Why a reformation?

 Stained glass of Martin Luther

Why a reformation?

The Reformation—the word still conjures up images and excitement whenever we hear it. We picture that determined German monk nailing his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg church door and later on taking his stand before the emperor and church representatives at Worms. What he said and did back there in the 1500s quite literally changed the history of the church and the world. Heady stuff.

But the Reformation didn’t start with Martin Luther, nor did it end with him. Rather, what happened was this: From the beginning the church faced a host of challenges which threatened to destroy the teaching it had received from its Lord. To these challenges, which more and more became crises, the church responded. Challenge and response, the structure of world history which Arnold Toynbee detected, is clearly obvious in the specific matter of the history of the Christian church.

Even before Luther’s time, the church’s response to the challenges it faced had become so insistent that response had turned into reformation. With Luther this response reached its high point, and since Luther the church has continued to face even more challenges to which it must respond. Response, then, still leads to reformation, to re-forming in line with God’s truth. Ecclesia semper reformanda—the church is always in the process of being reformed.

Though any person may observe challenges and responses, deformation and reformation, in the church, only the person of faith will see the hand of God in the whole process. For God is always watching over his church and his truth.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

Luther’s reformation

When Luther came on the scene, his response to this blatant sinfulness in the church was in many ways like the response of a lot of other people before him. But it was also different. Luther didn’t start out by condemning the immorality and the love of money in the church. Rather, he started out by responding to the spiritual condition in his own heart. However, by the time he was finished, he was making the ultimate response to unscriptural theology and corruption in the papacy and monasticism, the very things that had been plaguing and disturbing the church for so long.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

Luther’s early ministry

Luther’s early ministry

A student

In early 1505, as soon as the required time period elapsed since he had received his Bachelor’s Degree, Luther received his Master’s Degree.  This time he fared much better and ranked second in a class of seventeen.  He had now earned both of his preliminary degrees in the shortest allowable time.  It was a goal which only the most gifted and dedicated students were able to accomplish.

Martin’s father was, of course extremely proud of the oldest son.  To be sure, he was making further plans for his son.  Since he had long know what it meant to earn one’s way by the sweat of the brow, Hans urges his son to begin the study of law.  For centuries law had been the royal road to advancement for sons of the Bourgeoisie, and he planned that Martin, too, should follow this pathway to success in the world of practical affairs.  Law was the profession most highly regarded by nearly everyone in that day.  Perhaps Martin could even find his way into politics and attain to some position of power and wealth on the European scene.  Now that Hans himself had climbed the ladder far enough so that he could afford is, he lt his decision be known by buying his brilliant son a costly edition of the Corpus Iuris Civlis, a huge three-part text and training book in law which had been the authentic and official source for law study ever since the days of Emperor Justinian.  They often were referred to as Rome’s greatest gift to posterity.  More than that, Hans Luther’s heart, nearly bursting with pride and ambition, wanted one more thing for the young man.  In fact he already had picked out a socially acceptable bride for his illustrious son.

Excerpt from Martin Luther: Reformer in the Making by Erwin R. Scharf, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

A monk

The Augustinians were very cautious about accepting a new member into their fold.  When Luther first applied for membership on July 17 he was not admitted at once.  He was first assigned to the monastic hostelry for observation of the state of his soul.  The authorities wanted to assure themselves that ‘his spirit was of God.”  He had to be given the opportunity, as a guest of the monastery, to examine himself earnestly to see whether he could endure the “harshness” of the Order and abide in his  purpose.

So it was not until early September, a month and a half later, that his reception took place in the monastery church with the customary formalities.  There on the steps of the altar sat the prior, before whom Luther prostrated himself.  Then the prior asked, “What do you desire?”  Luther replied, “God’s grace and mercy.”  Thereupon the novice was raised from the floor and asked by the prior if he were married, had any attachments or any disease.  Then he was reminded of the severity of the Order and asked whether he could undergo all such hardships with the help of God. During the singing of the hymn “Great Father Augustine,” he removed his secular attire in favor of the Moenchsgewand, his monk’s attire.  In the meanwhile, the prior changed the words, “The Lord attire you in the new man.”

Excerpt from Martin Luther: Reformer in the Making by Erwin R. Scharf, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

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Reformation moments

Diet of Worms

Diet of worms

Already in June of 1520, Pope Leo X wrote a bull condemning Luther for heresy and giving him sixty days to retract his statements. “Rise up, O Lord, and judge your cause,” the bull began. “A wild boar invades your vineyard.” When Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, read the bull, he wondered just what Luther had done to warrant such condemnation. He put this question to the leading scholar of the time, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had also written quite critically about conditions in the church. Erasmus, noted for his sly humor, replied that Luther was guilty of two crimes: he had attacked the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks. In December of 1520, Luther, accompanied by fellow professors and students, built a bonfire on the edge of Wittenberg and burned the papal bull. In January 1521 another bull officially excommunicated Luther.

In April of 1521 the “Luther case” was taken up at the Diet of Worms. The new emperor, twenty-one-year-old Charles V, was under pressure from Rome to enforce the papal excommunication of Luther, and he was inclined to do so, since he valued his friendship with the pope. On the other hand, he needed the support of the German princes who backed Luther, since Charles saw war with France and with the Turks on the horizon.

Hoping to iron things out, Charles invited Luther to Worms, promising safe-conduct from Wittenberg and back. Luther’s friends reminded him just how “safe” the conduct had been for Hus at the Council of Constance in 1415. But Luther insisted on going, saying he would do so “even if there were as many devils in Worms as tiles on the roofs.”

Called before the council on April 17, Luther was asked if the books on the table before him were his and if he would recant what he had written in them. After reading the titles, Luther acknowledged the books as his, but asked for one more day to make up his mind about recanting.

The thrust of this book has been to show that the Reformation of the church involved a long process. It was preceded by numerous other responses to church decadence. Then about 1100, as we see the responses intensify and multiply, a corner is turned from mere responses to Reformation.

This makes the Reformation about 400 years old when Luther appears, though it is Luther who brings the Reformation to its high point. Some would say that high point is the date now before us, Thursday, April 18, 1521, the date for the total break with the past and the forceful turn to the future.

Standing before the Diet and speaking clearly and carefully, Luther declared somewhat as follows (the exact words are unknown): “Unless I am refuted by Scripture or clear arguments, not by popes or councils whose judgment I do not accept, I cannot recant. My conscience is bound to the Word of God in Scripture. Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me. Amen.”

The papal examiner wanted to continue the discussion, but the emperor said no. Since Luther didn’t recognize the decisions of councils anyway, more discussion would be a waste of time. He dismissed Luther from his presence but honored his promise of safe-conduct. However, he issued an edict: after twenty-one days the safe-conduct would expire, and Luther would be considered an outlaw subject to arrest and punishment. On the way back to Wittenberg, Frederick the Wise arranged to have Luther kidnapped and hidden at the Wartburg Castle for his own protection, until the heat was off.

In less than four years’ time, from the end of 1517 to the middle of 1521, Luther’s basic response to the crisis in the church had been made, and he had put his life on the line at Worms to defend his position. Such a strong impact had justification in God’s sight by faith made on Luther, and such a high regard did he have for the place where he discovered this doctrine, Holy Scripture, that whatever seemed to be at cross-purposes with this source of truth had to go.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

Luther’s music

It was through the sermons in regular worship services that most people who had left Roman Catholicism encountered the teaching of salvation by grace through faith. And yet over the centuries the main worship service itself, the mass, had been infiltrated by all kinds of unscriptural errors which in effect pitted the service against God’s Word. This situation couldn’t go on. Other reformers saw this and set about making the medium fit the message, with uneven success.

Luther hesitated to change anything. He had a high appreciation for the basic structure of the liturgy. He knew that changes, even good ones, disturbed people, and he didn’t want to lay down rules for worship, since Scripture left the form of worship a free matter.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

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The long Reformation

The long Reformation

The long reformation

The Long Reformation. Actually, we are part of it.

Long before Luther, the church began feeling the challenges which threatened to deform its purity—a theology which strayed from God’s truth and brought corruption in church rulership and monasticism. It didn’t take long for responses to begin, for God saw these threats and moved men to resist them.

Early responses often got nowhere. Sin is a tough nut to crack. But gradually the voices of response got louder and more insistent. Even if we can’t pick the exact date, we can sense that something had happened, that a corner had been turned. We’re not just hearing responses to the deformation of the church anymore. Rather, the Long Reformation has been going on. And when the calls for reform of the ever-worsening crisis in the church seemed to be getting nowhere, their volume was turned up. God will not let his truth be swamped.

The Long Reformation reached its high point in Martin Luther. This is not to evaluate him and his contributions too highly. He knew he had not appeared like a bolt from the blue. He knew that others before him had made responses to the sinful conditions in Christ’s church and had called for reform just as he was doing. It was all God’s work, not his or theirs. We do not praise him so much as recognize the role God gave him—to take an ax to what was wrong and to change it.

Since Luther’s time, challenges to Christianity have not ceased. One could argue that they are as bad as ever or have even gotten worse. From inside and outside the church the challenges come, from people who want to be Jesus’ disciples and from people who want nothing to do with Jesus. Here is where we tie in to the Long Reformation. All around us the challenges to God’s truth rise up. We too are challenged. At any moment our faith too may be deformed, for we are sinners. Then it is time for God again to arise and reform and reshape us in accordance with his truth. Ecclesia semper reformanda—the church is always in the process of being reformed. The Long Reformation rolls on through history to eternity, and by God’s grace we are carried along with it.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

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What is a Lutheran?

Luther seal

Jesus at the center

So many incorrect ideas have distorted the importance of Jesus over the course of time. They still do for many reasons. But just as any of us struggles to maintain a focus on what is essential, Lutherans struggle to keep the focus on Jesus. If we lose our focus, we become distracted and begin concentrating on what will not help. The whole of Lutheran thinking and faith centers on Jesus. Like Christians throughout history, we believe that Jesus was a real historical figure. He entered human history at a specific place and time. Jesus is the Christ, the chosen one sent by God. He came with a specific mission—to rescue the world from sin and death. We confess that Jesus became human because he had to substitute himself for all humanity and suffer the consequences of humanity’s sin. He did that when he was beaten and crucified and died. His sacrifice was enough not only because Jesus was an innocent victim. He was also God’s Son. Because Jesus was more than just a man, his substitution is for all humanity, not for just one person or not just for one group of people. Jesus died for all people.

That’s a fact—a historical reality. Most do not seriously question the reality of Jesus’ death. Some do. Most objections challenge the effect of his death. But the Bible is clear about that. The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way: “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (7:27). When John the Baptist identified Jesus, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). God’s love included all people of all time, and the sacrifice of Jesus is for all humanity. And there is even more. Jesus was perfect in every way. He kept the Ten Commandments without one fault or misstep. His perfect obedience to God’s will was not for himself but for humanity. One had to die to pay for the sins of humanity, and one had to keep the commandments of God also for all humanity. Because Jesus was the substitute for humanity, his perfect obedience is credited to every sinner— to all humans.

Lutherans confess that the sacrifice and perfect obedience of Jesus was done by grace. In other words, it is an undeserved gift of God to unworthy humans. The efforts of Jesus for the sinners of the world did not depend on any of our human activity, emotion, or thought. It was totally God’s doing in every detail. And it’s done for all time. It’s as if God prepared a priceless gift we could not purchase ourselves, wrapped it up in the best box and colored paper we could ever imagine, and then handed it to humanity. God didn’t ask if we wanted it. He didn’t look to see if we deserved it or would deserve it by some future act of kindness. He just did it; he gave. That is what John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”

Excerpt from Positively Lutheran: A Simple Statement of What Lutherans Believe by John A. Braun, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

The three solas

Lutherans confess that they believe in Jesus. They believe the ancient truths God’s people have always believed. During the long 2,000 years since Jesus came, believers have confronted many false ideas that threatened God’s truth and their commitment to Jesus. Those challenges have refined the Christian faith.

As Lutherans, we often use a little shorthand to express our Reformation faith: by grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone. Sometimes it is expressed in Latin: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura.
Simply it means that we believe that we are saved by God’s grace alone. God’s grace is his undeserved love for sinners that sent Jesus to accomplish our rescue from sin and death. Humans do not contribute in any way to their own salvation. God accepts sinners by grace, not because they have performed some act to earn his acceptance.

We believe that we receive this undeserved grace and all that it has accomplished for us by faith alone. Faith is only the hand that receives God’s grace. Even faith is not a human emotion or thought that makes God love us more than others. It’s simple trust in God’s loving promises.

Excerpt from Positively Lutheran: A Simple Statement of What Lutherans Believe by John A. Braun, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

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