The Festival of the Reformation

Confirmation of David Philip Langley

Readings: Revelation 14:6–7 | Romans 3:19–28 | John 8:31-36

Text: John 8:31-36

Once, I heard someone tell me about how they were waiting for a special revelation from the Lord about a health concern.  They felt certain that that God would give them a miraculous healing.  In reflecting on that, I thought, “Well, that could happen, but what if it doesn’t?”  Where is the assurance in setting your heart on something which God hasn’t promised?  What must it be like to be in the dark, where God’s work is a hidden and uncertain thing, and strain your eyes looking for Him in places where He hasn’t promised to be?

On the other hand, many people don’t expect anything clear from God.  They live their lives never sure if God forgives them.  Maybe they have the experience of “feeling forgiven” or hoping they’re forgiven.  It may get you by while things are going well, but as soon as death is near, this house of cards falls down.

Certainty from God is one of the main points of the Reformation.  God wants us to know Him, believe in His Son, and stand firm as His children.  He wants us to be sure and confident in our fellowship with Him.

He wants us to know Him.

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” (31-32).  This is really a summary of what God has been doing throughout generations.  God makes Himself known in His Word.  The evangelist John earlier says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).  That’s an incredible statement because it means that God has only revealed Himself one way.  And if we know that one Way, we know the Truth, and we have eternal Life in Him [John 14:6].

God demonstrated repeatedly that He wants Himself to be known through the Word.  Think of Pentecost.  On that day, people of all different languages were given understanding of God’s Word by the Spirit.  They heard the mighty deeds of God, each in their own language because God was making Himself known to them [Acts 2:1-11].  Think also of the New Testament itself.  The inspired writers all wrote in koine—common—Greek.  This was the universal language of the day, which could be understood from Rome to India.  This was because God was revealing His light to the nations.

This truth is also clear in the worship of God’s people.  Among the Jewish Christians, they worshiped in their native Aramaic.  From their worship, we still know the words, Maránathá, Come, Lord Jesus” [1 Cor. 16:22] and Ephphatha! from Jesus healing the deaf and mute man [Mk. 7:34].  The Greek Christians worshiped and sang, “Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy!”  When Latin became predominant, the Church worshiped and sang in Latin. We still honor this history by using the historic titles of the , which we give honor to in calling the parts of the service Gloria in Excelsis, Sanctus, Nunc Dimittis, etc..  In all of these cases, the Church heard and confessed their faith as God made Himself known to them in their own language.

Ephphatha: Be Opened!

            And God does this in every place and every language because He wants us to know Him, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent [John 17:3].  He wants us to have certainty about Him because He is our God and we our His creatures whom He has redeemed from sin, death, and Satan.  He wants us to know what He expects of us, how we have fallen short, and how He has forgiven our trespasses as a gift through the blood of Christ.  Free from any doubts, God wants us to live as His beloved children.  He is the God of the Word, and all who trust in His Word are saved.

Yet, the devil and the world always stand against this certainty and clarity.  Where God has spoken clearly and concretely, the devil is still up to the old trick, “Did God really say?”  And our sinful hearts and darkened understanding just eat it up!  In these days of blurred lines, people have gotten so excited about new understandings.  Biblical authorship is questioned and clear teaching about right and wrong is muddied.  What Scripture condemns as immorality and abomination, people call love.  Worshipping with unbelievers after a tragedy is held up as virtuous charity.  God calls their worship devotion to demons and diabolical lies, but people say it’s just a matter of flawed opinion.

This spirit the Missouri Synod in the form of something called Gospel Reductionism, which states that faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins is all that really matters.  All other points of doctrine, and how you read the Bible doesn’t really matter, so long as you still agree with the statement, “Jesus is Lord.”  Then they accuse anyone who insists on the whole truth of God’s Word, of being Pharisaical.  But what it really does is take away the clarity of Scripture and not let God say what He means to say.  We are not to teach Him; He is to teach us.  We are the ones in darkness, and we need His Light to shine on us (Isa. 9:2, 1 Pet. 2:9).

95 Theses

To bring the gift of clarity, one gift of the Reformation was God’s Word, translated into the language of the people.  Others like John Wycliffe had attempted this in the century before Martin Luther, but had been dismissed as an enemy of the Church.  The Holy Word of God was to stay enshrined in the 4th century Latin of Jerome, and only learned men were given to read it for themselves.  The clarity of God’s Word was taken from the ears of the unlearned.  The worship of the Church was greatly revered, not because of what was being clearly portrayed, but because of the mystery.  The term “hocus pocus” comes from this time, when the Words of Institution from Holy Communion were muttered in Latin and misunderstood, “Hoc est corpus meum/This is My Body.”

And what happens when people no longer learn or understand the faith?  They revert back to their own darkened understanding of God.  They believe that God is just, so you better be a good person or you’re going to hell.  Or, a bigger problem in our own day, they believe that God is love, so He welcomes all even if they persist in sin.  They accept ideas about God like doing penance, or that He gives health, wealth, and happiness to those who really believe in Him.  Without understanding Sunday worship and without Scripture to teach them, the children of light are led back into darkness [Eph. 5:8].

Through this lack of knowledge of God and His Son, people were sold into slavery once again.  Without knowing Jesus as their Savior from sin and the devil, they were left up to their own weak devices.  Jesus’ diagnosis is bleak: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever” (34-35).  This is my fear for those who are not regularly in contact with God’s Word.  The world is acquainted with guilt, but redemption is up to you.  The unnatural, unhuman pressure that we are under shows itself in breaking many people.  People are guilty for not achieving enough, knowing enough, having enough money to keep up.  We are supposed to be self-sufficient, yet depend on the people that we’re not supposed to get too close to because we could spread illness.  An over-reaching government and medical complex promise to solve all humanity’s problems, but it’s clear that institutions fall flat in this regard, and souls are lonely and despairing.

It may not be slavery as we picture it from the history of America, but it is a bondage to these cruel masters, with no genuine escape.  If there’s no heaven or hell, no God to help, no wonder so many turn to suicide.  If the Gospel is not clear, and all we can do is look to ourselves for rescue, what a wretched state!

But the Apostle to the Hebrews says there is a redeemer who saves us from this bondage to sin and death.  It doesn’t hang on a person’s ability to save him or herself.  The Apostle says, “[Christ] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Heb. 2:14-15)

God causes this darkness to be lifted once again.  During the Reformation, the Word of God returned to the Western Church, and by it, the Son set people free.  The knowledge of God and His Christ was broadcast to the multitudes.  This happened first of all by translating the Scriptures into the hearer’s language.  Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and others were God’s instruments in this kind of Pentecost.  At last people would again hear the mighty works of God in their own tongue!

The second way that the darkness was lifted was by reforming the role of clergy.  Since the Mass had become nothing more than a performance, the priests had become lazy and useless to their Lord and Master [2 Tim. 2:21].  Many didn’t even know the words they were saying at Mass, but the Reformation sought to return them to study of the Scriptures and of their holy calling.  This certainly did not happen overnight, but it took many years to rouse “lazy bellies” as Luther called them (Large Catechism, Preface 1)  But once roused, they taught the true faith as Christ had called the Apostles to do before them so that God’s people would not be kicked around as slaves.

The third way that the Reformation—and specifically the Lutheran Reformation—lifted the darkness was by teaching the faith through music.  Luther, trained as a monk, had been among those who sang in place of the congregation.  He, along with other musician/theologians, wrote hymns for the people—hymns that were at last in their language!  So the churches were filled not only with Scriptures that the people understood and priests who taught them the faith clearly, but also the congregation was no longer silent because they were allowed once again to sing the Lord’s praise!

In 1524, the first Lutheran hymnal was published.  It was affectionately called, Achtliederbuch, the Eight Hymn Book.  Its full title described it in typical German fashion: “Some Christian Hymns, Canticles, and Psalms Made According to the Pure Word of God, From Holy Scripture by Several Very Learned Men, to Sing in Church as it is in Part Already Practiced in Wittenberg.”  Each of these songs was written not only to teach Christians the true faith, but they were also to give voice to the gladness which comes from being freed by Christ.  Music still has this power to carry the words, and how great it was that the words of these hymns, learned by heart, carried the faithful teaching of Law and Gospel to all who sung and heard.   

God’s work through the Lutheran reformers brought the multitudes that saving knowledge of God’s Word.  Where they had been enslaved for generations through ignorance of the Word, the promise of Christ came to them again: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (31-32).  And that same saving knowledge has come to you in our day.  You have the sacred Word of God, translated into modern English.  We have capable pastors who are thoroughly trained on the foundation of the prophets and apostles [Eph. 2:20].  We have the rich tradition of the Church’s song, not just from the days of the Reformation, but from all time.  One promotion on Issues, Etc. points out that in our hymnal, we sing with the Church of the 2nd century (Phos Hilaron), 4th century (Savior of the Nations Come), 7th century (Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain), 12th century (O Come, O Come, Immanuel), and so on.  We chant the Psalms with the sons of Israel, and rejoice even more because we know the Christ.   And we can sing joyfully because we are sure of what God’s Word has declared to us.

We join our voices with Zachariah, Simeon, and Mary.  We all together sing of our God and Savior who brought us out of darkness into his marvelous light [1 Pe. 2:10], and who has freed us from the evil of sin, death, and the devil.

But there’s another side of freedom that we must beware of.  That is, we take freedom for granted.  For example, take the English Bible.  In America, we have it so abundantly and so readily available that it’s a wonder more people don’t read and believe what it says!  Everyone who brushes off the Word of God says with the Jews, “We…have never been enslaved to anyone.  How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (v. 33).  They’re unaware of the slavery that comes from neglecting God’s Word.  If they knew what hell they unwittingly wander into, they would buy out every Bible in print.  But that’s the flip side of freedom isn’t it?  The generations since the Reformation have benefited from the bloody labors of the Reformers who were willing to die for their confession of the Gospel.  Now people take the English Bible for granted, using it as a doorstop.  Every year lately, fewer pastors train for the ministry and seminaries struggle to stay open.  Many would sooner choose a pastor based on charisma and butts-in-pews than solid theological training.  And finally, music—that integral and biblically-mandated (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:18-19) part of Christian worship—has been unappreciated.  If everyone sung the hymns, even the 30-40 in worship here would be sharing together in praising their Lord and Savior.  But when we neglect these gifts, we are selling ourselves back into slavery.  This is why St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

Stand firm, dear Christians!  You have the precious Word of God before you, right in your hands!  God gives Himself to you, that you may know Him!  Believe what His Holy Spirit says to you through the Word, in your own language.  Believe what the pastor says to you, because it is the Word of Christ: “I forgive you all of your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”; “Take; eat, this is My Body given for you”; “Take; drink, this is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And then lift up your voice in praise.  Sing with joy to the Lord your God, the Lord, your Savior.  The Lord has opened your lips, so that your mouth declares His praise [Ps. 51:15].  And don’t let anyone silence you—not mandates against congregational singing, not an overamplified band, not anything.  God puts His praise in the mouths, and even the stones would cry out if we would be silent [Luke 19:37-40].

Through lack of knowledge, God’s people are enslaved, but the Son of God has set you free by making His Truth known to you.  You have a certainty from God, as He declares to you: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27) and we believe what Christ promises us: “the son remains in the house forever” (Jn. 8:35).  Amen.