500 Years of Reformation

500 Years of Reformation
October 29, 2017
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Tuesday is Halloween. On our church calendar it is called All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day.

Exactly 500 years ago, a Roman Catholic monk used that holiday to nail a piece of paper to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The paper contained 95 revolutionary opinions, called theses. If he were alive today, he would have posted his opinions on Facebook. Or sent 95 Tweets.

The monk’s name was Martin Luther, and the posting of these 95 Theses started the Protestant Reformation. This movement led to the creation of a number of Protestant denominations, including Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Pentecostals. We have now experienced 500 years of Reformation.

Luther did not intend to create a new set of Christian denominations. Instead, his goal was to reform the Roman Catholic Church. In his 95 Theses, he condemned the excesses and corruption of the church of that era. He criticized the pope for asking for payments — called “indulgences” — for the forgiveness of sins. A great deal of money was being raised through indulgences, and much of it was going to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. One of the slogans used by the church was, “”As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs.”

As you know, we have just launched our 2020 VISION capital campaign. We are raising money to finance the renovation and revitalization of our church building and grounds. What would you think if our fundraising was based on the promise that your donations could earn you forgiveness? Would that be a good offer … or not?

I know for a fact that Luther wouldn’t like it. He believed that only God could grant forgiveness, and he insisted that the selling of indulgences was wrong. The practice was giving people false assurances, he thought, and he worried that the people who bought indulgences would slack off from following Jesus Christ. I think that Luther was absolutely right, and you won’t hear me or our 2020 VISION team saying, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings ….”

Roman Catholic leaders were not happy with Luther, and they tried to get him to change his tune. When he refused to do so, he was formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Then, the Holy Roman Emperor declared him to be an outlaw and a heretic. Fortunately, a prince gave Luther protection, and allowed him to embark on a 10-year project of translating the Bible into German.

Today, we might miss the importance of this. After all, we have a lot of different translations of the Bible available to us: King James, New Revised Standard, The Message, even the Green Bible. But the Bible at that time was written in Latin, which very few people could read. When Luther created a German Bible, he made the Word of God accessible to the masses. Suddenly, all of the Christians in the German-speaking world could read the Bible for themselves.

The Bible was important to Luther, because his greatest insight came from reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. Luther wanted so badly to be a good and righteous person, so he confessed his sins frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a time. But after confessing his sins, he would leave the church and then remember some other sins that he needed to confess. This frustrated and discouraged him. He discovered that he could not become good and righteous by human effort alone.

Then he read the line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that says, “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17). In a flash, Luther realized that he was not made righteous by his good efforts, but by his faith in Jesus Christ. “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise,” said Luther. “The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning. … This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”

The Reformation began 500 years ago, when Luther made this discovery about the importance of faith. He saw that having faith in Jesus was more important that confessing every single sin. He discovered that salvation is made possible by God’s gift of grace, not by living a perfect life. When we have faith in Jesus and thank God for the gift of grace, we do not become frustrated and discouraged. Instead, we become free to live as joyful followers of Jesus. “If you have true faith that Christ is your Savior,” said Luther, “then at once you have a gracious God, [and] you should see pure grace and overflowing love.”

Luther’s discovery inspired him to preach the gospel, a word which literally means “good news.” The gospel is the good news of what God has done for us through Jesus, and to Luther it means that we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel, in a nutshell. We are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.

Not surprisingly, the apostle Paul had the same idea. It was his letter to the Romans that gave Luther his breakthrough. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul wrote to the Romans; “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). In today’s Scripture lesson, Paul stresses the importance of the gospel in his letter to the Thessalonians, saying, “we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition (1 Thessalonians 2:2).

Both Luther and Paul encountered opposition when they preached the gospel. For Luther, opposition came from the Catholic Church. For Paul, opposition came from some slave-owners in the city of Philippi who felt that Paul was meddling in their business practices. The slave-owners had Paul flogged and thrown into prison. But he was freed after an earthquake shook the prison and Paul had a chance to share the gospel with the jailer. The man converted to Christianity, and then both he and his family were baptized (Acts 16:19-40).

Nothing mattered more to Paul than to preach the gospel. “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel,” he said, “even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). What mattered to Paul was to please God, not to please people. All he wanted to do was to share the good news that we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. This was very personal to him, and he shared this message out of love. “So deeply do we care for you,” he wrote to the Thessalonians, “that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (v. 8).

I think the same was true for Luther. He wanted to share both the gospel and his own self. Many of the 95 Theses that he put them on the door of the church in Wittenberg show real concern for members of the church, and a desire that they not be deceived. He wants them to trust in Jesus and to hear the message of the gospel. The 62nd of the theses says, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

After 500 years of Reformation, the true treasure of the church remains the gospel. This is a treasure available to anyone around the world who trusts in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t require membership in a particular church, or the buying of indulgences. Accepting the gospel is a very personal thing to do, and it is based on an individual’s relationship with God.

Because we value the gospel and the sharing of our own selves, our 2020 VISION Capital Campaign is not focused only on repairing our church building. We are also raising thousands of dollars to expand opportunities for worship, meditation and spiritual growth. A full $30,000 will go toward increasing outreach to prospective new members and to nurture small groups; another $15,000 will be directed toward innovative connecting activities. We do this as children of the Reformation, who want to share “not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”

Looking back over the past five centuries, we can also see that the Reformation did not simply change religion. It also transformed politics. The term “Protestant” first appeared when the Holy Roman Emperor put pressure on the rulers of the German states to turn against Luther. A number of princes issued a protest, saying that their duty to God was higher than their duty to the emperor. Because of this stand, their opponents labeled them Protestants, a term that eventually spread from politics to religion.

Although Luther clashed with the Holy Roman Emperor, he was not anti-government. He understood that society could not be ruled by Christian principles alone, and that civil powers had a role to play. He said, “A man who would venture to govern an entire community or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should place in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep. The sheep would keep the peace, but they would not last long.”

At the same time, Luther believed in speaking the truth to power. “Christ has instructed us preachers not to withhold the truth from the lords,” he insisted, “but to exhort and chide them in their injustice.” Speaking to civil leaders, he said, “We will suffer what you do to us, but to keep still and let it appear that you do right when you do wrong, that we cannot and will not do.” For the past 500 years of Reformation, many preachers have followed Luther in exhorting and chiding leaders for injustice.

The Reformation has also shaped our practice of democracy. On a recent episode of Jeopardy, the question was asked, “John Knox led the establishment of this branch of Protestantism that uses a system of elders to govern.” Answer: “What is the Presbyterian Church?” The Presbyterian form of church government had a profound effect on the formation of representative democracy during the American Revolution. In fact, the uprising was a Presbyterian rebellion, from the English perspective — a Maryland loyalist named Isaac Atkinson called the revolution “a religious dispute and a Presbyterian scheme.”

So we Presbyterians are heirs to the Reformation belief that we should exhort and chide our leaders, but also rule ourselves through representative democracy. If our elected leaders do not advance justice in our land, we should point out their errors and give them the opportunity to change. But if they do not change, we need to vote them out. Keep that in mind when you go to the polls on November 7.

This is the American way, based on the Presbyterian way. It is a political stance that is built on the foundation of religious conviction. Along with our religious beliefs, our commitment to democracy is part of our 500 years of Reformation, a movement which is never fully completed, but is always in the process of reforming itself.

So let’s give thanks that we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. Let’s share the gospel of God and also our own selves. And let’s speak the truth to power, and vote for those who will be committed to providing liberty and justice for all. Amen.

Sources:

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand (Nashville: Abingdon Press, [1950], 1978), 41-50, 184-190.

Gardiner, Richard. “The Presbyterian Rebellion?” Journal of the American Revolution, September 5, 2013, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/09/presbyterian-rebellion/

“On this day in history: Oct 31.” History, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/martin-luther-posts-95-theses.

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