Reformation Sunday –
- What is Reformation Sunday about?
- What was the Reformation about?
- What did we reform from?
- Are those reasons valid?
- How do we still need reformation today?
On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Now we have been taught to think that this was a great act of defiance by Luther, but the truth of the matter is entirely different. Luther was simply following the established custom of the day inviting people to a public debate on the topics at hand. There was no defiance in his mind; rather this man was seeking to help the Roman Catholic Church to recognize some areas where her practice didn’t align with the teaching of the Scriptures.
Since we won’t meet tomorrow for a gathering, we are celebrating Reformation Sunday today. Reformation Sunday is all about remembering this desire to see the church of God conformed in word and deed to the teachings of the Scriptures. Sure we naturally remember the great reformation of the 16th century, but the seeds of reformation have always been present in the church. There have always been men and women seeking to keep the church faithful to the Scriptures. Much of Augustine’s and Chrysostom’s writings were scribed in this vein against the false teachings of their day which challenged the both the humanity and divinity of Christ as well as the concept of the Trinity.
Then there were men like John Wycliffe who believed the teachings of the Church in regard to temporal power and the sacraments in the 1380’s to be in err and so he set out to hand write the Bible into English in order for the people to see the differences and repent. He was killed and his bones dug up years later, crushed and sprinkled over the water. Or John Hus, burned at the stake in 1415 for advocating the belief that people should be able to read the Bible in their native tongue. Then there was Thomas Linacre in the 1490’s, an Oxford professor and the personal physician to King Henry the 7th and 8th, who decided to learn Greek.
“After reading the Gospels in Greek, and comparing it to the Latin Vulgate, he wrote in his diary, “Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel… or we are not Christians.” The Latin had become so corrupt that it no longer even preserved the message of the Gospel… yet the Church still threatened to kill anyone who read the scripture in any language other than Latin…though Latin was not an original language of the scriptures.”
And the list could go on and on. The reformation wasn’t a single event in history; it has been the experience of the faithful church throughout history, constantly struggling to maintain the Gospel truth for the church. Sure it has popped its head up prominently at some times more than others and sure the reasons for reformation have varied from corrupt translations to corrupt practices to aberrant teachings but the root of reformation has always been the same: a desire to remain faithful to God as he has declared his gospel in the Holy Scriptures.
At first, Luther saw 95 issues in his call to debate. He noticed that the sale of indulgences (the belief that one could pay to have their sins forgiven) were against the Scriptural call to repent and believe the gospel. He recognized later that simony (the sale of church offices) was causing great harm to the faithful as men of ill report were taking offices for which they had no belief or qualification. He saw 5 of the 7 sacraments of the church as having no legitimate status in the Scriptures and advocated for a return to Baptism and communion only. But in Luther’s own words, the greatest issue of the reformation wasn’t any of this, but that the crux of the 16th century reformation hung on the question of whether people had free will to accept God or not. Luther declared that all people were in bondage to sin and couldn’t choose God without a special act of grace, while the Catholic Church, i.e. Erasmus in this case, argued that sin hadn’t totally corrupted humanity and we could choose God without any act of God himself.
Can man or woman save himself or herself? Or must God save him or her? That was the issue and still is in many ways. And that is where Titus 3:3-8 come into play. Paul begins by declaring At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in male and envy, being hated and hating one another (Tit 3:3). Now that statement alone is enough to give one pause. Can a person whose character is so described choose God? Can a foolish person, lacking in judgment, constantly seeking all that is opposite of God and his goodness, for that is what foolishness is, can that person first recognize good and second select it? No. Inherent in the definition of foolish is the inability to recognize what is truly good and to choose it. But add to that the reality that disobedience works in our hearts and you have a lethal combination set to ignore and despise the Lord.
But the list of character traits at work in humanity is much more sinister than just foolishness and disobedience, there is deception. Literally this is the idea of a person leading a blind man into danger. (Deut. 27:18) “Cursed is the man who leads (deceives) the blind astray on the road.” It is the picture of the ox or donkey that strays from the field into lost places. (Deut. 22:1) If you see your brother’s ox or sheep straying (deceived), do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. And even more humanity is controlled by and subject to passions and pleasures. Unfortunately passions and pleasures are used over and over to refer to all sorts of forms of sinful actions from sexual to greed. We are controlled by the pursuit of feeling good and gratifying our own nature, rather than actually pursuing good – How else can you explain drug addictions, sexual affairs and all other forms of evil which people pursue. One of these words is the word we get our term Hedonism from. Furthermore, there is malice or badness, vindictiveness, spite in our veins and envy – that desire not just to have, but also to have it at the expense of another. The Bible has 2 terms it uses for what we call envy. There is jealousy; the simple desire to have something, then there is this term, which is the desire to have something by depriving another of the right to have it.
Mark 15:10 tells us Jesus was crucified out of this kind of envy. Knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. Jesus had the hearts of the people and the priests wanted that devotion completely. And again, there is hatred at work in us, and on us and through us. Now that isn’t a very pretty picture and it certainly doesn’t bode well for anyone claiming that they can save themselves. However, Paul goes on to make a startling contrast with these 2 little words But when. Paul has just lumped every Christian together with all of humanity in verse 3, and now he is about to declare to the church that a great transition that has occurred for some. But when the kindness and love of God our savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy… (Tit 3:4-5)
Salvation is God’s work for humanity. It is his kindness. His friendliness toward humanity, his desire to bless us. It is his love. Now I was a little surprised by the word used for love here. It isn’t agape, it isn’t phileo (brotherly), it is philanthopia. That’s written the word we get philanthropy from. It is liberal, generous, bountiful, public minded, compassionate love. Philanthropy isn’t required, it is freely offered and it helps to make the world better.
No one can force Bill Gates to give away billions. He just does it. The same is true of God, no one can force his to save them, he just does it. He gives salvation away. Paul is saying, God is like a great donor who makes things accessible to those who would never be able to enjoy it on their own. I remember winning tickets to a show one year that a generous donor gave to a drawing. We were seated in the box seats in the Vail Performing Arts center, overlooking the stage able to see freely and enjoy a wonderful Chinese acrobatic show with my boys that I would never have been able to afford myself, much less even think about attending. But Philanthropy won out and Paul is declaring that our salvation was an act of generous giving to people who didn’t know better.
His kindness appeared, it was revealed to Christians, not because we did good things. Verse 3 just told us what kind of people we were – foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved… – not much room for righteousness in that description. No it came because of mercy or compassionate grace. We were guilty, but God chose to pardon that guilt from us. Humanity is saved strictly by divine benevolence.
How did that happen? Verses 5 and 6 continue on to declare He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior…Literally by cleansing us completely from the inside out. He washed every part of us. He remade it all into a holy temple. He cleanses us from acts that lead to death and thoughts that are contrary to the word and he gives us a heart and a desire to obey the word. That is love as Rom. 5:5 tells us And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Love transforms us, grace changes us, mercy saves us, and the Spirit renews us. What strikes me about every one of these actions described in the Salvation process is that humans are recipients of them, but God is the performer of them, the subject of the action, we are the object. This is the gospel: God acts to forgive us and we simply receive it when he awakens our soul and opens our eyes. And that is all done, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (Tit 3:7).
We are pronounced righteous, i.e. justified, or the opposite of all that we were. By grace whatever God pronounces and declares we know must come to pass and be real. His decree stands and it truthful. And his word is powerful and as the word says, It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isa 55:11).
And this is the best part, “It’s true!” This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God my be careful to devote themselves to doing good. These are excellent and profitable for everyone (Titus 3:8). God’s salvation, his election, his decree and his Spirit are the grounds upon which all our actions as believers rest. Apart from him we can do nothing, but because of his saving work in us, we are changed; we can devote ourselves to doing what is good.
This is the reformation teaching of salvation and the gospel life and just as 500 years ago, so also today there are many people in the world who are teaching that human works, human choice, human abilities can save us and can make people right with God. There are people who are declaring that if only you give you money to me, the prosperity preachers of television, then God will bless you and make your life wonderful. There are even people saying that doctrines no longer matter, what is important is if we are living properly- social gospel folks. Unfortunately, without strong doctrines we will end up in the same predicament that allowed the catholic church to develop indulgences. Doctrine is important. And Salvation doctrines are vitally important. Stress these things Paul says.
We need to personally and corporately continue to recover the reformation teachings of the Scriptures. We need to purpose anew to study the Word and understand its message as individuals and as a church, classis and Denomination. WE need to take seriously our creeds and confessions in every area as they help us to compare our personal understandings with the historically faithful church’s understanding of the central tenets of the Word.
And we need to allow the wonder of God’s work on our behalf, and the truth of his decrees to continue to affect the way we live. It is his word that declares Go and make disciples, it is his word that declares the gates of hell will not prevail. It is his word that declares you are a holy priesthood…Be Holy as I am holy. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your father in heaven. These are the kinds of reformations we need to see now in the church. Will you pray with me that Christ will be exalted and the doctrines of free grace proclaimed so that the people of God may live faithfully?