A Few Reformation Day Reads

martin-lutherIt’s Reformation Day again–the day we celebrate the Reformation of the Church (and mourn its current disunity) by remembering Martin Luther’s nailing of The 95 theses to the door of the Church in Wittenburg. Last year I wrote a little piece on the proper way of celebrating Reformation Day through repentance. This year, I’d simply like to include a few links and readings for your Reformation Day.

First of all, there’s the 95 Theses themselves, or more properly “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Now, you need to know these are a series of theses to be argued about in a theological context, so some of it inside baseball that only medieval theology experts will get. What’s more, most Protestants, and Luther himself, would come to dispute plenty of these. Luther was still a good Augustinian monk at the time he penned these. That said, there’s real power in some of them, that non-experts like you and I can benefit from, starting with the first and most famous of them all:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

If you want a good understanding of what all went into that from one of those medieval experts, Justin Taylor has an interview with Carl Trueman on it that’s pretty helpful.

Following that, it’d be wise to work your way through Luther’s more mature letter to Pope Leo, commonly known as “The Freedom of the Christian.” It’s really just fabulous. After you get through the hilariously sarcastic opening, (vintage Luther) you get to some truly meaty Reformation spirituality as Luther explains the true righteousness and freedom that God gives us by faith.

Behold:

Now since these promises of God are words of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace, and are full of universal goodness; the soul, which cleaves to them with a firm faith, is so united to them, nay, thoroughly absorbed by them, that it not only partakes in, but is penetrated and saturated by, all their virtue. For if the touch of Christ was healing, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul all that belongs to the word. In this way, therefore, the soul, through faith alone, [110] without works, is from the word of God justified, sanctified, endued with truth, peace, and liberty, and filled full with every good thing, and is truly made the child of God; as it is said: “To them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John i. 12.)

From all this it is easy to understand why faith has such great power, and why no good works, nor even all good works put together, can compare with it; since no work can cleave to the word of God, or be in the soul. Faith alone and the word reign in it; and such as is the word, such is the soul made by it; just as iron exposed to fire glows like fire, on account of its union with the fire. It is clear then that to a Christian man his faith suffices for everything, and that he has no need of works for justification. But if he has no need of works, neither has he need of the law; and, if he has no need of the law, he is certainly free from the law, and the saying is true: “The law is not made for a righteous man.” (1 Tim. i. 9.) This is that Christian liberty, our faith, the effect of which is, not that we should be careless or lead a bad life, but that no one should need the law or works for justification and salvation.

It’s probably best to print this one, as it’s a longer read.

I’d also commend this article by Michael Horton on the 5 Solas or “Onlys” of the Reformation (“Only Scripture,” “Only Christ,” “Only Grace,” “Only Faith,” and “To God Alone Be Glory.”) It’s a good summary and explanation of the significance of each of these “Five Pillars of the Reformation.”

Finally, Calvin fan that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you to this excellent recent article by Chuck Colson (no, not that one) over at Mere Orthodoxy on Calvin’s view of salvation and sanctification through union with Christ. One of the chief calumnies against the Reformation is that taught a doctrine that cut the nerve of Christian holiness. It seems fitting end by remembering that receiving a justifying righteousness by the free grace of God comes only through union with Christ, and therefore necessarily results in a deeper holiness than that secured by fear or self-justifying works. The Reformation was not only about recovering a true understanding of God’s justifying grace, but his sanctifying grace, through Christ alone.

To quote Calvin:

Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces (1 Cor. 1:13). Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness (Institutes, 3.16.1)

Soli Deo Gloria

Happy Reformation Day! Now Repent

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

-Martin Luther, the 95 Theses

Among the many important letters Martin Luther wrote in his storied career, the one he wrote in protest of the sale of indulgences to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, on October 31, 1517 might have been the most important. The letter itself isn’t the important part, but enclosed within it was a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Now, scholars debate whether or not Luther actually took up a mallet to nail the theses up on Wittenburg’s Castle Church on that same day. Also up for debate is whether or not Luther actually intended to accomplish anything more than invite a scholarly debate between solid, Catholic theologians on an issue of importance. What is not up for debate is the colossal significance these theses had in instigating a theological and socio-political revolution that ripped open Europe, changing the face of Western, indeed global, Christianity to this day: the Protestant Reformation. 

This is what Protestant churches celebrate on Reformation Day. Now, to be clear, we don’t mainly celebrate the politics, although a few good (and many bad) things followed. We certainly don’t sing about the tearing of the visible unity of the church. We don’t rejoice in the centuries of acrimonious disputes that followed. No, in fact, many of these are things we lament–at least we ought to.

What we celebrate is the recovery of an essential insight into the Gospel: the good news that Jesus’ reign and rule are freely available to all, without regard to their present ‘righteousness’, or meritorious works; that we are saved by the grace and good will of our heavenly Father through the work of Jesus Christ; that we are justified, declared righteous because by faith we are united with the Righteous One, King Jesus. As it was later summarized in the 5 Solas: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, for God’s glory alone.

Celebrate by Repenting

Unfortunately many of us don’t know how to celebrate this Gospel properly. We sing, we praise, we write blogs about Martin Luther and the message of justification by faith, and in general have some nice, warm thoughts about the whole affair. Now this great news is certainly worth singing about; it’s definitely worth a blog or two. For these truths, unfortunately clouded over and muddied up however temporarily in the dominant, late-medieval theology of the day, to be regained and preached loudly and clearly for all to hear is a glorious thing.

Still, if we want to celebrate Reformation Day properly, there is only one truly appropriate response: repentance. See, surprisingly enough for many Protestants, Martin Luther never mentioned the phrase “justification by faith” in the 95 theses. Not by name at least. He certainly spoke of grace and the nature of forgiveness, issues connected to it, but the subject he opened up with was the nature of repentance.

For centuries Jerome’s mistranslation of Matthew 3:2 as “Do penance” instead of “repent”(as well as some other doctrinal developments) had led to a misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to respond to the Kingdom of God. The Greek term metanoia means a deep, internal change of mind–a reconsidering of one’s course of action in light of new realities. Luther saw that when Jesus called for people to repent, he wasn’t calling for a simple change of external actions, or for meritorious acts of penance, and certainly not for people to buy themselves some grace through indulgences. He was calling people to recognize the arrival of God’s reign and rule by turning and submitting themselves to it; it was an invitation to consciously live in the new reality of God’s kingdom made available by grace through Jesus.

The Reformation was, in many ways, an attempt at this kind of repentance not only in the life of the individual Christian, but in the life of the Church as a whole. For those of us claiming the mantle of ‘Protestant’ there can be no question whether the whole of our lives need be one long process of reconsidering everything in light of the Gospel. Repentance is not simply a one-time act but a life-long task. Sin is too deep and Jesus is too good for us to think we ever have it handled–there will always be some sin our heart needs to release and some gift of God’s grace to embrace. God’s liberating reign in Christ is something we’re called to dive into daily.

So, this Reformation Day celebrate the Gospel by repenting–call to mind the goodness of God, the new reality made available in Christ, and live in light of that. Can’t think of anything? Here’s a starter list:

  • Pride – Consider God’s glorious humility in Christ and get over yourself–discover the joy of self-forgetfulness. In fact, try to practice humility by serving someone else without being able to take credit for it.
  • Lust – Look to God’s beauty in Christ and realize He’s the summit of true desire.
  • Gluttony – Take hold of God’s feast provided in the body and blood of Christ and pass the plate to those in need.
  • Greed – Observe of God’s riches, his generosity in Christ and remember that God provides all we could ever want. Give generously to those who do not have.
  • Sloth – See God’s active drawing near in Christ and respond–act–turn to him. Begin (or re-engage) in the spiritual disciplines that draw you to Christ.
  • Wrath – Remember God’s putting away his own righteous wrath toward you in Christ and put away your own unrighteous rage towards others. Instead, be gracious in word and deed towards those around you–especially the aggravating ones.
  • Envy – Recognize God’s gifts toward you in Christ and be grateful for what you have, not bitter what your neighbor has instead.

These ought to keep you busy for a while. Now, start celebrating!

Soli Deo Gloria