“The church is always to be Reformed.” (Ecclesia Semper Reformanda)
Although this sounds like a quote from Luther or the early Lutheran church, it was actually only written in 1947 by the Swiss Reformed Theologian, Karl Barth. The irony of historical perspective is that the folks making history don’t have time to name themselves or think too much about their place in a future textbook— they are too busy. (The Impressionist painters spent their energy painting— their detractors named them so as an insult. And “Lutheran” was an insult as well; Luther considered himself both Catholic and evangelical and didn’t have spare time to stop reforming to name himself a reformer.) To finish my point, the Reformers simply acted to correct certain specific abuses of the church within the consensus of theology of the time.
As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman church, insofar as we can tell from its writers. Because this is so, those who claim that our people are to be regarded as heretics judge too harshly. The entire dissension concerns a few specific abuses which have crept into the churches without any proper authority. (Augsburg Confession)
The “reformers” were certainly naive to the geo-political power struggles of The Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States. The problem was in fact that people with the “proper authority” were indeed responsible for the abuses and certainly weren’t going to give up the worldly wealth, power and status that such abuses enabled.
Repentance and Renewal…
It is significant that The Second Vatican Council in 1964, in the document Lumen Gentium, responded to the Reformation impetus by asserting, “The Church… at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” Such an attitude has been exemplified by Pope Francis in several important sermons and addresses (which we support.) To further close the circle on this idea, I can—ironically-- quote Luther from Thesis 1 of the 95 Theses:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent! [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (Thesis 1 of the “95 Theses”)
The irony of the congruence of the Thesis 1 of the 95 Theses and a core document from Vatican II cannot be overstated— as was the positive impact of Vatican II on ecumenical relations. In so many ways one can see the twin “calls” of reformation and repentance as a kind of double helix winding about and around each other— touching but not combining while also forming the essential structure of the work of the church.
If one counts the beginning of the Reformation as All Saints Eve of 1517, with the posting of the 95 Theses, then next year is the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Celebrating such an event and such a heritage should bring a certain pride in our history, but not at the expense of others. It should include the call of repentance (as Luther begins his reform with) and should seek to continue reformation in a spirit seeing the wider church as whole and one:
I believe that there is on earth a holy little flock and community of pure saints under one head, Christ. It is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, mind and understanding. It possesses a variety of gifts, and yet is united in love, without sect and schism. Of this community I also am a part and member.” (Large Catechism)
Our celebration of the Reformation can and must also celebrate the idea that Lutherans are simultaneously evangelical, catholic, orthodox and ecumenical in the best sense of each label. To reform and renew the church means to be faithful to the one, holy and catholic (universal) church. To be Lutheran then is to be all of the above while retaining an identity that serves the whole. Confessional Lutherans focus like a laser on the center of the Scriptures— the Gospel— on which Jesus Christ is its (living) reality. Lutheran theology then concisely does two things 1) the proclamation of the Word in accordance with Scripture and 2) administer the Sacraments in conformity with their Institution (The Verba Domini— the Words of Christ!)
The Chief Article
The Lutheran Church then continues the task of Reformation by holding the center of the church and calling the church to its core. As the counter-reformation grew, Luther was asked to write as simply as possible his confession of faith, especially because his works were being misquoted and lied about. This confession became the Smalcald Articles. Here is its main article:
Part II, Article I: The first and chief article. (Haupt Artikel)
1] That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.
2] And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6.
3] Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f
4] Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.
5] Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is no other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And by His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5.
Even as I assert this boldly I also insist it be done with a repentant heart. This is true of the church as a whole and as individuals. In fact, Luther called the church “Maxima Peccatrix”— the biggest sinner of all. The church consists of “saints who truly believe the Gospel of Christ” and “many hypocrites and wicked people, who are mixed in with these.”
Therefore the church is obliged to confess and admit to many a transgression— both on behalf of its members and also of itself in the aggregate. However, it is exactly this stance that does not hurt its credibility but strengthens it. A confession of guilt spoken by the church is repentance.
It is quite obvious that the “elephant” in the denominational room for Lutheranism is the German State church’s previous failure to confront Nazism and the Holocaust. The life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other pastors who confronted such evil is to be honored while recognizing that the church left much undone that should have been done. (Pope John Paul II, in 1998, offered a formal apology from the Roman Catholic church regarding the Holocaust for the “inaction of the church.”) I remember clearly the racist attitudes easily found in my home church during the late 60’s especially after the Detroit riots. Racism (and classism) affect many of our churches today— It is certainly obvious that Lutheran churches are overwhelmingly white and suburban. Yet, the trend of our nation is to become urban and “of color.” It will be impossible to maintain our reforming role and also refuse to engage with our culture as it changes. We will have to change with it— admitting our sins and resolving to amend them.
Baptism now saves you…
Repentance is a return and stepping towards Baptism. Baptism is God’s act of grace outside of us. In confession we say, forgive us that which we have done and that which we have left undone. We acknowledge a “No” to our “Yes” (There are actions and attitudes we desire in opposition to God’s will for us) even as we admit a “Yes” to our “No” (There is a call to a new life our sinful natures resist.) I must affirm that I do not measure up to that which God wants of me and at the same time deny that such a measuring up is in order. Once I realize how impossible it is to be right with God given His righteousness and my unrighteousness I can only reject Him— or rely on and hold tightly onto Him all the more firmly still. Where do I learn that instead, by grace, God is holding onto me? From the Gospel— where in the announcement of absolution God promises that when we reach the end of our own resources and self-reliance He opens up new possibilities for us. He makes us new again. The Small Catechism describes this process of renewal in the fourth part of The Sacrament of Holy Baptism:
What does such baptizing with water signify?
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
Our Lutheran “Distinctives…”
Once raised to new life we can set about our work. Here is what we offer:
1. A catechism, a creed and a historic Liturgy that brings Baptism and Holy Communion into our weekly (and daily) lives with God, focused on how he comes to us and equips and prepares us for life in the world.
2. A Scriptural distinction of Law and Gospel so that the church indeed comforts the afflicted (and when necessary, afflicts the comfortable.)
3. The use of the Law, within the context of faith, so that the Ten Commandments and all the Instruction of the Lord (Torah) become “a matter of daily practice in all circumstances, in all activities and dealings” (Large Catechism)
4. An insistence to letting Christ speak for Himself in the Consecration of the Eucharist, so that the Mystery of His Real Presence becomes exactly what He intended it be for us: His Body and His Blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sin.
5. The proper distinction of the role and duties of church and state so that the state may be supported, keeping us in peace, while the church may be free to Proclaim the Gospel.
6. The encouragement of our vocations— that in our many roles of family, community and work, we present ourselves as “masks of God,” bringing the Kingdom of God into all of our relationships as we “serve as unto the Lord.” (Col. 3:23-24)
There is a Lutheran joke that goes like this:
If your Evangelical friends think your Catholic and your Catholic friends think you are Evangelical then you must be Lutheran.
It captures the essence of being an Evangelical Catholic (i.e. Lutheran) very well. We have the unique position of being able to speak to both. We have the theological base, historical perspective and sense of Liturgy and Sacraments to communicate well with our Roman Catholic friends. We have the grounding in Scripture and doctrine and focus on the Gospel to communicate well with our Evangelical friends. We have the ability to help all including ourselves by firmly holding the center ground of Christian expression— being slow to change and stubborn has its benefits by acting as an anchor while pushing the church to its continuing call to reformation and repentance.
Freedom in Christ
I like to tease that Lutheranism is the Zen Buddhism of Christianity. Where many sermons in Christendom end with exhortations or calls “to act” mine usually end with a call to “just be.” Perhaps that’s my way of emphasizing our freedom in the Gospel. We are children of the heavenly Father. Christ is our brother. He has set us free through the Cross. The Holy Spirit has given us new life in Baptism. We bring Christ into the world in everything that we do. Relax. Be at peace. Breathe. Christ is coming soon. Amen.
Christ has freed us so that we may enjoy the benefits of freedom. Therefore, be firm in this freedom, and don’t become slaves again. (Galatians 5:1)
Who the Son sets free, is free indeed!! (John 8:36)
[The source of much of this article depends on Rev. Dr. Werner Klan, from the Journal of Lutheran Mission, September 2016, Vol.3 No.2, including a few almost direct quotes…]