This is part one of a series of twelve newsletter articles written by Rev. Neil L. Carlson for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rev. Carlson is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Zion Lutheran Church in Sidney and Chappell, Nebraska.
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you as the Lutheran Church prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary of The Reformation. This title, though intriguing, is misleading. There was no Post-Reformation Reformation. Truth be told, the Church is always reforming. The devil didn’t stop after The Reformation. He continues to lead men astray. God then raises up faithful men to bring the Church back under the cross of Christ. It is a battle that will only cease to rage when Christ comes again. Until that glorious day, the Church is always reforming–rejecting false doctrine and returning to sound doctrine.
At the end of October, we all celebrate Luther hammering the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church. We may even watch a movie which summarizes the life of Luther, but The Reformation is about so much more than just Luther. It is about justification. The Church stands or falls on the doctrine of justification. Early in The Reformation, the reformers wrote a confession of their doctrines to present to Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. This is known as the Augsburg Confession. Article IV of the Augsburg Confession lays out a brief but profound meaning of justification. “It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5.”
After Luther’s death in 1546, some of the reformers lost their confidence and, due to political and social unrest, feared for their lives and the lives of their families. In an effort to end the turmoil, the Emperor proclaimed the Augsburg Interim in 1548. The Interim was supposed to be a compromise between the Lutherans and the Church of Rome. Simply put, some reformers were willing to compromise their faith, and others were not. In the Interim, Article IV of the Augsburg Confession was changed and all but lost.
This divided the Lutheran Church, even in her infancy. Those who were willing to accept the Interim were called the Interimists but became better known as the Philippists, named after their leader Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon was a professor at The University of Wittenburg. He was an unordained humanist who was brought onto the faculty (at Luther’s recommendation) to teach Greek to the students. Prior to this, clergy were reading the New Testament in Latin only. Learning Greek allowed them to read it in its original language. Melanchthon soon became the politically polite voice of Luther. Luther was rather combative when it came to doctrine, not only in his speech but also in his writing. Melanchthon’s humanist training allowed him to speak clearly and concisely the doctrines of the Lutheran Church, but in a manner that would not get the reformers imprisoned or murdered. Melanchthon actually wrote the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, which he later rejected when he accepted the Interim.
The Genesio-Lutherans (Genuine Lutherans) immediately began to fight against the Philippists and were not willing to engage in unionism for the sake of temporal peace. (Unionism is when two or more church bodies of different confessions compromise their confessions and join together despite confessing different doctrines. For example, the Church of Rome which confesses “faith and works” joining together with the Lutheran Church which confesses “faith alone” would be considered unionism.)
What then followed was a series of controversies which arose within the Lutheran Church. The Adiaphoristic Controversy was first, which was a heated battle over worship practices. In light of the Interim, many practices were to be reintroduced into the Lutheran Church–exorcism, confirmation by bishops, extreme unction, Corpus Christi, etc. Those in favor of this reintroduction argued that these practices are adiaphora–neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. Their idea was, “if Scripture doesn’t say we can’t do it, then it’s ok to do.” However, the Genesio-Lutherans argued that, in matters of doctrine, nothing is adiaphora.
The Majoristic Controversy then followed. It was named after George Major, the man who, under the influence of Melanchthon, promoted the false doctrine which taught good works are necessary for salvation. The Genesio-Lutherans argued, “For by grace you are saved through faith and this is not out of you, but a gift of God. Not out of works that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Along the same lines of rejecting grace alone, through faith alone was the Synergistic Controversy. Synergism is a cooperation between two groups to achieve a common goal. With the goal of salvation, the Synergistic Controversy took the view that God does part of (or most of) the salvific work but man must do a little something, too. Luther himself fought this issue with the Church of Rome, but it became an issue within the Lutheran Church, even while Luther was still alive.
Matthias Flacius, who had been a major defender of Lutheran doctrine and was among the Genesio-Lutherans in the midst of so many controversies, created a controversy of his own by teaching falsely concerning original sin. He argued, “original sin was not an accident, but the very substance of fallen man,” which is contrary to what we are taught of the creation of man in Genesis 1-2.
While the Flacian controversy was being taught and fought, Andrew Osiander rejected forensic justification. He denied that we are declared righteous before God because of Christ’s atonement won for us by His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection from the dead. At the same time and prior to the Flacius and Osiander controversies was the Antinomistic Controversy, promoted by John Agricola, which denies that believers need the Law. This led to the Gospel being used to require good works. In essence, this turned the Gospel into law.
While the Lutheran Church was battling the false doctrine of Rome and the controversies that arose from within, she was recognized by the Emperor as a legitimate religion, and it was legal to be Lutheran in the Germanic lands. By this time, however, other reformers had risen up claiming Luther had not gone far enough. The prominent character here was John Calvin. Reformed doctrine, following Calvin’s teaching, differs greatly from Lutheran doctrine. Since it was legal to be Lutheran and illegal to be Reformed, many of the Reformed joined the Lutheran Church and taught Reformed doctrine under the name “Lutheran.” These individuals were called Crypto-Calvinists. The Lutherans then battled to keep Lutheran doctrine in Lutheran Churches. The final controversy to plague the Lutheran Reformation concerned Christ’s descent into hell. Some argued it was part of His humiliation; whereas, the Lutherans held–and still hold–that it was part of His exaltation.
Luther never saw the end of the reformation that was ignited by his hammer on the Castle Church doors. The Reformation roared long past Luther’s death. By 1580, the Lutherans had formulated all of their doctrines into one book called the Book of Concord. Yet, even with an unconditional subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, the reformation is not complete. All these controversies periodically rear their ugly heads, and the Church must fight these battles all over again. The Lutheran Church continues to fight the good fight as she prays for an end to all schism with the words, “Come Lord Jesus.”
Tappert, Theodore G.: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959, S. 30
 Bente, F. Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions; Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2005, 250.
 Bente, 239.