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Luther’s Reformation: Yes, We Are Celebrating

May 3, 2017 No Comment

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by Robert Bugbee

Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee

Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee

Down the years people have remembered Luther’s Reformation in countless ways. In some places, Lutheran Christians emphasized the virtues of Luther and his co-workers in a way that almost made it seem like we are “better people” than folks on the other side of the dispute. As a seminary student decades ago, I visited Luther sites in communist East Germany where official government tour-guides stressed how Luther—the “little guy”—stood up to corrupt power-structures of his time. They made him sound like the original Marxist, if I can put it that way. Still others extol Luther’s decision to follow his own conscience rather than to comply with the demands of the authorities. In other words, he stressed the rights of the individual. Oddly enough, these voices often muffle the fact that Luther did not consider his conscience to be the ultimate authority, but stressed the importance of conscience “held captive to the Word of God”… a very different concept indeed!

As we move toward the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in October, there are significant voices in the Lutheran world making quite a point of the idea that they are “commemorating” this Reformation anniversary, not “celebrating” it. They find it hard to celebrate an historical event which broke up the church, causing the rupture between Protestants and Catholics that is still part of the Christian landscape. This is certainly understandable in part: none of us can take pleasure over the divisions in Christendom. We understand these divisions sometimes make it more difficult for people to take Christ and His Gospel seriously. And we must not abuse this anniversary as if the Reformation proves that we who confess the Gospel, as Luther did, are somehow better than other people. Perish the thought!

Despite these understandable concerns, we do have reason to celebrate! Why do I say that? Here’s why: when all is said and done, the Reformation was not primarily about the “splitting up” of the Christian church. Yes, that was one of the sad consequences of the Reformation era, but those who study Luther know well that he did not set out to break up the church. The heart of the Reformation was that Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, was once again placed front and centre so that ordinary people could come to know and trust Him.

When all is said and done, the Reformation was not primarily about the “splitting up” of the Christian church. The heart of the Reformation was that Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, was once again placed front and centre so that ordinary people could come to know and trust Him.

The Good News of Christ, crucified in your place, raised to life to open the kingdom of heaven, and offering the free forgiveness of sins to people everywhere, had been marred and muffled for centuries. Luther’s Reformation sought to restore this Good News to the world. He did it through a Bible translated into the language of common people. He did it by encouraging preaching which placed God’s forgiving love in Christ at the centre of the services of the church. That was the real goal. Yes, this was resisted by the power structures of establishment Christianity at that time. And, yes, it did lead to a rupture, one which is still with us to this day.

When the Good News of Christ is brought to people, that’s always something to celebrate. The Christmas angel made that clear: “I bring you Good News of the great joy which will be for all the people. Today in David’s Town a Saviour has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Years later the apostle Paul told his friends, “The important thing is that in every way… Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). He knew very well that those who preach Jesus have their weaknesses and are far from perfect. But when Christ the Saviour was proclaimed, it made him glad. He felt like celebrating!

The New Testament lifts the curtain, so to speak, and gives you a peek into the celebration that goes on before God in the life that never ends. The company of heaven sings to Jesus, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” And creatures everywhere in heaven and earth join in, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever!”  (Revelation 5:9, 13).

In a world that is so full of discord and pain, brokenness and disappointment, we have every good reason to celebrate the one great wonder that towers over all others; that God’s own dear Son, the Holiest of men, was willing to come into our world, to take our punishment, and to offer us His pardon out of undeserved love. At its heart, that’s what Luther’s Reformation was all about. And this Christ and His Good News are always a reason to celebrate!

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Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee is President of Lutheran Church–Canada.