Great Stuff — The Reformation and the Church Today: It’s About Doctrine… and a Reformation Collect

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Christian Doctrine is a body.  The Lutheran dogmaticians called it a body of doctrine (corpus doctrinae).  This body of doctrine is made up of articles of doctrine, or articles of faith.  For Luther, as well as the Lutheran theologians that followed him, the chief and central article of all Divine Doctrine was the article of justification, or simply faith in Christ.  He writes in his Smalcald Articles (II, 1, 5; Trig):

Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heavengiven among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.

It is crucial that the teaching of man being justified not by his own merits, but through faith alone in Christ when he believes that his sins have been forgiven for Christ’s sake remain the central focus of all theology and church practice.

In his Galatians Lectures (1535, AE 26:458-59), Luther applies this focus to how we deal with the Papacy.  First he explains that the world embraces and praises the righteousness of works and condemns the righteousness of faith.  It is difficult, Luther explains, for timid souls to believe that such a great majority that call themselves the church would be so wrong on this issue, even when the papists’ immorality is publicly exposed.

But despite the wickedness of the papacy’s behavior, Luther keeps the focus on the righteousness of faith.  He writes:

But even if the religion and discipline of the papacy stood now as it did once, we would still have to follow the example of Paul, who attacked the false apostles despite their holy and virtuous fronts, and battled against the self-righteousness of the papal kingdom, saying: “Regardless of how celibate a life you lead or how you conduct yourselves in humility and the religion of angels or how you wear out your bodies with frequent discipline, you are slaves of the Law, of sin, and of the devil; and you will be cast out of the house, because you seek righteousness and salvation through your own works, not through Christ.”

Luther continues:

Therefore we should pay attention not so much to the sinful lives of the papists as to their wicked doctrine and their hypocrisy, and this is what we chiefly attack.

Luther finally explains that Satan does not defend the wicked behavior of the papists.  The more pious they are, the better it is for the devil, so he can deceive souls into trusting their own works rather than Christ alone for their salvation.

Luther’s words here should exhort and encourage us to keep our focus on the doctrine of the gospel when we argue theology.  This does not by any means indicate that we should ignore sin.  On the contrary, when our focus is on the forgiveness of sins, we will better understand how we should deal with sin, since it is through the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus that the veil is taken from our eyes so that we can understand God’s law (2 Cor 3:12-18).  It is when we understand the gospel of Christ that we better understand the magnitude of sin, namely that the sin from which we need redemption is not only a bunch of outward acts, but a deep corruption of our natural desires (see AC II and Apology II).

We likewise focus on justification when we talk about the church.  It is easy for people to slip into radical anti-institutionalism when they praise the Reformation.  On the other hand, Romanizers like to say that the Reformation was terrible, since it broke apart the Church.  Both sides prove not to understand the church, since they take their focus off of justification.  When justification is not at the center, people begin to think that the church is all about their efforts.  People are always going to emphasize tact, style, methods, and other human virtues.  But these things can be used for good as well as for evil.  They are used for evil when they become the main emphasis rather than it being the pure doctrine of Christ.  When “Law and Gospel” is seen as merely theological jargon used by an ecclesiastical elite when they have their exclusive conversations, the people will learn to turn  not to doctrine, but to their efforts.  They won’t understand the discussions, so they will be turned off by the negative vibe in the arguments.  They will then seek the works-righteousness of the devil, the world, and their flesh.

But the people need to hear and be taught pure doctrine.  Just as Luther noted, the world seeks after works-righteousness.  So whether trusting in our collective works our individual works, we are by nature inclined to trust and thus worship our pious acts, our efforts, and even our teamwork.  But God has instituted His church and has given His church pastors to preach the pure Christian doctrine in which justification for Christ’s sake is at the heart, and God’s people hear that doctrine with faith.  So if we imagine that everyone is a minister and that the pastoral office is simply put together by the church, we then direct the people’s focus on their works and away from the righteousness of faith which God sends pastors to preach.  Also, if we imagine that the Lutheran church is not the true catholic church, but is some kind of break off from Rome, we take our focus off of the ministry of the gospel through which God creates and sustains the church.  We must not forget that it is on the basis of pure Christian doctrine that the church is considered true and catholic.

So while we talk about everything pertaining to the church, we focus on doctrine.  It is when we focus on doctrine, with justification at the center, that we can see clearly the practice and mission of the church.



Lord God heavenly Father,

You sent your Apostles to declare the good news of Your Son, that He was crucified for our sins and raised again for our justification;

As you sent your servant Martin Luther with the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, help us your servants to treasure throughout all generations that saving message of Justification through faith alone in Your Son, and though Devil, Turk, and Pope attack, let us never become weary or bored with it.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, for whose sake you justify the ungodly, and who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.



Happy Reformation Day!



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