Reformation: A Celebration of.
So what are we celebrating this Sunday? Are we like American Indian tribes who called themselves The People, Man, or Human as if they were the only ones? The Aleut, Apache, Cheyenne, Haida, Hopi, Karok, Miwok, Navajo, Pawnee, and Sioux, all did that. Other Native Americans called them by a different, usually uncomplimentary name. For example, the Apache called themselves Dineh which means the People. Apache was the name others called them and it means Enemy (American Indian Myths and Legends, 500-517). Well is this what Lutherans do on Reformation? We celebrate being the Church or Christians par excellence? No, Reformation is not a celebration of superiority but of certainty.
We celebrate today having a certain Word of God. Though burned by empires, banned by governments, and ridiculed by the educated it has been passed down to us. We celebrate that God's revelation of Himself recorded in the Bible is certain for living and dying. There is not some hidden will of God that we must find out to be saved. There is not some secret knowledge of God that only a few have. All that God wants us to know for faith and life He had the prophets and apostles record for us in Holy Scripture.
We are celebrating the certainty of Holy Scripture over against the Roman Catholic Church which does indeed accept Scripture as God's revelation, but along side of it places Tradition. But it's not just that Scripture and the Traditions of the Church Fathers are on the same level; no both Scripture and Tradition are only authoritative as they are interpreted by the current Pope (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 95). The Roman Catholic Church is unapologetic about this. They don't claim purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, and papal infallibility are taught in Scripture. They admit these are found in Tradition, but for them Sacred Traditions are authoritative as are doctrinal decrees of the pope (Ibid. 891).
But we're celebrating the certainty of Scripture not just over against extending God's revelation of Himself beyond Scripture but over against limiting that revelation as the Reformed, or other Protestants do. For them Scripture is certain in so far as it agrees with human reason. From the get go, they rejected the waters of Baptism being able to regenerate anyone to new spiritual life; from their beginnings they rejected the Bread and Wine of Communion being the Body and Blood of Jesus because it was impossible.
Today Lutherans celebrate that Scripture is sufficient. No more, no less revelation is needed. No one can bind our conscience or make us feel guilty, by something not in Holy Scripture. And whatever is in Scripture even if it is contrary to what humans reason can figure or beyond what science can see, we take great comfort in.
We celebrate today not only that God's revelation is certain but that God's grace is. The Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Churches talk about God's grace, but they can't celebrate it the way we do. The Roman Catholic Church looks for grace inside people. They speak of grace being infused (Ibid. 1999). It is put into people by the Sacraments. Through sinning the grace given leaks out, so a person has more or less of it.
Lutherans see grace in God's heart for Jesus' sake. We don't look inside ourselves because with St. Paul in Romans we confess that no good thing dwells within us. We don't look for anything in us but what Scripture says is there: sin and death. Out of the heart Jesus says comes "evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" not grace. And since grace is not in our hearts but in God's for Jesus' sake, it's certain. God is gracious to sinners not because I use His grace to do my best to keep His Law, but because Jesus' kept the Law perfectly in my place. God is gracious to a sinner like me not because I have grace in my heart that covers up my sins, but because by suffering and dying Jesus satisfied the wrath of God. In Jesus, God sees none of my sin and is nothing but gracious.
So Lutherans celebrate today the certainty of having a gracious God because of Jesus' holy life and innocent death. We find nothing but sin and death in our hearts, but we find grace, mercy, and peace in God's heart for Jesus' sake, but where on earth is this grace available to us? We celebrate where God's grace is given to sinners over against the Reformed. The Roman Catholic Church will point you to the Sacraments as the ways God's grace is given to you, but they think of it as being infused. The Reformed won't point you to them at all. Some Protestants will call them Means of Grace but they won't say the grace is attached to the Water, to the Elements of Holy Communion, to the Words of Absolution.
Lutherans are certain of having the grace of God because in Baptism Jesus Christ was put on them. On the day they were baptized, they entered into the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Lutherans are certain that God is gracious to them because He sends their sins away through the Word of Absolution spoken by their pastor. Lutherans are certain they have a gracious God because He gives them to eat and drink the Body and Blood of His only beloved Son in Communion. You wouldn't give such precious Food to someone you were still mad at.
If grace is in my heart, then it is lost among the unbelief, the misbelief, and fallenness there. If I have varying amounts of grace based on how close my last Communion was or how much I have been sinning, then I am never certain of how much grace I do or don't have. What if I die suddenly at one of my low grace points? Would I have enough grace to go to heaven? If grace is in God's heart because of Jesus' perfect life and innocent death on the cross, what a different picture. God is gracious to me based on what Jesus did, not on what I do. It is, therefore certain.
But if God does not tie His grace toward me to the Means of Grace as the Reformed say, how can I know for sure I have it? The Reformed too must look inward. Do I feel God's grace they must ask? Sometimes I do; other times I don't. Particularly when there is sickness, death, or disaster around I feel like God is mad at me, out to get me, where do I go then? A Lutheran is pointed to the Waters of her Baptism, the Words of his Absolution, or the Body and Blood of Jesus in their Communion. These are the ways, the channels, the roads, the avenues that the grace of God won by Jesus on the cross in 30 A.D. is distributed to sinners in 2012 A.D.
Today we Lutherans aren't celebrating that we're the only ones going to heaven. We've never said that. We believe that all those in Christ are saved. We believe that anyone who confesses Jesus as their Savior is our brother or sister in Him. So what we're celebrating today is not the exclusiveness of our salvation but the certainty. And this too we confess over against our Roman Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ.
G. K. Chesterton gives us a starting point. Remember Chesterton was a Catholic and is considered one of the greatest apologists for the Roman Catholic faith. He said, "The essence of Calvinism was certainty about salvation; the essence of Catholicism is uncertainty about salvation" (Collected Works, XX, 179). Lutherans would disagree with the first statement but agree with the second.
If your salvation is based on how much grace you have in your heart, how do you know you have enough? If the forgiveness of your sins depends on making a complete and full confession, what happens when you remember you left one off? If the absolution spoken to you in private confession depends on you performing the penance given you by the priest, can you ever be certain you did your penance well enough? Did you really say the Our Father sincerely? Did you freely give that money to the poor?
We celebrate the certainty of our salvation not only over against the Roman Catholic Church but against the Protestants both the Calvinists and others. Chesterton is right Calvinism does trumpet a certainty of salvation but only for some: those elected for eternal salvation, but because they teach others are elected to damnation and that Christ only died for believers they make the whole matter uncertain. How does the Calvinist know for sure he is saved, i.e. that he is chosen for salvation not damnation and that Christ really did die for his sins? He is pointed to his good works and/or an inner light that assures him he's going to heaven.
No Lutheran finds comfort here. With Isaiah 64 we confess that our good works are nothing but filthy rags so no certainty there. With Psalm 77 we say at times "my soul refuses to be comforted," so no certainty there either. We celebrate the certainty of salvation because we find our election to salvation in the wounds of Christ. Whom does Scripture say Christ died for? For all, not just for our sins but the sins of the whole world. Scripture says He even died for those who reject Him. Furthermore, since the open wounds of Christ bleed into the Baptismal font, and into the chalice, and because the pastor paints that blood over us by Absolution, we are as certain of our salvation as we are of having been baptized, communed, absolved.
But it's not just over against the Protestant Calvinists we celebrate the certainty of our salvation but it's over against the Protestants who believe their salvation is certain because they decided to follow Jesus, asked Jesus into their heart, have a personal relationship with Him. They're certain of salvation because they did something. Lutherans never find their certainty in anything they do. It's not that I chose Jesus, but that God chose to love the whole world and sent Jesus as a wrath removing sacrifice for it. God through the preaching of Jesus, through the waters of Baptism found me when I sought Him not. My salvation is not certain because I choose to hold on to Jesus but because God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, hold me through the Means of Grace. In every drop of baptismal Water, in every syllable of Absolution, in every crumb of Body and in every droplet of Blood, the Holy Trinity declares to me: We've got you.
Like the Native Americans, others started calling us the name we would eventually be known as: Lutheran. We call ourselves certain because God in Christ has made us that way. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20121028)