Rev. John Klienig, Posted on October 29th, 2007
Someone once summarized the entire Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century as a reformation of the Sacrament of Penance. Today, Reformation Sunday, we should ask ourselves, “Why are we Lutheran?” But along with that question, we should ask another: “Are we Lutheran?”
If it is true that the entire Reformation can be seen as really a reformation of the Sacrament of Penance, we should look at our own church life, family life, and personal life in that light. The theology of Penance to which Luther and the Reformers were responding was one that saw Penance as an action to be performed. Going to the priest for confession had become a mechanistic act where the mouth confessed but the heart was not changed. The sale of indulgences meant that forgiveness could be purchased with money or by doing good deeds.
But now that we Reformation Christians have the Gospel, is the situation better, or worse? Claus Harms, a Lutheran of the nineteenth century, wrote, “The forgiveness of sins at least required monetary payment during the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth it costs nothing. Now men serve themselves with it. They at that time stood higher than us, they were nearer to God.” How can he say that? Because they recognized that sin costs something. We mock and criticize that they paid money for the forgiveness of sins. At least they realized that sin came at a price! Do you?
Are you better than the medieval peasant who went to the priest for confession? Or do you take confession itself for granted? Do you saunter in here, speak a mindless confession along with the crowd, and suppose that you can live reprehensibly but the general absolution gives you a kind of amnesty to keep on with the selfishness, keep on with the pride, keep on with the porn, keep on with the gossip, keep bearing grudges, keep ignoring your neighbor? Is that what the Reformation has given us?
By no means, my friend. And do not think that real peace comes from learning to forgive yourself. The great theologian Hermann Sasse said, “He who forgives himself his sins is his own God” – in other word, if you forgive yourself, you make yourself a god – the worst kind of idolatry.
The Lutheran Reformation recovered for the church that all-important truth that penance, or repentance, is a comprehensive attitude of the entire life of the believer. So that great Reformation document, the Augsburg Confession, declared: “True repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest.”
The Reformation was not to create a new church, or denomination [emphasis added]. The Reformation at its core was not about dethroning the Pope. The Reformers would gladly have continued submitting to the Pope by human arrangement for the sake of good order on the condition that he would allow the Gospel to be purely preached.
The Reformation was all about ensuring that the church proclaimed true repentance to the people, and pointed those people to Jesus who has taken away sins by His death.
So why are we Lutheran? Not because Lutherans are perfect. Not because Lutherans are smarter. No one should be a Lutheran out of ethnic pride or because Dad and Mom were Lutherans or because you married into it. I am a Lutheran because I firmly, truly believe that the doctrine of the Lutheran Church, as found in the Book of Concord, is the only confession that remains entirely faithful to the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. That is the question that you are asked, as well, when you become a member of this congregation: “Do you believe that the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as you have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, is faithful and true to the Word of God?”
So what is that doctrine? Not simply a collection of facts: it is the doctrine that we are sinners saved entirely by God’s grace, through faith. To be a Christian, we must take every part of that sentence seriously. “We are sinners.” Do you take seriously what a problem your sins are? I have told you many times that you must struggle against your sins, and that is true. But at the same time you must realize that your struggle is never where your trust is. For then, your trust is in yourself.
Here is where faith comes in. Faith is not an emotion. Faith is not having confidence. Faith is not a certainty that everything will work out. Faith is not a blind leap. Faith always has an object. As Christians, our faith has its object in Jesus. True Christian faith is not a blind trust, but it is grounded in the objective reality of the death of Jesus, the certainty that in Him sins are forgiven, death is defeated, Satan is stripped of his power, and that God has had mercy on us.
So the Christian lives constantly aware of two things: My sins are dreadful, they offend God and damn me, I wish to be rid of them; and at the same time, I am serene and confident in the knowledge that God loves me and forgives me all for the sake of Jesus. I know this not by my feelings, emotions, or decisions, but because of the objective work of Jesus on the cross, and in the tangible ways He gives me grace, in the Means of Grace – my Baptism, when I go to the pastor for Absolution, and in the Holy Supper.
Today, then, we thank God for the Reformers. We celebrate the Reformation not out of party spirit or because we hate Catholicism and enjoy bashing the pope. We celebrate the Reformation in a spirit of grateful humility that God still allows His good news of forgiveness to be preached to us, and we ask that He would preserve His Church on earth for the sake of Christ so that many more might hear the pure doctrine that God forgives sinners all by grace through faith in Jesus.