Reformation Theology

I wonder if Luther rolls over in his grave, under the pulpit of the castle church in Wittenberg, every time Reformation Sunday comes along.

This year, as we celebrate the 525th anniversary of Luther’s birth, there may be a tendency to turn it into “Martin Luther” day, rather than Reformation Sunday. Well-meaning sermons will doubtless focus on the greatness of the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, and how, on this day, the great truth of the gospel broke forth from the darkness into the light of day, as the ninety-five theses were posted.

How can a person preach with theological integrity on Reformation Day in a way that is helpful? How can one proclaim the gospel unequivocally and yet in a way that does not ignore the theological discoveries of the reformation or idolize the reformer? Let me suggest three theological issues for consideration by the preacher.

1. Reformation happens by the action of God. God alone brings reform. The very basis of the reformation was the theological rediscovery of the Gospel, the rediscovery that the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are unilateral actions of God. Thus, the primary actor in the reformations of the 16th century and of the 21st century is God, the God who is constantly creating, redeeming, sanctifying, and gathering the whole people of God. The purpose of preaching on Reformation Sunday, as in all preaching opportunities, is to preach Christ, this Word made flesh who reforms and transforms all creation. In other words, we preach the Gospel, not the story of the hero of the reformation.

As surprising as it may seem, Reformation Sunday is not about Luther. Nor should it be. The message of the Gospel is to be the center and core of our preaching. In this regard, we remember how the reformers addressed the commemoration of the saints. They served as helpful witnesses to the gospel, but they were not to get in the way of Christ. From Luther’s own perspective, whenever people obscure Christ’s actions ‘for us,’ they are functioning as an anti-Christ — and drawing our attention away from the One who is central to our proclamation. To preach, then, on Luther would be to set him up as an ‘anti-Christ,’ one getting in the way of people seeing Christ clearly! Preach Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23), rather than Luther idolized.

2. Reformation Sunday is about God always reforming the church. Biographies of Luther nearly always deal with the great inner struggles Luther faced in trying to discover a gracious God. This is definitely a part of his story, but his personal struggles should not overshadow his calling. One of the primary reasons Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s superior, ordered Luther to get his doctorate was so that he would be a reform prediger (preacher) for the Augustinian order.1  This was a part of a tradition that had been emphasized by the order of preachers (the Dominicans), in addition to the other orders. These preachers primarily sought moral reform within the church, but Luther the reform preacher understood that something more was needed. A theological reform — a reform of the church’s theological and hermeneutical perspectives was called for.

When one reads Luther’s countless treatises, commentaries, and letters, one realizes that his focus was on the reform of the church, so that the Gospel would again be preached in Word and Sacrament. Luther’s reforms of the liturgy, number of sacraments, preaching, the rediscovery of the evangelical role of bishops, and countless other theological issues  all were reforms of the community, the church. Thus, the reformation of the 16th century was a reformation of the church for the sake of its mission in the world, and not just of an individual’s pious perspectives within the church. To preach the reformation, therefore, one needs to focus on the corporate event of reform more than on one person’s individual experiences of God. The Gospel reforms the church, not just individual members of it.

3. The reformation of the church is not an end in itself: the church’s reformation is for the purpose of engaging society. Luther was driven to make the Gospel the center of the church’s life, as a witness to all society. God’s actions alone justify people, and in doing so, they set people free to be gracious neighbors in society. This ‘reformation freedom’ drives people into the world. The action of God justifying people actually serves to set people free from a self-centred personal piety, and engages people in witnessing to the Living Christ who is engaged in society.

Luther picked this up well in his explanations to the commandments, when he consistently points to life in the community. In describing the fifth commandment, “You are not to kill,” Luther explains, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”2  The reform of the church leads to engagement in society, where God breathes life into the valleys of dry bones. Reformation preaching proclaims this life to society through the ever-reforming church.

1The appointment of Luther to be a reform preacher is discussed in Franz Posset, The Front-Runner of the Catholic Reformation: The Life and Works of Johann von Staupitz, St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 7-31.
2Martin Luther, ‘Small Catechism,’ Part I, Ten Commandments, Explanation to the Fifth Commandment, paragraph 10. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 352.