Reformation Day (Observed)
October 25, 2020
Text: John 8:31-36
1520 was a banner year for the Reformation. Dr. Luther was really becoming a Lutheran, growing in his understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works, and diving deeper into the theology of this blessed Gospel. Abiding in the Lord’s Word (Scripture alone!), the Truth was, indeed, setting Luther free, and millions of us along with him.
We’ll be celebrating the 500th anniversaries of significant Reformation events the rest of our lives, and this year is no exception. To highlight just a few from the year 1520, there was the papal bull excommunicating Luther in June, the burning of Luther’s books, and Luther’s own bonfire party in October, where he added the bull to a pile of Roman canon law and set it ablaze. And there were a number of noteworthy writings, including Luther’s Treatise on Good Works, in which he unpacks the Ten Commandments in light of justification by faith alone. Here he shows us that a good work in God’s sight cannot be something we choose or make up for ourselves, or even a human tradition instituted by the Church, but a work commanded by God in Scripture, flowing from faith, and done out of love for God and our neighbor. So also, there were three treatises that really brought Luther’s theology into focus and made a great impact on the Christian world for the preaching of the pure Gospel: An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. And it is upon these I’d like to concentrate most of our time.
In the Open Letter, Luther pleads with the newly elected emperor Charles V and the German princes and nobles to deliver Germany from papal tyranny. The pope, Luther said, had surrounded himself by three walls: First, he claims the temporal authority has no jurisdiction over him; that instead he has jurisdiction over the temporal authority. Second, the pope refuses to be corrected on the basis of Scripture because, he claims, the right to interpret Scripture belongs to him alone. Third, the pope refuses to submit to a free Christian council, claiming, contrary to history, that no one can call such a council but the pope himself. Luther attacks these walls at their theological foundations and calls upon the nobles, as baptized Christians placed by God into an office of authority, to defend the Christians of their realm against such abuses. Luther wants a council to rein in the pope, discuss Roman abuses, and come to God-pleasing resolutions on the basis of Holy Scripture.
In The Babylonian Captivity, Luther addresses Rome’s sacramental system. As you may remember, Rome enumerates seven Sacraments (and the Eastern Orthodox enumerate them similarly). Lutherans, contrary to popular belief, do not so much enumerate the Sacraments. We do all seven things in one way or another. But if we stick to the strict definition of the word “Sacrament” as that which God Himself institutes in Holy Scripture, where the Word of God is combined with a visible element, bestowing forgiveness of sins, some of those seven things will not be included. For example, Luther doesn’t include Confirmation as a Sacrament. There is no command from God in Holy Scripture to do Confirmation. Catechesis, yes, but Confirmation, no. And there is no visible element, nor does the confirmand receive forgiveness by undergoing the rite. Marriage is instituted by God, but one does not receive forgiveness from God in the rite of Holy Matrimony. Same with Ordination, which Rome abuses with the celibacy of priests and the idea that an indelible character is stamped upon the recipient of Ordination. Our Confessions are not opposed to calling Ordination a Sacrament, if by that we understand the application of the Ministry of the Word, which forgives the sins of the people (Apol. XIII [VII]:7-13). But rejected is the Roman idea that the priest attains a greater grace and a higher spiritual character than the laity. Extreme Unction, or the anointing of the sick and dying by a priest, is not a Sacrament commanded by God, though St. James does commend pastoral visitation of the sick with prayer and anointing with oil (James 5:14). We call it Commendation of the Dying, and it may include Sacraments, but it is not itself a Sacrament.
So that leaves us with three. Luther writes: “To begin with, I must deny that there are seven sacraments, and for the present maintain that there are but three: baptism, penance, and the bread” (132; italics original). Luther begins with the Lord’s Supper and maintains it must be freed from three abuses: 1. Withholding the cup from the laity… After all, Jesus gave both kinds to His Church and bids us, “Drink of it, all of you.” 2. Transubstantiation, which uses Aristotelian philosophical terms to explain the mystery of how this bread can be our Lord’s true Body, and the wine our Lord’s true Blood, and denies what the Scriptures plainly say about the bread and wine also remaining. And 3. The Sacrifice of the Mass, whereby our Lord is supposedly offered to God anew with each celebration as an unbloody sacrifice, as though His once for all sacrifice on the cross was insufficient, and as though the Lord’s Supper were our good work for God to earn His forgiveness, rather than God’s good work for us to grant us forgiveness.
Luther thanks God that Baptism has been preserved in the Church through the centuries, but warns against the dangerous idea that Baptism only cleanses us from the sins committed before we are baptized, as though we have to look for a second plank in penance and vows and pilgrimages when we make shipwreck of our faith by sinning after Baptism. But Baptism, as God’s work in us, forgives not only original sin, but all actual sins committed before and since. Faith clings to Baptism, not because it is a good work we do for God, but again, a work God does in us, by which He washes away our sins and actually grants us faith in Jesus Christ. Notice how in each of these Sacraments, the Roman idea that the Sacraments forgive ex opere operato, by the outward performance of the work, is denied. The Sacraments grant forgiveness of sins because of God’s Promise, and faith receives the benefits of that Promise in the Sacrament.
Finally, there is Penance, or what we Lutherans call Confession and Absolution. Some Lutherans are surprised that Luther calls this a Sacrament. Of course, the name Penance is misleading, because never is the Absolution pronounced by the pastor to be connected to performance of works of satisfaction. No, the whole point of the thing is that God has given an Office, the Office of the Holy Ministry, whereby those who are penitent, those who mourn over their sins, may confess their sins to God and (here is the key point!) hear the human voice of their pastor deliver the verdict of God Himself: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” No conditions. No requirements to be met before the Absolution goes into effect. All your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. That’s it. Luther complains that Rome had reduced the Sacrament to three parts: Contrition (sorrow over sin), confession, and satisfaction. Notice what is missing? The heart and center of the whole thing, that which makes it a Sacrament: The Absolution! The Absolution is the main thing. That is the delivery of the Gospel. That is the delivery of the saving death and resurrection of Christ into the ears of the penitent.
So now the Gospel Truth delivered to Christians in the preaching of the Word and the holy Sacraments, we come to the third Treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, and this one I highly encourage you to just go read. Find it online. It’s short. It’s free. It is sometimes called the Treatise on Christian Liberty. And here is the summary of the whole thing: Christ is the Bridegroom. You, dear Church of God, are the Bride. All that is Christ's is now yours by the wedding ring of faith, which is to say, His righteousness, His holiness, His life, His salvation… His Kingdom! And all that is yours is His, which is to say, your sin, your death, your condemnation. On the cross, He puts all that is yours to death in His flesh. And now He is risen, and you live with Him forever in His Kingdom. And this means you are free. You don’t have to do any works for this to be your blessed reality. It is all yours. By grace alone. Through faith alone. In Christ alone.
Why, then, do good works? Because your neighbor needs them. That is the only reason. This is summed up in the wonderful little paradox Luther gives us at the beginning of the Treatise: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (277). Insofar as it concerns your salvation, you are completely free. All sin has been forgiven. The Law can no longer threaten you or accuse you. You don’t have to do anything to be saved. But because you are saved, and you are the Bride of Christ, you love and serve your neighbor. You become, Luther says, a little Christ to him. You provide for his needs. You sacrifice yourself for his good. Not because you have to. But because that is who you are in Christ.
In each of these writings, Luther gives us the Truth as it is in Christ, and as it hadn’t been expressed clearly in many years. He gives us what the Scriptures say. He gives us the unadulterated Gospel. He gives us Christ. And so it is as Christ says in our Holy Gospel: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” For this reason, we give thanks to God this day for Dr. Luther, and for the Reformation of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Martin Luther, Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960).