The Legacy of the Reformation (Romans 3:21-31)Pastor Jon Truax, October 29, 2017
Part of the General series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
The Legacy of the Reformation
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished - he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Have you ever played a game of telephone? You know how that goes, right? You put a bunch of people in a row and whisper something to the first person in line, who passes what he heard along to the next, and so forth down the line, and then compare what the last person hears with the original message. Sometimes you wind up with something wildly different at the end than what you had at the beginning!
That’s my understanding of why the Reformation was necessary. When Jesus came to earth, He gave the words of life, the gospel, to His disciples and charged them with the Great Commission to pass on His teachings. This continued for several generations. Along the way, their words were written down in the Bible, preserving their testimony. Until the invention of the printing press around 1440, however, not many people were literate or had access to Bibles. Meanwhile, as the Church moved forward through the ages, the world around them changed dramatically. Christianity went from being a small sect within Judaism, to a Gentile-majority faith which was illegal under threat of persecution, to being the favored religion of the Roman Empire, to being the cultural glue that held society together after the Empire fell.
Century after century, the Gospel of Jesus Christ did not change, but the Church changed. It grew larger, more powerful, extremely powerful, and then, as often happens with great power, it grew corrupt.
In one thousand years, the Church went from proclaiming the words of Jesus to “love your enemies” to calling for the “slaughter of your enemies” in a Crusade under the banner of that same Jesus.
Though the Bible doesn’t say anything about mandating celibacy for church leaders, that was a requirement was instituted by the Church.
Though the Bible doesn’t say anything about one man becoming the head of the Church and being considered infallible, that power accumulated around the Bishop of Rome until he was regarded as Pope.
Though the Bible doesn’t say anything about keeping the words of faith in the same tongue, even when it becomes a dead language, the Church insisted on maintaining the use of Latin when very few could understand it any more.
Jesus’ original disciples had expected His imminent return during their lifetimes; by the dawn of the Reformation, the Church had persevered for almost 1500 years. That’s a long time to play telephone!
The last Sunday in October is celebrated as “Reformation Day” in Protestantism. It looks back to October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses, or academic charges, to the church door at Wittenberg to protest the errors and abuses he saw in the church of his day. This week marks the 500th anniversary of this revolutionary act which led to the break away from Roman Catholicism of Protestant churches.
There is a lot to talk about when it comes to the Reformation, and probably everyone here has varying degrees of knowledge of it. Some of us may have studied it a great deal. Others of us may only be hearing about it for the first time, or at least know little about its significance. Let’s review the major reasons why Protestants feel the Reformation of the Church was necessary and the legacy of October 31, 1517.
In general, we Protestants don’t know our church history very well. That may be because we emphasize the Bible. In the Catholic Church, you would probably find the opposite. There, the Church is central. It’s not that the Bible is unimportant, it’s just that the Bible is viewed as a product of the Church and the Church retains the right to interpret it. In Catholicism, the organization of the Church is where it’s at.
Martin Luther, and the Reformers he inspired and who came after him, disagreed. They believed the Bible to be central. For them, it is the Word of God, and furthermore they felt that it should be studied in the common tongue of the local Christian community. For Martin Luther, that meant translating the Bible into German. After his success, others quickly translated the Bible into French, English, and other languages. The work of Bible translation goes on yet today and our church supports it! At the time of the Reformation, however, the Catholics believed the Bible should be preserved only in the church language of Latin.
In Protestantism, the Bible is emphasized and the Church is correspondingly de-emphasized. There’s a similar change that happened in the worship service. When you go to a Roman Catholic worship service - first of all, what do they call it? The mass. The ritual of the mass, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, is central to worship. It is their worship. Just like the Church administers the Bible, so does it administer the sacraments. Only a priest can consecrate the elements, and – in the Roman Catholic understanding – the bread and wine mystically transform into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Protestants don’t have a unified doctrine when it comes to communion. Generally, the earlier or closer a denomination is to Catholicism, such as Lutheranism or Episcopalian, they will keep a “higher” view of communion and the province of the clergy. The farther out a denomination gets in the Reformation tradition, such as Baptists or Pentecostals, they will see the elements as merely symbolic and not keep as tight of a rein on them as more liturgical churches do.
In place of the centrality of mass in worship, Protestants generally regard the reading of the Word of God and its exposition as the main event. It’s a worship service when you’re here for the sermon! You all knew that, right? Communion may be occasional, but there’s a message here every week! Protestants generally give primacy to God’s Word.
Because of the centrality of the Word of God, when you get into an argument with a Protestant, they will want to settle it through Bible study. What does the Bible say? That’s our question. If we can look it up and find out in the letter to the Romans, that answers the issue. Not necessarily so in the Catholic Church. An argument can be referred to what the priest says, or church councils through the ages, or the Pope.
Martin Luther was very frustrated because he found in his study of scripture that the Church was doing unbiblical things. He criticized the practice of the Church in his 95 Theses and beseeched them to return to the New Testament. At first, he wasn’t trying to start a new church but to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Yet there were a lot of problems, and solving them would mean the Church of his day giving up a lot of its money, and prestige, and power. It was a sacrifice the leaders weren’t willing to make. They decided to go to war over the matter instead.
Here are some of the issues between Protestants and Catholics: The priesthood of all believers. By Luther’s day, an unbiblical understanding had developed that, if you wanted to approach God, you must go thru your priest, who mediated through his bishop, who went through his cardinal, who was connected to the Pope, who was the Vicar (literally means “in the person of”) of Jesus and that he acts as Christ on earth. In contrast, Protestants believe that every Christian has access to God the Father through Jesus Christ, to whom we can go directly without the need for any intermediaries. This concept of the priesthood of all believers also means that all Christians can, and should, be in ministry.
Speaking of intermediaries, there’s another difference between Protestants and Catholics when it comes to the veneration of the saints. Catholics believe in the intercession of the saints, so that you can appeal to St. Jude or St. Francis or St. Thomas, and they will convey your request, handing it up the ladder, to Jesus. Again, Protestants don’t view saints as having any special authority or “in” with God. While we respect those who have gone before us and can learn a great deal from their lives, we don’t look to them, or pray to them, but to Christ alone.
This is magnified to the greatest degree when it comes to Mary. At my first church, I gave an Advent message about the example Mary can provide us, and I was promptly accused of preaching a Catholic sermon! Catholics view Mary very highly, seeing her sinless, with an immaculate soul, and believe she was taken up bodily to heaven. Sadly, because Catholics exalt Mary so highly, Protestants sometimes feel the need to bring her down a few notches! Some accuse Catholics of bordering on idolatry with a worship of Mary. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know as I’m not Catholic. I do know that their title for Mary as “Mother of God” has more to do with their understanding of Jesus than her.
There are more differences. Catholics tend to have a high regard for the physical aspect of the faith such as relics, regarding the personal property or remains of the saints, pieces of the cross, the shroud of Turin, the Grail, and those kinds of items, as having spiritual power. Protestants do not put as much stock in the veneration of relics.
Martin Luther and the other Reformers also believed that church leaders could marry, and Luther, a former priest, did in fact get married, marrying a former nun. (I bet his Roman Catholic detractors loved that!)
Theologically, Roman Catholics developed an understanding of a state of purgatory after death, where those believers who die with unresolved sin in their lives have it “purged” out of their souls to make them fit for heaven. Most Protestants reject the notion of purgatory as an unbiblical innovation, or at least consider it to be speculative.
Another errant practice that the Reformers identified was the selling of indulgences. An indulgence is a way to reduce one’s punishment for sin. Here’s the technical definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints." An indulgence is an action you can perform like saying a specific prayer, or making a pilgrimage, or doing a good deed.
In the Middle Ages, this idea became greatly abused. What was once intended to demonstrate to people what authentic repentance looked like became bastardized to the point of people being able to buy an indulgence from the Church. The Church was basically selling forgiveness! For the right price, you could buy forgiveness for yourself, or for a departed loved one believed to be in Purgatory. As the saying went, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from the fires of purgatory springs” which is quoted in Martin Luther’s Thesis #28.
This leads to probably the largest of all the issues that separated Protestants from Roman Catholics: the doctrine of Justification by Faith, the conviction that the basis of salvation rests upon grace and faith rather than in work that had to be added to that done by Jesus upon the cross.
The Reformers believed that they recovered the original message related at the beginning of the telephone chain before generations of church teaching corrupted it: Salvation by grace alone through faith alone. There can be no buying and selling of forgiveness, because Jesus had already accomplished that for all time with his sacrificial death. As we heard Dennie read this morning, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
The doctrine of justification by faith is what separates Protestant Christianity from all other belief systems where man works his way to God. Martin Luther and those who came after him firmly believed that man is saved only as a result of grace through faith, apart from works. The basis for our salvation is grace alone through faith alone. We cannot add or subtract from the completed, perfect work of Christ.
The word justified means “pronounced or treated as righteous.” For a Christian, justification is the act of God not only forgiving the believer’s sins but imputing to him the righteousness of Christ. The Bible states in several places that justification only comes through faith. Justification is not earned through our own works; rather, we are covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The Christian, being declared righteous, is thus freed from the guilt of sin.
Justification is a completed work of God, and it is instantaneous, as opposed to sanctification, which is an ongoing process of growth by which we become more Christlike. Sanctification occurs after justification.
Understanding the doctrine of justification is important for a Christian. First, it is the very knowledge of justification and of grace that motivates good works and spiritual growth; thus, justification leads to sanctification, rather than the other way around. Also, the fact that justification is a finished work of God means that Christians have assurance of their salvation. In God’s eyes, believers already have the righteousness necessary to gain eternal life, the righteousness of Christ.
Once a person is justified, there is nothing else he needs in order to gain entrance into heaven. Since justification comes by faith in Christ, based on His work on our behalf, our own works are disqualified as a means of salvation. There exist vast religious systems with complex theologies that teach a false doctrine of justification by works. But they are teaching “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” as Paul says.
Without an understanding of justification by faith alone, we cannot truly perceive the glorious gift of grace, because God’s “unmerited favor” becomes “merited” in our minds, and we begin to think we deserve salvation. The doctrine of justification by faith helps us maintain “pure devotion to Christ.” Holding to justification by faith keeps us from falling for the falsehood that we can somehow earn our way into heaven. There is no ritual, no sacrament, no deed that can make us worthy of the righteousness of Christ. It is only by His grace, in response to our faith, that God has credited to us the holiness of His Son. Both Old and New Testaments say, “The just shall live by faith.”
So what is the legacy of the Reformation?
The good news is that the Roman Catholic Church did eventually change somewhat in response to the Protestant reformation. Many of the worst abuses that Martin Luther identified in his 95 theses were eventually agreed by the Catholic Church to be in need of change, and these have taken place as the centuries have gone by. That’s a positive development of the Protestant Reformation.
A major negative, however, has been the result of further divisions in the Church, the body of Christ. I often liken what happened after the Reformation to the illustration of a stone striking a car’s windshield. At first there is a single crack, but, as time goes on, the fissure widens and splinters off into additional breaks. In time, a virtual spider web of cracks spreads across the windshield, obscuring our vision. We have lost our church unity and our witness to be One, which is something to mourn even as we celebrate the recovery of biblical theology regarding salvation. Today, we can work across denominational lines for the unity of our witness as the Church of Jesus Christ, even as we recognize the serious issues and understandings that continue to divide us.
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21But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. 27Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. 28Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. 29Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: 30Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. 31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (KJV)