October 27, 2014


The Celebration of Reformation Sunday (Rev Robert Lyon, 10/25/14, The Fountain Pen)

Many Protestant churches will be observing 26 October as Reformation Sunday. Almost 600 years ago, on the eve of All Saints (that's Hallowe'en) 31 October 1517, tradition says the Reverend Dr Martin Luther posted on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenburg, Germany a list of 95 "Theses" (points for debate) in which he objected to the fact that Pope Leo X was promoting a vastly expanded sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a pardon by which you were supposed to be able to buy someone's soul out of purgatory. Those indulgences were not just bad theology; they were also a fraud, because their real purpose was to raise money for the construction of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Luther posted his 95 Theses because it was not only unfair to have German peasants paying for Italian luxury, but it was also giving those German peasants a wrong-headed notion of salvation. Within months, Luther's Theses had been translated and circulated throughout Europe, and within a decade Luther found himself organizing a protesting or "protestant" Church. A "reformed" Church.

When a movement "goes viral" like that, you can be sure there's some compelling idea driving it. The compelling idea in this case was Luther's rediscovery of the Biblical concept of "Justification by Faith". That concept says we are justified before God because of our faith in Jesus, not because of any good we have done or any merit we have achieved. [...]

As a monk, Luther could never shake a sense of spiritual despair. The abbot of the monastery decided that Luther was too introspective and needed an academic challenge. So Luther earned a doctorate in theology and became professor of Bible at the University of Wittenburg. It was while teaching a course on Paul's letter to the Romans that Luther came to understand Paul's concept of Justification by Faith.

Luther already knew the bad news: "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in [God's] sight, for by the law [comes] the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). The law is an effective teacher. It teaches us what we ought to do, but it also reminds us that we don't do it. "I have," writes Paul, "a desire to do what is right, but I cannot fulfill it" (Romans 7:18). That's a recipe for spiritual despair. Despair at seeing a goal that you want to achieve, that you think you ought to be able to achieve, and coming to realize that you can't achieve it.

If you've ever had misgivings about your own score at doing right, you can imagine how Luther must have felt when he finally understood the good news: "But now ... apart from the law ... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe ... they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins" (Romans 3:21-25).

Luther saw that what he had to do was not to "be good enough" but to trust that Jesus (who really was "good enough") had made a "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice" for Luther's sins and everyone else's. And Luther saw that that if he so believed, God would credit him with nothing less than the goodness of Christ. That is the doctrine of Justification by Faith, whose rediscovery we celebrate on Reformation Sunday.

Posted by at October 27, 2014 6:52 PM

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