Reformation Sunday October 28, 2018
Worship Supplement 2000: 775 (alt. TLH 258), 266, 262, 261
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
On this Reformation Sunday, may the gifts of truth and clarity restored to God’s Church through the Reformation fill your hearts with joy and thanksgiving; and may the three pillars of that Reformation—faith alone, grace alone, and Scripture alone—serve to ever support and strengthen your faith in Jesus Christ as your one and only Lord and Savior. Amen.
Dear Fellow Heirs of the Reformation:
“Change or die” is, we’re told, a common mantra in the world of business. History is full of examples of even huge multinational corporations that failed to adapt to changing conditions and stubbornly rode their obsolete products or business models into obscurity. Think of Eastman Kodak and Blockbuster Video. Companies that fail to recognize, accept, and adapt to changing times and needs invariably cease to exist. The key, so they claim, is not only to look to the present but to the future, to identify changing needs, and to find a way to supply those changing needs.
While the evidence that “change or die” applies in the business world, the question we need to ask is does it also apply to the Church? More specifically, what does this tell us, here today, as we celebrate the 501st Anniversary of the Reformation and our own church heritage? There are many really smart people out there that tell us that the same fate will befall us if we do not adapt to the changing needs of our society—if we do not continually re-form ourselves to adapt our “product” to changing “market conditions.” We are told, for example, that just as the days of brick and mortar retail stores are numbered, so too brick and mortar churches will also become a thing of the past—unless we find a way to accept the trend and adapt. Obviously these dire predictions raise questions that need to be addressed. As we look back at 501 years of Lutheran heritage, we need to ask if we too are living in the past—to the detriment of the future. If it is true in business that an entity must change with the times or die, is it also true in the Christian Church?
These are the sorts of questions we will explore this morning. The stakes could not be higher. While the failure of a company might be a shame, the failure of Christianity today is disastrously unacceptable by any measure. The good news is that you and I don’t need to make these decisions without divine intervention, because we have God’s Word as our sure and certain guide in all things. Again then we turn to that Word of God, and the text that will guide our answers this morning are Paul’s timeless words of truth found in the third chapter of his letter to the Romans:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (ESV)
These are the very words of our God, written and preserved down through the centuries for our instruction and growth—also on this Reformation Sunday. That each one of us, personally, might be both strengthened in the present and guided in the future, so we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
The Reformation changed the world. Even the secular media gets that. Last year, on this 500th Anniversary, even the godless world around us took some time to examine the cause and effect of the Reformation. They got it all wrong, of course, but at least they took notice. For the record, the idea that the Reformation was all about behavior modification, humanism, or political intrigue (rather than the restoration of the truth of the gospel) is like coming to the conclusion that pro-life activists are really just upset about the color of the paint on the outside of abortion facilities.
The Reformation was not about personal conduct. It was about souls spending eternity in hell because the only thing that could give them Life—the gospel—was being withheld from them.
That was then, this is now. Is the Reformation still relevant or important to you today? Let’s find out with a series of questions. Do you today know what the gospel really is? Do you know what it is not? Do you know that you have been justified (declared not guilty) by God the Father for no other reason than that Jesus Christ, his Son, gave his perfect life as the payment for the sins of the entire world? Do you know that no part of salvation is or can be earned by your good works? Do you know that sinful mankind, having sinned even once, has absolutely nothing to offer to a holy God in payment for that or any other sin? Do you know that it is both useless and sinful to pray to Mary or any of the other saints, that the Pope in Rome in not infallible, that there is no such thing as purgatory, and that prayers and masses for the dead are useless?
You do indeed know these things, and that is what the Reformation was all about. The fact that you know these Bible truths makes you a direct beneficiary of the Reformation. Knowing them makes you an heir. Prior to the Reformation, few knew these truths. Worse still, God’s Word was withheld from sinners so they had no means by which they could learn the truth. Obviously “change or die” applied to the church in Luther’s day, and you and I are present-day beneficiaries of the critical change that God brought about through the Reformation.
Yet the question still remains: Is it in fact true that Christianity today must “change or die”?
Understand, first of all, that the question is not “Do individual Christians need to change?” Of course we do. Even those who have already been brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ need change in their lives because of the gradual degradation that tends to creep into the life of every Christian. Most often it’s not so much “change” as “change back.” You yourselves know that to be true. I’m guessing each of you has experienced a time when your faith and conduct deteriorated. Maybe you never lost your Christian faith altogether, but at times you have learned to tolerate sin, to love this world more than you should, and to grow cold and loveless as you amass treasures for none but yourself. Many of you know what it is like to question or doubt some of the things that God tells us in his Word. In fact it is often only after some time has passed (and perhaps when someone pointed out the problem to you) that you come to recognize just how great the slide was and therefore how dire the need for positive change. This sort of need for change Christians tend to readily acknowledge. Yet, the greater danger is the ever-present pressure to change that which we cannot, and to innovate or adapt where we have no right to do so. The key is knowing the difference, and here again is where God’s Word makes all the difference.
The world would have us believe that we need to find both a new product and a more effective way to market that product. Many Christian churches have now bought into this idea. Their thought is that since society no longer seems to want doctrine (law and gospel) we need to give them what they want. Those new products include things like social gospel, food pantries, social justice, entertainment, and unconditional love and support for sinful lifestyles.
I pray the problem with that is painfully obvious to all. We don’t get to decide what our product is, God does. In fact, God did. In his Great Commission, Jesus himself laid out our “business model”: Mark 16:15-16 “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” In Matthew 28 Jesus first established his right to dictate such things by saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He then went on: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Notice that our Lord didn’t burden us with the task of trying to figure out what we should and shouldn’t present to the world. He told us simply to“teach them to observe all that he has commanded us.”In fact, the last verses of the Bible offer this dire warning to all who would even attempt to alter what he told us in any way: (Revelation 22:18-19) “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
The bottom line then is that we not only shouldn’t look for a new product or message, we cannot. The God that we seek to serve has forever established our life’s work. We are to share his messages of law and gospel with the world. That will never—can never—change.
Eastman Kodak Corporation failed because the world no longer wanted their one product: film cameras. They were replaced by something infinitely better and cheaper: digital photography. Blockbuster failed because DVDs were replaced by streaming content. Yet even universal rejection of the Christian faith will not render what we have to offer either obsolete or unnecessary. There simply is nothing better. Our text makes that clear from the very start: Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. This speaks not only to God’s view of the law but to the lack of any substitute and to the utter foolishness of trying to repurpose the law. God’s law, his unchanging standard of what is right and what is wrong, can only serve one purpose: to condemn—never to save. Yet this is exactly what modern Christianity now advocates with its new business model of social gospel and tolerance. They teach that the law should not be used to condemn but to save. Feed the poor, don’t condemn anything as sinful, and God will both love you and reward you with heaven.
Our text also spelled out for us God’s definition and intended use of the gospel: “(Human beings) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… to be received by faith. (God is) the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
The greatest gift that God gave to mankind through the Reformation is nothing less than the return to the truth of how any human being can escape hell and enter God’s heaven. We cannot earn this by our works, it is God’s undeserved gift to us through faith in Jesus Christ.
Is there nothing then that we ever need to change or re-form? Of course, but never the message itself, only the presentation of that message. God in his Word has given us tremendous freedom on how that message is shared for this very reason. The key is to struggle continually to present God’s truths of law and gospel as clearly and as understandably as humanly possible. That means that our manner of expression can change, but not the message. It means that our liturgy (order of service) can change, but never the object of our worship or the good order that our God required of us. That means that we are to continue to reach out to every single human being with God’s law and gospel, but that the means or the words that convey those timeless truths can and should adapt as situations warrant.
Recognize then, on this Reformation Anniversary, how you personally have benefited from God’s Reformation—and thank him for it. You now not only know the one path to eternal life, you are on it. Ask your God not only to preserve you on that path, but for the wisdom and courage to communicate his saving truths to all who will hear. 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.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.