By Bob Hiller –
Semper Reformanda! Always reforming! That is one of the great cries you may hear this weekend as you go into one of those specifically Lutheran festivals: Reformation Sunday. I am not going to bore you with the details of whether or not Luther hammered the 95 Theses to the door or hung them on the knob. I’ll leave such excitement to fashion conscious historians. However, I am thankful to our Lord that Luther did swing that hammer and that he was instrumental in recovering the preaching of Jesus Christ for the church.
This time of year prompts many theologians and pastor types to reflect on the aftermath of the Reformation. With its 500th Anniversary just over a year away, you can expect such reflection to be completely overdone. So, I’m glad to get in early. One question I know you will hear, if not this weekend, over the next two years, is whether or not the Reformation is over. Has the work the Reformers set out to do achieved its goal for the church? And, if so, should we be looking for another Reformation? Is there anything else that needs reforming around here? The church can sound like the Denver Broncos in the offseason: Okay, we’ve got the quarterback situation figured out, what else needs work? Now that Luther clarified justification, what else should we be working on? But, has the work of the Reformation has actually arrived at its goal? Have we actually figured out justification by grace alone?
Is our situation much different from Luther’s? In the early 16th century, the ecclesiastical powers were guilty of withholding Christ’s atoning work from the church. On Good Friday, Christ bore the sins of the world in a bloody sacrifice, so that God, pleased by the sacrifice, tore open the temple curtain and let His forgiving Spirit loose on the world (Matt. 27:51). Ever since, the devil has fought against this, and in the 16th Century, had enlisted the church to take the curtain and sew it back up. God got out! And we can’t have that. He ruins our whole system! He takes our control, our laws, our power, and rips them out of our hands in order to bring it all to a gracious, bloody end. And we just can’t bear so gracious a God. So, the powers in the church sought to keep God at bay.
They were not merely withholding a few dicey teachings about grace, they were withholding God! Jesus was withheld at the altar as the people could not receive the blood of Christ. Jesus was withheld in the preaching as the people were never set free with the promises of God. Jesus was withheld in penance when the people were told they had to pay for their own sins. God’s declaration of forgiveness, His not guilty verdict, was placed behind the curtain of the Law. In other words, righteousness, salvation, even Jesus himself had to be earned by sinners. God was held back.
Now, it was subtle. Everyone claimed that salvation was by grace, not by works. The trouble was exactly how one defined grace. For the Roman church, grace was a power infused into the sinner, like a steroid into a weak hitter to give more pop in their swing. For Luther and the Reformers, grace was the attitude of God towards undeserving, dead rebels. So that, when we say we are saved by “grace alone,” we mean that God graciously decided to send His Son to forgive the world. God chose to rip open the curtain, top down you’ll recall, and let the Spirit loose on the world with forgiveness and grace purchased with the atoning blood. That Spirit work, that forgiveness work, was let loose in the proclamation of the Word; the announcement that God, for Christ’s sake, declares sinners not guilty, the dead to be alive. The Reformation, then, was the recovery of Jesus’ commission to His church to let loose His forgiveness on the world: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you…Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them: if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23) The church in Luther’s day only seemed to take the “withholding” line seriously.
So, what of today? Do we need a new Reformation? Yes, but not in the way that is so often put forth. It is usually assumed that we’ve taken care of all that justification stuff, now we need to reform something else, as though reforming were an end in itself. Let’s reform our deeds since the creeds are in order. Let’s reform our ecclesiology since there is so much division. Let’s reform our methods to be more contemporary. Just as Luther stood for the gospel of justification by grace alone, we must find some new place to take our stand!
But, all of this assumes that the church has ceased trying to sew up the curtain. It assumes that we’ve got the preaching of grace down. It assumes that preaching and the life of the church is about something other than the blood of the Lamb. I would suggest that we don’t need a new Reformation, but we need to continue to fight Luther’s battle. We need to fight for the preaching Christ and him crucified. The Reformation, or perhaps better titled, the Recovery of Christ-centered, curtain-cutting preaching is not something that just needed an offseason adjustment, but it is the very thing that gives life to the church. The sermon is where God uses a preacher to cut the curtain and let Christ loose! It is not a place for life advice and self-improvement, or religious pats on the back. It’s a place where Christ gets at you and leaves you speechless, yet full of song, dead, and yet alive in a way you’ve never lived, sinful, yet completely forgiven for the sake of Christ’s blood.
I am not convinced, or rather, I am terrified that this is not the sort of preaching that is alive and well in our churches. I fear that the focus is on the Christian and not the Christ, which is simply a way of carrying needle and thread to the temple. May the Lord have mercy on us. I pray this Sunday God rips open that curtain we preachers are so prone to sew up and gets you. Semper Reformanda!