The Reformation in 2017
What does the life of an Augustinian monk in the 1500s have to do with us today? We call ourselves Lutherans, but is the Reformation still relevant? After all, there has been half a millennium, five centuries of history, since then.
In some ways, Luther’s actions are just history. The Roman Catholic Church still hands out indulgences, but doesn’t sell them. The venal corruption of the Vatican in Luther’s day was mostly cleaned up by the Council of Trent after Luther’s death. In the last few decades, Catholics have also come to accept many of the practical reforms the early Lutherans advocated, such as worship in the vernacular rather than Latin, and offering both bread and wine in communion.
Nevertheless, the Big Lutheran Idea, justification by faith, is still a message the world needs to hear. We still need to hear that it is only Jesus that saves, by grace, and not by anything we do or by anything we have earned or deserve. Non-Christian religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, emphasize what we have to do to find salvation. Many forms of Christianity and so-called Christian preachers also talk about what we have to do to earn favor with God. These might be some sort of spiritual exercises to achieve inner peace. This is often buying into some political program, whether of the right or of the left. Jesus isn’t enough; you have to also be an environmentalist, for example. As in Luther’s day, this may mean making donations to support the religious institutions. The larger your check the greater chance of salvation.
Our secular society also sends us the message that we have to justify ourselves, by our achievements in school or work or society, to be thought a worthwhile and deserving individual. It’s not enough that God created us and gave His Son to us and for us. We have to earn our right to just be alive. In Denmark and Iceland (historically Lutheran countries) they have eradicated Down Syndrome—not by curing the condition, but by aborting every fetus that shows the genetic abnormality. In our own country as well as overseas, the path to assisted suicide is open and urged upon elderly and terminally ill patients. Stop being a drain on out societal resources; we’ll help you kill your no longer worthwhile self.
Luther preached that following Christ meant suffering and service to our neighbor. TV preachers say that following Christ means wealth and prosperity and happiness (at least wealth for the preacher). It’s about using God for our own egocentric and selfish ends.
The Reformation and the Big Lutheran Idea are as necessary in 2017 as they were in 1517. Our justification for existence is nothing we have done or earned or deserved, but simply the fact that God has created us. Jesus has died for us, and the Holy Spirit has called us. It’s never Jesus AND something else. It’s simply and always Jesus only. That’s what Luther taught, and that’s what we have to stand for today as his heirs.
Pastor Michael Tamorria
The Reformation of 1517
On Saturday, October 31, 1517, as later sources tell us, a monk and college professor named Martin Luther walked up to the town bulletin board in the smallish town of Wittenberg, Germany, where he taught. This bulletin board was actually the side door of the Castle Church on the west end of the town, which was used for putting up public notices. Luther was posting an invitation to a public disputation to discuss 95 theses, or points of argument, on the subject of indulgences. This notice was written in Latin but a German translation was readily available and many copies were printed up and distributed throughout Germany. It was this event from which the Reformation is customarily dated and of which we are celebration the 500th anniversary this year.
The controversy about indulgences would prove to be just the tip of an iceberg which would turn the Roman Catholic church and the Western Christian world upside down over the next few decades. From this period most of the varieties of Protestantism we know today trace their origins. The Catholic church itself would undergo a massive cleaning up of corruption and theology.
Luther’s criticisms all trace back to the Big Lutheran Idea—justification by faith. Luther had come to this understanding four years earlier while studying the Book of Psalms and St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in preparation for his teaching. He realized that we do not earn our own salvation by anything we do, however noble and holy, but solely by trusting in what Jesus has already done for us in giving up His life on the cross. Not only can we not earn our salvation, any effort we make to do so is actually insulting to God and rooted in sinful pride.
The Catholic church Luther grew up in taught that a whole variety of good works could earn merit before God—prayer, fasting, pilgrimages, giving money to worthy causes, attending worship. The surest and safest thing was to become a monk or a priest, or, if you were female, a nun, so you could be a full time merit-earning Christian. Another shortcut was to obtain indulgences, which promised forgiveness and years off your sentence in purgatory, in return for monetary contributions. You could, the indulgence peddlers claimed, literally buy your way into heaven. (A lot of this was not official Catholic theology, but it was what was popularly believed, taught, and practiced.)
It was the peddling of indulgences in Luther’s neighborhood, supposedly to support the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome that caused the academic Luther to go public with his theses. He had said many of the same things a year earlier in a sermon, but this time his objections were translated into German, printed up, and widely distributed. Luther took advantage of the new technology of his day, the printing press. Over the next 30 years he would crank out an enormous amount of writings, both scholarly and popular, which take up 106 volumes in the German edition. (Even today, only a bit more than half has been translated into English.) By the time of his death in 1546, western Christianity had been irrevocably changed.
The last we left our history of the influential life of Martin Luther [see June 2017] he was at the Diet of Worms in 1521 declaring “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me! Amen.” An imperial ban was imposed on him and his followers by Emperor Charles. His life was in danger; he could be killed if he stayed in the empire. But Prince Frederick sent soldiers to “kidnap” him and take him to Wartburg Castle for safekeeping, where he hid for almost a year.
He soon got to work on his translation of the New Testament into German, which appeared in print in September, 1522. Returning to Wittenberg in March 1522, he wrote sermons and resumed his lectures for the next 20 years.
He abandoned the Augustinian religious habit in October 1524. He married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, on June 13, 1525 and they had their first child on June 7, 1526. It was a happy marriage. They had 6 children of their own and gave a home to 11 orphans.
In March of 1529 he wrote his Small Catechism and the Large Catechism came two months later. The Diet of Augsburg occurred June 20-November 19, 1530 [see July 2017].
In 1534 he finished translating the Old Testament and published his first complete edition of the Bible in German. All in all Luther published almost 400 works during his lifetime, including Biblical commentaries and tracts. Emperor Charles was too busy fighting other enemies and Luther was able to carry on, enjoying the support of the people which was widespread in Germany.
One task he undertook involved the people in a new way. Luther desired for everybody in a congregation to be able to participate in the worship service. In 1526 he produced a liturgy the people could speak and sing during worship, called the German Mass. He wrote many hymns. He re-introduced the practice of lay persons joining the clergy in receiving the wine as well as the bread in communion.
He also taught that all Christians were priests before God. Christ is the only intermediary between people and God; through our baptism we are all members of the “priesthood of all believers.”
Luther had a great impact on Christianity and the world. That is to be celebrated as we observe the 500th year of the Reformation this fall. Luther died in 1546 at the age of 63. More important than the man himself though, is his legacy in calling people back to the word of God.
Martin Luther’s teachings, as we saw in last month’s newsletter article, got him in a lot of trouble with the Church of his day. Luther’s followers had to stand before the Diet of Augsburg and defend them. Philipp Melanchthon, a close friend of Luther’s, wrote the Augsburg Confession, which fairly summarized Luther’s teachings. Below are some of the points that were of concern as stated in the Augsburg Confession.
#15 Ecclesiastical Usages—Lutherans believed that church holidays, calendars, and festivals were useful, but observing them is not necessary for salvation. Human traditions like fasting on these days do not earn grace.
#16 Civil Affairs—Part of living in this world means Christians can serve in government and the military and engage in business. These vocations, offered to God for His use, are part of His ordering of the world and equal to the priesthood.
#18 Free Will—Lutherans believe that we have free will in our choices in every regard except we do not have free choice in the matter of salvation. God calls, gathers, and enlightens us. Creating faith is the work of God, not of humans.
#20 (and also #6) Good Works—The Lutheran theology of justification by faith does not negate the importance of good works. (We can see, though, how some opponents of Luther might have thought that he downplayed the place of good works in his enthusiasm for portraying that salvation is by faith alone, as if God is unconcerned about our doing good works.) Luther believed our good works are important to God, but they do not earn us salvation. Luther stated that the Christian does good works “because it is a pleasure to please god; the Christian serves God purely and for nothing, content that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or who is in a state of doubts, hunts and worries in how he may do enough, and with many works, to move God.” Luther said, “”faith must be present in all works…or they are nothing at all.” Our faith is what causes us to do good works, and these good works show that our faith is alive and our salvation is already in operation.
#21 The Worship of the Saints—Saints are examples and an inspiration to us. They are not intercessors before God to whom we pray.
More on Luther’s contribution to the Church as we have it today—next time!
The events of the beginning of the Reformation are famous by now. A monk named Martin Luther posted 95 points of discussion on a document on the castle church door in Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. His protests against certain practices of the Catholic Church had been brought on by the promise that forgiveness of sins and salvation could be obtained by the purchase of a paper from the pope called an indulgence. Luther was certain that forgiveness of sins could only be obtained by faith in Christ through the grace of God alone.
There was an official reaction but Luther faced these challenges that came to him by going back again and again to scripture. He defended his actions to Cardinal Cajetan at the Imperial Diet in Augsburg in 1518. As discussions broke down Luther’s friends were alarmed that some physical “accident” might happen to Luther and they bundled him away. Later Luther found out that he had left just in time.
In 1519 Luther faced a church theologian, Dr. Johann Eck, at Leipzig. There Eck got Luther to admit that he denied the divine origin of papal supremacy, the teaching that the pope could not err and was infallible. Eck then went to Rome and helped prepare the papal bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” in 1820, giving Luther the choice to recant or be excommunicated. Luther publicly set fire to this in December of 1520. He was excommunicated in January of 1521.
In 1520 Luther had also published a document, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” In it he urged the “abolishing or curtailing of pilgrimages, privately endowed masses, and the veneration of the saints.” He asserted “heretics are to be refuted with arguments, not with fire.” He said “priests should marry or not as they choose.” And in another document, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Luther rejected the sacramental system as having no basis in scripture except for baptism and the eucharist.
The enforcement on the ban on his teachings fell to secular authorities. It was decided that Luther should stand for another hearing. At the Imperial Diet in Worms before the Emperor in 1521, which lasted from January 28-May 21, Luther made his famous defense, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me! Amen.” This declaration led him to be outlawed as a heretic; he was to be arrested, there was a a penalty imposed on others for reading and publishing his writings, anyone giving him food or shelter would be a criminal, and anyone killing him would face no legal consequences.
More exciting story to come…!
As I write this article it is May 2017, 500 less four years since that. We owe quite a debt to Luther. I’ll discuss that in another newsletter!
Sincerely yours for the Gospel.
A question about the Reformation was posed to me last week by a home-bound member who has been watching TV preachers lately. She was confused because last week’s Easter Sunday message by the preacher on TV was against infant baptism. She wanted to know what our church says and if Martin Luther ever wrote against infant baptism.
Luther protested about many teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of his time, but the practice of infant baptism was not one of them. Our newsletter articles of late have already covered many of Luther’s chief teachings about salvation (rally, St. Paul’s), like faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone, and how he stood opposed to ideas like salvation by good works and the authority of Church traditions versus the scriptures.
Luther was happy with the grace of God as he saw it present in infant baptism, noting that it was altogether proof of God’s love and full acceptance of us for Christ’s sake that God would embrace children into His kingdom, not for their sake or for anything they had done. Luther did not insist that one had to have the faith and understanding of adults to be in the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus himself said, “allow the little children to come to me, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”
We should be joyous that God has offered a way for all persons to be part of His kingdom, not just mature-thinking adults. Otherwise, what hope would there be for others not so blessed?
Peter preached in his sermon on Pentecost that the gifts of faith and holy baptism were for all—for “you and for your children” (Acts 2:39), not doubting that baptism was effective for children for their salvation, for he wrote elsewhere, “this baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
Our home-bound member told me more that the preacher on TV said, including that adults who had been baptized as infants had to be baptized again. But the Bible never tells anybody to be re-baptized, even though there were whole families (we’ll assume there were young ones) in the book of Acts that were baptized. Regarding the family of Cornelius (11:14), the family of Lydia (16:15), and the family of the Philippian jailor (16:31)—the whole household was baptized on the same evening that the head of their family was baptized and they were promised salvation. Nothing was ever said about them having to be baptized again at a later time.
A precedent for early child baptism is found in the Old Testament. God chose the people of Israel as his covenant people and members were initiated into that faith community by means of circumcision. This happened at the age of eight days. If God accepted people into his faith community at such a young age back then, why would God not accept a little child from a Christian family into the faith of the New Testament? After all, “this promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39).
Luther’s view was that practicing baptism in such a way had produced a full harvest of great Christians throughout the years of the Christian Church (The Large Catechism). Therefore, there is no need to practice re-baptism, especially since the Bible states there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
Practicing the faith—
What is vocation? This was the subject of our recent NALC retreat and continuing education event for pastors. What is vocation and why should it humble us as well as help us realize our value and the importance God places on our life?
In our time people refer to the work that they do for employment as their vocation. In the pre-sixteenth century, the time before Martin Luther, people speaking of someone’s vocation often meant religious orders or a calling to religious life. A calling to the priesthood, for instance, was referred to as a vocation. Luther, however, saw vocation as what everybody does for God in all areas—for family, for work, and for public life where you were involved in the church, in politics and in the community.
When Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic he could no longer be a priest. Many people, men and women, left the religious life. Luther had to think about what his calling was and what vocation really was.
Did you ever think that God called you in the same way God called me to be a pastor? Called you to be a parent? A farmer? A member of the church with gifts you could share? A tax-paying, voting citizen? A member of the community with responsibilities you were able to do? That elevates the thought that whatever we—all of us—have been given by God to do, is holy, special, and used by God for His own purposes. For instance, when the farmer brings in the harvest he is helping God answer the prayers of His people for “daily bread.”
The petition ‘Give us this day our daily bread” is answered by God by calling some people to be farmers, some people truck drivers, some people store owners, some people security guards, and some people lawyers and judges to keep the peace so that food can safely end up in the hands of hungry people who are asking for “daily bread.” Soldiers keep peace for the whole country so that commerce and trade for needed items can continue uninterrupted.
Yes, God needs some who, when the necessities of life are interfered with, will prevent this from happening and protect us from wrong-doers who would threaten us. God also calls people who govern us. That’s why we should especially pray for them. God cares about every aspect of life. He cares about our health and calls those who can help us in medical areas so that His spiritual purposes for us also may not be thwarted. In other words, God in His fatherly goodness cares about “everything that pertains to daily life,” which is what “daily bread” means, according to Luther’s Large Catechism, the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
So you have a vocation! God does not just call a few to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, though He does call some to do that. God calls YOU. In your life God is hoping to work through you as a student learning a livelihood. In your life God is hoping to work through you in your relationships, where you live, as you cook and clean and tend the home. God does not just call pastors. He calls everybody to live the Christian life in every arena they find themselves and to be willing to serve Him in every area, to call upon his great help in every trouble, and to know He will answer, and to follow Him even when fishing for just plain fish.
God enjoys being present in everything we put our hand to and will do so whenever we offer “to do what we do” for His glory. God Himself may well be enjoying playing a game with a child through you, or as Luther said, “milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid,“ answering the prayer to “give us this day our daily bread” through YOU.
With prayers for you as you pursue your vocation, especially those who graduate.
The Lutheran Reformation that is celebrated this year highlights the doctrines on which our church takes a stand. A doctrine is a major teaching that our Bible presents and Lutherans uphold the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the two natures of Christ (his humanity and divinity) and the doctrine of justification by faith. You should find that all true Christian denominations agree on the first two; not all agree that “justification by faith” deserves to be up there with the other two.
However, “justification by faith” is the idea first presented in scripture (read key passages in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians) that we are “justified,” that is “made right with God” on the basis of faith, not by our earning our “rightness with God” with things we do.
Tied in with faith is grace; we are justified with God on the basis of faith alone, by grace alone. That is, it is God’s good “gracious“ gift to us. Grace means God does this for us, for Christ’s sake, not because we have earned or deserved it.
Now we see a pattern and Lutherans are often fond of saying, “saved by faith alone, by grace alone, because of Christ alone.” And lest anyone forget the great cost He paid for this I sometimes add “by the cross alone.”
What is essential to understanding the above is the Bible; so Lutherans sometimes add “as found or presented in the scriptures alone.”
We often hear this group of “alone” assertions called the “solas,” The word “sola” means “ alone,” So “faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, scripture alone” is a good way of understanding the model the Lutheran Church holds forth.
The Reformation stood for these ideas; stood often against fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church, although you can find these same teachings in many Catholic writings through the centuries by their great theologians, like Augustine. However the Catholic Church at the time of Martin Luther would not agree with Luther on these (on many other points as well) and thus there was a parting of the ways.
Recently much publicity has appeared around the idea that we Lutherans are getting together with Roman Catholics and some other denominations, saying that we now all agree about “justification by faith.” However, this pastor looks carefully at what the other churches are saying behind the scenes and is not yet ready to say that Lutherans are not still sitting center stage on the right understanding of this doctrine.
More on other issues of the Reformation to come…
Pleasantly feeling proud to be a Lutheran,
In a recent article, our NALC Bishop said:
“The nature of revelation is to expose what was hidden, to shed light on something that was concealed, to make known or provide insight. When something is revealed we see it! Jesus uses the contrast between light and darkness in a variety of ways. He is the light of the world. The Word of God in its entirety bears witness to that light. Holy Scripture exposes us to that light.
This light is critical for visionary leadership in ministry and is a light that brings true insight.
In fact I believe Jesus wants us to see or envision the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven He came to proclaim. It is not something accomplished with our physical eyes but through the ‘eyes of faith.’ “
Last month I continued his thought by showing how our physical eyes are an example of our “spiritual” eyes. The eye can have problems physically, and the spiritual eye can have similar problems. For instance, the physical eye can be nearsighted, seeing only the near things clearly, or farsighted, seeing only the far things clearly. Similarly, our spiritual eye might be nearsighted, or farsighted, seeing what is near but not far, etc.
Today’s example of eye problems is macular degeneration. With macular degeneration the eyesight is around the sides but a core in the center is missing. People cannot drive because they cannot see what is straight-on, or see faces that are straight ahead. This would be the spiritual equivalent to failing to see the central core mission that Jesus had for all churches—that they would get the Gospel out to all nations.
Now I have been considering what could be my Christmas message in this newsletter and have churned out what could be another application for macular degeneration of our spiritual eyes. And that would be to not see the central blessing of our Lord and Savior’s Gospel/good news for us. For instance, some people “see” that Christmas is for families, for fun, for shopping, for pleasure. But those are the blessings of Christmas-time that are on the outside of the central core. The central core of Christmas is a message that is proclaimed in churches, not in the outer (secular) world.
That message is that God came as a baby, as Jesus, to our world, just to show His love, chiefly through dying for us so that we can live for Him, now and eternally.
If we lose the central core vision of what the Christmas message is, and only have the outer family, fun, shopping, and pleasure part that is on the outer perimeter of what we see at Christmas-time, that would be a form of “spiritual” macular degeneration.
With such macular degeneration vision, we shall surely crash in life and we will never see correctly our own life or the people in our life.
Now is the time to let others know what is the central core of your life. It is not all about family, fun, shopping, and pleasure, for these ultimately will not last. It is a message that changes your life completely, and for the better. It is the message that God is for us and with us, so much that He came to us as a little babe in Bethlehem to reveal Himself and to save us, so that through us He could express His Gospel to the whole world.
Yes, He is with us—He is Emmanuel. God is with us, with forgiveness in His eyes, to love us, to understand our needs, to care for us, to be with us always, and to bless us eternally.
He is the center of our lives…clearly!
A recent article written by our bishop, the Rev. Dr. John Bradosky, brought up an interesting idea to me and showed me the need to understand congregational thinking and the way it varies from person to person. His article likened the way people see things physically to the way people see things spiritually.
He began his article saying that people in a congregation need to see things the same way in order to get together on the same plan. And every church needs a plan. Some people think the plan is for everything to go smoothly and for all challenges to be solved as simply and as easily as possible. Sometimes it is said—“the older I get, the more I want ‘simple’ and ‘easy.’ “ That is fine and I might agree, except not all challenges are going to go away simply and easily. To be solved well it may take an effort within ourselves to get us to address things in the best possible way…which may be a hard way.
The Bishop reminds us that if all the people in the church do not see reality in the same way they will have trouble with a plan from the start. For example, what direction should our congregation be taking in the next year…five years…twenty years? Many people feel we have a problem with not having enough young people to carry on into the next forty years. But what is our plan for that? Do nothing? That would be the simple, easy plan. But that is not the most effective plan, and therefore not the best plan.
Now take the eye for example. Some eyes are nearsighted. They can see things near but not far away. Our Bishop says, “Spiritually we become so caught up in the immediacy of the present—the things right around us—that we can’t see anything else.” The only direction we seem to have is to keep on the same course we have taken before; “maintaining” things as they have always been, because even just maintaining things is taking a lot of our time.
Some eyes are farsighted. They can see things far away but not close up. The Bishop says, “Spiritually we become so caught up in imagining the future that we fail to see the current reality” that is right in front of us. This kind of vision doesn’t provide a plan or practical step-by-step direction, as farsighted ones are dreamers but “fail to discern a strategy to get to a goal that makes sense.”
With nearsightedness, we maintain our building. And we maintain our slow and steady administration of the practical side of church existence. This is good and necessary. But no vision excites us; the future and what to do about it seems to be an empty stare into a gray fog.
With farsightedness we have enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God and the message of the Gospel but after we speak of it and hear it we go home thinking we have done everything that has to be done. Farsightedness gets us off to a good start and it makes us feel good, but it hardly accomplished much.
I know I am (spiritually speaking) a farsighted kind of person. What kind do you think you are? Do you think you are farsighted or nearsighted? What can we all do to come together as nearsighted and farsighted people? Can we start with agreeing that we need to see the same thing and be able to come up with what that is?
My hope is that the council will be working with these questions. I invite you to join in the conversation!