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Luther's Reformation and ours

Luther's Reformation and ours

The Bishop's Blog

A sermon taken from Romans 5. 1-11 and preached by Bishop Ken Carter at Friedenau Methodist Church, Berlin, Germany, on September 17, 2017, and Knock Methodist Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland, on October 22, 2017.

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation is one of the streams that flows into the Methodist way of being a Christian; another is the spiritual life of the Moravians, and, yet another, is the ordered life of the Anglicans. But this fall is a significant season for us in our family tree, one that has shaped our lives in profound ways. It points us to remember the Reformation of Martin Luther.

Martin Luther lived in the sixteenth century in Germany. His father was a member of the town council and wanted his son to be a lawyer. Luther trained for this purpose, but he found himself obsessed with religious questions. One day a lightning bolt struck near him, and he interpreted this as a sign from God that he should surrender his life in some dramatic way. He became a monk. His father saw this as a waste of a good education.

While he was in the monastery, Luther trained as a professor of Bible. During this time, officials would come to Germany to raise funds for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The pitch went something like this: Faith is not sufficient to put you into the good graces of God; faith must be joined with good works and charity. Good works could be fulfilled by donating money to the church. In addition, you could donate money to the church and free a loved one, who had died, from the depths of purgatory. 

All of this was captured in a popular saying:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
the soul from purgatory into heaven springs!

At about this time, Luther was being shaped by his reading of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans gave him clear guidance: We are justified, made right with God, not on the basis of our good works, but through faith, which is a gift. This was the turning point in Martin Luther’s life: He gave up an angry, punishing God for a God of grace and mercy, to whom we respond in faith. This was for him the clear teaching of the scriptures, and it was good news, not bad news. For some reason, the church had hidden this message, buried it in the ground!

And so, on All Hallows Eve, the old English word was Halloween, the day before All Saints in 1517, at about two in the afternoon Luther went to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and stood at the main door, which was something of a community bulletin board. He nailed 95 theses, or arguments, to the door protesting the abuses and errors of the church. The first thesis insisted that when the Lord Jesus calls us to repent, this is about repentance as the entire way of life for a follower.

These were distributed all over Europe—this was all accelerated by a new invention: the printing press!—and Luther was literally the talk of the town. He became a popular lecturer and biblical scholar and drew the wrath of the church. A few years later he was excommunicated, and the civil authorities also threatened him, unless he recanted. In a famous scene, when asked if he would withdraw the 95 theses, he said:

I am bound by the Scriptures…and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

Luther would later translate the Bible into German (and this influenced the later King James translation into English); he would marry a former nun, and write hymns that would influence Bach, including “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” His work and the implications of it came to be known as the Protestant Reformation, and in our family tree the branches include Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Methodists. 

That is a very brief sketch of Martin Luther and the Reformation. But why is it important to you and me? Because we are all children of the Reformation; we are all ancestors of Martin Luther, in three respects. 

The Bible

First, Luther helped us to struggle with the relationship between the Bible and the Church. In his own time, he felt the church had become captive to a culture of greed and had missed the core message of grace. This has been a rediscovery of the church throughout history; it could be that this is our present struggle in The United Methodist Church. John Wesley as a young adult was caught in the grip of trying to please God as a missionary; he failed at this and returned to his home in London. And then he describes this experience:

“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

I will let you in on a secret, if you promise not to share it too widely: The church is a fallible institution and throughout history has been on the wrong side of justice and even the will of God. A catholic historian gave this analysis of the church in Luther’s day:

Night fell on the German church, a night that grew darker and darker…amongst the common people, a fearful decline in true spiritual practice into religious materialism and morbid hysteria; amongst the clergy, both lower and higher, widespread worldliness and neglect of duty; and amongst the very Shepherds of the Church, demonic ambition and sacrilegious perversion of holy things.”

But God is never without witnesses. Men and women of conscience have come along as witnesses to truths that had been buried in the ground, like treasure waiting to be rediscovered. In 1934 a church in Atlanta, Georgia, sent their pastor, Michael King, to the Holy Land and to Germany, the land of the Reformation, in appreciation of his ministry. He was so moved by the depth of commitment expressed by the Reformers that upon his return he changed his name, and he changed his son’s name and baptized him as Martin Luther King, Jr. God is never without a witness.

And so the church is always in dialogue with the Bible. As Karl Barth, the great theologian insisted: “The church is always being reformed according to the word of God.” We always test whatever the church teaches or preaches according to the Bible; and, if this is to happen, we need to be able to read the Bible in our own language. This was a part of Luther’s reformation, as well, to put the scriptures in our hands, to urge us to read them, for the formation of our consciences. 

When I served as a pastor, I worked with the confirmation class. One year as we approached confirmation Sunday, a young boy was bullied because of his sexual orientation and then committed suicide. This made the national news. As I worked on the sermon I felt convicted that I needed to express two thoughts: that bullying is never appropriate or right, and that every person is created and loved by God and is sacred in God’s sight, regardless of sexual orientation.

That evening I received an email message from a member of the church. The sender said, simply and directly: “Promise me you will never speak about this subject again in our church.” I wrote her back and tried to give an explanation, in light of the week’s news. She replied: “No, you are not hearing me. Will you promise me that you will never speak about this subject again in our church?”

By now I was sensing the limitations of email. So I asked her to meet that week. We met, I listened and then I spoke. I respected her for writing to me, and I told her so. I listened to her perspective and learned from her. I also told her that I could not make the promise she was asking me to make. I mention this because she is a child of the Reformation. She reads the scriptures, and this has formed her conscience. Before the Reformation, this would have made no sense. If the church, if the clergy, had taught it, it must be true!


A second gift of the Reformation: that salvation comes through grace and not our good works. This was a scandal, a stumbling block to many, because we want to be rewarded for our good works. We make good grades in school, we want to be rewarded. We do what our parents ask, we want to be rewarded. We hit our numerical target at work, we want to be rewarded. We follow the teachings of the Bible, we keep the commandments, we want to be rewarded. Right?

Well, maybe not. We are justified, made right with, acceptable to God through his gracious gift of salvation, which has nothing to do, really, with our good works. And so the mathematical equation is not God’s grace plus my good works equals salvation, but God’s grace plus zero equals salvation. Martin Luther and John Wesley and all of their descendants have claimed this to be orthodoxy, right belief.

Yet it is one thing to believe it in our heads; it is another to trust it in the core of our being in our hearts. Because most of us have that sense that, yes, God loves me, but if I do something good God will love me more! But the old saying is true: Nothing you can do will make God love you more. Nothing you can do will make God love you less. God’s love is unconditional. Paul writes in Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved through faith and this is the gift of God, not the result of works, lest anyone should boast” (2. 8-9).

This is a needed word especially for an activist church that engages in good works. It helps to articulate our motivation: We serve not for the reward, that someone somewhere will affirm us and love us; we serve because someone has already demonstrated that love, on a cross. “While we were yet sinners,” Paul writes, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5. 8).

The Priesthood of Believers

A third gift: the priesthood of believers. Luther felt that the heavy focus on clericalism was harmful to the church. It denied the calling that every Christian had to express his or her gifts in the world. Luther wrote:

whoever comes out of the waters of baptism can boast that he is…a consecrated priest, bishop and pope….there is no true, basic difference between laity and priests…except for the sake of [the] work, but not…status.”

For Luther, the great drama was not that spectators came to watch the priest and ponder the mystery of what that meant; the great drama is that we are all priests, doing the work of God in the world, wherever our callings have taken us. This is important. The laity’s true calling is not to try to do what the clergy do. It is to connect their own faith with their participation in the world as a parent or a physician, a judge or a banker, a sales representative or a teacher, an accountant or an attorney. And so there is no divorce between sanctuary and shop, worship and workplace. There are not two classes of Christian citizens, the ordained and everyone else. There should be no privileged secrets among an insider group who has studied them and the masses who have not.

And so the answer to the question, “Am I called to the ministry?’, for every one of us, is “yes.” That ministry may take us to many different places, and in a given week your faith could motivate you to tutor a child who is behind in school, or hold up a sign in an election or treat an employee with compassion. This past week my own conference has been ravaged by a hurricane, and I have witnessed Christians, clergy and laity, feeding the hungry and providing shelter for those who have come through the storm. We are all called to the ministry of the gospel.

A needed word about the Reformation: It is not true that Protestants get it and Catholics do not. Vatican II pushed the Church into the world and gave a renewed importance to the scriptures and the common languages of the people. A few years ago the Catholic Church signed agreements with the Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church that salvation is by grace, through faith. And, later, Pope Benedict admitted that Martin Luther had correctly interpreted Paul’s letter to the Romans on the subject of salvation by faith alone and not our good works. 

In the history of Christianity, we take the long view! But, finally, all of this is more than a history lesson. As Barth said: “The church is always being reformed according to the word of God.” This is true for us as individuals. There is a story about the twentieth century German theologian Paul Tillich, who was speaking to a group and afterward was confronted by a man who had a tight grip on an oversized Bible, shaking it in the face of Tillich.

 “Do you believe this is the word of God for me?” he asked the theologian. And Tillich replied: “Yes, if it has a hold on you as strong as the hold you have on it.”

We are always being reformed according to the word of God. When we listen to it, allow it to speak to us and correct our errors and abuses, it is a “lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” And so, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; we claim this as God’s gift to us. It is appropriate for us to say…“This is the word of God for the people of God” (Psalm 119. 105). And all God’s people say, “Thanks be to God.”

Sources: Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity. Timothy George, “Reformation Day”, Wesley, edited by Albert Outler. Joint Declaration o the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (affirmed by the World Methodist Council on 23 July 2006). Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America.