Sermon: 1 Corinthians 3:10, 11
End Time 1 - Reformation - Nov. 5, 2017 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
In 1979 I was a senior at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Prof. Frederich was my church history teacher. We were discussing the development of Lutheran churches in the United States. He noted that on the 100 year anniversaries of the Reformation there seemed to be special attempts to amalgamate or join the various Lutheran synods into one church or, at least, larger groups of synods.
In 1817 the Lutheran Church in the United States was fractured into many synods usually based on their national origin and language going back to Europe. There were various German groups, and there were the Norwegians, the Swedes, and the Danes, and others. In that anniversary year of the Reformation there was much talk of amalgamation and consolidation of synods as people longed for the time back in Europe when there seemed to be just one Lutheran Church.
In 1917 church leaders were successful in uniting a number of Norwegian synods into the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church and two other synods into the United Lutheran Church. At first it may seem that this unity and amalgamation of synods was a good idea and would make more sense. But the truth was that often these Lutheran groups joined together without really being united in their teaching and practice ultimately resulting in watered down biblical teaching and practice.
In our seminary history class in 1979 Prof. Frederich made the comment, “I’m glad I’m not going to be around in 2017 for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.” We asked him why, and he said that there would be enormous pressure on Lutheran churches and synods to unite into one large Lutheran Church. Such unity, he said, would come at the expense of faithful Lutheran and biblical teaching and practice.
Prof. Frederich lived to see the consolidation of a number of Lutheran synods in 1988 into the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. That group has gone quite quickly down the road of theological and social liberalism as Prof. Frederich could have predicted.
This wise professor went to be with the Lord a number of years ago which is far better for him because the condition of Lutheran Church, as well as many Protestant churches, in 2017 is much worse than he could have ever imagined. But the problem is not pressure for churches to unite. The problem in 2017 is too many churches, Lutheran and Protestant, are no longer being confessional. They’re no longer teaching much of what their historical confessional statements say they believe and teach.
Putting it simply many Lutherans are not really being Lutherans. Many Presbyterians are not really being Presbyterians. Many Reformed are no longer being Reformed. Or substitute whatever denomination you wish. You’ll notice this trend in church names and on church signs: New Life Church instead of New Life Lutheran Church. Community Church instead of Community Presbyterian Church. Or First Church instead of First Reformed Church.
The motivation for this lack of confessionalism is the desire to appeal to more people who may be turned off by denominational names like Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Reformed. The theory is that people are more interested in contemporary worship, youth groups and activities for their children, and a really good praise band. And often they are.
What suffers in this scenario is that churches are losing their confessional and denominational uniqueness. They’re not digging into their doctrinal and confessional statements to see what their forefathers believed and taught. And as a result, and worse yet, they’re not really digging deeply into the Bible to sharpen their knowledge, faith, and confession of biblical truths. Sermons and teaching are becoming shallow and lacking the toughness of the law that confronts sin. Sermons and teaching are sadly missing the clear and precise teaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
What’s happening in Christianity in the United States in 2017 is ironically what Prof. Frederich predicted but in a more deceptive way. Churches aren’t amalgamating administratively or under one name as he feared. But they are all becoming one Christian church united by a lack of solid doctrine and teaching, one Christian church that’s united in its greater interest to get big numbers in the church pews on Sunday mornings rather than an interest in solid, in depth, clear teaching of the law and gospel, one Christian church that’s united in its belief that it’s biblical but in fact is very shallow in biblical teaching, one Christian church that’s united in forgetting its historical confessions, forgetting its denominational loyalties, forgetting its history, and forgetting its Reformation heritage.
And that’s where we are today as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther was not shallow in his preaching and teaching. He dug down deep into the Bible until he found Christ. He dug down to the very foundation of the Christian Church that the Apostle Paul wrote about: “But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation we want to remember:
CHRIST IS OUR ONLY FOUNDATION
The congregation in Corinth in ancient Greece to which Paul wrote this letter was a very divided congregation. Different groups within the congregation had favorite pastors and teachers who had served them in the past. Paul makes the point he had preached the gospel to them, and a number of other preachers had built on what he taught. But his point was that their personal loyalties should not be to any of the men who preached to them. The real foundation of their church, the real foundation of their faith, was Jesus Christ, and anyone who preached to them in the future better be concerned that he lay no foundation for them other than Jesus Christ.
In the late 1400’s and the early 1500’s, a little over 500 year ago, Martin Luther had no foundation for his spiritual life. Luther was very religious. He practiced his Roman Catholic faith flawlessly. He confessed his sins endlessly but found no forgiveness or comfort. He was afraid of God. He hated God. He was terrified of going to hell.
In Luther’s day Bibles were in short supply. Lay people weren’t supposed to read the Bible anyway. They weren’t smart or sophisticated enough, so powerful church leaders said. Many of the laypeople couldn’t read. Luther had heard some of the psalms and the gospels read in Latin in worship services, but he had never seen a complete Bible. Then one day in a library he found one, a whole Bible.
His world was about to change. The whole world was about to change. He began to study the Bible. He dug into the Bible. And one day the Holy Spirit caused him to understand these simple words from Romans: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Luther had a really big question: How can I be righteous before God? How can I be acceptable to God? How can I be good enough to satisfy God and get to heaven? Luther had no idea what the answer was to these questions. He only knew what his church had taught him - believe in God, confess your sins, and do good works to make up for your personal sins and show that you’re sincere. But Luther could never do enough.
What’s the biggest question in your life? What’s your biggest concern in life? It ought to be the same question and concern that Martin Luther had. How can I be righteous before God? How can I be acceptable to God? How can I satisfy God and get to heaven?
Do you know the answer to those questions? We better know the answers and believe those answers before we leave this earth. Martin Luther was terrified that he would never find the answer before he died.
But then one day his eyes and mind and heart drifted back to that passage: “The righteous will live by faith.” And he got it. He understood it. The Holy Spirit revealed the truth to him. A person is righteous and acceptable to God, not by who he is or what he does, but by faith, by believing that Jesus did everything to save sinners. He lived a holy life so that his righteousness could be credited to sinners. He died an innocent death on the cross to atone for all sins. And he rose again from the dead to prove that all sins are forgiven. He rose again from the dead to prove that you and I are justified - declared not guilty before God. The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”
That’s what the Reformation is all about. You and I are fully forgiven by God because of Jesus. You and I are justified, declared not guilty before God, because of Jesus. You and I are acceptable to God because of Jesus. You and I can go to heaven because of Jesus - not because of who we are or what we’ve done - but because of Jesus. Jesus Christ is the foundation of our eternal salvation.
My fear is that after 500 years churches are forgetting what the Reformation was really about. Too many churches are forgetting their historical confessions. They’re not defending their beliefs as Luther did. Some Lutheran churches want to reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church imagining that we have more in common than we disagree on - as if the Reformation was a big misunderstanding. Many Protestant churches hardly speak about the Reformation. They’re preaching what people want to hear. They are preaching shallow silliness that makes people feel good and gets them into the church pew. They’re not really digging deep into the Bible so that they rest solidly on Christ.
What about you? Is Christ your only foundation? On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation be glad that you know what the Reformation is. Be glad that you’re here commemorating this amazing event that God brought about in history. And if I could say one thing to all of you on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation I would say, “Be a good Lutheran. Be a really, really good Lutheran and dig deep into our historical Lutheran Confessions to find out what we believe and why. And more important I would say dig even deeper into the Bible. Dig deep into the Bible to the very foundation. Dig deep and often to find Christ your only foundation.
Martin Luther did. And there he found that “the righteous will live by faith.” Amen.