27 September 2007

Reformation Repentance

This will appear in the October 2007 edition of my congregation's newsletter, "The Hope Lutheran."

The date of October 31 really means only one thing for us Lutherans – no, not “Halloween” with its trick-or-treating (though there is a connection), but rather Reformation Day.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther posted these “theses” (statements) for scholarly debate among his fellow professors and theologians, much as a university professor might challenge his colleagues to a debate on a certain academic topic even in our day. What did Luther want to discuss and debate? The practice of the medieval Roman Church called “indulgences.” Indulgences were pieces of paper that a person could buy from church officials in order to ensure that a person’s time in purgatory would be decreased. Of course, the more one paid, the more time was deducted from the time in purgatory.

Luther chose October 31 because it is the eve of All Saints’ Day. (That’s also the meaning behind the word “Halloween” – all halloweds’ eve – that is, the eve of All Saints’ Day.) It was customary in Luther’s day for relics of certain saints to be honored on All Saints’ Day, and another part of Luther’s concern was over the abuse of praying to such relics. Thus, Luther timed his “95 Theses” and his debate to coincide with this aberrant practice of his day.

However, Luther never expected or planned that his “95 Theses” would cause a big fuss, let alone a whole “Reformation.” He simply wanted to address some abuses in Church teaching and practice. Luther never intended to “break away” and “start his own church,” as many mistakenly think. No, he wanted to work on reformation, that is, toward correcting and reforming certain faulty teachings and practices that had crept into the Western Church through the Middle Ages. He wanted to reform the Church based on the Scriptural message of God’s mercy, life, and forgiveness revealed and given in Christ Jesus.

That’s why we celebrate “Reformation Day”: to thank God for the light of the Gospel that He shed on the Western Church through the monk named Martin Luther. No, “Reformation Day” is not about rallying the troops to rejoice that we’re not Roman Catholic. No, “Reformation Day” is not a pep rally to make us proud to be Luther’s heirs. Rather, “Reformation Day” is a time for us to rejoice that our gracious God makes His Gospel – His forgiveness, life, and salvation – known through His Church on earth. Yes, sometimes that Church on earth needs to be reformed and called back to the Gospel message. Yes, each of us personally needs to be “reformed,” that is, brought to realize, rely on, and rejoice in God’s mercy shown in Jesus Christ.

So, if we truly want to celebrate “Reformation Day” in the spirit of Luther posting his “95 Theses,” we can take a good lead from his first thesis. As someone once said, the Reformation was really about repentance. And sure enough, that’s what we see in the first of Luther’s “95 Theses.” Here’s how it reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther wanted the Church to focus more on repentance than on seeing how much money it could raise by means of indulgences.

Now, we may want to ask ourselves: “What is repentance?” Since repentance is what sparked and fueled the Reformation, it’s most helpful to know what it is. Thirteen years after Luther posted the “95 Theses,” the Lutherans made a good, bold confession of faith in the city of Augsburg, Germany. This Augsburg Confession is the chief doctrinal statement of what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess, and it gives us this explanation of repentance:
Our churches teach that there is forgiveness of sins for those who have fallen after Baptism whenever they are converted. The Church ought to impart Absolution to those who return to repentance. Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven” (AC XII:1-5).
In other words, repentance means 1) having sorrow over your sins, and 2) trusting God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. That’s what marks every individual Christian. That’s what marks the whole Christian Church. Celebrating “Reformation Day,” then, means celebrating God’s gift of repentance.

On a personal level, this certainly entails a daily and constant repentance – a daily and constant routine of confessing one’s rotten sinfulness and pleading for God’s rich mercy. The tax collector in Luke 18 serves as our best Biblical example. He prayed to God saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) Jesus commended him and said that he went home “justified,” that is, made right, forgiven, and vindicated before God. When we routinely confess our sinfulness and rely on God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, we also go home justified, forgiven, and vindicated before God.

This also leads us to treasure Private Confession and Absolution. No, Luther did not seek to “get rid of” it during the Reformation. Actually, he kept it, and he routinely went to Confession himself, even later in life, long after the Reformation teaching had spread. In fact, in 1537 (20 years after the “95 Theses”!), Luther said this,
Absolution, or the Power of the Keys, is an aid against sin and a consolation for a bad conscience; it is ordained by Christ in the Gospel. Therefore, Confession and Absolution should by no means by abolished in the Church….

But the listing of sins should be free to everyone, as to what a person wishes to list or not to list. For as long as we are in the flesh, we will not lie when we say, ‘I acknowledge that I am a miserable sinner, full of sin.’ ‘I see in my members another law,’ and such. Since private Absolution originates in the Office of the Keys, it should not be despised, but greatly and highly esteemed, along with all other offices of the Christian Church (Smalcald Articles, VIII:1-2).
Perhaps the best and truest way to celebrate “Reformation Day” is to see your pastor for Confession and Absolution. In fact, I’m certain that would be the best way to celebrate “Reformation Day”! A sharp increase in people coming to Confession would show that we are increasingly living in repentance.

One final thing of “Reformation repentance” comes to mind. Not only do we repent personally, but we also repent as a whole body of Christians. Of what do we repent? Many things, to be sure, but let me focus briefly on one. “Reformation Day” also reminds us of the sad reality of a divided Christendom. Yes, we need to live in repentance for this! Yes, we need to beg God’s mercy for our personal and collective sins that cause and continue breaches in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Yes, we can even pray – on “Reformation Day” – that God would graciously reunite us with our brothers and sisters in other Christian churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and other Christian groups.

Am I saying that we should repent for Luther and the Reformation of the 1500s? Not at all. What I am saying is that we do face the tragedy of a divided Christendom. We can repent for that, and we can beg for God’s mercy to mend the rifts between churches. After all, didn’t Jesus Himself pray “that they may be one” even as He and His Father are one (John 17:11)? This “Reformation Day,” perhaps we need to take the same mind as Luther. We merely want to address and reform problems that have crept into the Church over time – sad divisions being one of them! – and we want the Gospel of Jesus Christ to predominate and rule the day. That’s what Reformation repentance is all about!


Carl Vehse said...

“What I am saying is that we do face the tragedy of a divided Christendom. We can repent for that, and we can beg for God’s mercy to mend the rifts between churches.”

“After all, didn’t Jesus Himself pray ‘that they may be one’ even as He and His Father are one (John 17:11)?”

The division within the visible churches is certainly tragic. However, given the context of John 17, particularly v. 12, Jesus is talking in v. 11 about the twelve disciples. As for unity in the Church, particularly in John 17:20-26, as well as our Lord’s words in John 10:16, isn’t it clear that Jesus is talking here about the invisible church, that is, all true believers, the Holy Christian Church?

Certainly Christians desire to unify where there is true unity of doctrine, but there really is no Scriptural command that believers must unify into one visible church on earth in which differences in doctrine are ignored. In fact, God warns us through St. Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, Chapter 6, and elsewhere to separate ourselves from those who cause doctrinal dissension. And even in the early 2nd and 3rd century, there were already numerous divisions within the Church because of doctrinal heresies preached by various leaders.

For those of us within the Evangelical Lutheran Church, we should continue to maintain and encourage each other in the affirmative answers we gave at our confirmation when asked: "Do you hold all the books of the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from the Bible, as you have learned to know it from Luther's Small Catechism, to be the true and correct one?", and "Do you also, as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, intend to continue steadfast in the confession of this church and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?"

Randy Asburry said...

Please pardon my tardy response to your comment, Carl.

You said: "isn’t it clear that Jesus is talking here about the invisible church, that is, all true believers, the Holy Christian Church?"

How can something like that be "clear" when Jesus Himself does not use the phrase "invisible church," or anything similar for that matter? In John 17:20-26 our Lord clearly prays "that they may all be one" and closely connects the church's mission to that oneness: "so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:20-21).

John 10:16 doesn't seem to talk about invisible vs. visible churches either. In fact, our Lord clearly says that He will bring the sheep of the other fold (the Gentiles) so that, together with the flock of Israel, "there will be one flock, one shepherd."

You also said: "Certainly Christians desire to unify where there is true unity of doctrine, but there really is no Scriptural command that believers must unify into one visible church on earth in which differences in doctrine are ignored."

Please note that nowhere in my article did I even remotely advocate unifying by ignoring doctrinal differences. I simply wanted to point out that Luther's spirit of repentance should also be our spirit when we survey the landscape of a divided Christendom. Surely, that division is due in large part to doctrinal differences. Certainly, it is also due to much human pride and arrogance on the part of us sinful human beings. But even as we must admit such things in repentance, that should not prevent us from seeking to unify with other Christians in ways that maintain God's doctrinal Truth.

Certainly, there's no Scriptural command that *forbids* us from working to unify with our brothers and sisters in Christ by trying to overcome and solve doctrinal differences.

Carl Vehse said...

Rev. Asburry: How can something like that be "clear" when Jesus Himself does not use the phrase "invisible church," or anything similar for that matter?

Jesus Himself does not use the phrase “Holy Trinity”; nor is the phrase found anywhere in Scripture. However, the phrase is used within the confessional Christian doctrine.

And just as Scripture provides evidence of the Holy Trinity, Scripture make it clear that the true holy, Christian Church is made up of all true believers and is hidden, or invisible, to all but known by God (e.g., Luke 17: 20,21; John 10:14; Rom.10:9,10; 1 Cor. 4:5; Col. 3:3,4; 2 Tim. 2:19)

Luther also refers to the Church as “invisible” in his writings; so does Chemitz, Gerhard, Meisner, Mentzer, Huelsemann, Dannhauer, Calov, and Quenstedt. Walther and these other Lutheran theologians use “visible/invisible” as the correct understanding of what Luther means by “hidden/revealed”.

As for the Lutheran Confessions, Bjarne W. Teigen, in “The Church in the New Testament, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions” (Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 42:4, Oct. 1978, p.389) states:

“[I]it may be quickly discerned that the terms "invisible" and "visible" are not used in the Book of Concord, but they are found among the later dogmaticians. It is the position of this paper that the dogmaticians, the Book of Concord, and the Luther are in doctrinal agreement on this point despite differing terminology.

The invisible nature of the Church (built of living stones within our bodies) is also expressed in TLH hymn 467 (LW291), “Built on the Rock the Church doth stand”.

From 1851 through 2001, the Missouri Synod in convention has passed fifteen doctrinal resolutions that specifically refer to the Church as invisible, deny that the Church is visible, or adopted theses or statements that make the same statements about the Church. In the 2001 resolution C.F.W. Walther's book, The Voice of Our Church on the Question of Church and Ministry was re-affirmed as the definitive statement under Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions of the Synod’s understanding on the subject of church and ministry and as the official position of the LCMS, including Thesis III - “The church in the proper sense of the word is invisible.”

The doctrine of the invisible Church is presented in the Brief Statement of 1932, on the Church.

John T. Mueller also discussed the "invisible Church" in his Christian Dogmatics (CPH, St. Louis, 1934), and noted: "All who affirm that the Church is either wholly (papists) or partly (modern Lutheran theologians) visible destroy the Scriptural concept of the Church and change it from a communion of believers to an "outward polity of the good and the wicked".

So, Rev. Asburry, based on such clear evidence for the Lutheran and official Missouri Synod position on the invisible (or hidden) Church, it should be no surprise that the Missouri Synod also resolved to expect its members to honor and uphold the resolutions of the Synod as regards the official position of our Synod on church and ministry and teach in accordance with them.