Article: WHOSE REFORMATION IS IT? A LUTHERAN REFLECTS ON THE 500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REFORMATION

I wrote an article this past summer about the Reformation. It was posted on the Gospel Coalition Canada website. The original article can be found by clicking the link below:

WHOSE REFORMATION IS IT? A LUTHERAN REFLECTS ON THE 500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REFORMATION

On October 31st, 1517, Augustinian Friar and University Professor Dr. Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. By posting these 95 Theses, Luther sought to voice his objection to the sale of indulgences. Far from starting a reasoned discussion, as was his hope, this was the spark which splintered western Christendom into pieces. Contrary to popular opinions, it was never Luther’s goal to overthrow the Roman Church, nor did he intend to splinter western Christendom. His objective was to reform the church. He saw an abusive practice and sought to correct it. Thus, this reformation movement is said to have begun there, at the door of the Castle Church. The objective of this reformation was to establish the truth and to do so upon the basis of Holy Scripture, with due respect given to the voices of the saints of old. It has been half a millennium since this reformation began, and the Church will never be the same.

According to the PewForum there were over 800 million Protestants in the world in 2010.[1]If one were to examine that 800 million, one would find a stunning variety of denominations. Included in this list are Baptists (Arminian, Reformed, and others), Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and many others. However, while they indeed hold some things in common, what is striking is the vast theological differences which continue to divide these groups. Despite these differences, most, if not all, would claim some heritage in Luther’s Reformation. The majority would look up to Luther as a hero in the faith. This leads us to a question: with so many Protestant traditions claiming to be heirs of the Reformation, whose reformation is it?—in fact, there were many reformations, or as Rupp entitled it, many “patterns of reformation,” So perhaps better, whose reformation was it?

A STEADFAST DEATH

In his 1528 Confession Concerning the Lord’s Supper, Luther reasons, “because schisms and errors are increasing” and “lest any persons during my lifetime or after my death appeal to me or misuse my writings to confirm their error, as the sacramentarian and baptist fanatics are already beginning to do, I desire with this treatise to confess my faith before God and all the world, point by point. I am determined to abide by it until my death and (so help me God!) in this faith to depart from this world and to appear before the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[2]

This is the reason why Confessional Lutherans find it difficult to divorce the posting of the 95 Theses from the rest of the events of the Lutheran Reformation. The 95 Theses was connected to the Diet of Worms in 1521, the presentation of the Augsburg Confession in 1530, and from the 1580 Book of Concord itself. So, when Confessional Lutherans think of the Reformation there is only one which comes to mind, namely the conservative, evangelical, Lutheran Reformation. This is not a case of Lutherans being like immature school children crying, “We were here first, neener-neener!” But, it does emphasize the fact that the Reformation which Luther started did not end on October 31st but continued. It continued and it had its own distinctive characteristics.

Luther was determined to depart from this world confessing the faith which he taught. And this he did. On February 18, 1546, shortly before he died, Luther was asked, “‘Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the clear voice for the last time.”[3] The Reformation which began in 1517 is the same one which Luther died confessing in 1546.

And this Lutheran Reformation has lasted 500 years, but it has not been an easy ride. Indeed, “Men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.”[4]The Lutheran Reformation has seen its fair share of troubles. It has stood firm against foes like the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Prussian Union. It has weathered the storms of Enlightenment Rationalism, Pietism, Romanticism, Liberalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. Here we stood, confessing that same faith which Martin Luther died confessing. Here we still stand, just as alive and vibrant as ever.

WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

So, what is it all about? What is the Lutheran Reformation? What was worth confessing against such hostility and opposition? What is its unique contribution? It is, of course, justification by faith alone. This is the unique contribution of the Lutheran Reformation. Article IV of the Augsburg Confession encapsulates the Lutheran understanding, “Human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. God reckons this faith as righteousness.”[5] Luther says of this doctrine, “On this article stands all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubt about it. Otherwise everything is lost, and the pope and the devil and whatever opposes us will gain victory and be proved right.”[6] Luther himself saw this doctrine as vital to his Reformation program.

Luther understood Paul’s point in Romans: our righteousness is not of ourselves. It is the righteousness given to us by God, through faith, as a gift. This, of course, is not some abstract doctrine. Luther wrote, ““I am not a Christian because I do this or that, but because Christ is born and given for me.”[7] It is the fact that Christ is “for me” which is at the very heart of the Gospel. Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, “the words, ‘For you,’ require all hearts to believe.”

And this righteousness, which is not of ourselves, which is outside of us, is given to us through the sacraments. Some think that Luther’s sacramental theology is peripheral to his thought. But Luther’s robust defense of baptismal regeneration and the real presence in the Lord’s Supper are central to the Lutheran reformation. For Luther, this is about who God is. To deny the sacraments for Lutherans is to, in effect, have a God who works differently, and thus it’s a first commandment issue. [8] Luther wrote, “Therefore we should and must insist that God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and sacrament. Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such a Word and sacrament is of the devil.”[9] In effect, for Lutherans, to reject that God works only through the Word and sacraments is to set up a god other than the one talked of in Scripture. To deny the real presence in the sacraments is to confess a different Christ. For Luther, these are serious issues. “It is the source, power, and might of all the heresies, even that of the papacy and Mohammed.”[10]

If God does not deal with us except through the external Word and sacrament, then a denial of this has serious implications. It has implications which touch who God is and who Christ is. It goes to the core of the Gospel. It is who Christ is and what He has done which is our righteousness. And everything He is and has done is “for you”. This faith, this glorious promise that God is for us, comes to us “through the Word and the sacraments.”[11] Christ comes to us through Word and sacrament and offers us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. He offers us Himself. That’s what the Lutheran Reformation is all about.

Matthew Fenn is a seminarian at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, ON) and simultaneously studying for a Bachelor of Divinity through the University of London’s international programmes. He also will be serving as Vicar at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Parish (Dryden, ON). You can read his articles and sermons at his blog thechurchdoor.blog.

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/files/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf

[2] Martin Luther. Luther’s Works, Vol. 37: Word and Sacrament III. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 360–361.

[3] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 305

[4] The Church’s One Foundation, st. 4, TLH # 473.

[5] Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), AC: I, art. IV.

[6] Kolb, Wengert, Arand, The Book of Concord, Smalcald: II, art. i, par. 5.

[7] Martin Luther, WA 16, 127, 1, as quoted in Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 357.

[8] “For if we lose sight of this [first] commandment, we are opening the doors wide to all schismatic spirits. God never meant to set up His worship in this world without external means.” Luther, quoted in C. F. W. Walther, Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, Christian C. Tiews trans., Charles P. Schaum ed. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 79-182.

[9] Kolb, Wengert, Arand, The Book of Concord, Smalcald: III, art. viii, par. 10.

[10] Kolb, Wengert, Arand, The Book of Concord, Smalcald: III, art. viii, par. 9.

[11] “God cannot be dealt with and cannot be grasped in any other way than through the Word. Accordingly, justification takes place through the Word, just as St. Paul notes [Rom. 1:16*]: the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” Likewise [Rom. 10:17*], “Faith comes from what is heard.” At this point we could even take up the argument that faith justifies, because if justification takes place only through the Word and the Word is grasped only by faith, it follows that faith justifies.” Kolb, Wengert, Arand, The Book of Concord, Ap: art. iv, par. 67. ““Through these, as through means, [God] gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel.” Kolb, Wengert, Arand, The Book of Concord, AC: I, art. V.

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