On Friday, Oct. 31, many Christians celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation. It was on All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints’ Day, in the year 1517, when a German monk and university professor named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses for debate on the door (the bulletin board of the day) of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. These statements for debate, which challenged the sale of indulgences and the authority of the Roman papacy to establish doctrine and practice contrary to the Holy Scriptures, sparked the Lutheran Reformation and reformation movements in other European lands.
Through this reformation, the Lutheran Church was born with its emphasis on the three solas (alones): Salvation by God’s grace alone for the sake of Christ and His innocent sufferings and death upon the cross; Justification by faith alone without the works of the law; and Scripture alone as the source and judge of all Christian teaching.
True Christians cherish these blessings handed down to us from Luther and the reformers. They still hold fast to these same three solas, proclaiming Christ and His cross as God’s only gracious means for our salvation. They point out the sinfulness and shortcomings of human works and proclaim salvation through faith alone in the completed work of Jesus Christ. And, they use the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, as the only source and norm for all Christian doctrine. They preach what the Bible teaches, nothing more and nothing less, even in a society and culture which views such teaching as outdated and less than loving.
On Oct. 31, or on the Sunday before or the Sunday after, many churches around the world will celebrate the Reformation and give thanks for the work God accomplished through Luther and others like him to restore to us the true doctrine of God’s Word.
My question, however, is this: What would happen if Martin Luther were alive today?
In rebuking the scribes and Pharisees of His day, Jesus said (Matthew 23:29-31): “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.” Jesus was pointing out how hypocritical it was of His hearers to honor the prophets whom their fathers killed when they were doing the same thing to those sent of God in their day.
Jesus continued (Matthew 23:32-35): “Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. [Ye] serpents, [ye] generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and [some] of them ye shall kill and crucify; and [some] of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute [them] from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.”
The New Testament tells us of the persecution faced by John the Baptist, Jesus and the followers of Jesus, often at the hands at the same men who adorned the tombs of the prophets killed by their fathers. And why were these prophets killed? Because they pointed out the sin of the people and called upon them to repent and look to God and His Messiah for mercy. Why were John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus’ followers persecuted and killed? Because they pointed out the sin of the people and called upon them to repent and look to God and His Messiah for mercy!
This brings me to my question regarding Martin Luther. What if Martin Luther were alive today? How would he be received in those churches which are, so to speak, adorning his tomb? To be honest with you, I expect he would be defrocked, kicked out, removed from clergy rosters, not allowed to preach.
Why would I say this? Because it is happening today to those who preach and proclaim nothing other than the doctrine Luther proclaimed and probably with a lot less graphic and abrasive language. Of course, the same is true of other Biblical theologians – C.F.W. Walther, Francis Pieper, Theodore Engelder, Wallace McLaughlin and others come to mind – who held fast to the Scriptures, proclaimed sin as sin and championed the grace of God in Christ Jesus, who preached that a man is justified simply by believing the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ Jesus and not by his own sin-tainted works.
Churches today – especially Lutheran – proclaim such men as heroes of the faith and founding fathers of church bodies and synods. Yet, if they were to preach the sermons they preached in pulpits today, or teach the strict Biblical doctrine they taught and proclaimed, they would more likely be viewed as a scourge to be removed and silenced lest they disrupt the tranquility of sleeping and luke-warm churches.
Such men most certainly would not be regarded as politically correct or sensitive to the views of modern society, but then the same thing could be said of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees were leaders in the visible, outward church of Jesus’ day. And what did Jesus tell them? He called them white-washed tombs (beautiful on the outside but full of death and uncleanness on the inside), hypocrites (saying one thing but doing another), serpents (in the likeness of the serpent in the Garden), and said they were headed to hell. Yes, Jesus said it like it was, with the desire that His hearers would repent and look to Him for mercy and forgiveness!
And so, how will we as Christians remember Luther and his Reformation doctrine? And how will we honor others who have walked in the steps of Luther and proclaimed true Biblical doctrine? If we just adorn their tombs and memories, it’s a sham and will do us no good. But if we return to the Scriptures and teach all that the Bible says (nothing more and nothing less), if we proclaim salvation by God’s grace alone for the sake of Christ crucified and risen again, and if we proclaim justification through faith alone and apart from human works or merits, then our observance of Reformation Day and the blessings God has given us through it will be genuine and a blessing of God upon us. If we repent of our own sinful ways and look to God for mercy and forgiveness solely for the sake of the atoning sacrifice of His Son, Christ Jesus, then we will indeed be blessed!
Pastor Randy Moll