As you all know by now this year – 2017 – is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Specifically it is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. As I stated in an earlier article, (see below) even though we trace our faith heritage back to that moment in time there are plenty of other events yet to come. Even so, the events in history that we call the Reformation have certainly shaped our world and our culture and our nation, and continue to do so.
Over the summer I am taking the opportunity during worship to focus on various theological issues that became a part of Reformation or Lutheran theology. For many of these Luther capsulated them in a brief saying – such as “Justification by Grace through Faith;” or “the Priesthood of all Believers,” "simil justus et peccator," or “Theology of the Cross.” There are others. These sayings were designed to make these concepts and understandings available and comprehensible to Christians of all walks of life, but after 500 years they have become encrusted and to some extent just as confusing as the scholastic theology they challenged. But they are important. So, during my sermons I will be raising some of these and discussing them in ways that I hope bring them alive and make them relevant and applicable to our lives now.
The first point I want to make which is absolutely essential is that each and every one of these are rooted in the Bible. Luther didn’t invent them. They come directly from the text. “Theology of the Cross” is rooted in the passion narratives of the Gospels; “The Priesthood of All Believers” is rooted in I Corinthians 12. And the foundational theological plank or “Justification by Grace through Faith” is rooted in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 3 in particular. Here is a portion of that passage:
“21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
As is the case with most of Paul, there is a lot going on here. Paul has spent the first two chapters laying out human sinfulness – or the human inclination to put him/herself in the center of their universe, thereby shutting God out and replacing God with him/herself. Oh no, we want to argue, but stop and think carefully about that. We are all guilty of this. Paul (and Luther’s point) is that we do not need to feel guilty or spend hours in self-centered penitential rituals, rather we simply need to recognize it and own it so we can move forward, and it is God through Christ that enables us to move forward. Because we have been “justified,” “made righteous” which doesn’t mean that God is pretending that we’re innocent. No, we are sinners – we are self-centered – we regularly put our own needs first. This in and of itself breaks our relationship with God, but it is God who takes the initiative and restores us to relationship. This is what it means to be “justified” or “made righteous:” We have been restored to relationship with God. How? Through God’s grace. And “grace” is a word that encompasses all of God’s gifts to us. God’s grace includes God’s unconditional love, God’s unconditional forgiveness, God’s never failing presence with us in the midst of all of life. Grace is the box that contains the gifts God is so anxious to bestow upon us.
And since the gifts are unconditional all we need to do it to be willing to accept the gift; the receive the gift. And that is faith. Faith is not mentally accepting a bunch of theoretical truths. Faith has little to nothing to do with our attitudes and opinions. Faith is action – faith is reflected in how we act, how we relate to others. So there it is – We are justified by grace and we receive it through Faith! And this means God in Christ restores us to relationship through God unconditional love and forgiveness and we receive this gift through living lives that reflect God’s gifts of unconditional love and forgiveness and presence, and this is what faith is.
This is the primary theological plank of the Reformation, it is also central to Paul’s understanding of what it means to be Christian. And ultimately it comes down to how we live in this world and how we relate to others – all others!Blessings for the remainder of the summer!