TITLE: “God’s Gift of True Doctrine in Christ”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text for the Festival of the Reformation is from John chapter 8, with focus on the words, You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
What is the point of the Reformation? You will find this day many views of the Reformation celebrated throughout the land, and yet many will look at today and miss the point entirely. Let’s examine a few ways that people misunderstand and misapply the Reformation. We can call them myths of the Reformation:
The Reformation frees us to get back to the Bible. Well that certainly sounds very pious, and it kind of resonates with our American ears. We like freedom talk, after all. We like to hear about how our nation has freed the Iraqis from slavery. We like hear about lost freedoms being restored. But that isn’t the point of the Reformation. For freedom to get back to the Bible for many, especially in Luther’s day, simply meant to believe whatever false teaching and silly notion that anyone had about the Bible. Luther couldn’t have cared less about freedom, at least not in the sense of do anything you want.
Here’s another one. The Reformation is a day for us to celebrate our heritage as Lutherans. That certainly is what often happens on Reformation. It kind of serves as a cultural heritage day, where we remember whatever each person thinks it means to be Lutheran, sing some good old favorites, and then go home feeling like we’ve really showed those Roman Catholics a thing or two. But this certainly cannot be what was behind the Reformation. Luther never intended to cause controversy; he simply wanted to talk about Jesus and what is the Gospel. It was the persecution of the truth that really forced catholic churches to become known as “Lutheran” churches.
Then we have my favorite: The Reformation is the birth of the Lutheran Church. Well, Lutherans certainly may easily become self-righteous, and the view that the Lutheran Church is the container of everyone who is going to heaven would be the height of arrogance on our part. Yet we often act as if this is the case, by being callous toward other churches, not caring about them and what they teach, and especially by refusing to point out when they (or we) have departed from the teachings of the Bible. We even confess every Sunday: I believe in one, holy, Christian and apostolic church. There is only one church, not many. That one church is hidden just as faith is hidden, and yet it is revealed wherever God’s Word is preached in its truth and purity and the Sacraments are administered as Christ instituted them. So we rejoice wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments given out, even if the flow of the Gospel is but a trickle, God has done great things through such small works.
So what, dear friends, is the point of the Lutheran Reformation? The point of the Reformation is that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. The point of the Reformation is that Jesus came to earth as one of us. He walked among us. He healed our diseases and forgave our sins. And He died on the cross, paying the penalty for your unbelief and sin. And in His resurrection from the dead, life and hope sprang up throughout the whole world.
This message, this doctrine of the Gospel, is the central point of Bible. This is what the Augsburg Confession says is the “article on which the church stands or falls.” Notice, though, that this is a doctrine, a teaching. Doctrine is what it’s all about. That’s right. Doctrine. That has to be one of the most unpopular words you could find. When you hear the word doctrine, it sounds old fashioned, out dated, and authoritarian. A word like doctrine brings to mind old men in rooms coming up with ways and rules to make being a Christian harder. But this is not true.
Doctrine, you see, is just another way to say teaching. The heart of the Reformation, more than anything else, was about teaching or doctrine. What doctrine? It had to do with the doctrine of who Jesus is and what he does for me. In the bible, you see, there is only one doctrine, not many. We read in the book of Acts, for example, how they describe the life of the early church: And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:42 NKJV).
What Luther, by God’s grace, came to understand is that the Scriptures are a seamless whole, one garment woven throughout. All of the Scriptures teach of Christ. You may remember that after Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to two disciples on the way to Emmaus. When they didn’t recognize him, and didn’t get the story of His death and resurrection, St. Luke records for us, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).
This one garment of the Bible is Christ, but not just kind of a cute, generic Jesus that you would find in a Wal-mart book. Every doctrine, every teaching of the Bible is intimately connected with who Jesus is, and what he does for us by dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. What this means is that when we learn about Baptism, we are learning about the forgiveness of sins. When I learn about the Lord’s Supper, even such hard to connect doctrines as closed communion, I am learning about the forgiveness of sins. The end of the world, creation, the work of the Holy Spirit, every teaching from the Bible is connected to God’s work of forgiving your sins and bringing you into heaven to be with him forever. For there is only one doctrine, and it is all about Christ for us.
This is what Jesus is talking about in our text when He says: If you continue in my Word, then you are my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the Truth will set you free. It’s all about Jesus. If we cannot see that the whole of the Scriptures is about Christ for us, then we cannot read the Bible at all. Yet if there is a danger to the Lutheran Church today, it is this: we have forgotten this love of doctrine. We have forgotten that learning doctrine connects us to Jesus, strengthens faith, and draws us to His eternal gifts of the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Sadly, we have by and large forgotten our first love as Lutherans. We have bought into the lie that doctrine doesn’t matter.
All you have to do is look at our study of God’s Word to see how quickly we have forgotten the point of the Reformation. How many families hear God’s Word together at home, sing the hymns of the faith and pray? How many families are willing to sacrifice time, money and more for Sunday School or to take time to learn the gifts of God? How many neglect Bible class, or have more important things to do even than coming to church regularly to hear the Word of God?
I bring this up on Reformation Day not to make you angry. No one likes self-examination. It is painful and critical and frankly unpleasant. We all dislike it. Yet that, dear friends, is precisely what Martin Luther sought to do when he posted the ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg 487 years ago today. Thesis One of the ninety-five theses begin this way:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Repentance means turning away from unbelief and turning toward Christ and His mercy toward us for the forgiveness of sins. It means turning away from ourselves and our wants, desires and selfishness, and turning toward God and His mercy in Jesus Christ. It means examination in the light of God’s Law, and recognizing once again that our only hope lies in the mercy of Jesus Christ.
The Church always needs to be reformed. If we cannot see that, then we are like the man who seeks to pull the speck out of his brother’s eye when he cannot see the plank sticking out of his own. God calls us to repentance this Reformation Day, but He also calls us to faith. There, dear friends, lies your hope. God does forgive your sins. All of them, from the greatest to the least. He forgives them all, and He says to you this day: I love you, I forgive you, and I want you to be with me forever in heaven. That is the doctrine. That is the teaching that God gave to Martin Luther so many years ago, and that is the teaching that he longs to deliver to you this day.
Thank God for Martin Luther and the Reformation of the Church. The light of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins continues to shine forth throughout the world. And despite our weaknesses and failings, God is merciful to us. That is the heart of the Reformation. That is what it means to be Lutheran. Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in true faith, unto life everlasting. Amen.