Semper Reformanda

Column for October, 2017

This month is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to challenge church leaders about the practices of the church.  All month, we will have bulletin inserts and posts on our website telling the stories of Martin Luther, his challenge to the corruption of the church in that time, and his courage and conviction to follow only the word of God as witnessed in Scripture, even at the risk of his life. On Sunday, October 29, we will have a special worship service remembering and celebrating the beginning of the Reformation.

 

But why should we care?  A lot of faithful followers of Jesus have stood up for their convictions and challenged corruption over time.  Why do we especially remember Martin Luther?

 

I want us to remember Luther’s acts of faithfulness because what he said and did speaks to our time.  Many denominations, including our own Presbyterian Church (USA), require clergy to study church history as a part of the academic preparations for professional ministry.  The clergy then teach the whole church about the conflicts of theological understandings and practices in the past, how those conflicts were resolved, and how we can avoid going down the same paths in the present and future of the church.  But there are many people and many churches who dismiss the value of learning our history as boring, irrelevant, and a waste of clergy’s time.  And from what I see, the old proverb plays itself out time and time again:  those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

 

Three truths of faith Luther and his followers asserted based on his study of the witness of Scripture which we need to be reminded of today come to mind:

  • God’s grace alone saves us. Luther was anguished by a question:  How do I know I have done enough good to merit God’s love?  The answer he found in scripture which finally relieved his anxiety was simple:  we cannot be saved by anything we do but only by what God does.  These days, I hear a lot of people saying they are loved by God because of their works.  Some are physical works, such as following a particular moral code or work ethic.  Others are intellectual works, such as simply “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”  Those are not necessarily bad things to do, but they do not win us God’s love or save us from anything we need to be saved from.  God alone saves us, entirely on God’s initiative, because God’s love is greater than anything we can do.
  • All believers are priests. Every one of us is called to have one foot in the realm of the holy and one foot in the realm of the everyday.  This truth helped the people of Luther’s congregation to understand that their work was every bit as holy as that of the priests.  It also helped those who have followed Luther to understand that they share in the responsibility of running the church and promoting the mission of Christ through the church.  Many people today seek teaching and preaching from the church which is “relevant” but appears as little more than self-centered advice.  Some people look for pastors who will drive the vision and the mission of the church so that all the members have to do is show up to programs and “be fed.”  For Luther, the work of the church is never self-centered.  The teaching of the church is always centered on Jesus Christ alone as witnessed through Scripture.  All believers are called and equipped to discern how to live faithful to Jesus Christ in their jobs, family life, and civic engagement.  All believers are also called and equipped to provide leadership in serving Christ together with their neighbors through the church.
  • The church is always being reformed. Luther did not seek to start a new church, but thought that, with his reasoned reflection on Scripture, the church would correct its errors and reform itself.  While that did not happen in Luther’s time, his daring challenges reminds us that we are always called to humbly open ourselves to being reformed by the Word of God.  That means we do not simply accept what we have always been taught or what others have told us to believe, but as the world changes, we constantly examine scripture for truth which speaks to new circumstances.  Some people want the church to be a place which shelters them from change and bolsters their long-held prejudices and traditions.  To be faithful to God’s Word, the reformers and their followers have taught that we are ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that is, “a church reformed and always being reformed” according to the Word of God.  We do not preserve the past simply for the sake of preserving the past, and we do not change simply for the sake of change.  Instead, Luther and his followers taught us with their courageous acts that we always must be open to change in order to preserve and restore what is most authentic about our faith and life as the followers of Jesus Christ.

I look forward to hearing what you think as you encounter the stories and the ideas which drove the Reformation beginning 500 years ago this month.  I look forward to worshipping with you in our special service on October 29.  And I pray that we may all open ourselves in humility to God’s grace, to God’s calling, and to always being reformed according to God’s Word.