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.