Reformation


Galatians 6:14

I don’t usually read but a single verse of Holy Scripture as the text for a sermon, but the sermon this morning is unashamedly a subject sermon, not an expository sermon, and this great statement of the Apostle Paul serves as a perfect title for this Reformation Day sermon.

Text Comment

v.14     The thought that leads to v. 14 is that of the judaizers’ boasting in the Galatian converts’ flesh – a way of saying that the judaizers were more concerned about getting the Gentile Christians circumcised and the honor that would come to them for that, than they were for maintaining the purity of the gospel and the honor of Christ. The judaizers, remember, were that party of Jewish Christians who were seeking to impose upon Gentile Christians the obligations of traditional Jewish piety. Paul had no objection to Jewish Christians continuing to practice such piety – circumcision, food laws, and the like – but argued that to demand such practices of Gentile Christians represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel itself. These Judaizers wished to be able to point to all the Gentiles whom they had persuaded to be circumcised. Other Jews would be impressed. Paul counters with this thought: if he is to do any boasting it should not be in his own accomplishments but only in the cross of Christ and its effect in his life.

            There is a kind of boasting that Paul said in Romans 3:27 the gospel “excludes.” That is all boasting in one’s own accomplishments, as if one has some claim on God and God’s favor. In Philippians 3:4-6 Paul mentions some of the things he might have boasted about and once did – the very things the judaizers still boasted about – his circumcision, his being a Jew, his zeal for the law. But none of this could matter any more since he discovered the true extent of his sin and guilt and how, hopeless in himself, he had found salvation in Christ. No one can truly understand, appreciate, or embrace the cross for himself and love it as Paul loved it, until he “pours contempt on all his pride.”

            He goes on. By that cross, the Holy Spirit had wrought a mighty change in Paul. The world had been crucified to him. All those honors and pleasures that drew his heart away from God before had, consequently, lost their charm, their allure. They had become, Paul would say in Philippians 3, “dung.” And, he goes on to say the reverse was also true. In the same way that the world had lost its allure for Paul, Paul had lost his allure in the estimation of the world. This is what is meant by the last phrase, “and I to the world.” He had become an object either of complete disinterest or active contempt to the world. But what did it matter if the world didn’t love him, if God did?

Many of us, this morning, I’m sure, are pretty well acquainted with the basic history of the Reformation. The church in the centuries before 1517 had been overtaken by superstitions of various kinds and had lost touch with the central message of the Bible, the glorious reality of divine grace offered to sinners, and of salvation as God’s gift rather than man’s achievement. A great distance had opened between God himself and the individual Christian. As invariably in superstitious faiths God was more feared than loved and it was widely thought that salvation came to pass through certain acts of obedience performed under the watchful eye of the church bureaucracy. Salvation in the early 16th century was understood in very much the same way as paying one’s taxes is understood in the 21st: not much fun but something one must do to avoid a still worse outcome.

The number of people in Christian Europe in those days who would have thought to say what Paul says here about boasting in the cross of Christ was very small. The cross lay in the distant past. For them salvation was secured by acts performed in church or even by slips of paper the church sold to the pious and by which they secured blessing for themselves or their loved ones who had already died. If you have ever visited St. Peter’s in Rome, you know how many such slips of paper had to be sold to build that magnificent church, the largest in the world. Unthinkably, from Paul’s point of view, salvation and church revenue had become virtually the same thing!

Luther’s rediscovery of the Bible’s plain message – that God forgives those who trust in his Son, his Son who has already secured their salvation on the cross – became, in the hands of the Holy Spirit the instrument of the renewal of the church. It is a wonderful story of God’s loving care for his people and his renewal of a sound mind within his church.

But the Reformation was hardly a unique event in church history. Such recoveries of true faith and life have occurred at other times and in other places as well. The 16th century was by no means the only time when the church of the Lord Jesus Christ needed to be reformed in heart, in thought, and in life and not the only time when it was so reformed.

Strange to say, once the treasure of the gospel of God’s grace had been rediscovered in the 16th century, it would soon be lost once more. Two hundred years later, in the Protestant churches of Europe, the churches that came from the reformation and had been shaped by the reformation, very much the same situation prevailed again that had prevailed in Luther’s day.

John Wesley had been a curate in the Church of England, a churchman; a man educated in the Christian faith at Oxford and yet could say of himself at that time, “I had no more true love of God than a stone.” In other words, his personal history recapitulated the personal history of Martin Luther and many of the other Reformers. And when Wesley and others discovered the way of salvation as Luther had, through personal encounter with the living God and through the discovery of the power of the cross of Jesus Christ, and when they began to preach that message, that good news of everlasting life through faith in Christ, it caused much the same stir in England as Luther had caused in Germany two hundred years before. After hearing Wesley preach a sermon entitled “Jesus Christ is the Savior of Sinners and the Need for Us to Believe in Him”, one astonished hearer replied, “Sir, if this be Christianity, I never saw a Christian in my life.” [Cited in I. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 158] What an astonishing thing for someone to say who belonged to a church that originated in the Protestant Reformation! How remarkable that a treasure as great as the gospel could so easily and quickly be utterly forgotten!

Indeed, Wesley, together with his great partner George Whitefield, were bitterly condemned by many English churchmen for preaching precisely the same message Luther had preached two centuries before. The Bishop of London accused them of preaching a “new gospel unknown to the generality of ministers and people.” And it was unknown. What was preached in most English churches at the end of the first third of the 18th century was the importance of living a good life, being honest, an obedient citizen of the realm, not doing others harm, with the expectation that Christ would make up the difference, if difference there proved to be. The idea that a man or woman, boy or girl, needed to turn to Christ himself or herself, seek God’s mercy and forgiveness as a free gift, and then live life in gratitude for such a great gift – the idea of boasting only in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ – I say this message, the message of the Protestant Reformation, was virtually unknown in so-called Protestant England in the 18th century, just two centuries after the rediscovery of that same gospel by Martin Luther. How quickly the truth can be lost and how easily!

And it was lost and far too easily once again. I have been reading a fascinating new biography of the German pastor and martyr of the Nazi period, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was raised in a family dominated by a devout Christian mother. His father was agnostic but respectful of his wife’s beliefs and supportive of her training her children in them. At 15 years of age Bonhoeffer attended an evangelistic service led by General Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army, come from England to help the suffering Germans in the years after the First World War. Bonhoeffer was very impressed by the power of the gospel as it was preached to thousands in Berlin.

Ten years later Bonhoeffer found himself in New York City studying at Union Theological Seminary. This was in the midst of the controversy roiling American Protestant churches over the theological liberalism that had gained a footing in virtually every denomination. At Union Seminary, erstwhile a Presbyterian Seminary, there were many professors who no longer believed that Jesus was born of a virgin or that he rose from the dead or that his cross was the only salvation of the world, and many students who now thought that the great business of the church was not preaching the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ but the solving of the social, economic, and political problems of the day.

In a homiletics seminar – that is a class on how to preach a sermon – taught by the arch liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick, sermon topics were assigned. A few of them concerned what Fosdick dismissively called “traditional themes.” Bonhoeffer was stunned to find that in this category was a sermon on the forgiveness of sins and on the cross.

“This is quite characteristic of most of the churches I saw. So what stands in the place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that – who knows how – claims the right to call itself ‘Christian.’ And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. … One cannot avoid the impression…that…they have forgotten what the real point is.” [Mataxas, Bonhoeffer, 107]

Interestingly, the great exception to this failure to grasp the main point of the Christian faith was in the black churches. There, especially in the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem he found the gospel being preached with power and tremendous effect. There racism was condemned, spoken against, worked against, social problems were by no means ignored, but, at the same time, there was an uncompromising proclamation of the saving power of Jesus Christ who died for sinners on the cross. Once Bonhoeffer had discovered that Harlem church, he was there every Sunday for the rest of his time in New York, even teaching a boys’ Sunday School class.

So here was a German Lutheran in the center of American Protestantism who found that a great many churches, church-goers, and theological schools had once again utterly lost touch with the main theme of the Bible: God’s grace to sinners in Jesus Christ and salvation by the cross of Christ. And, of course, today in our land, the situation is similarly ripe for reformation, a recovery by the power of the Spirit of the power of the gospel for salvation to everyone who believes.

Today in many places where once the gospel flourished Christ has become a distant figure to the people – as distant as he was to folk in the early 16th century – and his relation to themselves vague and uncertain. Many still consider themselves Christians in some fashion, every poll indicates that most Americans still do, but that means little more than that they consider themselves moral people; it certainly does not mean that they think of themselves as sinners before the living and holy God, sinners who became the objects of God’s great mercy and have been forgiven and granted eternal life because of what Jesus Christ did for them in their place – suffering and dying on the cross. Nor is the grace of God and love for Jesus Christ the principal motivation of their lives. To the extent that they think of themselves as Christians at all their Christianity is little more than a set of public rites and outward practices and a vague set of ethical platitudes, utterly conventional and uncontroversial. It would never occur to them, they would hardly know what it would mean to boast alone in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As surely as in the early 16th century, we have need for Reformation in our own day. While there are millions of people who do know the Lord and love him, while the way of salvation is being faithfully proclaimed in many places and great numbers are embracing the gospel, nevertheless in Western Europe and North America in particular – and in many other parts of the world – erstwhile Christian churches are either largely empty or are full of people who haven’t the vaguest idea what God has done to provide them salvation, what Jesus Christ means to a human being, or what God is summoning them to be and to do in regard to this salvation. They do not know how they might come to obtain the forgiveness of God themselves or to live a truly happy, holy and fruitful life. It does not occur to them that Jesus Christ must transform a person’s heart and life, that saving faith is a gift that God alone can give, and that all men and women are summoned to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And, in a great many cases, it is supposedly Christian ministers who are keeping them in the dark about all of this. Still today, vast numbers of people in our time think of themselves as Christians and yet have no more and perhaps less understanding of Christ and salvation than did Luther’s contemporaries or Wesley’s or the folk who filled the pews of the Riverside Church, the great sanctuary John D. Rockefeller built for Harry Emerson Fosdick and which opened just when Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrived for nine months of study in September, 1930. There are, in other words, vast multitudes in our land, who might as well be living in Wittenberg in the days before Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church.

The significance of Reformation Sunday is not, therefore, simply that we who have benefited from that long ago renewal of the gospel in the church should remember God’s kindness to the church and the world in restoring the truth of his grace, of the cross of Christ, and of salvation through faith in the Son of God. We need to consider the Reformation not simply as what God once did but what we need for him to do again.

What is needed, worldwide and in ever increasing number, are people who will say what Paul said: that the cross of Jesus – by which he meant the love of sinners that sent Jesus to the cross, the victory over sin and death he won for them on the cross, and the offer of salvation that is proclaimed from the cross – is the center of his life – it is the center of his emotional life, it is the center of his intellectual life, it is the center of his willing life – that the cross is everything to them because Jesus Christ who died on the cross is everything to them. What is needed is a groundswell of joyful enthusiasm about Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, and his sacrifice for sinners. What are needed are multitudes of people who have accepted that the great importance of human life in this world is the opportunity it affords us and others to come to know Jesus Christ and to obtain eternal life through him.

We are glad for every individual who comes to such convictions, and, of course, there are around the world many every day coming to such convictions. I love this from Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist who confessed Jesus Christ late in his life, after spending years boasting in anything and everything except the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

            “I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets: that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue: that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions: that’s pleasure. And it might happen, once in a while, that something I might have said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time: that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.” [Jesus Rediscovered, 77]

And, though often not nearly so eloquently, that is how real Christians have always spoken because it is how they have always thought and felt. Once the cross has been seen and embraced for salvation, or, better, Christ the crucified embraced for salvation, everything else that used to matter is cast into the shade. James Denny, a hundred years before Muggeridge, said something similar:

“I would rather preach with a crucifix in my hand and the feeblest power of moral reflection than have the finest insight into ethical principles and no Son of God who came by blood.” [Denney in Gammie, Preachers I have Heard, 163]

And long before either of those two modern men there was Tertullian in the 3rd century, speaking for the Christians of his day, and explaining how the reality of Christ’s cross shaped, inspired, controlled, influenced, and illuminated every corner of their lives.

“At every forward step and movement, and every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross]. [De Corona, iii]

When the great worldwide church of the Lord Jesus Christ believes that about the cross – that it, and the divine love behind it is the heart and center of its life – then and only then will there be no further need for reformation. And such a church would have a tremendous effect upon the unbelieving world, for when Christians are joyfully committed to the gospel as the power of salvation and the cross as the pulpit of God’s love, the world has nothing with which to protect itself from them.

The greatest encouragement that I know of to believe that such a thing is possible in our day, and that we should pray for it and work for it, is the simple fact that reformation has happened before, a number of times before. Not just in the 16th century. It was, in effect, a Reformation that occurred under Moses at the exodus and at Mt. Sinai. We think of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century as both a revival of spiritual life and as a correction of theological error. The two things happened together: false teaching about salvation and the Christian life was unmasked and teaching faithful to the Bible was put in its place and, as a result, many people came for the first time to true and living faith in Christ and saw their lives transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is what happened under Moses. The idolatry of Egypt that had thoroughly infected the religious life of Israel was purged by the revelation of the truth that God gave to Moses in the Exodus and at Sinai and that truth began to make its way into people’s hearts. The truth did not win out as quickly and as thoroughly as Moses would have liked to see, but over the next generation the number of faithful people in Israel, people who loved God and depended upon his grace multiplied greatly. For that matter, the same thing happened at the time of the Reformation. The correction of doctrinal error came much more quickly than the transformation of the church’s heart and life. A century after Luther, faithful preachers were still at work bringing the rediscovered gospel home to the hearts of millions of European church-goers.

A similar correction of doctrine and blossoming of spiritual life in Israel occurred during the reign of King David and his son Solomon. As Thomas Bradwardine and John Wycliffe and John Huss had prepared the way for Luther, Samuel had prepared the way for David. Another such Reformation – both in doctrine and life – occurred in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah and one of shorter duration and less lasting effect in the days of King Josiah.

All of these movements of reform presupposed several facts, three of greatest importance. First, the church had been corrupted by errors of thought that had, over time, killed her spiritual life. People continued to belong to the church and continued to participate in her rites and ceremonies, but without understanding, without conviction, without true faith, and without the love of God animating their worship. The Church can live on while spiritually dead. Second, the need was not to invent a new message that no one had heard before, but to recover a message that had once been known but had been forgotten.

A 16th century Roman Catholic, attempting to prove his church’s position by its antiquity, asked a Lutheran, “Where was your church before Luther?” the Lutheran answered with a question of his own: where was your face this morning before it was washed?” [Cited in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, i, 358] His point was that the true church was there; it had always been there; it had simply been hidden under layers of grime, errors of thought and practice and life. All the Reformers saw themselves as calling the church back to her true and ancient heritage.

And, third, the great issue is always the gospel itself, the message of salvation in Christ through faith. That is the principle message of the Christian faith. Lose this and you lose everything. Keep this and other mistakes, other differences of opinion, will not matter so much. That is why the Reformers of the 16th century were generally speaking so ecumenically minded. They disagreed about a number of things, even some important things, but they agreed that forgiveness came to sinners through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and through a sinner’s personal, genuine, active faith, trust and confidence in Jesus himself. And agreeing about that, they understood their disagreements to be only those sorts of family squabbles that love would eventually overcome.

Reformation will come as more and more in the church think and desire to say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Let’s be among those who teach others to say that by saying it ourselves and meaning what we say.