“A Reformation in Catechesis” (John 8:31-36)
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This is the word of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he spoke in John 8:31-32. His word is truth, and this truth sets us free. Free from all our sins, and from our slavery to sin. Free from the burden of the law, which would crush us with its demands we can never meet. Free from our bondage to death and the grave, free to live forever. Yes, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
This is the gospel freedom that God, by his grace, led a man by the name of Martin Luther to discover, which insight Luther then passed on to others, and we today are the heirs of that heritage. But what it took for that great gospel teaching to take hold in the church, in the hearts and minds of the people–what it took, Luther learned, was “A Reformation in Catechesis.” That is where we are going today on this Reformation Sunday, 2013.
First, though, let’s go back to Jesus’ words in John 8. For really, the Reformation began with a return to Scripture, to find out what the Bible really says about God and man and how we are put right with God. So here we begin with Jesus’ words about freedom and slavery, about knowing the truth, about his word and abiding in it. Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Slavery–that’s what Jesus says is the natural state of man: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” And so it is. That describes you and me. You and I were conceived in sin, born in sin. That is our inherited sinful nature, the fallen state of man from Adam. We do not love God with our whole heart. We do not love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. That is sin, and we cannot free ourselves from it, as much as we try.
Martin Luther tried very hard. He entered a monastery and dedicated himself to a life of religious devotion. But still, the harder he tried, the more he realized that he did not measure up. He could not rid himself of sinful thoughts. He could not bring himself to love God wholeheartedly. Luther became painfully aware of his sinfulness, and he could not shake it or overcome it.
But Brother Martin was a very gifted young man, very smart, and so the church put him to work as a professor. Thank God they did, for this drove Luther into the Bible, since now he had to teach it. And over the course of the next few years, what Luther discovered there revolutionized his thinking about the righteousness of God and how to attain it. He found that what the Bible taught was not what the church was teaching or practicing. Instead of proclaiming and practicing the righteousness and freedom won for us by Christ, the medieval Roman church was putting people under a burden they could not carry, piling on the demands of the law, offering people false hope about merits, and thus leaving them in doubt about their salvation.
What Luther discovered in the Bible was passages like our Epistle reading for today, from Romans chapter 3. The works of the law cannot save anyone. We will never do enough to earn our salvation. Instead, God gives us his righteousness freely, as a gift, in our Savior Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, whose holy blood shed on the cross pays for all of our sins, covers them completely. This is our righteousness, in Christ! God justifies us, declares us not guilty, for Christ’s sake. Trust in him, and not in yourself or in your striving. Justification is by grace through faith–faith alone, “sola fide,” apart from works of the law. Faith, faith in the saving person and work of Jesus Christ–this is what sets us free from our slavery to sin and death. The more Luther studied the Bible, the more he saw this great gospel truth, this liberating truth, jumping out at him.
And yet, what Luther saw going on in the church disturbed him. For it didn’t match up with what he found in Scripture. This joyous freedom in Christ was not being preached or taught or practiced. Instead, merits, relics, indulgences, pilgrimages–this was the thin gruel being offered to the people. People could bypass true repentance and just buy a plenary indulgence from the Pope, to get themselves or their loved ones out of an imagined purgatory. No, this did not agree with the biblical teaching. Luther felt duty-bound to speak out against this travesty–which he did. On October 31, 1517–and this is why we observe Reformation Day on the last Sunday in October–on October 31, 1517, Dr. Luther posted Ninety-five Theses, ninety-five theological propositions, on the door of a church in Wittenberg, to demonstrate the wrongness of the Roman practice of indulgences. That act was the beginning of the Reformation, because it led to increasingly deeper insights into how the church had gotten off track and the reforms needed to correct those errors.
So Luther continued to write and to speak out. The cause of the gospel being restored to its rightful prominence in the church had taken hold of his soul. Others, many others, began to follow. Whole territories, hundreds and hundreds of churches, were coming under the influence of Luther’s teaching. The Reformation was in full swing across those lands, as the years went on in the 1520s. Reforms were being implemented, applying the pure evangelical doctrine to the practice of the church, in areas like private confession, the conduct of the mass, and so on.
But there was a problem. There was a question. Was this Reformation teaching getting down to the level of the people? What was happening at the local level? Luther and Melanchthon and the rest of the theological leaders were getting things straightened out “up above,” so to speak, but what was getting through “down below”?
And so in 1527, 1528, there was a visitation undertaken, throughout the region of Saxony, to see what was actually happening in the local parishes. This visitation looked into the doctrine being preached and taught and how it was being practiced in the churches. What did they discover? Well, it was not good. Many of the pastors were not well versed in the sound scriptural doctrine, the people did not know it, and their lives did not reflect it.
And this is what led Luther to see the need for a reformation in catechesis. That is why, in 1529, Luther published his Small and Large Catechisms. As he writes in his preface to the Small Catechism: “The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen.”
What would such a visitation uncover in our parish? How is it with us? Do we need a reformation in catechesis? In other words, do we need to be better grounded in the basics of the Christian faith? In the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Holy Sacraments? In our understanding of these major teachings of God’s Word? In our practice and our living out of these things? Do we need to grow in our Christian faith and life? I should say so. We never stop growing. We never stop learning, our whole life long.
You know, Luther knew the Word of God very well, and yet he himself writes: “I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning–and whenever I have time–I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such. I must still read and study them daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish. But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism, and am glad to remain so.”
See, that’s the way it is with Christ’s disciples. Remember Jesus’ words: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “If you abide–if you continue in–my word.” That means holding on to Christ’s teaching, never letting go of it. It means letting his word sink deep into you, so that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. As the Apostle Paul tells the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”
That’s what the catechism is for, to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, so that you will indeed abide in Christ’s word. And so I encourage you today, brothers and sisters, to continue in the catechism, always growing in your knowledge, your understanding, and your practice of its chief parts: the Ten Commandments; the Creed; the Lord’s Prayer; the Sacrament of Holy Baptism; Confession; the Sacrament of the Altar; Daily Prayers; the Table of Duties; Christian Questions with their Answers. Yes, learn these things by heart. Take them to heart. Ground yourself in these basics of the Christian faith. Make them part of your life. This is a way for you to know the truth of your identity in Christ, and to live it out. Do this, not because you “have to,” as though you were under the burden of the law–remember, the truth of Christ has set you free–but stay grounded in the catechism precisely because you are free, and this is how you can abide in Christ’s word, as his disciple.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That’s what this is all about. That’s what the gospel of Christ is all about, and therefore this is what Lutheran catechesis is for. The catechism is nothing other than a solid grounding in the Christian faith, meant to sustain and orient you in your daily living, your whole life long.
And so today, on this Reformation Sunday, 2013, may your own personal reformation in and through the catechism begin afresh and continue forward.