Reformation. What reformation? According to the great Luther expert Heiko Oberman as well as Robert Kolb and others, Luther never thought the church would be reformed in his time. The Great Reformation would only happen with the culmination of the End Times. Luther thought that now that the gospel was being preached freely, the devil was desperate and what was going on was a great conflict, not a reformation. Reformation was a very common idea in the Middle Ages. It wasn't that he was unfamiliar with the term. Also, Luther had many chances to join in utopian schemes and rejected them all.
This is how we should see ourselves, in my opinion, living in a time of great conflict and we should expect trouble when we give witness to the gospel. From my own experience the most incomprehensible doctrine or ideology is a progressive view of the world.
I would like to quote Oberman, where on page 74 of we read, "Christians are threatened, but not defenseless. Where the Gospel is preached, Satan's destructive assaults can be survived. Where Christian teachings tear the authority from the clutches of the Antichrist, the world can once again come into its own. Luther regarded this emancipation of the world, the restoration of its secular rights and its political order, as both necessary and possible. But for this dimension he used the sober, secular, practical, temporal, and above all relative term betterment rather than the glorious Reformation. In short: "Reformation is the work of God, betterment is the task of Adam and Eve."
Betterment. We are called to betterment. Not quite as rousing as reformation is it. But it makes sense, biblically and experientially. We are called to love our neighbor in word and deed. Not to expect success like a big name evangelist and neither to give into depression. Each day we do what we can, trusting in the Lord.
What does the Reformation mean to you? Reformation Sunday is so predictable. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Reformation theme. I consider myself a Reformation type. But I do not love changing the color of the day to red and singing A Mighty Fortress. I like the ideas behind Reformation. It only matters to a point what Luther thought of it, Reformation did catch on. However, one has to separate the wheat from the chaff, the silver from the dross. I recommend reading a really good historian beforehand, someone like Heiko Oberman or Bernard Lohse. Oberman used the term “hagiolatry” with the way Luther and the Reformation and Reformation Day are abused. Hagiolatry. Hagiography is words about the life of a saint. Even if the term is completely unfamiliar one can guess the implications of hagiolatry with its similarity to idolatry.
Luther never called himself a reformer. He did on occasion refer to himself as a prophet. What he did was to discover and then effectively present the gospel so that it was turned loose in the world. And still it goes on: the gospel is hidden and rediscovered. It doesn’t belong to any denomination, and we Lutherans may do better than most to present it, but it is all the more grievous when we lose it. All over the world this shining forth and covering up happens in our churches.
I stumbled across one of the best unveilings and applications of the gospel the other day, and I want to tell you about it quickly. It was a podcast from a few years ago, the speaker was on a team of church planters in North Carolina, and neither he or they were Lutheran. The young man confessed to those assembled that he had been a pastor for seven years before he discovered the gospel. He went on to explain what the gospel is not, and what it is. It was brilliant. It was a truly contemporary restatement of the freedom of a Christian.
I clipped this part of his talk: “One of the great paradoxes of the Christian life is accepting that “resting” in what Jesus has done for us leads to joyful “working” for him. When we accept the promises of God by faith, they fuel how we live out the purposes of God. We can live the gospel. We are called on to advance the gospel. But we can do neither of these things if we fail to truly know the gospel.”
What I would like to get across now is this. Luther would tell you that God confronted him in a decisive way when studying the Scriptures. We know that his method of reading Scripture included Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial). We turn too quickly to pastors and pundits when we want to know what to think. Yes, we listen with care to Christian preachers and teachers, comparing it to what we already know. Learning the gospel and learning to live the freedom of a Christian is a way of life.
I once was in a conversation with another pastor. I don’t remember how the topic of Luther came up, but it did and I will never forget what he said. I mentioned how some people like to say that Lutherans worship Luther. They think we go too far and we should call ourselves Christians first, Lutherans second, if at all.The pastor said, “Well, I tell you who Martin Luther is to me. He is a friend who has helped me to be a better Christian.” I get that. Do you?
If we go to the Jeremiah 31 lesson, my theme here about learning how to think for yourself and using Luther as a guide may or may not be the meaning behind these words, but think about it: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
We do know the Lord when we discover the freedom that comes to know that we are by nature sinful and unclean but have been redeemed. We are not slightly sinners, we are the same creatures as them people who crucified Jesus of Nazareth back then, and we were born as blind as those who kill in the name of Allah today, except for one thing. We have heard the gospel, and the Holy Spirit did a work of faith in our hearts and continues to work in us as we turn, as we return to the ways of the Holy One of Israel. Once lost but now found, once working feverishly at times to justify ourselves to the world and to God, now learning to rest in Him, resting in that knowledge about the Son of God, resting and getting ready to go to work for Him again. Amen