Reformation Day

Reformation Day is an odd “holiday.” In one sense, we certainly celebrate (and should) the recovery of certain key biblical doctrines represented by some of the solas that Reformed folks love to trot out. In another sense, though, as our pastor pointed out last Sunday, Reformation Day is a day of mourning. It represents a fork in the road, a gauntlet thrown down, a line drawn in the dust of which we’re made. And humankind (and Christ’s church) is still fighting across that line.

Nearly five hundred years ago, an intense young theology professor named Martin Luther nailed a notice to the Wittenberg church door. As others more scholarly than I have pointed out, Luther’s action was the equivalent of putting a notice in the church newsletter, or pinning it to the church bulletin board. Written in Latin, it was a challenge to the church leadership that had become enamored of certain extrabiblical practices that swelled the church coffers, making more of “God’s work” possible.

Actually reading Luther’s statements is an exercise in humility. I confess I hadn’t read them before, or if I had, I don’t remember it. I’m astonished by Luther’s language in several places, by how clear his understanding of Scripture is, and how deep is his love for it. My own is poor by comparison. Reading the theses also reminds me that Luther’s theology (which would fire the Reformation) is here still very Catholic; his understanding of grace is growing. Still, many of the theses are shocking.

1. Repentance is a lifestyle. Luther begins with “the whole life of believers should be repentance,” which is pride-shattering enough without going on. But he does go on, in what must have been characteristic style, explaining what he understands to be the nature of true repentance and contrition. It would be easy (not hard) to make a repentant lifestyle equal asceticism or legalism. It would also be unbiblical.

3. Repentance has hands and feet. “…there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.” One question that I and some of my friends have been working through is, “What does repentance look like?” Some of our conclusions fit with Luther’s working out here. Repentance is an inward thing; but it bears fruit in our lives. It has legs.

14. Small love equals great fear. “The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.” Luther writes here about the physically dying; but it certainly applies to the spiritually dying. When the perfect love of Christ has not been firmly planted in us, we are prone to exponentially greater fear of everything—dying and the judgment most of all.

32. Temporal assurances are futile. “They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.” Though we Protestants do not write letters of pardon, indulgences, it’s possible for us to hoard some evidence of our devotion to God—perfect Sunday school attendance (with the attending certificate or pin); service to the church or her ministries (commemorated by a plaque or certificate); our financial gifts or obedience (the annual giving receipt for tax purposes).

45 & 46. Resources equal responsibility. “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God. … Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.” The teaching of the Prosperity teachers (who seem to me a lot like Tetzel) sounds awfully similar—all that “sow a sacrificial seed” mess that takes food out of the mouths of the “least of these.”

54. The Word deserves primacy of place. “Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.” How much Word is preached in today’s churches? The desire for entertainment—which Isaiah called “itching ears syndrome” but in our image-saturated culture has coupled with “hungry eyes disease”—has banished the Scriptures from some pulpits (podiums) in favor of pop culture, self-help, and psychobabble.

62. The church should treasure the gospel. “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.” How tempting it is to make the church’s treasure something else, particularly one component of the gospel—God’s love and forgiveness, for example, or social justice. The true gospel is both simpler and more complex than these. As a recent book by John Piper suggests, God Himself is the gospel. But the gospel’s working out in our lives and communities demands our attention to more than one facet of the gospel diamond.

63 & 64. The gospel is more than we expect—of good and bad news. “But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last. … On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.” The true gospel isn’t a feel-good gospel, but too many Christians practice a “hot-tub religion” (h/t to J. I. Packer via Chuck Colson’s The Body). We Americans don’t like the idea of first-last; we love the idea of last-to-first, of rags-to-riches and something-for-nothing. It plays out in a thousand ways in our culture: game shows and their uglier children, reality shows; the lottery; McDonald’s Monopoly. Its twin is the American Dream, coiled like a worm in my own heart and promising advancement for more—or more “effective”—effort. In contrast, the gospel says “Cheer up, it’s worse–and better–than we think.”

Luther’s examples of questions from parishioners is no less surprising. I wouldn’t have expected that level of subtlety from 16th-century peasants. This post is already too long, so maybe I can come back to them.

So on the day after Reformation Day, I can celebrate with other Protestants the glory of the gospel of grace, even while I mourn the schismatic tendencies that are a perverted inheritance of the Reformation.


7 thoughts on “Reformation Day”

  1. “Reading the theses also reminds me that Luther’s theology (which would fire the Reformation) is here still very Catholic; his understanding of grace is growing.”

    In this statement, do you mean that Luther’s theology was more Catholic than that of Protestants today? Or do you mean that his theology was, at that time, incomplete?

  2. The first is certainly true. At the time he posted the theses, he was a devout Catholic priest and professor, loyal to the pope (as evidenced by his defense of the pope in the theses themselves). The theology represented in the theses, apart from the seeds of sola fide, is very Catholic: the Pope’s primacy, purgatory, penance and absolution.

    As far as Luther’s theology being incomplete, it is incomplete here only insofar as he goes a good bit further later. His ideas, particularly about justification and free will, would grow in later years.

    Some recent scholarship apparently suggests that Luther’s theology shares more with Orthodoxy than was thought previously. I’m not sure I agree, since Luther put a lot of emphasis on imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

  3. That’s interesting. Admittedly, my knowledge of Lutheran thought is pretty limited so far. So, please bear with me. I really am trying to learn, not be antagonistic.

    To your knowledge, were there any elements of Luther’s theology–by the time it was more fixed, settled–that resemble what we might consider Catholic by today’s Protestant standards? And if so, how do we confidently say that we are more right than he was?

    Underscoring my question, I suppose is “Semper Reformanda,” with which you closed your previous post. If you have the time, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how it is that we continue to “always reform” without letting the secular philosophy and intellectual fashions of the age dictate how we reform, if indeed we should be concerned about that.

    To me, semper reformanda suggests that Christianity is always evolving–proving new ideas and disproving antiquated ones much like science does. Is there not a resting place where we can hold to the things passed on to us by reliable witnesses?

    What do you think?

  4. About Luther’s theology I can’t say much, having only read parts of one of his books (The Bondage of the Will). I imagine that most Protestants haven’t either. Luther himself is supposed to have wanted to burn everything he’d written except Bondage and the two Catechisms. (In some ways, that would have been a blessing, especially since he had so much vitriol against the Jews.)

    A lot of Protestants forget that Luther’s view of the Eucharist is for real presence. Other than that, I’m not sure. This article offers a pretty interesting pro-Catholic reading of Luther.

    About Semper Reformanda, I’m fairly certain that ‘always reforming’ is a mistranslation of the Latin and promotes a misunderstanding of the church’s nature. A better translation is the gerundive construction “always being reformed”. This is explained fairly well in this article.

    The upshot is this: the church is always being reformed by God in Christ. The Scripture talks about our being formed in the image of Christ by God, not by our own actions. We frequently take such “reformation” into our own hands, which is perilous. Reconstituting ourselves–doing anything ourselves that has to do with Christ and/or his church–is simply not a gospel option. As clay, we recognize our place and recognize that we’re still on or near the wheel. And the tool of both our breaking and our shaping (and reshaping) is the Scripture.

    I know from our conversations that your concern is less about sola scriptura than it is about the ‘personal’ interpretation of said Scripture. Where does it stop? Where is “a resting place”?

    If I’m honest, I don’t have an entirely satisfactory answer at the moment. I will always have some complaint about any ‘reliable’ witness. We could have words, I imagine, about anyone other than the apostles (and then only in the lost autographs).

    I think the only worthwhile answer sounds pretty churchy. There is nowhere to rest but in the person of Christ himself. In every doctrinal case, we must find ourselves returning to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as our resting place, or we are not trusting him at all. If we enter doctrinal disputes with him in mind (and hopefully, with his mind, as described in Philippians 2), we’ll be hard-pressed to act as many would-be reformers do.

    This is long, and perhaps not very helpful, but that’s what I’ve got.

  5. Thanks, Jamie. I appreciate your thoughts and the links to those articles.

    This is one of the more helpful responses I’ve had from anyone I’ve asked so far. I would say that my questions about sola scriptura being a logically sound doctrine go a bit further than you mentioned above, but I think we can leave it at the point about personal interpretation, because it’s significant enough. It seems to me that the best we can do is pick and choose which teachers make the most sense to us, and whose teaching most jives with the Spirit within us (of course, always knowing that one’s brother down the road reads different commentaries, and hears something different from the very same Spirit). I find our inability to make anything, really, normative.

    Perhaps you’re right in that last paragraph. Maybe that is the only worthwhile answer. If only we (in the universal sense) could agree on that, too.

    I’ll spare your comments section from any more than that. Maybe we’ll have the chance to talk about things in a better forum sometime soon.

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