Dear Disciples of Jesus,
I invite your continued prayers for those devastated by the ravages of the storms in Texas and Florida and the surrounding areas. Please continue to pray as well for those leading our disaster response efforts. I encourage both your prayers and support to meet those needs as we respond with Christ’s love in word and deed. These acts of love and care are vital to our witness and prompted me to share this reflection.
Given those current realities and our continued preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I invite you to reflect with me on Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2).
These words are helpful as we consider the meaning of the Reformation both past and present. Martin Luther refused to be conformed to the pattern of the world. The Reformation followed that refusal, but being reformed and transformed is never a completed event. It is the reality of the struggle of sinful people who pursue all that it means to follow Christ as His disciples.
Reformation and transformation is never complete because we are at once saint and sinner. It begins for us at precisely the same starting point as it did for Luther — the Word of God. It is this Word that renews our minds and equips us to discern God’s perfect will for us.
It is through the Word of God that we come to know Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life. It is through the Word and the Holy Spirit that we believe in Him. It is the Word that sets us free, as the Word proclaims, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Luther writes, “The soul can do without everything except the Word of God, without which none of its wants are provided for. But, having the Word, it is rich and wants for nothing, since that is the word of life, of truth, of light, of peace, of justification, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, of wisdom, of virtue, of grace, of glory, and of every good thing.”
This Word of God in Holy Scripture, through the power of the Holy Spirit, leads us to faith in Christ, frees us from all sin, makes us fearless in death, rescues us from the hand of Satan, and endows with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation. It is this Word that makes us the glorious bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle, cleansed in the washing of water by the Word; that is, by faith in the word of life, righteousness, and salvation, Jesus Christ.
The central theme for the Reformation and for all Evangelical theology today is Ephesians 2:8-9. But we miss the full meaning of the text if we cut off verse 10. You know this passage. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
But look at the next verse, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Yes, even Lutherans are permitted to speak of good works. The Word does and so did Luther.
It is through the Word alone that we come to faith in Christ alone, that we are justified and have all we need. Luther clearly defends justification by faith in Christ alone apart from any works. Through faith in Christ we become a new person. Christ dwells in us. However, good works are needed and commanded for the sake of the “outward man.”
Luther writes, “Are we then to take our ease and do no works, content with faith? Not so, impious men, I reply; not so. We are free in Christ, but we are free to be servant of all and subject of all.”
We serve and engage in the many spiritual disciplines including sacrificial giving because it assists us in bringing our entire lives into conformity and obedience to Christ and the Spirit.
Luther writes, “For the inner man, being conformed to God and created after the image of God through faith. It rejoices and delights itself in Christ, in whom such blessings have been conferred on it, and hence has only this task before it: to serve God with joy and for no other reason than to love.”
Luther makes it clear that a person is good, that is, justified only through faith in Jesus Christ and only a good person can produce good works. “True, then, are these two sayings: ‘Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works;’ thus it is always necessary that the substance or person should be good before any good works can be done, and that good works should follow and proceed from a good person. As Christ says, ‘A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit’ (Matthew 7:18).”
The works done by a person who does not believe in Christ are corrupt because the person is attempting to justify themself before God on the basis of their own good works. The good, becomes evil because it is not love, it is self-serving.
You see the purpose of being transformed is the renewing of your mind so you know God’s will. But if you know God’s good pleasing and perfect will then you must act on it. To know His will but refuse to obey it is to build your house on the sinking sand instead of the unshakable rock of Jesus Christ. Faith in the love of Jesus Christ fills us with His love so we can love others in the name of Christ and share the Good News of the Gospel.
True good works are also necessary because we do not live alone but in community. We do good works out of love for our neighbor. Luther contends that because of our faith in Christ we are free and bound to live our lives only for the sake of others and not for ourselves.
Through faith in Christ we serve others more sincerely and more freely. Our works must spring from faith in Christ not by asking what am I going to get out of this or how is this going to benefit me? We serve others and find fulfillment in the fullness and riches of our own faith.
The greatest good work of all is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the world debates absolute truth and relative truth, objective truth and subjective truth, ultimate truth and situational truth, universal truth and cultural truth, for the sake of its own renewal and for the sake of the world, the church must boldly proclaim the transcendent truth of Sacred Scripture. Jesus lives in His Word. The Word is His Sanctuary. We must regard it and proclaim it as transcendent truth — God’s own voice speaking to us.
Transcendent truth is not just one among many understanding of the truth. In word and deed, we regard it as the norm above all other norms for all matters of life and faith, believing it, confessing it and living it. It is our only hope for the church and the world. It is only through the power of this transcendent word that the church will constantly find its source for renewal and reform.
Several others in writing about the Reformation have reminded us that the Reformation did not begin with the nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door. The external Reformation of the Church began because of the internal reformation of Luther through the life-transforming power of the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in Luther’s heart.
It is my prayer that today that same Holy Spirit and the power of God’s Word would work his inner reforming power and lead us in our lives with our families, our congregations, our extended community and in our ministry to those who have suffered great loss and are beginning to rebuild their lives.
Think of what God did through the life of one person — Martin Luther. He is quite capable of doing other amazing things through your life if you too are open to the same powerful transforming power of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. The need for that continuing reform is just as great today as it was in the time of Luther.
May that same Holy Spirit continue to work in us His reforming and transforming power manifest in us the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed.