Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
is Reformation Sunday in
Losing Our Nerve
No, this hasn’t happened here for years. And that’s not because we’ve been forced out of the public square. No, the reason is that American Lutherans aren’t interested in the Reformation anymore – we’ve simply given up on our heritage. So no stories were even submitted to the newspapers and no events were planned. Nothing. Zero. Fifty years ago it was a different story. Hundreds of Lutherans looked forward to, and gathered together for, the celebration of Reformation Sunday. But those days are now long gone.
Some have complained that society doesn’t want to hear from us
anymore and that we’ve been forced out of society, into a religious
ghetto. Now while it is true that there is a “political doctrine and
practice” afoot in
In large part this is because American Lutherans have replaced a bona fide Lutheranism with a secular rendition of it. Rather than dwelling on the Law & Gospel in a ministry of Word & Sacrament [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) pp. 189, 313], Lutherans have been seduced into a secular Lutheranism based on four distorted tenants (à la Pastor Karen Ward, Church of the Apostles, Seattle, WA, in her March 16, 2006 lecture).
1. Grace. The first tenant is the centrality of grace. This preference is construed as a license for unbridled theological experimentation. This view defies the restrictions placed upon grace in Romans 6:15 and 2 Corinthians 6:1. This free-floating grace or mercy or gospel is a diabolical baptism of self-indulgent innovation aimed solely at self-affirmation and easy living (contra John 12:25; Matthew 7:14). Luther called this “misusing the gospel” (LW 51:207), which reduces grace to nothing but “rotten, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty” (BC, pp. 358-359).
2. Everyone’s a Priest. Secondly, this secular Lutheranism espouses “the priesthood of all believers” in order to usurp all teaching authority. But when Luther espoused the priesthood of all believers (Luther’s Works 39:229-238), he did it only to reinforce the responsibility of each Christian to witness to the truth of Christ and seek the forgiveness of sins directly from God through Christ (BC, pp. 349-351). The called pastor of each congregation was still to rule the parish as Christ’s representative, according to his Word (LW 22:372, 40:11, 21:9, 46:221, 20:103). Christianity, therefore, was not to be some sort of theological free-for-all.
3. Translating into the Vernacular. When Luther translated the Bible into German, he did not do so to endorse dominant cultural values. If he had wished that, he would have used slang in his translations, which he didn’t do [Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols. (1985-1993) 2:49]. No, his purpose was simply to bring “the Bible to light” (LW 35:250) for the Germans who could not understand the Latin, Greek and Hebrew versions of the Scriptures.
And imagining, as secular Lutherans do, that translating the Bible into the vernacular, or common speech of the people, was an exaltation of the culture, also misses completely Luther’s steadfast judgment against the world – which he famously called a “vale of tears” (LW 28:122). No, Luther wouldn’t want to conform to the world (contra Romans 12:2) which he considered “perverse and wicked,” as well as being a place “of sorrow” (BC, pp. 428, 348). He, after all, thought of the world as nothing but one large “whorehouse” (LW 21:180). So one should “disregard everything in the world” (LW 23:247), for Christ and the world “cannot be in harmony” (LW 20:103). This is because what is of God is “crucified in the world” (LW 25:177). Luther, therefore clearly knew and believed that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4), and that we must not love the world (1 John 2:15).
4. Always Reforming the Church. Finally these secularists also think that if the church is always to be reformed (semper reformanda), then there’s something inherently wrong with the old and essentially good about being new. But it’s not clear that Luther ever espoused semper reformanda [see Joseph C. McLelland, The Reformation and Its Significance Today (1962) p. 109, saying he did, and Kenneth Hagen, Luther’s Approach to Scripture as Seen in His Commentaries on Galatians (1993) p. 72, saying he didn’t].
But be that as it may, he did admonish Christians to practice what they preached (Matthew 23:3) by repenting always and everywhere (LW 31:84-85, BC, p. 445). So it’s not that the church’s norms need to be updated or improved (LW 27:37), but that our implementation of them needs strengthening. Luther, after all, cherished the church of the “ancient baptism” (LW 41:195), which he called a “palace of ivory” (LW 12:255) and our mother (LW 26:441). And from early on Lutherans were committed to being “orthodox” (BC, p. 3). Therefore, according to Luther, it’s demonic to insist that the church must always be turned into “something new” (LW 41:127). Where newness is genuinely needed is only in following the norms of the church more deliberately, with newly intensified devotion (1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:20).
Now these faulty tenants formulate a secular version of Christianity which reduces the divinely revealed to “the human, the historical, the empirical” [Paul M. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963) p. 198]. So no wonder it’s not worth celebrating! By shrinking the vertical dimension of Christianity, it’s gobbled up by the horizontal. Now this feeble version comes from an earlier liberal attempt to make Christianity say, in effect, that
a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross [H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937, 1988) p. 193].
This easy-going view of Christianity has been seducing Christians from the beginning – trying to drain the cross of Christ of its saving power (1 Corinthians 1:17; Philippians 3:12). This same blight is also there in the ancient Gnostic heresy which puts individual religious experiences above the written Word of God (see Elaine H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 1979, and the critique of it in Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics, 1987).
These Gnostic heretics – whom Luther called schwärmer or enthusiasts – plagued him too. They were the ones who taught that the Holy Spirit (contra John 14:26) could divulge “new revelations outside the ministry of the Word” (LW 2:162), thereby enabling supposedly enlightened Christians to “judge, interpret, and twist the Scriptures… according to their pleasure” (BC, p. 312).
Now these schwärmer are not confined to ancient and Reformation times. No, they abound here too, making appeals to the Biblical norms of “historical Christianity” in the American religious scene seem quaint, if not altogether irrelevant [Harold Bloom, The American Religion (1992) p. 42]. And secular Lutherans have caved into this American Gnosticism by working to tie the Holy Spirit closer to creation than to redemption by faith in Christ [see The Gift of Grace: The Future of Lutheran Theology, ed. Niels H. Gregersen (2005) p. 11]. This corruption almost makes one long for an earlier time of cultural isolation when Lutherans were “less subject to the theological erosion which so largely stripped other denominations of an awareness of their continuity with a historic Christian tradition” [Winthrop S. Hudson, American Protestantism (1961) p. 176].
So Luther opposed new formulations of Christianity – favoring instead the historic, rugged view of Christianity in the Bible. He therefore wanted to get the church back into the fray and away from the mentality that hoped to float into heaven as if on “velvet cushions” (LW 23:362) – which is what these secular versions of Christianity are all about. And these softer views are dangerous because this life of repose hampers Christianity (Luke 12:19; LW 35:39). Christians therefore shouldn’t want “a nice, soft life without the cross and suffering” (BC, p. 392). No, we must instead be prepared to be “tempted, troubled, [and] tested” (LW 28:374).
Therefore we mustn’t spin a Christian life out of the Biblical line that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). For those words, though necessary, are insufficient. They’re just too truncated to accurately depict God’s way with us. For that to happen, John 3:16 would have to link-up with the wrath revealed in John 3:36.
That’s what Luther repeatedly did in his ministry – laboring tirelessly to keep the law together with the gospel (LW 26:343). This indelibly marked his witness with “an antithesis [or] tension between strongly opposed but related polarities.” For many that makes “Luther’s thought too assertive,… too little humanist and too barbaric” [Gerhard Ebeling, Luther (1964, 1970) p. 25]. But we shouldn’t be surprise since he himself said that he was the “rude lumberjack,” who “was born to go to war” (quoted in my “Luther the Lumberjack,” Lutheran Quarterly, Spring 1996). For Luther, then, the center of Christianity is 1 Timothy 6:12, which tells us to “fight the good fight of faith” (LW 25:339).
But this militant view puts us squarely in the minority – since the crowd wants to go the serene, refined way of peace and calm. Therefore we must concede that if Luther were to try to teach in a college or seminary today, he would be turned down for being “too conservative and far too pious” [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (1982, 1989) p. 313]. Luther knew, unlike many today, that God’s Word was “a fighting word” and so we must “give up the hope of advancing Christ’s cause on earth in peace and pleasantness” (LW 17:350, 48:153).
Therefore he challenges Christians in every time to take up Philippians 2:12 and work out one’s salvation “in fear and trembling.” All other ways miss the heart of the Bible. So [contra Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians (1947, 2002) pp. 71-74]
the most pestilent class of preachers today is that group which preaches about the signs of present grace, so that it makes men secure, when in fact the very best sign of grace is that we fear and tremble, and the surest sign of God’s wrath is to be smug and self-confident (LW 25:498).
God’s Law Matters
So a spiritual ruckus is needed. We need to attack the “horrible monster” of our self-righteousness with the “large and powerful hammer” of God’s law, “which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath” (LW 26:310). If we don’t do that, the devil will have his way with us. But if we preach in the church the terrors of the law, as we should until the second coming of Christ (BC, p. 562), then the devil will, like an ol’ sow, get a good kicking and “raise a terrible disturbance and… create havoc everywhere” (LW 27:44-45; 23:291; 22:36).
This makes the law “the greatest treasure God has given us” (BC, p. 411) and our basis for spiritual renewal (LW 21:284). For the law of God not only condemns us, but also guides us, who believe in Christ, into all righteousness. Some Lutherans bristle at this thought, thinking it destroys Jesus’ gift of salvation. But Luther disagrees. For as long as we are trapped by sin in the flesh, our Christian righteousness is blunted in this life and we go about continually abusing our “evangelical freedom” (LW 45:89-91).
So being simultaneously [simul] sinful and holy (LW 25:260, 434; 26:232), we need help from the law to bind ourselves, against ourselves, to the way of righteousness. Thinking Jesus is enough for this is only a trick of licentiousness – springing up from a sinfully excessive amount of trust in him, strange as that may sound (LW 25:287; 22:197). Christ is enough when it comes to establishing the forgiveness of sins (1 Corinthians 2:1-5), but not when it comes to walking in righteousness on this earth (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1). For that we need the law. So needing the law to “instruct” us in righteous living (BC, p. 566) takes nothing away from Christ’s glory. Looking to the law is only about rebuking “rascals” who are dodging the law – as Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, Hong edition, §4:4569).
So repent. Don’t make excuses for yourselves (Luke 14:18). Cast out all secular versions of Lutheranism. Know that your hankering after some sort of watered-down Christianity is ghastly to God. So repent. Let God’s law expose your sin and rub your noses in it (Romans 7:13). Know that running away from the condemnation of the law only makes you “damnable knaves” (LW 43:228). So give thanks to God for the goodness of his law (Romans 7:12). Repent and reverse your wretchedness. And know also that your “entire life” as a believer needs to be one of repentance – so get used to repenting everywhere and always (LW 31:25).
But don’t boast when you’ve repented. Know that having a contrite heart is a gift and so when you repent it’s because God has made it possible. This then excludes your boasting “by the law of faith” (Romans 3:27), which draws us away from ourselves (Romans 6:13). So humility, not pride, is what goes with repentance.
So repent and humble yourselves (Luke 18:14; James 4:10). Don’t praise yourselves (John 5:44). Glorify God for your salvation (1 Corinthians 10:31) – which begins with repentance and ends with the “second step,” which is the “forgiveness of sins… for the sake of Christ [propter Christum]” (LW 26:126-127).
Yes, propter Christum, by all means! For our salvation is from Christ or because of Christ or for the sake of Christ – propter Christum! This is because only he can help us, once we’ve repented, because only he was punished in our place for us, to free us from the punishment for our sins (1 Peter 1:18-19, BC, p. 414).
Romans 8:3-4 gives this message its classic formulation – the entire book of Romans being “the chief part of the New Testament and… the purest gospel,” which all Christians should know “word for word, by heart” (LW 35:365):
God has done what the law… could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for [περι] sin, he condemned sin… in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled.
So loving God’s law will not save us – for only a death can meet the just requirement of the law. And only Jesus’ death can take care of [περι] sin. For it’s “an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10). So if you believe in this death, there will be no punishment in hell for you. For his death “appeases,” “placates” and “stills” God’s wrath by “paying” what we owed, thereby restoring us “to the Father’s favor” (BC, pp. 215, 198, 138, 541, 414). This is implausible and “repulsive” to human reason, but no less true because of that (BC, p. 139). For we know that Christianity doesn’t make sense to “the wise and understanding” (Matthew 11:25-26; LW 33:99-100).
So rejoice in the Master, Jesus Christ (Matthew 23:10), for he alone can save you (Acts 4:12). He alone is our mediator, intercessor and advocate (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1). God will not love us without him (John 14:6, 21). So rejoice in Jesus and receive him today in the Sacrament of the Altar, for Christ is physically present in the bread and the wine (Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Eat and drink, for here you will find “food of the soul,” given that your faith “may refresh… itself and not weaken in the struggle but grow continually stronger. For the new life should be one that continually… progresses” (BC, p. 449).
And you who believe must also “supplement” your faith with good works (2 Peter 1:5). On that first Reformation day in 1517, Luther preached against indulgences not because they undercut grace but because they make us “indifferent and careless” when it comes to good works [“On Indulgence and Grace,” in Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, ed. B. L. Woolf (1952) 1:53]. So three years later in his Treatise on Good Works he lists good works to teach our children and follow ourselves. “May they learn,” he wrote,
to trust God,… to fear him, and to set their whole hope upon him,… to mortify themselves by fasting, watching, working; to go to church, wait on the word of God,… to despise temporal things, to bear misfortune without complaint, and neither fear death nor love this life (LW 44:85). Amen.
(printed as preached but with elaborations)