Reformation Sunday (The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost) October 31, 2010
2 Kings 23:1-3,21-25
2 Timothy 1:8-14
15, 346, 263, 262
Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the LORD with the men of Judah, the people of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the LORD. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the LORD—to follow the LORD and keep his commands, regulations and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant…The king gave this order to all the people: “Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” Not since the days of the judges who led Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, had any such Passover been observed. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was celebrated to the LORD in Jerusalem. Furthermore, Josiah got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem. This he did to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the LORD. Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.
Was Martin Luther a trouble-maker? He certainly did stir up quite a commotion. Was he just an excitable German who had an ax to grind with the church and its leaders? Today, we celebrate the Reformation and all that took place in those years, but was the Reformation right?
On the one hand, if what Luther and the others did was just a rebellion against the system and turning over the old religious establishment then the religious scene is still in a reformation right now. The so-called “old” church ideas and theology are regularly being replaced with new thoughts, new teachings, new freedoms. Church leaders who continue to stick to the old way of looking at the Bible are the old system and need to be replaced.
On the other hand, if what Luther and others did was to stand up for the truth of God’s Word then perhaps the religious scene in 2010 is in need of another reformation.
How should we look at the Reformation? To find an answer we are going to turn to an Old Testament reformation and compare it to the Reformation in Luther’s time and to the circumstances of our own time. In this way we will see that REFORMATION IS REALLY RESTORATION of God’s Word. I. The need is in the backsliding, II. The plan is in the Word, and III. The completion is in the return.
King Josiah was one of the last kings in Judah. He ruled when the northern ten tribes of Israel had already been carried away into captivity. Josiah’s grandfather and father were both wicked kings who worshipped idols. The servants of Josiah’s father conspired against him and killed him after just two years of rule. Then Josiah became king at the age of 8.
Josiah did not follow the actions of his father and grandfather. When Josiah was 16 years old he “began to seek the God of his father David” (2 Chronicles 34:3) and when he was twenty years old he “began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images” (2 Chronicles 34:3).
Beside the images there were all sorts of other things connected to false worship in Judah. There were: horses that had been dedicated to the sun, parents who made their children pass through fire in a ritual to a false god, altars to false gods all around the country, idolatrous priests, a wooden image in the temple, ritual booths for prostitutes and sodomites built around the temple, and the temple itself was left in disarray and ruin as far as true worship of the true God was concerned.
Josiah set out to repair the temple and in the process the “Book of the Law” was found. The Book of the Law was found. This scroll contained God’s instruction to the people through Moses and it was something brand new to Josiah’s generation. Before he died, Moses had commanded the people that at the end of every seven years the Book of the Law was to be read to all the people. This would assure that the Word of the Lord would not be forgotten. Not only had this reading been forsaken, the entire book itself had been forgotten and lost!
How did things degenerate to this sad state? It didn’t happen overnight. It had its earliest beginnings long before during the later years of King Solomon. Solomon built temples to false gods and worshipped them with his heathen wives. From there the spiritual slide occurred gradually through years of neglect and poor rulers. Kings did not set a good example. People closed their ears and would not listen to the prophets and soon did not care for what the Word of the Lord was. The people in Judah and Jerusalem were in need of a reformation because they had forsaken the true God and His Word.
In the years leading up to the reformation of Luther’s time there was also a need because there had been backsliding away from God’s Word. Church leaders held a tight thumb over the people. The priests and other church leaders were considered to be a special class of people—more holy, and the only ones who could dare to work with the Word of God and the Sacraments. What the church leaders said was the final word in everything. They determined the teachings of the church. They determined what was or was not sin. As a result God’s true Word was muddled and things that God condemns in His Word were no longer sins when church leaders did them.
In those years, the people were taught to see the Lord God as such a frightening judge that the people couldn’t dare to pray to God themselves. They were taught to pray to dead saints who were sinners just like they were and unable to hear, much less, answer others’ prayers. The people were taught that there is an intermediate stage, Purgatory, between Heaven and Hell where their loved ones were suffering. The living family of those who were supposedly in Purgatory were called upon to do something to help them—something that involved payment to the church. The people were taught that their own salvation depended on what good things they would do.
The religious scene in the pre-Reformation times was one without comfort and filled with fear. How did things get this way? Again, it came gradually through neglect and closed ears. Like the days before Josiah, it was a backsliding away from God’s Word.
Are those who preach the Gospel a holier class of people than those who hear? Paul didn’t think so, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:16) Nor is the authority to use the Gospel limited to a chosen few for Peter wrote to all believers, “…you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Jesus would be surprised to hear that the word of any person should determine teaching and stand as the final word in place of His Word. He said, “All authority is given unto Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:19). Nor does God approve of those who decide for themselves what sin is. “Behold I am against the prophets says the Lord who use their tongues and say ‘He says’ (Jeremiah 23:31).
Could Jesus be just an angry judge with the fire of condemnation His only Word? It doesn’t fit someone who is called the Good Shepherd and lays down His life for the sheep (John 10). God’s Word knows nothing that says His children cannot come directly to Him in prayer. He specifically does say, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you and you shall glorify Me” (Psalm 50:15).
If there is a purgatory, Jesus didn’t know about it because He told the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Nowhere, in Scripture can anything be found to support the idea that we can get into heaven by our good deeds. God’s Word says just the opposite as in Ephesians, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The things that created a need for reformation in Josiah’s time, in Luther’s time, and things that need reformation today are all a result backsliding away from the truth in the Word.
When the lost Book of the Law was found in the temple, the scribe brought it to king Josiah and read it to him. When the king heard it he tore his clothes (2 Kings 22:11). The people hadn’t been following the Book of the Law at all. Josiah tore his clothes in sorrow over how miserably they had been failing and in sorrow over God’s judgment which was pronounced upon their sin.
Josiah followed a plan to restore the true worship of God in Judah and Jerusalem. The first thing he did was to act like a king. Kings and other rulers are God’s representatives on earth. God charges them with responsibilities in leadership and in setting a good example for those who are ruled. The situation in Judah had deteriorated, in part, because of bad kings. Josiah recognized his God-given responsibility as leader of the people and took charge. “The king went up into the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD.” [v.2]
The game-plan for the reformation of the spiritual state in Judah was to be found in the Word of the Lord. Josiah heard the Word and took action. The next step was to get the Word to the people. King Josiah himself went to the temple and spoke to the people. Josiah did not start by issuing a royal decree. He simply used the Word of the Lord as the basis for the reformation. “Thus says the Lord,” was his message.
Luther followed a similar course of action. It was Luther’s undying theme that the Word of God had to speak to the matters at hand. Neither Luther nor the other reformers developed a master plan and strategy to overtake the church. Like Josiah, they simply listened to the Word of the Lord and acted upon it.
Peter tells us “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Scripture is God’s Word and it is truth. The reformers felt the keen responsibility to dig into that truth, to maintain, and defend it. They heard the Word of the Lord speak to them and say, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32).
Just as Josiah felt the responsibility to take the Word to the people, so Luther and the others felt the need to cling to the truth and take it to the people. To have a firm conviction in the truth of God’s Word and to defend against anything that would smear, delete, change, or ignore part of that Word is all that the reformers ever wanted to do. They preached the Word and knew that God would take whatever followed to wherever He wanted it to go.
The Reformation was not about a personal agenda. Luther didn’t object to or change things that didn’t conflict with God’s Word. The road map for the Reformation was the Word of God and that alone. For that reason, when Luther was told to take back what he had written he was willing to do it if he could be proven wrong with Scripture. He couldn’t be proven wrong with God’s Word so he recanted nothing.
There are “little reformations” continually being attempted. These are things that are going to shake up the church world and really make a difference. There is no denying that there are things that need fixing in the spiritual condition of the world. However, if true reformation is going to take place, there is already a plan all set to go. It’s the only plan that works. It has a history of success. It is the plan that God followed when Adam and Eve fell into sin, the plan Moses followed when the Children of Israel rebelled, the plan Josiah followed, the plan Martin Luther followed. The plan is in the Word. The plan is to hear the Word—not what people think the Word should say, Josiah didn’t ask for corrections as he read the scroll. The plan is to hear, and more importantly to listen to the truth in the Word of the Lord.
After the people heard what God said in His Word, the next step was a return to what He said. “Then the king stood by a pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people took a stand for the covenant.” [v.3]
What took place in the temple that day was nothing new, it was a return to the old. Hundreds of years earlier, the Children of Israel were gathered around Mount Sinai, heard all the words of the Lord, and answered, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). Josiah returned to that first promise and made a covenant on behalf of the people that they would follow the Lord God in His ways, guard everything in His Word with their whole heart and soul, and remain faithful to it. The people stood in their agreement and affirmation of the promise spoken by their king.
A restoration in Judah meant a return to the worship that God had commanded. “Then the king commanded all the people, saying, “Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” Such a Passover surely had never been held since the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah.” [v.21-22]
The Passover feast was supposed to be celebrated every year to thankfully remember God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt. But like so much else, the Passover and its significance had been forgotten. The account in 2 Chronicles tells how Josiah followed every detail of God’s direction for the Passover. God’s Word was followed so carefully that one would have to go back to the days of the judges and Samuel to find a Passover celebration that would compare to it!
A restoration and return is only partially complete if it follows what is pleasing to God. A complete restoration includes removing what is offensive to God. “Moreover Josiah put away those who consulted mediums and spiritists, the household gods and idols, all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem… [v.24]
The restoration of Luther’s day was a return as well. It spoke against the errors. It proclaimed the Word of the Lord. The reformation was a return to the proclamation of what is in the Gospel. The darkness and fear of the pre-Reformation time had all but covered what Jesus has done for sinners. The Reformation returned to the truth that Jesus, the Son of God, came to this earth and kept the Law in place of sinners so that they no longer have to feel its demands. It returned to the truth that Jesus died for all sinners so that the punishment of their sins is met. The Reformation returned to the blessed truth of the Gospel that there is full and free forgiveness for all sinners accomplished by Jesus! It returned to the truth that salvation is a gift and that it does not depend on, nor come in proportion to, how many good things we do in our lives.
The Reformation led people in a return to the peace that comes from knowing that God has put away your sin and is your beloved Father. The Reformation led a return to Christ the Cornerstone and the Hope of all. Any true Reformation of the modern age would have to lead in the same direction and return to the same Savior and His Word.
Reformation and restoration apply to the substance and foundation of what is believed and taught. Something “new” is not necessarily something that needs to be returned to the old, if the new doesn’t oppose what God says in His Word. As the Reformation went on, Luther and others did new things. There was a new order of service, there was a new translation of the Bible, there was a new look to the churches with fewer statues and relics, and there were other new things as well. However, beneath the all of these “new” things, the “old” confirmed Word of God was still the basis and foundation for everything.
A reformation that aims to take us away from what God has given in the past and lead us into what man has in mind for the future is no reformation at all. A reformation that restores whatever has been lost from God’s Word is a reformation. God says, “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16).
Yes, we could say that Luther really stirred things up, but so did Jesus in the temple (cf. Gospel reading) and so did Josiah in Old Testament Judah. Some believe that anything that causes division in the church is destructive and wrong. If it is a faithfulness to the Word of God that causes division then God’s commentary on Josiah would have to be the final word: “Now before [Josiah] there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him” [v.25]
Some protestant—even Lutheran—church leaders have, over the years, suggested that Martin Luther went overboard in his condemnation of the church’s false teaching. If that is the case then the Reformation was wrong, there was no real need of it, and what came of it was a mistake. God’s Word doesn’t see it that way. There had been backsliding from God’s Word and what was being taught contradicted God’s clear Word. In His grace, God restored the truth of His Gospel through the Reformation so that the full beauty and precious treasure was once again preached for the salvation of sinners. By God’s further grace, that rich Gospel treasure has been preserved to us. Thanks be to God for His restoration! Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.