Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reformation Day

Reformation Day (Observed)

October 30, 2011
Text: Rom. 3:19-28

Beloved in the Lord, Martin Luther considered himself a son of the Church his whole life. He loved the holy Christian/catholic and Apostolic Church, and it is because he loved her that he sought to call her back to faithfulness, back the Holy Scriptures, back to the pure Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Martin Luther’s goal was reformation of the Church, not revolution. He did not seek to leave Rome and form a new denomination. He was cast out by Rome, excommunicated. Luther maintained that Rome left him. And in fact, technically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church as a distinct denomination within Christendom began with the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which was Rome’s definitive response to Protestantism. The Council of Trent, which began shortly before Luther’s death and continued for about 18 years, condemned Martin Luther as a heretic and rejected his doctrine, particularly the teaching that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and that the one infallible source and norm of Christian teaching is Scripture alone.

So if Luther is no revolutionary, what is it that drove the Reformation? Where had the Church gone wrong? And what is distinctive about Luther’s teaching over against the medieval Roman church? I’m going to teach you a couple of high-falutin’ theological terms here, so buckle up and listen close. Through a period of intense and careful study of the Scriptures, prayer, and spiritual struggle, Dr. Luther came to realize he fundamentally differed with Rome regarding the formal principle of theology and the material principle of theology. Now let me explain. The formal principle is that which forms your theological system. For Rome, the formal principle, that which forms her theology, is Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and reason. For Luther and for Lutheranism, the formal principle is sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. The material principle is that which is at the center of your theology, the hub of the wheel from which the spokes of the various articles of doctrine fan out. For Rome, the material principle, the central article of Christian doctrine, is progressive righteousness before God by good works. Faith is included in that to be sure, but Rome cannot agree that one is saved by faith alone. It is always faith plus works for Rome, faith itself being your work. It is always faith formed by love. For Luther and Lutheranism, the material principle is justification, being declared righteous by God, by the perfect life, innocent suffering and death, and resurrection of Christ alone (solus Christus), by grace alone (sola gratia), which is received by faith alone (sola fide), apart from works. And this is made crystal clear by St. Paul in our Epistle this morning (Romans 3:19-28).

Reformation Day should not be pick-on-the-Pope day or dump-on-Roman-Catholics day in Lutheran congregations. It should, however, be a day of self-examination and repentance. Is our theology still formed by Scripture alone? Do we still teach justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone as the central article of our doctrine? Reformation Day should be a day to call ourselves and our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations, including the Roman church, back to the Scriptures as the one infallible rule and norm of doctrine, and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that we are saved because He died for our sins and is risen again to give us new life, as the central article of Christian doctrine. Reformation Day should be a day to give thanks and praise to God for Martin Luther and the heritage he has left us, and to do as Luther did: return to the source, return to the Scriptures, that in the living and active Word of God, in preaching and in Baptism and in Holy Absolution and in the Supper, the Holy Spirit may impart to us the benefits of Christ’s cross, of His merit by which alone we are saved.

The Law of God stops every mouth that preaches salvation by any other means than the holy, precious blood of Jesus Christ which atones for our sins. The Law of God stops every mouth, including yours and mine, that would speak of its own righteousness before God, as if there were any righteousness outside of Jesus Christ. The Law of God holds the whole world accountable for sin. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:20-22; ESV). There it is, our material principle, justification by faith alone, stated clearly in our formal principle, Holy Scripture, the Apostle Paul writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23). There is no merit, no righteousness, no earning anything before God. You are a sinner. You sin constantly. It is a corruption of your very nature. You are sinful and unclean. All are included in this. No one can escape this judgment save our Lord Jesus. But so also all “are justified by his grace as a gift,” without works, for a gift is never earned, but “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation,” a sacrifice to make atonement and appease God’s wrath, “by his blood, to be received by faith” (vv. 24-25). “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (v. 28). It just doesn’t get any clearer than that. Church tradition and reason, good gifts in and of themselves, are abused when they are used to add human works of merit into this. Placing Church tradition alongside of or above Scripture is what leads to works-righteousness, the necessity of certain ceremonies and acts of piety for salvation. It led the Jews to reject Christ and is the reason for the sad state of affairs in the medieval Christian Church. Placing reason alongside of or above Scripture is what leads to rejection of so much of God’s revelation, for example, the rejection of God’s special creation in favor of evolution, rejection of Jesus Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, rejection of His miracles and His resurrection, and the rationalizing of sin. Such rationalizing has led to the rejection of God’s design for marriage and the sanctity of human life from conception to death, just to give two examples. Finally, all false teaching and all the problems that have caused divisions in Christendom and in our own beloved Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod come down to this: If our formal principle is anything other than Scripture alone, if our material principle is anything other than justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, we err. We have sinned. So let us repent and come before God trusting not in our orthodoxy, our purity of doctrine, or any good work, but trusting in Christ alone. That is the reformation Luther sought for his beloved Church. That is the reformation that takes hold of us in every encounter with God’s holy Word. The Reformation is nothing other than the proclamation of repentance and faith in Christ. And in that sense the Church is always being reformed. The Reformation continues to this day, right here, right now, in the Divine Service of preaching and Sacrament.

Semper reformanda, the Church is always being reformed, you are always being reformed, by repentance and faith created by the Spirit in the Word and Sacraments. It is a freeing thing. This is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel this morning: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). The formal principle leads you into the material principle. In the Divine Service you abide in the Word of Christ, the formal principle. And in this way you are set free, free from sin and guilt, free from death, free from condemnation. You are justified, the material principle. You are pronounced righteous, declared to be God’s own child, and given eternal life. Christ’s salvation is given to you in the Word, not as something you earn, but as a gift. To have faith is not to do a work by which you earn this. To have faith is simply to receive the gift as a beggar who has nothing but what is here given. There is no room for boasting here. It is excluded (Rom. 3:27). It is all God’s action for us in Christ. We celebrate Reformation Day by believing and confessing that truth. Martin Luther wouldn’t have us celebrate any other way.

My very favorite painting is a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a friend of Luther’s in Wittenberg. He depicts Luther standing in the pulpit, preaching to his congregation, including his beloved wife Katie and their children. Between Pastor Luther and his dear flock is a life-sized crucifix. Luther is pointing his people to Christ crucified for their sins. Because finally that is what all Christian preaching must be. The formal principle always leads us to the material principle, Christ crucified, for you, the forgiveness of sins, justification by grace alone, received by faith alone. Beloved in the Lord, we celebrate Martin Luther today, and our church is named after him, not because he was perfect, not because he was without error. He was neither of these things, as he’d be the first to tell you. Martin Luther is not our formal principle. Scripture is. We celebrate Martin Luther because he calls us back to Scripture as our formal principle. We celebrate Martin Luther because in His preaching and writings he calls our attention to our material principle, justification. We celebrate him because, like St. Paul, he was determined to know nothing among us save Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). This is the Gospel, dear friends. This is the life-breath of the holy Christian/catholic and Apostolic Church. This is the truth of Jesus Christ that sets you free. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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