The Reformation Today: Whatever Became of Grace Alone?

September 10, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 43:1-7, 14-21; 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

This fall Protestants the world over, and even some Catholics, are marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s legendary tacking of 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. At Westminster we’re going to explore the great themes of the Reformation and their impact today as Protestants in our world: sola gratia, grace alone; sola fide, faith alone; and, sola scriptura, scripture alone.

Author Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years the Christian Church holds a giant rummage sale. It throws out what it no longer needs or wants – doctrines, creeds, assumptions, structures – and replaces them with new things.

To make her 500-year cycle argument, Tickle points out that roughly 500 years after Jesus, the Church entered a time of chaos when the Roman Empire collapsed and the western world entered an era we used to call the “Dark Ages.” The Church survived those centuries of crisis through the rise of monasticism, even as more formal ecclesiastical structures were in ruins.

Another 500 years passed and the Great Schism between East and West took place. Then the Protestant breakaway from Rome half a millennium later. And here we are today, with the Church experiencing another time of upheaval and renewal of our time.

The ancient prophet Isaiah suggested that God is involved in such transitions, in times of transformation: “Do not remember the former things,” God says through the prophet, “Or consider the things of old.”

It’s as if God were saying, “Don’t be afraid. This is a great, divine rummage sale. Let go of the old and prepare for the new.”

“I am about to do a new thing,” God says. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

God assumes – correctly – that we’ll have trouble finding our way through the transition and turmoil. Where’s the church headed? How does it stay vigorous and vital? How do we navigate the shifting cultural sands all around us?

Author Diana Butler Bass has written about “the end of church” and “Christianity after religion.” Those of us who toil in the ecclesiastical vineyard know that virtually everything is in flux, changing around us, as the new thing emerges among us. It is challenging, but the prophet reminds us that God will not abandon us:

“I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43-19)

That was true for the church in the 16th century. God was doing a new thing then, at work when that cantankerous, strong-willed, beer-loving, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther decided to take a stand against the practices of Rome. He was not the only one to protest, nor was he the first. Inklings of reform had stirred centuries earlier in Italy, England, and Bohemia. But Luther’s rebellion was the tipping point of this pent-up frustration for reform in the Christians Church.

The Pew Research Center just published a survey about views on the Reformation. The good news is that the memory of the religious wars fought in the centuries following the rebellion against Rome has faded. The Pew survey shows an emerging consensus among Catholics and Protestants that they have more similarities than differences. That will not come as a surprise to this congregation in this city.

The bad news – at least from a Presbyterian preacher’s perspective – is that most Protestants have little grasp of the theological premises that drove the Reformation in the first place. The Pew survey shows that more than half of us no longer know or care about the distinct themes for which our forebears fought and died.

Frankly, many Protestants today have no clue about the foundations upon which their stream of Christian faith is based. Some may see no problem with that, but there are consequences of embracing a version of Christianity that has let go of the core convictions of those who protested in the 16th century.

What did that 16th century church rummage sale look like?

Luther’s ire was directed at the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. All 95 of those theses, in one way or another, were protesting the selling of indulgence, that is, the Church’s means of controlling access to the grace of God by requiring believers to buy it. To gain God’s approval or forgiveness one had to go through the Church and, through the priests and the bishops and the prince of Rome, literally, purchase it. God’s mercy was for sale.

Luther and other Protestants rejected what they called “works righteousness,” the idea that one must do something – something inevitably determined by the Church – to gain favor with the Almighty. Protestants declared that God’s grace was all one needed, and it was freely given. No one could earn it – not by purchasing indulgences, or saying prayers, or repenting, or doing good deeds, or accepting the Church’s doctrine.

“I would remind you, brothers and sisters,” the Apostle Paul writes,

“Of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved.” (I Corinthians 15:1)

The good news Paul passed on and that we have received from our Protestant forebears is that God’s love is not subject to the whims of any person or institution, not even the Church, but, rather, is freely offered. This may seem inconsequential today, but Luther represented a major challenge to the dominance of Rome. The “Protestors” had to be stopped; ecclesiastical authority was at risk. If the Church could not control the dispensing of God’s grace it would lose the basis of its power.

These are not merely 16th century issues. The same questions continue to roil the Church today. Ten days ago a group of prominent Protestant leaders released what they call the Nashville Statement. It’s a declaration against the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons on the basis of a particular reading of scripture and tradition.

Having read the statement, it seems to me that by the standard of common human decency alone the statement is offensive. But it also distorts the Christian gospel, especially as Protestants have understood it. The document illustrates how the basic Protestant tenet of sola gratia, God’s grace alone, has been cast aside in a rush to condemn.

In Article 10 of the Nashville Statement the writers declare that support of LGBT persons “constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness.” They are trying to hold God’s grace hostage by limiting it to those they deem acceptable. That is what provoked Luther and precisely why the Reformation was needed, because that was happening in the Church.

Back then we Protestants rejected the idea that the Church could assume God’s prerogative. Instead, we surrendered to the notion that God’s grace alone is sufficient for our souls. We do not need the approbation of anyone, or the acceptance of certain biblical interpretations, to earn God’s favor. We do not need to prove ourselves worthy. Indeed, we could never do that.

Whatever became of “grace alone?”

One way to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be to recover the theological clarity of the reformers. We are Protestants; we protest when the church’s control of God’s grace becomes a tool for exclusion.

Our task today, in the midst of the ferment of our time, is to build thriving communities where Christianity is taught and shared and practiced anew. That’s essentially what Luther was after, as well as Zwingli, Calvin, and other early Protestants: creating a personal, authentic, genuine experience of Christian faith, of God’s love, not mediated by the Church.

They were done with the old ways, the former things. And so are we. Done with church power games. Done with merely going through ecclesiastical motions and reciting old formulas.

They were hungering after a genuine, powerful experience of God’s grace in their lives, and so are we. God’s grace: it alone liberates us. It alone gives us hope. It alone introduces us to the unconditional love of the Creator in whose image we all are made.

God is doing a new thing. An old thing, in new ways

The 16th century Protestants were protesting, and those of us who continue to do so today remain in that same line. “This is the good news in which we stand,” Paul says.

Our Protestant theological genes bear the imprint of a version of Christianity that instinctively rejects any system that does not grant to all the same access.

The racism of white supremacy is another expression of the power of those in control of the narrative of acceptability. From a Protestant Christian viewpoint, American racism tries to restrict the grace of God and limit it only to those of European descent. It’s a grave theological error.

This is not arcane church language and theological detail; what we hold to be true determines how we see the world. Our faith shapes how we live, and we are Protestants. Our deep conviction is that God’s grace is not withheld from anyone.  It is all sufficient.

What impact does that 16th century theological claim have in our time? For starters, we declare that the wide-open affirmation of grace alone rejects the narrow and bigoted assertion of race alone as the sole determinant of who is acceptable and valued in our world.

Not only the Church needs a new reformation; our entire nation does. Its embedded racial distinctions have given rise to privilege for some and left others in despair – and that is a theological error, in our judgment as Protestant Christians.

Grace alone is the theological equivalent of the political claim that “all people are created equal.”

These are the animating issues for our life today at Westminster. Open Doors Open Futures is not simply about a beautiful building sitting atop a wonderful two-story underground parking garage. It’s also, and fundamentally, about rediscovering the heart of Christian faith: the open, no-holds-barred, unconditional, no-strings-attached, love of God onto which we pin the theological word “grace.”

Nothing we do can earn it. No indulgences we might pay. No creed we might recite. No baptism we might undergo. No particular circumstances or human condition, neither the color of our skin nor the person we love.

“By the grace of God I am what I am,” the Apostle Paul ways, having persecuted Christians and been blinded by the grace of God one day. “By the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:10)

Those first Protestants 500 years ago didn’t get everything right, but they did launch a new movement that invites people into the Christian faith based solely on the individual experience of God’s love. We call it grace.

Grace alone. It still stirs the soul. It still saves the soul. And it still compels the church.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

Sarah Brouwer

God of newness and life, we give you thanks for this crisp September morning, as we come back together. O God, there is a time for all things. Leaves turn colors and the air cools, creation changes, and so do your people. We are grateful, Lord, for chances to begin, again, renewed and empowered by your Spirit.

O God, as we begin this church year, give us perspective. Help us embrace another season of creativity, as we welcome the opportunity to be church outside our walls, and inhabit new spaces at Knox Presbyterian Church in South Minneapolis. Give us hearts for neighbors in ministry who open their doors to us. Give us hope for the future of the church, and this community. Give us hands ready to work for justice. And, give us generous hearts as we consider how we will give of ourselves and our gifts and our time this coming year.

God of grace and mercy, we pray for all the ways your people begin again. We remember all those who have gone before us. And we recall all the ways in which your church has fallen short of your call to serve in this world. God, help us to be reformers, those who are not discouraged, but people who seek a new way forward.

We know, O God that you are ahead of us, clearing the way. And we trust you go to those who are hurting. Especially as our nation faces the devastating paths of hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires, keep us and our prayers and our resources strong and steady. We pray for safety for the people of the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Southeastern United States. Where winds blow and flood waters rise, may your Spirit of calm and shelter and restoration be with those enduring storms.

O God, where there is natural disaster, and where there is destruction by human hands we pray you would be a safeguard. Where real lives are threatened because of race or sexuality or gender or religion we pray your unending protection. Where there is hatred and war and violence we pray the influence of your peace would bring these to an end.

O God, we each come this day with our own measures of the unknown, of transition and grief and sadness and joy.. Be with us as we step into a new day, assured that you light our way and accompany us in Christ. May we be called in exciting directions, into productive ministries, and may we be filled with a sense of wonder for all that is in front of us. And now, we pray, O God, in the name of the one whose resurrection makes each day new… Our Father…

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