In 1517 a renegade monk named Martin Luther let loose his frustrations with the Church, at that time the ONLY church, and nailed a piece of paper that had 95 different statements that showed his disagreement with the Mother Church onto a church door in the town of Wittenberg Germany, where he was a professor of Old Testament.
Luther’s primary beef with the Church was over the practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.” If you had committed a sin, in Luther’s day, you confessed to a priest, and the priest would tell you to pray the Lord’s Prayer a certain number of times or to do a good deed for your neighbor, visit a sacred site, or give a certain amount of money to the church. That was your indulgence, and when you earned your indulgence, your sins were forgiven. But in 1506 Pope Julius decided to build a new basilica in Rome, and he needed some money to finance the project. A German Bishop named Albrecht came up with an ingenious fundraising scheme. He would sell indulgences to the people.
An enterprising monk named Johann Tetzel was a wonderful salesman for the indulgences. Are you worried about a loved one who has died? Do you want to assure their place in heaven? Simply put your coins in the box, and their soul will spring toward heaven. Have you committed a sin? Simply put your money in the coffers, and you will be forgiven. Is there a sin you are contemplating committing? Again, put your money in the box, and forgiveness is waiting for you.
Well, Luther’s study of the Bible led him to a very conclusion. Forgiveness for sins does not come because we have earned it, through indulgences or any other way. There is nothing we can do to earn forgiveness. God bestows forgiveness on us through his love for us. We cannot earn it. That, Luther said, is what grace is.
And the only way to receive God’s grace is through faith. Because we believe, we can have a relationship with God.
While he was monkeying with the idea of forgiveness, Luther also looked at how doctrines were developed in the church. In the Catholic church, doctrines sprung from the traditions of the Church, one of which was the Bible. Luther believed that the doctrines of the church should only spring from the Bible.
From these convictions sprang three catchphrases of the Reformation—sola gratia, sola fides, sola scriptura. We come to God only through grace, only through faith, and only through what we have learned in the Bible.
When Luther was nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door, a precocious eight-year was starting school in Paris, France. This young man eventually became a lawyer, and then fled Paris for the city of Strasburg after he was involved in a protest march against the Catholic Church. This young man, named John Calvin, had become a follower of Luther’s teachings, except he felt Luther did not go far enough. Where Luther merely wanted to reform the Catholic church, Calvin wanted to be the theological architect for the new church which developed from Luther’s initial protest.
Calvin is considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church, and what we call The Reformed Tradition. The terminology is a little confusing because Luther started the Reformation, but Calvin started the Reformed Tradition. If we say a church is a Reformed style of church, we mean its roots go back to John Calvin.
All Presbyterian Churches are considered Reformed Churches, from the various Presbyterian churches in the United States, to the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands and South African to the Church of Scotland.
So why are we not called The Reformed Church? Why “The Presbyterian Church”? What does Presbyterian mean?
The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek word Presbutos, which means elder. This is at the heart of who we are. We are a church dependent on the leadership of a group of people—the elders of the church. In the Exodus story Moses is trying to do everything, but is overwhelmed. His father-in-law suggests a new way. Gather together some people who are capable, faithful, and trustworthy, and give them power. Don’t let all the power reside in one person. Spread it out among many people.
John Calvin used that principle, but to be honest he also had another motive. He believed that power tended to corrupt people. He saw what happened in the Roman Catholic church with the Pope in charge, and he felt that many of the problems in the church were due to people in power misusing their power. So he proposed a system where power was distributed among a group of people, elders in the church. This insight by Calvin, by the way, inspired the people who designed the political structure of the United States. That is why we have the separation of powers in our government.
There is no way to summarize what either Calvin or Luther believed in one sermon. Books and books have been written about this. This is Calvin’s magnum Opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, originally intended as a catechism for children who were joining his church.
But here are the major thrust of Calvin’s understanding of God and our relationship to God.
Calvin believed in the complete sovereignty of God. The ways of the world all whirl around the will of God. For Calvin nothing was left up to chance. Now this gives rise to his doctrine of predestination, which is way too complicated for a sermon, but which has been modified over the years, especially by the theologian Karl Barth.
Calvin believed in the overall pervasiveness of sin. While we are certainly capable of doing incredibly good deeds, we are also, at the same time, unable to escape our baser instincts. Calvin would not be surprised that even the best human being also has weaknesses. And what is worse, we often do not see our own wrongdoings. How many times have you seen someone who seems to be totally unaware of their faults? That should make you wonder what you don’t see about yourself.
This is what Calvin called total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that we are worthless in all we are. It means that no one part of us is as good as it could or should be.
That is why Calvin felt that having one person in complete control of anything was a big mistake.
But Calvin also believed firmly in the power of grace—a power that can transform us into children of God. The power of grace overcomes every sin. Grace, for Calvin was not just an individual good. It is not just individuals humans who are saved, but whole communities. And not just church communities. The virtues of those who believe in God are to have an effect on the whole community of humanity, not in ruling over them, but in showing the love to God to all peoples.
To the extent that the Gospel affects society as a whole, we would do well to remember the Gospel lesson this morning: 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
When Gospel becomes a means for social righteousness, and Calvin believed it should, it should affect people by giving them rest. The Gospel was never meant to be a burden. It is meant to take our burdens from us.
In the end, we have to ask a hard question. Was the reformation a good idea? On the one hand, it spawned the Protestant churches—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mennonite, and all the offshoots of those branches. This church would not exist without the work of Luther and Calvin. On the other hand, if Luther and Calvin could have foreseen the results–the proliferation of denominations, the multitude of church splits would result over the years, the rise of a Church where people chose their god, and not where we believe God chooses a people—if they could have seen this, would Luther have nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door? Would Calvin have written his Institutes of the Christian Religion?
I think so, but with a qualification. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth popularized an old Latin saying that was originally attributed to St. Augustine: “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” The church reformed, always reforming.
The Reformation of Luther and Calvin did not solve all the problems of Christendom. The Reformers did not create The Perfect Church or even The True Church. What Luther did, what Calvin did were not the last word in how to be a Christian. The Reformation was a needed corrective to the abuses of the day. The church, they felt, had strayed from what it should be. God’s church had gone off course, and she needed to be brought back.
And there were many times when the new Reformed Church went off course. For example good Lutherans marched into battle during World War I and World War II wearing belt buckles that said, “Gott mit uns”—God with us. Calvinism was used to justify slavery in the American South and apartheid in South Africa. In spite of the best intentions of Luther and Calvin to reform the church we constantly find it still needs reforming.
“Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” The church reformed, always reforming. When we celebrate Reformation Sunday, we are essentially saying that the Church of Jesus Christ is not perfect. She needed to be reformed, and still needs to be reformed. Sometimes we need to be reformed because we have strayed from God’s original intentions and design for the Church. I look today at how political the church has become, and how easily at major part of the church is identified with Right wing politics—and in some cases with left wing politics, and I see the need for a new Reformation. I look at how divided we have become, how we isolate ourselves from people who are not like us, and I remember that the Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be the means to tear down the dividing walls between peoples. Instead it seems sometimes like we have just created more of them.
And sometimes the church needs reforming because the times change. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, and books became readily available to a much wider group of people, the church, which previously had been the caretaker of Holy Scripture, was now in a place where the Bible could be in the hands of people who were not priests or bishops or popes. It took a long time for the Church to adapt to that change. With today’s technology, and today’s innovations, how do we need to change? What does today’s reformation look like?
And how can we be a part of it?