Reformation Day (observed), 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
What’s the highest compliment you can pay to a man?
What’s the highest compliment you can pay to a woman?
What’s the highest compliment you can pay to your pastor?
I’m not fishing for compliments or anything like that. Actually, I believe the answer to all of those questions is the same, and it all has to do with today being the day we observe Reformation Day.
What happened on Reformation Day? What are we celebrating? Want to take a guess? Probably something to do with the 95 Theses and the selling of indulgences, right?
Well, if Reformation Day is to be understood from the readings we choose, the first reading, from Revelation, directs our attention to the angel proclaiming an eternal message, exhorting us to repentance and faith, in light of the coming judgment.
Now, that message is, of course, true and helpful, but it doesn’t sound like Reformation Day to me.
From the second reading, we heard the familiar words of St. Paul, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
That’s certainly closer to what I think of when I think of Reformation Day, and that verse applies to any conversation regarding indulgences. So, we’re closer to the mark.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Being set free, that’s a good Reformation Day theme. But set free from what?
On Reformation Day, having heard Jesus’ words, “the truth will set you free,” and remembering that this was the day Martin Luther adorned the local church with his 95 Theses, it’s difficult for us not to think of being set free from…what do you think?
From Rome! From the Roman Catholic Church.
If Reformation Day is to be understood from the historical context and the passage of time, it at least seems like that’s what we’re celebrating, getting away from Rome.
It’s a joke among Lutheran pastors that, on Reformation Day, you take a copy of the 95 Theses and nail them to the door of the local Roman Catholic Church. All in good fun, of course.
In case that happens this year, I promise it won’t be me.
But is that what we’re celebrating—the 95 Theses and our separation and freedom from Rome? I don’t think so.
Four-hundred and ninety-nine years ago, Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenburg. Nobody could check Facebook, but everybody could check the church. That’s how they’d start a conversation, they would literally post something to the wall.
But do you know any of the 95 Theses?
The 95 Theses aren’t a document of the Lutheran Church, that’s an important fact to consider. And while important in the big picture, we don’t teach them to our children, we don’t memorize them, we don’t hang posters of the 95 Theses up on our walls.
Yet, Reformation Day, October 31st, is celebrated every year across Lutheranism, memorializing, at least seemingly, our separation and freedom from Rome and a document that we don’t know, that we don’t teach, and that isn’t specifically Lutheran.
Perhaps you know that several of the 95 Theses deal with purgatory. Today, we neither believe nor confess that there is such a thing as purgatory, and there is ample support for that position in the Word of God, but in the 95 theses, Luther isn’t arguing against the existence of purgatory but rather the correct understanding of purgatory (cf. theses 10-11, 15-19, 22, 25-27, 29, 35, 82, 84), specifically in light of the selling of indulgences, if we want to get the historical context right.
I think it’s unfortunate that there are better days and better documents for the Lutheran Church to remember.
The Large Catechism was published in April of 1529. The Small Catechism in May. We still use both of them, and we teach our children to memorize the Small Catechism.
The Augsburg Confession, the foundational document of the Lutheran Church, was presented on June 25, 1530.
The Book of Concord, which contains the Augsburg Confession, both Catechisms, and more, was published on the 50th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, June 25, 1580.
Every pastor in the Lutheran Church promises to teach the Book of Concord.
No pastor in the Lutheran Church promises to teach the 95 Theses. Yet today, that’s what we remember.
To me, this all begs the question, “What are we celebrating on Reformation Day?”
But I’ve got one more historical point before I try to make sense of all of this.
Especially in America, it’s typical of Lutheran Churches to define themselves in terms of how they’re different from other churches, especially Catholic churches. They have seven sacraments, we have two (or three, depending on the Lutheran you ask). Their priests can’t marry. Our pastors can. They invoke the saints and teach that Mary is coredemptrix. We teach that the saints are sometimes wonderful examples that should be followed. And on the differences go.
We often define ourselves by making a comparison against others. “We’re not like the Catholics, or them, or them…”
Now, that’s interesting because non-Lutherans and non-Catholics define us by making a comparison to Roman Catholicism. It’s the exact opposite. “Oh, you guys chant, and have sacraments, and your pastor wears a red dress a few times a year, just like the Catholics.”
It’s called a chasuble, for what it’s worth, but that’s about how the conversations go.
We’re so used to describing our church and defining what we believe in terms of other churches.
That’s why, for me, growing up in the Lutheran Church, I didn’t really know what Reformation Day was about.
Here’s what I mean: Reformation Day—that’s when we became different from Roman Catholicism. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—here’s how we’re different from the Catholics and the Baptists. Chanting, hymns, and vestments, here’s how we’re different from most everyone else.
If all you ever say is what you’re not, you’ll never get around to saying what you are.
And we don’t just talk about the Church this way. We talk about everything this way. We rate restaurants, gadgets, churches, people, places, things, and ideas on a scale from one to ten, and that’s how we talk about things—how different they are from each other.
But the goal isn’t to be different.
The Reformation wasn’t about being different.
Being Lutheran isn’t about being different.
Being a Christian isn’t about being different.
Christianity, Lutheranism, the Reformation—the concern is being faithful.
Christians shouldn’t wake up thinking, “I hope I’m different today.” Christians should wake up thinking, “I hope I’m exactly like every Christian before me—faithful to the Lord Jesus.”
A friend of mine, half-joking and half-serious, says that, on his tombstone, he wants the inscription: “He never had a new idea.” The reason why, of course, is that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (cf. Hebrews 13:8), so why reinvent things?
Christians certainly are different from the world. We are in the world but not of the world (cf. John 17:14-15). But being different isn’t what makes us different—faithfulness to God and His Word is.
So the highest compliment you can pay to man is that he’s faithful to God and His Word. The highest compliment you can pay to a woman is that she’s faithful to God and His Word. The highest compliment you can pay to a pastor is that he’s faithful to God and His Word.
What happened on Reformation Day? What are we celebrating?
We’re not celebrating differences between the churches. We’re celebrating the one thing that binds us all together.
Today, we remember and proclaim with joy, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
From Revelation, we heard of an angel proclaiming an eternal message, exhorting us to repentance and faith, in light of the coming judgment.
The eternal message is the Gospel.
Time and again, the devil, the world, and our flesh tries to stand in front of the Gospel. But the gates of hell will never prevail against the church and the confession of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (cf. Matthew 16:13-20). That’s what Jesus says.
In Romans, we make the confession that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
And how wonderful is that!
You are justified by faith. Faith is the only thing needed for eternal salvation. And, God gives faith through the proclamation of the Word.
What God requires for eternal salvation, He freely gives.
That seems so obvious to us. But here’s why it’s not.
Here’s a wonderful question: Does the Bible say that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law? Yes. That’s Romans 3:28, we’ve heard that several times today already, okay.
Does the Bible say that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone? We want to say “No” to that, right?
Actually, that’s a direct quote from James chapter two.
The reason that so many people in the history of the Church have believed that a person is justified by works is because James says “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
What’s missing is the Gospel.
If you know what the Gospel is, the eternal message of God, if you know who Jesus is, that He “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (cf. Romans 4:25), if you believe and know that God loves you and shows His love for you in sending His only begotten Son (cf. John 3:16), then what James says will not only instruct you in the truth but also comfort your soul.
“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). That’s what James says. What He means is, you can’t obey God apart from faith, and when you obey God, that’s evidence of faith. Paul says it this way: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Or we can say it like this: Faith always precedes works. Works always follow faith. Faith alone saves. But faith is never alone.
That’s what Paul and James are saying. That’s the Gospel!
God the Father justifies you and all the world in the death of His Son.
The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to create faith by the Word proclaimed.
You hear and believe and are saved and then you live differently.
Living differently isn’t the point. Hearing, believing, and being saved—faith in the Lord Jesus—that’s the point.
And that’s exactly what Jesus has in mind in today’s Gospel lesson.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
On Reformation Day, we celebrate the fact that we are set free—not simply from Roman Catholicism or from differences between denominations—but from sin.
The Gospel, the Word of God, Jesus’ Word, sets you free from sin.
You have one Lord, Jesus. If He sets you free, you are free indeed.
That’s what was at stake in the Reformation—the Gospel. The forgiveness of sins in Christ. The Word and Grace of God. Faith and salvation. And the new obedience, the Christian life.
Hear and believe Jesus’ Word: you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. And if the Son of God sets you free, you are free indeed.
Believe that, trust in God that His Word is true, and there will never be a higher compliment that can be paid to you in this life or the life to come.
That’s what we remember every Reformation Day, and it’s a reason to celebrate, a reason for great and good joy.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!