception to this rule….

For those who place Lutherans in the Protestant camp, the Lutheran Church is unique.  For our entire worldview forms from a different perspective.  How so?  In this way—we recognize God is doing the work in Preaching, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.  Other Protestant “denominations” understand Baptism and our Savior’s Supper as what they are doing for God.  Does God saving you by what He does still matter?

Let’s consider more from Carey:

For Luther, we must believe that we are Christians because Christ said so in our baptism, not because we have made a decision or had a conversion experience or done something to make ourselves into believers.  If asked whether we are truly Christians, the answer Luther teaches us to give is simply “Yes, I am baptized.”

So, the Lutheran Church, instead of papering over differences, needs to be a beacon to the rest of the Church and world—if truth still counts.  Ponder our Lord’s words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  What we do is not part of Christ’s “through me.”

In an interview in October 2016, Pope Francis spoke about what Catholics should learn from Martin Luther: “Two words come to my mind: Reform and Scripture.”  Through still rejecting much from Luther, the current Pope admits the Roman-Catholic Church could benefit from some of Lutheran theology.  (This is a vast improvement from 500 years ago!)

Another Roman-Catholic theologian, Jared Wicks, also reflected on Luther.  “In early 1518, [Luther] came to feature a new aspect of the penitential life, namely, the powerful, clear, and certain-making word of sacramental absolution spoken to the penitent.”

What’s ironic is Catholicism requires confession, but “penance” is attached to the priest’s absolution.  To Wicks, he recognized Luther restoring Christ’s complete pardon in Absolution.  Again, God is the one at work, with the Christian on the receiving end.  Does this matter?

Sown with the seed of sin’s corruption, we’ll never outgrow the Reformation.  The poll results reveal this.  This day and always, we need to be brought back to God’s forgiving Word and life-bestowing grace.  So we aren’t forced to guess where to find what Jesus earned for us on the executioner’s cross, He tells us: In His Church.  For She is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the Cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).

Luther wrote:

We treat of the forgiveness of sins in two ways.  First, how it is achieved and won.  Second, how it is distributed and given to us.  Christ has won it on the cross, it is true.  But he has not distributed or given it on the cross.  He has not won it in the Supper or Sacrament.  But there he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the Gospel, where it is preached….  If now I desire to have my sins forgiven, I must not run to the cross, for I do not find it distributed there….  But [I must hold] to the Sacrament or the Gospel, where I find the Word, which distributes, delivers, offers, and gives to me such forgiveness which was won on the cross.  [Luther’s Works, vol 40, pgs 213-214]

Yes, the Reformation is still relevant because our Lord coming to give us life and salvation still matter!