John 8:31-36

Reformation: Major Transition

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John 8:31-36

Reformation: Major Transition

By Pastor Joseph Robb

Think of some of the “transitions” in the Lutheran church in the last 50 years:

– 2 new hymnals: the red SBH and the green LBW – and a third one is on the way.

– Multiple forms of worship: traditional and contemporary.

– Old and new styles of hymns and songs of praise.

– Multiple means of instrumentation: organ, piano, stringed instruments, woodwinds, brass, percussion.

– Ordination of Women

– Several new churches: The LCA and the ALC; and then the ELCA.

– Church headquarters moved from New York (LCA) and Minneapolis (ALC) to Chicago (ELCA).

– Presidents of the Synods became Bishops.

– We have broadened pulpit and altar fellowship of the ELCA to include Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ, and Episcopalians.

– And we are wrestling with social reforms in our society to minister to more of God’s children.

– Some of us almost don’t recognize our Lutheran Church of today?

Imagine, if you can, what it was like in Martin Luther’s day!

“On the eve of All Saints’ in the year 1517, when the indulgences were to be proclaimed in Wittenberg, Luther posted on the door of the Castle Church ninety-five propositions for debate, popularly called the Ninety-five Theses….” 1

Luther directed these theses against the claims of those who spoke of and sold the indulgences. He objected most strongly to the claims as to what these indulgences could do.

He had three focuses of his objections:

1)The first was on the score of the German national resentment against papal exploitation.

– These were tough times:

i. The Black Plague occurred at this time killing about ¼ of the population

ii. People were superstitious and were afraid that the end of the world was at hand

iii. People couldn’t make it on the family farms, so they were moving to the city for jobs

iv. This created problems between the Lords and their servants

v. The servants were revolting against their Masters

vi. And inflation was rampant which meant the money people did have wasn’t going as far as it once did

– All of these things were happening; and on top of this, the pope was levying this heavy burden on these poor German people – buy these indulgences and get your loved ones out of purgatory.

The purpose of the revenue from the indulgences was to build a Cathedral: St. Peter’s.

Luther saw the Pope as heartless.

2)Luther’s second argument questioned the jurisdiction of the pope over purgatory. His argument was simple: “If the pope could release souls why did he not empty the place?” The point he made was that in fact Indulgences do not affect purgatory and do not forgive sins.

3)And indeed his third argument against the Indulgences had to do with those who would buy them:

– “The Indulgences induce a wrong state of mind.” 2

– From Luther’s point of view, the sinner who hoped to escape penalties is hopeless.

– Luther argued “the sinner must be consumed with horror if he would be saved. God, he said, must kill before he can make alive.

– This, he said, is the pain of purgatory, and one should not seek to be released from it, for in this disturbance salvation begins.

– Peace, he said, comes only in the word of Christ through faith.

– He who does not have that, Luther said, is lost, though he be absolved a million times by the pope.

What a new picture of God Luther gives as he argues these things.

“Luther, as no one before him in more than a thousand years, sensed the importance of the miracle of divine forgiveness.

It is a miracle because there is no reason for it according to man’s standards. That is why Luther so devalued reason and by reason he meant the measure of man’s mind.

“Forgiveness from the human point of view makes sense because man has need of forgiveness and ought for that reason to forgive. But God has no need of forgiveness!

God is the all-holy and man having received from God nothing but good has been ungrateful and rebellious.

One would assume, he said, that God would consume man in his anger but it is not so, and that is the incredible wonder of the God revealed in Christ.

“Of old,” said Luther, “God came on Sinai with terror, but now in forgiveness.

There He was to be feared in the midst of thunder and lightning. Now He comes with hymns of praise.

Then He commanded that ‘whoever should touch the mount should be put to death.’ Now He proclaims “Tell the daughter of Zion her kind cometh unto her.’

There His presence was announced by the sound of trumpets. Here He stands weeping over Jerusalem.

Formerly the children of Israel fled before the voice of God. Now our longing to hear it cannot be stilled.”

The God of majesty is the God of compassion. The Lord of the hurricane is the Father who pities His children. All this we must believe and accept, Luther said.

Credence and trust, these only are required, for by faith and only by faith are we saved.”

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These insights came to Martin Luther from his reading of the Scripture; and two portions of Scripture particularly jumped out at him: and these are our Second reading today and the Gospel.

In each of these, Luther heard the declaration of “forgiveness” by faith as a gift of God through Jesus Christ – Grace.

This is the miracle of FORGIVENESS!

Talk about TRANSITIONS!!!

– To begin with, prior to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was the only Christian Church in all of Western Europe.

– After the Reformation there were Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anna-Baptists, Moravians, and more.

– The Bible, which had been read by only the priests, was now published in the language of the people; and being read by all.

– A significance for our 3rd graders to be receiving their Bibles today

– Worship services were being conducted in the language of the people.

– Ministers were getting married – whereas formerly, as still today, priests remained celibate.

– Luther reduced the number of Sacraments from seven to two: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion – the only two he said were commanded by Christ in the Scriptures.

– The emphasis switched from the “suffering Christ” on the Cross to the “Risen Christ” and an empty Cross.

– This meant that rather than using the Crucifix on the walls of the churches; an empty cross would adorn the walls of the churches to emphasize that Christ had risen.

– Today in our processional, you may have noted the cross was empty: i.e., no figure of Christ on it.

The authority of the pope was challenged and the Protestants argued that Scripture alone should be the authority in the Church.

Statues were dragged out of the churches and destroyed.

Prayers to the Saints were discontinued because people could pray directly to God in Jesus name.

So many changes! So many transitions!

And the Church grew because the news of the gift of God’s miraculous ‘forgiveness’ spread.

On this Reformation Sunday, as we review our heritage let us renew ourselves in that Spirit of transition, that miracle of ‘forgiveness’ in Jesus Christ that set fire to the Church once again at the time of the Reformation.

May God’s word in Jesus Christ set us on fire to proclaim his miraculous love of all His children.


(All references to Martin Luther come from the book, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, by Roland Bainton, Beacon Press, Boston, MS, 1952, pp. 38-40; 34-35)

Copyright 2008, Joseph Robb. Used by permission.