The Reformation of the Church
October 30, 2016
“The Church Militant”
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! Matthew 11:12-15
Elijah hid in a cave, afraid for his life. John the Baptist languished in prison, waiting to be beheaded by Herod. Martin Luther hid in the Wartburg Castle, under the ban of the Emperor. If you were to judge them by their political viability none of these men’s lives were worth a nickel.
Elijah had enraged the theological establishment, condemning their religion, showing them to be false prophets, and convicting them in their own consciences. They knew perfectly well that Elijah preached God’s word faithfully. That’s why they hated him so. That’s why they sought his life.
John the Baptist had enraged the political establishment, publicly condemning Herod and his perverted love affair with his brother’s wife. Herod was smart enough to know that killing John would be politically unpopular, but he also knew that not killing him was politically impossible.
Emperor Charles V wasn’t interested in the gospel Martin Luther preached. He was interested in political peace in the realm. With the Muslim invasion threatening from the southeast, the German troublemaker in the northwest was a distraction that had to be neutralized. What is it about these religious types? Why are they so insensitive – even oblivious – to the political implications of what they say and do?
I’ll tell you why. Because even if politics is the second most important topic we could discuss; even if what happens in the civil arena has a direct effect on everyone’s life; the most important topic will always be theology. Let the politicians of this world keep that in mind!
It’s not that we shouldn’t care about our country. If you are concerned about America’s future, you ought to be. If you have strong opinions about what the American electorate should and should not do on November 8, that’s just fine. We should care about the future of America.
But when it comes to the fate of this world and the future of the human race, the politicians should stop talking long enough to listen to the preachers. Elijah, John the Baptist, and Martin Luther have a thing or two to teach them! Will they be taught? Or will the rulers of this world attack the preachers as they have always done? The kings put the prophets to death. But long after their kingdoms fell, the word of the prophets was shown to be true.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God suffers violence and the violent take it by force. Whether Herod, Caesar, the King of England, or the President of the United States, politicians have always presumed to lord it over the church as if the church can be made into the tool of the rulers of nations to serve their political purposes. In response to the arrogance of politicians of all ages, God Father says to his only begotten Son in the words of Psalm 2:
Politicians have clay feet. They make promises they can’t keep. They go back on their word. They rattle sabers, promise justice, condemn their political opponents, and always show themselves to be weak – far too weak to accomplish what they dream, boast, and promise. They are dust and to dust they will return. He who sits at the right hand of the Father will dash them all into pieces as if they were brittle pottery.
They persecute Christians. Christians were thrown to the lions and murdered as public sport. They were imprisoned and tortured. They were slandered from generation to generation. It always looks as if the powers that be are in charge and the little flock of Jesus is on the run. But the nations of this world fall while the church of Jesus Christ goes on. The church cannot be destroyed. Christ is her head and he will protect his body. He, who in his holy body bore our sin and thereby destroyed the power of the devil over us, will keep the church, his body, in his care. He gave his life for her. He will never abandon her.
For four hundred years God sent no prophet. There was no prophet between Malachi and John. That’s four hundred years of drought. When John came to preach God brought to him people with ears ready to hear his message. But it wasn’t John’s message. He was God’s voice. His teaching was God’s teaching. Jesus called him Elijah because, like Elijah, John was a faithful preacher. Like Elijah, John didn’t tailor God’s word to make it fit in with politically correction opinion. Luther was the same kind of preacher. That’s why the early Lutherans, when they began to observe the Reformation as a festival of the church, chose this Gospel Lesson. Luther was another Elijah. He was another John the Baptist. He preached God’s word regardless of the consequences.
Luther’s story is familiar to most of us, but it is worth retelling. On October 31, 1517, four hundred ninety nine years ago tomorrow, Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His theses addressed the topic of selling papal indulgences – pieces of paper that supposedly set souls free from purgatory. People bought indulgences for their loved ones who they believed were trapped in purgatory. An indulgence salesman by the name of Tetzel made this promise to those who bought his indulgences:
The broader topic was repentance and faith. The church had substituted its traditions for the gospel. It had buried faith under a lot of superstitious works. Luther started a theological argument. What began with the nailing of the 95 theses became what today we call the Reformation.
The central question of the Reformation is the most important theological question that can be asked: how does a sinner become a saint? The pope and his disciples taught that if you do the best you can do God will give you the grace to do better until finally, by cooperating with God’s grace, you will become good enough for God. If you could not become good enough for God in this lifetime – and few could – you would go to purgatory when you died where the process of turning a sinner into a saint would be completed.
The teaching that your salvation depends on you doing the best you can do is a doctrine of doubt. You never know if you’ve done the best you can do. There’s always something you could have done better. A sinner cannot find a gracious God by relying on what he does to find him because what a sinner does is sin. The teaching in which Luther had been indoctrinated taught Luther to depend on his own sin.
Luther learned through his study of the Bible that God justified sinners – he reckons them to be righteous in his sight – not by anything they do, but solely on account of what Christ did for them. St. Paul puts it this way in Romans 3,
When Luther taught this gospel he faced persecution from the established church of his day as well as from the state. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence.” Those who believe in salvation by works are always more powerful and more prestigious than those who trust solely in the good deeds of Jesus. The doctrine of salvation by works can be a money-making proposition for those who are in charge of telling you which good works you must do to be saved. The doctrine of the free forgiveness of all your sins for Christ’s sake is hated by the world.
The world wants praise from people. It revels in its own glory. Jesus teaches that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The religions of this world teach you that just as there is nothing worth having that is not worth working for, the blessings God gives must be earned. The Christian religion teaches us that we have earned God’s anger and displeasure, and even if we think we have done our duty we shouldn’t lay claim to any special status on that account. Jesus said:
The kingdom of heaven is Christ’s church on earth. It is God’s heavenly kingdom on earth. In this kingdom, such things as military strength, political clout, financial influence, and other paraphernalia of this world’s power structures mean nothing. This is a kingdom of grace. Jesus Christ rules over us in this kingdom. He doesn’t burden us with regulations and taxes. He doesn’t send our sons off to fight and die in a war. Jesus bore the burden of this kingdom by bearing in his own body the sin of the world. Jesus went to war against the devil on the cross. There in his innocence he battled against the prince of darkness. His purity overcame all the lies and deceit of the evil one. Jesus did the best that he could do and his best was flawless. The perfect law of God examined him and found no fault in him. Now this righteous man, this faultless, holy man, this Jesus who is both our God and our brother, comes to us and covers us with the robe of his obedience and suffering. He covers us with his righteousness and this makes us righteous before God. God, for Christ’s sake, justifies us – reckons us to be righteous – we are good enough for God, good enough for heaven, with the impeccable goodness of Jesus Christ himself.
And this is our treasure. We won’t trade it for all the money in the world. This central truth of our Christian religion is more important to us than any election, any government, or any kingdom of this world. Through faith in Christ we are righteous in the sight of the righteous God. He belongs to us and we belong to him. Nothing anyone can promise, nothing anyone can threaten can divert our faith from him who gave himself for us on the cross. He is our King. We belong to his kingdom. Preaching and confessing the truth of this kingdom marks us as Christians. The preaching and the confessing of Christians in the kingdom of heaven will endure on this earth until the end. The kingdom remains ours forever.
Rolf D. Preus