This coming Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, many Protestant churches will celebrate the re-birth of the church, also known as the start of the Protestant Reformation. Sure, the church was actually born on the Day of Pentecost, but over time the church strayed away from its original purpose. It went from a God-made institution with the Ten Commandments, the Two Great Commandments and an emphasis on God’s love to a man-made institution with its emphasis on man-made rules and rituals.
There was a time when the church pictured God as an angry God who was watching over us and anxiously waiting for us to make a mistake so that he could punish us with eternal suffering in hell. The church taught people to fear God in the worst sense of the word, and the church used that fear to control the people, to get them to submit to church leaders and obey all of the teachings and rules of the church. The church used that fear to obtain wealth and power for the Pope in Rome and for the Roman Catholic Church. For example, by the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church became wealthy from the indulgences or fees that worshippers had to pay to free the souls of their loved ones who were in purgatory, which was the place between heaven and hell where the faithful were being cleaned up for heaven. There were at least seven sacraments that were prescribed by man.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation, the church was similar to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time-very authoritarian. The word of the pastor or church elders was law, and no one in the congregation could question it. Part of the reason was because the language of worship services at that time was Latin. There were very few Bibles available because they were copied by hand, and the few Bibles that were available were also in Latin. Since very few people other than the wealthy and the educated could read or speak Latin, they had to trust that what the minister said was the word of God.
The situation in the church was similar to the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21:33-42. Reformers agreed with the parable’s idea that because the Israelites had abused their tenancy as God’s people, God would lease his church to another people-the (new) Christian church. They also argued that because the (new) Christian church had abused its tenancy, God would replace it with the Reformed Church.
Over many years the church and its practices were reformed, but the process was not easy. One key event that helped the process was the invention of the printing press. That made the publication and distribution of Bibles easier. The Reformation was also helped by efforts to translate the Bible from Latin into the languages of the common people in Europe, specifically the efforts of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English, and Martin Luther to translate the Bible into German. That made it possible for more people to read the Bible and discover the truth of God’s word for themselves.
Luther also believed that church music was for everyone to sing. He wrote, “The devil who is the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless trouble, flees before the sound of God’s music almost as much before the Word of God”. That belief inspired him to compose the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, and it is a bold affirmation of the love and power of our heavenly Father.
The end result was the idea that ordinary Christians could and should read the Bible for themselves in their own everyday language and draw their own conclusions from it. They did not have to accept the words of centralized religious authorities at face value. They did not have to accept traditions at face value unless they were prescribed by the Scriptures. Naturally this undermined the authority of the established church, which is why the church prohibited translation of the Bible into the language of the people, and publicly burned such Bibles as they could find.
Even today, the Roman Catholic Church is largely authoritarian in nature even though changes were made in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council-changes that included allowing services to be conducted in the language of the common people. In addition, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormon Church and other fundamentalist denominations such as the Salvation Army, the Pentecostal Church and some Baptist churches are still thriving today, and individual preachers can be authoritarian (If you don’t believe me, just listen to Pastor Perry F. Rockwood!!!!!!!!!!).
Luther and other reformers understood that Biblical theology can only be done on the basis of a detailed and comprehensive study of all the relevant material, and not by blindly accepting a minister’s word as law. They struggled to accept the church’s teachings. In fact, it is largely due to Luther’s struggle to reconcile his faith with church doctrine that the Protestant Reformation was successful. Luther and other Reformers such as John Knox discovered that the only sacraments that were necessary were those that were explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures; namely, baptism and Holy Communion. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther had had enough of the corruption and false teachings that were coming out of Rome. He nailed his 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany-thereby opening the floodgates to the Reformation.
There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally. Luther and the Reformers discovered this and so did the common people. The Reformation changed the church’s emphasis from the suffering Christ on the Cross to the Risen Christ and an empty cross. It’s not the “what” of our faith that saves us, but the “whom”. In his sacrifice for our sins, Christ truly sets us free from our sinful nature. Christ was most concerned about freeing us from our bondage. He came to free us from the bondage of sin, just like the Reformers freed people from unnecessary rules and rituals made by man and replaced them with those that were prescribed in the Scriptures.
Grace is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ which is freely given without set and described patterns. It is the same point that Paul tried to make in Ephesians 2:8 when he wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, but the gift of God”. It was hard for both Paul’s readers and Martin Luther to understand and accept this concept because they came from religious backgrounds which underlined the importance of keeping the law to earn the love of God. What made it even harder for Martin Luther to understand this concept was the fact that his church told him that he could become justified before God and cleansed of guilt by doing certain things to make himself more pleasing to God-things such as becoming a monk, praying more, fasting longer, or by going on a pilgrimage. He did all of those things, but he still didn’t feel that he had done enough. It was only by carefully reading the Book of Romans, specifically Romans 8:19-28, that he discovered the reality of grace. Only then did he find peace with God and a sense of assurance and rest for his troubled spirit. He expressed God’s grace in the second verse of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that might be? Christ Jesus it is He
Lord Sabaoth His name, From age to age the same
And He must win the battle
The sole aim of the Reformers was to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of a genuine relationship with God that was not governed by church officials, of the promise of forgiveness based not on what we have done, but by what Christ has done for us, and the guarantee of access to God’s grace and promise of eternal life that was not mediated by man-made rules. In other words, the Reformers invited Christians to freedom.
The truth of what we believe is set in the truth of Jesus. When Jesus talks about abiding in his word, he is talking about obeying his teachings and building a life based on Jesus himself-a life of faith-a strong life. Christianity is about spiritual growth. It is about the hard work of sanctification, which requires both the Spirit of God and the disciplined and repeated use of the means of grace. A genuine believer holds fast, obeys and practices God’s teachings.
Grace can be abused, and in fact sometimes it is abused. Limitations are appropriate and necessary. God does give us commands. They are not meant to stifle us, but to allow us to grow in faith. Freedom in the biblical sense never means just doing what we want to do. It is the power to do what we ought to do. It is the freedom we need to be Jesus’ disciples. In serving God and serving others, we are free thanks to Jesus.
In the words of Martin Luther, we are justified according to the Scriptures alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The work of genuine reformation is never finished. The church has always adapted to reflect changes in society while remaining true to the Scriptures.
Reformation can continue here, today, with a commitment to continue in the word of Jesus-not as a hobby, but as the core and source of our daily lives. Grace is focused in Jesus Christ, but it is also all around us. God wants us to learn, God calls us to love with our minds, because the search for truth leads to God. If we look for it and listen for it, when we least expect it, a voice will say, “You are loved, you are affirmed, you are set free”. If we accept it, embrace it, trust in it, and let it penetrate every fibre of our being, it will make a difference in every aspect of our lives. It truly will set us free.
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- The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg, PCUSA, “Grace”. Retrieved from www.day1.org/876-grace.print
- The Rev. Dr. Brett Younger, “Loving God with All Your Mind”. Retrieved from www.day1.org/3241-loving_god_with_all_your_mind.print
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- Pastor Thomas Kadel, “Quo Vadis Domine?” Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
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- Pastor Dan Sello, “Life-Changing Discoveries”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- Richard Neil Donovan, “The Truth Will Set You Free”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- Greg Laurie, “Satan, Society or Savior?” Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
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- Biography of John Wycliffe. Written by R.G. Clouse, PhD, Professor of History, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana. . Part of Libronix Digital Library System computer software package.
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- Ben Witherington, “Man of the Bible”. Retrieved from www.stlibrary,com/print.html?id=84376
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- Daniel Clendenin, Ph.D., “A Remarkable Exercise in Honest Thinking”. Retrieved from www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20091026JJ.shtml?view=print
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