Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Reformation Four Nine-Nine

John 8:31–36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Sermon

So confirmands, today you are lucky enough to share this day with the 499th anniversary of the reformation. Now don’t worry if you aren’t entirely sure what “The Reformation” is all about, your parents and families probably aren’t entirely sure either. But today, as you affirm your faith in front the congregation you are standing on the shoulders of a community of people that have gone before you for almost 500 years – The Lutheran community (and Anglican one for some). And Lutherans and Anglicans are just one part of a larger Christian family that has been around for 200 years.

Now the words and promises that you will hear today have already been spoken and made to you in your baptism. But you probably don’t remember your baptism, so we remind you of those promises again today, when you are at an age when you will remember. So you can hear and remember the promises that God has made just to you.

And those promises are the same ones that the reformation was all about.

Reform. Change. Reformation. Change for the better.

Our world talks about change and reform a lot. Political reform, economic reform, environmental reform, social reform – you name it, we are talking about changing it. When we listen to the message around us and to what we as individuals want, change and reform are common themes.

The call for reform and change is not just for change’s sake. The desire for reform comes from a deep need within ourselves. A need to make things better, to make things right. We desire a better life, better circumstances. And at the same time the scariest thing about reform and change, is the fear of loss.

As Lutherans we stand on change, we try to embrace ongoing reform. There are 87 million of us in the world, nearly 3 times the population of Canada. And today, the Lutherans around the world remember that big Reformation from where we began and started.

Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago on October 31st, 1517. A young monk, priest and university lecturer, published 95 theses about change, about religious reform. Martin Luther hoped that his ideas could be discussed by friends and colleagues in a civil manner. Instead, Luther’s writing expressed the growing dissent among the people and pushed into the light issues that had been simmering for decades, which hit Christianity in Europe like a hurricane.

For you see, Luther hit a chord. He connected to that deep desire for change. He identified the issues of oppression in the church and of abuse by the clergy. People were tired of being exploited by the church who made them fear death, hell and purgatory nor did they not want to be continually controlled by the nobility who made them fear soldiers and prisons. As Luther identified these issues, he diagnosed the illness that existed in medieval church.

Figuring out he problem is the easy part though. We are good at diagnosing our problems and knowing that we need and want something different. Luther looked around and saw the suffering of the people and he saw the need for reform.

When we look around at ourselves, we see problems too. We long for change. Here we see a shrinking church membership and at the same time an aging membership. We have heard about financial short comings. And many of us are tired as we give more of ourselves to the church, of our time our money, and of our energy.

And so while Identifying the problem is the easy part, actual Reformation is hard.

When the followers of the Jesus are faced with the prospect of freedom, they balk at the idea. They know their problems too. They struggle under the government of the Romans. And they struggle under the religious rule by the temple priests. But when change and freedom stares them in the face, they would rather stick to what they know. They would rather be oppressed by the Romans and the Jerusalem Temple.

When Luther began proposing reforms to the Church of his day, they were rejected. Even though the Vatican was in debt because of never ending wars and had been bankrupted by the enormous building project of St. Peter’s Basilica, they wanted to stay on the same path rather than actually change.

And the difficulties that christianity faces today in North America are so frightening to some, that congregations are deciding simply to slowly die. To make sure all the surviving members are cared for in the last years of their lives. It is easier and safer to stay the same, even when we can clearly see the problems around us.

And so here we stand. On this Reformation Sunday, on this Sunday of change, we know that we have a problem, we know that we need to reform too.

As Jesus talks to his followers today he reminds them of two simple realities. The truth will make you free. The Son will make you free.

It is the same truth that Luther discovered, the truth that prompted him to begin writing about change in the church.

And it is the same truth that will carry our congregation and our larger Christian family through our problems.

Jesus will set us free.

The reality of our need for change, our desire for reform, is that we cannot do it on our own and and we cannot get it right. As St. Paul writes in Romans, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.  We know that things could be different, we know that life could be better, but we also know that no matter how hard we try, we cannot keep from hurting others or being hurt, or from causing others to suffer or suffering ourselves, from causing grief or being grieved, or from killing or dying.

And while most people would give up in the face of this news. Luther heard something different. Luther heard the promise that Jesus makes:

So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed

We are all sinners, and we all fall short. Yet, God’s promise is in Christ. As Jesus comes  into our world, as Jesus joins us in falling short and being unable to make things better, Jesus offers freedom.

The Reformation started with this idea, that we cannot really change things, but instead, God is doing the changing. Even though we sin, and fall short, even though we cannot change our world to be the place we know it could be, God is there loving and caring for us. Christ is there, living with, dying and rising again with us.

And God’s grand plan for changing the world, began in the smallest way. A baby born in a stable. A baby like no other. A baby that was divine and human. But God wasn’t done there. God’s next reform was to the idea God loved some and not others, and that God’s love was for those who could earn it. As Jesus preached and taught, he told people, he tells us, that God’s love is for all people. And finally God’s biggest change was in the shape of the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus endured death, yet the surprise of Easter morning was God’s undoing of death’s power over life, God had made a new promise that new life will go on.

It is on these changes and reforms, these promises by God that the Reformation began. And it is on the shoulders of the Reformation that we stand. As Lutherans, we have been given a gift. A gift that came at great cost, a gift that came out of division, conflict and strife. A gift that reminds us that the most important thing the church can do is tell people of God’s love.

And by God’s love, we are set free. We are set free from sin and death. We are set free from our own failures and fears.

Reformation Sunday is about remembering what happened 499 years ago, about remembering and commemorating where we came from. But it also about the reformation that is happening now. The Reformation and transformation that God has been up to this whole time – God has been changing the world, changing us by setting us free.

Amen. 

Advertisements

Why Calvinism asks the wrong question

So Calvinism, of all things, is becoming popular among Evangelicals. I remember a few years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer was all the rage, and Evangelical studies of The Cost of Discipleship were spreading like the plague. Of course, it was hardly mentioned that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran and so was his theology, but his writings were finding a new popularity.

These days, John Calvin is finding some new popularity among North American Evangelicals. According to this New York Time Op Ed, it is actually among many pastors that Calvinism seems to be creeping back into Evangelical churches and pulpits. The apparent reason for this renewal is that Calvinism provides an alternative to the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and the like. Calvinism does offer a good critique of the prosperity gospel, with its more realistic and honest stance on human beings and sin. Calvinism also invites a deeper understanding of scripture and deeper theology than “God will make you rich if you are good Christian”. I can understand why many are turning to something meatier in the face of Joel Osteen and others.

As Lutheran, this is kind of like watching your family, friends and neighbours become fans of your favourite sport which is great, but then realizing they are all cheering for a rival team. Finally, people are watching the right sport, but cheering for the wrong team is almost worse than not playing.

Now, some are reacting to Calvinism’s strict view on salvation and predestination. Benjamin Corey over at Patheos has written a couple of great posts about this. 5 Reasons Why Calvinism Makes Me Want To Gouge My Eyes Out and Love Doesn’t Kidnap: Why I Believe In Free Will Over Predestination. He rightly points to some of the deeply problematic consequences of the strict view of Double Predestination held by Calvinists.

However, as Calvinism (and its issues) comes up over and over again, I am surprised that Martin Luther is hardly mentioned. There would be no Calvin without Luther, so it is odd to debate the finer points of Calvin’s theology, without looking to Luther’s.

Now, I know should probably stop trying to say how great Lutheranism is, however, this justification stuff is exactly where I think Lutherans have the strongest theology there is.

Image Source - http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2010/09/cartoon-t-shirt-idea-for-the-elect-only/
Image Source – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2010/09/cartoon-t-shirt-idea-for-the-elect-only/

The problem of the reformation was that most reformers wanted to express justification in terms that didn’t involve good works that earned merit for salvation. This lead to theologians like Calvin having to come up with new criteria to determine what saves us. Calvinists say that God chooses ahead of time who is saved and who is damned. In response to this view, Arminians (another reformation movement) say that God decides not to choose, but to let us choose. So those who choose Jesus are saved, those who reject Jesus are damned. The issue for these views on predestination is that they paint a false dichotomy. There is either Double Election (Calvinism) or completely Free Will (Arminianism). These two options are opposites, but they are not the only two out there. Yet, Calvinism and Arminianism, for some inexplicable reason, are the two competing theologies out there for a lot of Evangelicals.

But each position has fundamental flaws:

  • Double Predestination, choosing who is saved and who is damned puts a loving and creating God in the silly position of having damn most people that God created…
  • Free Will puts a flawed and limited humanity in the position of having to choose God, despite our difficulties and imperfect ability to make good choices in all other matters – from choosing dinner off a restaurant menu, to choosing all manner of sin in regard to how we treat our neighbour.

Martin Luther saw a middle ground, which he called The Bondage of the Will: 

  • We are free in all areas in respect to our actions towards our neighbour.
  • We are free to reject God.
  • We are NOT free to choose God.
Image source - mmcelhaney.blogspot.com
Image source – mmcelhaney.blogspot.com

The good works/indulgence mess required that the reformers describe salvation as entirely the work of God:  We do not participate in our justification or salvation – God extends that grace completely on God’s own. We do not choose it, we do not earn it, we do not facilitate God’s grace giving action. And because God is the source of all grace and mercy, God does choose those who are saved. Calvinists would agree on this point.

However, Luther also saw that Christ’s death was not limited, but for all people, all creation even. God’s desire is to save all of creation. Arminians would agree on this point. So does that mean that all creation will desire to be saved? No. Will God force salvation on us? No. We are free in will to reject God. In fact, as human beings we are good at this. We often choose to be God in God’s place, as is the condition of Original Sin. We may choose God today, but will we choose God tomorrow? We are fickle creatures. In Luther’s view, he saw that because God had given us grace freely, without condition, the only choice that we really had to make is to reject God. (Luther did not see “not choosing” as an action of human agency). So our ‘Bound Will’ will chose to reject God.

The difference between Luther and Calvin is that Calvin started his theology with the issue of God’s sovereignty, Arminians started from the same point as well. When you start from God’s  sovereignty  you are bound to end up at Double Election or Free Will. God chooses for us, or God offers a choice.

Luther saw God’s chief characteristic as ‘Mercy’. Luther wasn’t really concerned with whether God’s sovereignty is strictly maintained, because the incarnation shows that God isn’t really concerned with that either.

Image Source - psalmslife.com
Image Source – psalmslife.com

Rather, Luther saw a God that was consistently offering mercy to a flawed, limited, sinful, suffering, imperfect humanity over and over again. Forgiveness was a daily exercise for Luther. He would remind himself daily of the Baptismal promises made by God – of Forgiveness, Life and Salvation (he was no anabaptist, baptism is all God’s action).

As much as Free Will seems like the answer to Predestination, it is isn’t. In fact, it is just as unloving a choice for God to make, as damning most people is. As imperfect and flawed creatures we simply cannot be relied on to choose God, we would all be damned if it were up to us. God’s real recourse is constant and abundant mercy.  God’s alternative to saving some and damning others, or letting us choose, is to be constantly forgiving. Salvation is not about God’s sovereignty, salvation is about God’s mercy.

Calvinism and Arminianism ask the wrong question – “How are we saved?” – there is no good answer to this question.

Luther was concerned only with this question – “Who is it that saves us?” – the only answer is God.

So what do you think? Does Calvinism or Arminianism appeal to you? Or does Lutheranism have the goods? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

*** Image Credit: The Predestination – T is a cartoon by David Hayward also know as the Naked Pastor. Check him out at www.nakedpastor.com ***