Dr. Westwig, a professor at Luther Seminary, once said to his class in reformation church history, “For the Church to be healthy, there must be an on-going reformation. There is a natural tendency for human beings to subtract and add to the basic teachings of the Christian faith.”ÊHow right Dr. Westwig was in his statement.
The primary teaching of the Christian faith is recorded in Ephesians 2:8-9,Ê”For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift God not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” On this statement, Christianity stands or falls. We are saved by grace, trusting Christ who suffered and died for our sins, and was raised for our justification.Ê
This teaching is so simple, yet so profound, that in our attempt to understand it, we are guilty of adding to it or subtracting from it.ÊConsequently, the heart of the message is lost.
None knew better than St. Paul the importance of being faithful to the message that humans are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. The Church was not very old before Paul had to confront Peter with inconsistent behavior which confused people as to how a person finds peace with God and is assured of his or her salvation.
Peter enjoyed his freedom in Christ and never gave a thought about returning to the ceremonial laws, which had strict dietary regulations as well as restrictions as to whom Jews could share a meal. But when strict Jews came from Jerusalem, Peter observed the Jewish laws.ÊHe neither ate with Gentiles, nor partook of the forbidden foods.Ê
His hypocrisy was offensive to the Gentile believers, and they became confused about their salvation. That was enough for Paul. This was not the time to consider his relationship with Peter. He did not practice what now would be considered good pastoral ethics and not embarrass his coworker before other people. The Gospel was at stake.Ê
This is how the Bible describes the confrontation between Peter and Paul, “I said to Cephas before them all, ‘if you though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, butÊthrough faith in Jesus Christ.Ê
And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law . . .” (Galatians 2:14-16).
Peter was rebuked sharply by a brother in the faith for denying the Gospel by his actions. The big question in the New Testament Church was, What will Jewish Christians do with these ceremonial laws, which had been meaningful to their families for hundreds of years?Ê
The Jerusalem decision tried to settle this dilemma by declaring that Jews would go on living like Jews, observing the laws, but the Gentiles were free from these observances. William Barclay writes, “Things could notÊgo on like that, because it would produce two grades of Christians and two classes in the Church.”
Paul would have none of it. Peter’s heretical lifestyle was no small matter. The Gospel was at stake. And so the Gospel has been contaminated through the centuries, making an on-going reformation necessary if the central teaching of the Church, Justification by Faith, was to be clearly proclaimed. Without the right teaching, there is no basis for what we believe, and Christianity becomes a religion that is determined byÊwhat humans think is the truth for a given situation and time, ratherÊthan the truths of God’s Word.
This was the reason for the reformation in the sixteenth century. It was on November 10, 1483 that Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany.ÊWhen Luther was 22 years old, he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, Germany to become a monk and hopefully find peace with God. But all the hard disciplines of the Order brought him no peace.Ê
It was not until Luther was preparing his lectures on the book of Romans that the Holy Spirit made it clear to the monk that he was saved by grace through faith in Christ. The words, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”
That was it! Luther was a free man. How far the Church had strayedÊfrom that central teaching of God’s Word. It was time for another Reformation, and you know the rest of the story. Luther pleaded with the church to correct her errors, but the hierarchy would have nothing to do with his plea, and Luther was ex-communicated from the church with the punishment that he could be hunted and killed. But GodÊprotected Luther, and from this mighty spiritual warrior, people once again could hear the Gospel.
For the Church to remain healthy, tere must be an on-going reformation,Êfor humans add to and subtract from the basic teachings of the Gospel,Êand soon its teachings are corrupted.
While reformations have been necessary in the Church, it is also true that there needs to be times of reformation in the lives of individual Christians. How many of us have not been misled by a Christianity that was legalistic? Well-meaning people in the Church felt that it was necessary to establish man-made laws to keep believers in a faithful relationship with God. We were taught that it was sin to dance, play cards, go to movies, and the list went on. If we did these things, our salvation was not sure.Ê
Today there is a new legalism. There are those who declare us out of a relationship with God if we have not been faithful in raising our voices against the social ills in society, rid ourselves of all prejudices, and denounced all wrongs that might hold people in some kind of social captivity. One woman questioned my relationship with Jesus ChristÊbecause I would not publicize a quilt that wasÊmaking its way around the country to benefit Aids victims at the worship service. Another denounced my faith because I refused to deal with the burning social issues on a Sunday morning issues like human sexuality and political wrongs to the down trodden.Ê
There is no question that we should be faithful stewards, free from all prejudices and show concern from those who suffer social injustice at the hands of the powerful, but such actions are fruits of faith and not contributors to our salvation.
When we see any form of legalism creeping into the Church, it is time for a reformation in our personal lives. I lived with legalism Christianity and had no assurance that I was God’s child for the first 19 years of my life, but when the Holy Spirit set me free from man-made laws and to trust Christ alone, I was set free. I have often said, “I walk awayÊfrom an atheist for he cannot destroy my faith, but I run away fromÊone who tempts me with legalism, for he is much more a servant of Satan in my life than is the scoffer.”
Humanistic teaching which reduces the Gospel to nonsense and influences one to believe that within him is the power to correct all that is wrong and be his own Savior is another heresy that has crept into the Church through the years. This heresy must be identified and destroyed in our lives if it begins to corrupt that simple teaching that I, a sinner, can be justified only by the atoning sacrifice and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the on-going reformation in the life of the Christian.
Well, is it enough to have the right teaching regarding the Christian faith?ÊIs it enough to instruct our youth in the Bible and catechism so they can quote the right Scripture passages and quote the catechism from cover to cover? Members from doctrinal churches have this temptation of believing this is where it all ends. I have an on-going discussion with a dear friend from a non-doctrinal church who talks about the importance of the Christian experience where we meet Christ and receive Him as Savior and Lord. In our discussion he will remind me that we Lutherans often make pure doctrine an end in itself, ratherÊthan a means to an end, and talk little about the personal relationship with God. It is a fair comment and an observation we need to hear.Ê
While the personal relationship with the Lord is very important, the foundation for this relationship is found in the Scriptures and not our emotions. Without the Scriptures from which our dogmas come, there is no foundation for our faith. If we only have an experience with Christ and little understanding of the Gospel, we have only an emotionalism that will not stand the test of time when those hard experiences face us.Ê
My experience is that the dying person does not care to talk about his feelings about Christ, but what Christ has done for him. He is ready to sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” On the other hand, if we have only the right doctrinal teaching about Christ, and do not know Him in a personal way, we are victims of dead orthodoxy. Needed today and every day is a meeting with Christ in the Scriptures, for He alone is our Savior. Whenever the central truth ofÊ salvation in Christ becomes cloudy, it is time for a reformation in our own souls. When this dogma has become an end in itself, it is time for us to think seriously about our daily walk with Him.
Westwig was right. “There must be an ongoing reformation in the Church. It is natural for well-meaning people to add to and subtract from the blessed teaching that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.”