As we continue our celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation the opportunities are all around us to proclaim the three solas which distinguish us as Lutheran Christians. 500 years later we continue to stand on Grace Alone, Faith Alone and God’s Word Alone! These are not only what guide us as a denomination, but they are the foundation of our Christian faith. At the center of it all is Jesus! That’s why I love our focus in this Reformation Anniversary year of “It’s still all about Jesus!” There is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved except for Jesus! Without Him there is no faith; without Him there is no hope; without Him there is no forgiveness of sins! It’s all about Jesus! The Church in Luther’s day had strayed from proclaiming the pure message of the Gospel and focused on how one could earn their salvation by doing certain things in a certain way. Some have claimed that the Church in our time has fallen back into a similar pre-Reformation pattern, imposing man-made, extra-biblical demands on people, rather than allowing God’s grace to impact and transform lives, as if what we do can add anything to God’s magnificent grace!
In a sense the Reformation began really as an attempt to engage the culture of that time with a conversation about a God who loved the world so much that He sent His one and only Son, Jesus, so that whoever would believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. In our day we sometimes give the impression that eternal life depends on being part of a parish. It is by His grace that we are saved, not our affiliation with a congregation. As important as congregational ministry may be, if it’s not about Jesus it is missing the boat. As members of the body of Christ, saved by grace He has called us into fellowships of believers to build us up and send us out into the world as witnesses of Jesus. Paul so masterfully wrote about this in Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV), “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Here Paul reminds us that grace is a gift, neither earned nor deserved. We can’t worship well enough, we can’t sing loud enough, we can’t lead well enough, and we can’t even keep doctrine pure enough to earn God’s favor. As Lutheran Christians we believe, teach and confess that grace alone is enough, and yet while we speak this with our mouths, our actions often proclaim that while we appreciate grace, we still need to add more by our own actions. Paul tells us that we are God’s workmanship, ποίημα, literally a thing that is made, created and then recreated in Jesus Christ, and made with a purpose. That purpose is to do the good works God already has fashioned for each of us. Have you ever stopped to wonder how many good works have gone un-done because believers have failed to recognize that we are saved to serve, and we are called to serve with a purpose?
With all the talk about the decline in worship attendance; with many congregations turning inward rather than reaching outward; as church members seem to focus on caring for members rather than caring for the lost; wondering why the church isn’t thriving as we watch congregations dwindle, one can’t help but wonder if a contributing factor is that we have lost a sense of mission and a sense of purpose. Jesus’ parting words to His disciples was a command to share the good news with the world around them. Over and over Scripture makes this clear. Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9-10 (NIV), “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” God made us His people so that we could proclaim Him to the whole world, shining His magnificent light into the dark places all around us.
The ministry that Jesus gave His disciples started out clear and strong—think of how quickly the church grew under the leadership of the disciples—however over time it slowly became more and more institutionalized. Instead of being about salvation through grace through faith in Jesus, it became more about structures, wealth and power. Where once the mission had been to proclaim the name of Jesus, it seemed like more and more the mission was taking a back seat. Luther sought to restore a missional church by refocusing on the Word of God and the heart of the Gospel. As the early disciples and church fathers were willing to lay down their lives for the truths of this Gospel, so Luther and other reformers were willing to lay down theirs to restore these truths.
As you look at history we often find that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. I’ve heard it said that we are currently living in a time in which there is a desperate need of reformation. In fact, the conversation lamented the fact that while many in our day turn their back on faith and Jesus, the Church continues to be preoccupied with her self-preservation and focused on internal matters “while the multitudes are dying and the Master calls for you.”
Dr. Luther wrote, “Has our Lord himself not depicted here the foolish, perverted conscience which offends God by making important matters trifles and trifles important? How is it that a man can take such a careful sip of outward works that he even strains out a gnat, and can take such a gulp of the right works that he even swallows a camel? It is because he makes things which matter little if at all into strict matters of conscience, but has a very free and easy conscience in things of great importance on which everything depends. People who do this are all Atrienses Sancti, churchyard saints.” Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 44: The Christian in Society I. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 44, p. 238). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. The Church that focuses on man-made externals without focusing on growing in God’s Word, the Church that allows anything to keep people from the supremacy of knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, straining gnats while swallowing a camels, is in need of reformation.
David Kinnamen, president of the Barna Group, in His book “UnChristian” found that the unbelieving world sees the church as an institution filled with hypocrisy, speaking of love, but often failing to display it to those most in need of it. He writes, “When outsiders claim that we are unchristian, it is a reflection of this jumbled (and predominately negative) set of perceptions. When they see Christians not acting like Jesus, they quickly conclude that the group deserves an unchristian label. Like a corrupted computer file or a bad photocopy, Christianity, they say, is no longer in pure form, and so they reject it. One quarter of outsiders say therefore most perception of Christianity is that the faith has changed for the worse. It has gotten off-track and is not what Christ intended. Modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.” For many outside the church, and even some inside the church, this is what the church has become. We are seen as homophobic, judgmental, elitists.
We know that isn’t true in every church, especially within our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, but as the old adage says, “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel!” In other words, when people have had a bad experience with a church, it becomes more difficult to win them back to faith, especially outside the Holy Spirit’s work!
Here’s the point. In this year of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and all the ensuing celebrations, let’s not forget that as important as Luther was, his goal was to point us to Jesus. The most important person and reason we rejoice in eternity is Jesus. It was His death and resurrection that covered our sins and opened to us the door of heaven. Only One was willing to lay down His life to die for your sins, and only One could pay the debt we could never pay. That One is Jesus. So in this celebration year, when so many opportunities abound for us to share our faith in Jesus, to engage in conversations about our God, to touch hearts and lives with the power of His love, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, endured the Cross, scorning it’s shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” As our eyes are fixed on Jesus, God will reform us and use us for His glory! The month of May is often seen as a time of growth. May it be so for us as we engage in the Master’s business with our eyes fixed on Jesus!
In His peace,