The Reformation, What’s That?
What is the Reformation about? We know that 494 years and one day ago, All Saint’s Eve of 1517, a monk and professor of theology walked down the street of Wittenberg, Germany and nailed a list of grievances to the door of the castle church. We know that that was a spark that set on fire the European continent with a massive theological debate, a debate that is still raging, even today.
But what is that debate? What was it that Luther was teaching? What do we say when someone asks us, “What is it that you Lutheran’s believe anyhow?”
The Three Solas
There are different ways to answer these question. One way is to talk of the three Solas of the Reformation: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Scripture alone. The church at the time had grace and faith and the Scriptures, but they were not alone. It was grace and acts of love, faith and works, Scripture and tradition and the voice of the church. “No, no,” said the Lutheran teachers, “We are justified, declared forgiven, imputed with God’s righteousness, by God’s grace alone apart from our preparation and ability, by faith alone apart from our works and merit, through the Scripture alone and not by the words and teaching of men.” It was these solas, these ‘alones’ that really got the Lutherans in trouble.
Law and Gospel, Very Distinguished
Another way to teach the Lutheran distinctive is with the distinction of the law and the Gospel. God speaks two words, the word of law which tells us how to live a holy life and shows us that we have not lived a holy life, and the word of the Gospel which promises us forgiveness because our Lord Jesus lived a holy life for us, and died in our place. The distinction of law and Gospel let the law burn forth in its full severity, and the Gospel shine in its full sweetness. We are truly poor and miserable sinners, but we are sinners who are forgiven with the blood of Jesus.
Luther Discovers the Gospel
Another way we might speak of the Reformation is by recounting Luther’s discovery of the Gospel. As he records it himself in the introduction to the collection of his Latin Writings, it must have been in the winter of 1518-1519, and he was meditating on Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” That word righteousness drove Luther nuts. Isn’t it enough that the Lord demands righteousness in the Ten Commandments, and now He heaps even more demands and requirements on us in the Gospel? By his own confession Luther says, “I hated that word ‘the righteousness of God.’” But then, paying attention to the words, he sees the context, that this righteousness is a righteousness of faith, not of works, of believing, not doing. And now the insight hits him, “This is not my own righteousness, this is the very righteousness of God, given to me as a gift!” (I printed out Luther telling his own story. It’s on the green insert.)
“Oh yeah, Jesus died.”
All of this is good, and there are more, but I would like to propose an explanation of the Reformation this morning that gets right do to it, and it is this: “Oh yeah, Jesus died.” It’s that simple. “Oh yeah, Jesus died.” If God is going to go through the trouble of becoming a man, and being tempted in every way by the devil, and tasting the weakness and sorrow of humanity, and taking upon Himself our sin and suffering the wrath of God that we deserve and dying in agony, abandoned and naked, hanging on a cross, and then be laid in the ground, if God is going to do all that, then maybe, just maybe, that should be reflected in our theology.
So the church wants to sell indulgences, that is, it wants to apply the merits of the saints to those suffering for their venial sins in purgatory. Sounds good, until you remember, “Oh yeah, Jesus died.” There is no more condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
Or we might hear the teaching that through the infusion of sacramental merit we are able to do good works to please God. Sounds good, until you remember, “Oh yeah, Jesus died.” If He died for me, I must not be good enough to please Him.
In fact, any teaching that would mix in our own human effort with salvation, that would have us cooperate with God, or all the revivalistic shenanigans that we hear about in the so-called Evangelical churches: making a decision for Christ, inviting Jesus into your heart, praying the sinner’s prayer, walking down the aisle, whatever, all of these false theologies and false practices run into the wall when we remember, “Oh yeah, Jesus died.” You did not choose Me, says Jesus, I chose you. He died because we cannot save ourselves. He did it all, everything we need is found in Him.
There is, in the Roman Catholic Church, an affection for the Virgin Mary which continues to approach idolatry. Jesus is the judge, but Mary can pray for us and win His affection. Sounds good, until we remember, “Oh yeah, Jesus died.” No man has greater love than this, to lay down his life for a friend, and yet while we were His enemies, Christ died for the ungodly.
Whatever the teaching or practice in the church, it is run through this cruncher: the death of Jesus. “Oh yeah, Jesus died.” That is the teaching of Luther, the teaching of the Reformation, the simple teaching of the Scriptures.
The first and chief article is this, That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification,” Romans 4:25. And He alone is “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world,” John 1:29; and “God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all,” Isaiah 53:6. Likewise: “All have sinned and are justified without merit by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood,” Romans 3:23f. Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Romans 3:28: “For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law.” Likewise 3:26: “That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.”
Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For “there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved,” says Peter, Acts 4:12. And “with His stripes we are healed,” Isaiah 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us. (Smalcald Articles II.I)
Got it? Luther said it a bit more simply another time: “The cross alone is our theology.” “Oh yeah, Jesus died.”
And this is the teaching of the Scriptures.
Peter: “…you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
John: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
Paul: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
John the Baptist: “Behold the Lam of God who takes away the sin of the World.” (John 1:29)
Jesus: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
“Oh yeah, Jesus died.” That is all, really, that we need to know. It tells us about ourselves, that we are sinners who are unable to save ourselves. Our salvation requires the blood of God. And it tells us all we need to know about our God. Oh yeah, Jesus died. God would not leave us in our sin, in our trouble, in our death and grave. He came to rescue and deliver us, to take away our sins, to bind up our devil, to break open our grave.
So any time the devil troubles you, with guilt over your sin, or with your utter lack of goodness, remember: Jesus died. Any time the troubles of this world pile up like a mountain and threaten to topple over and crush you: Jesus died. When the darkness of your own grave looms, and your death draws near: Jesus died. Jesus died for you.
Jesus died, there is no sin not forgiven.
Jesus died, God is not angry with you.
Jesus died, the devil’s reign is over.
Jesus died, you are His dear child, declared perfect and holy.
Jesus died, heaven’s door is opened. You have nothing to fear.
This is the brilliant light of the Reformation, of the Scriptures, of the Gospel: Jesus died for you.