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The Church is Always Being Reformed! Reformation Sermon 2012

October 31st, 2012
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{The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Rast, president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., preached the following sermon at this morning’s Matins service, held at the opening of the International Conference on Confessional Leadership taking place in Peachtree City, Ga. Click here to watch the sermon.}

Dr. Lawrence Rast, president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., shakes hands with the Rev. President Jon Ehlers, Evangelical Lutheran Church of England.

As we gather together in Christ’s name to celebrate the 495th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, it is good, first of all, to hear the Word of God and reflect on the Lord’s mercy in giving His gifts of life and salvation to us.

For that purpose, I can think of no better texts than Acts 10, which is a Reformational text if there ever was one! In it, Peter personally experiences two reformations. The first is, of course, the vision of all things being clean, where a hungry Peter keeps the law and resists unclean food. His first reformation is to learn that “What God has made clean do not call common.” The result, Peter witnesses to his colleagues, “Truly I understand”—a reformational phrase—“truly I understand that God shows no partiality.”

But does he understand? Reformation 2.0 comes quickly upon him. The balance of our text proper shows that Peter actually does not yet understand that God really shows no partiality. Yes, he realizes that Christ has made all things clean; what he is now learning is that in making all things clean Christ has made all people clean through the very things that Peter is preaching—the life, suffering, death, and, especially in this text, resurrection of Jesus Christ, the One who has conquered death.

Dr. Lawrence Rast preaches at the opening service of the International Conference on Confessional Lutheranism.

Peter’s witness is a powerful testimony to the power of the Gospel, for through it, as verse 44 immediately following our text tells us, “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:44-45 ESV).

Not one, but two reformations! In the space of a short chapter, we see the church reformed. And that reformation is always shaped by the Gospel; where man would legalize, God comes in with His Gospel, the powerful Word of Christ that always re-establishes the promise of life and salvation. Ecclesia Semper Reformanda est—the church is always being reformed—is the old and familiar saying. It is a good saying, for it captures the passivity of Christ’s bride as God continually works to form and reform His church through the faithful witness of the Gospel.

LWML President Kay Kreklau speaks with Dr. Cyndy Lumley of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne.

Luther’s Witness

The application of this is clear as we both celebrate today, the 495th anniversary of the Reformation and as we gather together as witnesses who are being reformed for this international conference on confessional leadership. We are here to remind one another of our shared commitment to the Gospel and to strengthen one another for the reforming task ahead.

In that effort, it is good to hear from the mature Luther as he preaches on Acts 10. In a sermon published in 1540, he speaks to the heart and soul of this text when he writes:

This power and work in us is called by Peter “remission of sins.” This is the blessing, the possession, conferred through the preaching of the doctrine of Christ, or the articles of faith, particularly the articles of the resurrection. The meaning of the new message of comfort, the new declaration of peace, is that Christ, through his resurrection, has in himself conquered our sin and death, has turned away the wrath of God and procured grace and salvation; that he has commanded forgiveness to be preached unto us, desiring us to believe he gives it and confidently to receive it through faith.

For Luther, his witness is not an innovation, not something new that he has dreamed up, but something the church has always confessed. As he says it:

He who inquires, who would know exactly, what the Christian Church ever holds and teaches, especially concerning the all-important article of justification before God, or the forgiveness of sins, over which there has always been contention, has it here plainly and exactly in this text. Here is the unwavering testimony of the entire Church from the beginning. It is not necessary, then, to dispute about the doctrine any more.

In this text we see that the reliability of the article of faith has long ago been proven, even in ancient time, by the Church of the primitive fathers, of the prophets and the apostles. A solid foundation is established, one all men are bound to believe and maintain at the risk of their eternal salvation, whatever councils may establish, or the world advance and determine, to the contrary.

This is Luther’s firm witness to the centrality of the Gospel, the faith once delivered to the saints. And in, with, and under such faithful witness the Lord worked to reform his church.

(L-R) Dr. Lawrence Rast, preident of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne; the Rev. William Weedon, LCMS director of Worship; and Bishop Wilhelm Weber, Lutheran Church South Africa, prepare for Matins.

The 19th-Century Witness

The church is always being reformed—but not all reforms are from the Lord. In the 19th century, some American Lutherans argued that the essence of Luther’s reform was radicalism, or reformation as rejection of past doctrines and practices. In this way of thinking, one might be most Lutheran by rejecting Luther and the Lutheran Confessions! One of the most outspoken advocates of this new Lutheranism was Benjamin Kurtz (1795-1865). Writing on the fathers of the church, he said:

The Fathers—who are the ‘Fathers’? They are the children; they lived in the infancy of the Church, in the early dawn of the Gospel day . . . Even the apostle Peter, after all the personal instructions of Christ, could not expand his views sufficiently to learn that the Gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles, and that the Church of Christ was to compass the whole world. A special miracle was wrought to remove his prejudices and convince him of his folly. Every well-instructed Sunday-school child understands this thing without a miracle, better than Peter did.

Such arrogance can only result in the following conclusion.

Who, then, are the “Fathers”? They have become the Children; they were the Fathers, but, compared with the present and advanced age, they are the Children, and the learned and pious of the nineteenth century are the Fathers. We are three hundred years older than Luther and his noble coadjutors, and eighteen hundred years older than the primitives; theirs was the age of infancy and adolescence, and ours that of full-grown manhood. They were the children; we are the fathers; the tables are turned.

In fact, Kurtz’s church can no longer be reformed. It can only progress into new and radical expressions that may have no organic connection to the source of life—the branch cuts itself off from the vine and briefly carries on a life of its own—briefly before it dies. Such a perspective is fundamentally destructive, for it encourages us to orphan ourselves from those who have given to us what was first given to them, namely, the faith once delivered to the saints.

In contrast to Kurtz, other American Lutherans strove to uphold the faithful witness of their fathers. Charles Porterfield Krauth (1823-1883) articulated the principle of the conservative reformation, instructing a confused Lutheranism that the overthrow of error does not in itself establish truth. Because of this it is more important to know what the Lutheran Reformation retained than what it overthrew. Knowing personally how easily the church can fall into faith-threatening error, C. F. W. Walther (1811-1887), simply urged that “heterodox companies are not to be dissolved, but reformed” (and please note that is reformed with a small “r”).

 

The Witness God Calls Us to Today

Peter’s conclusion is clear: “And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.”

That call to faithful witness remains before us today. The next several days will help us better understand our confession and our context so that we may, with all possible vigor and haste, witness to the mercy of God in Christ to a world in need. In closing, perhaps it is appropriate on this day to give Luther the last word. Writing in his typically blunt and pointed way, Luther challenges you and me to a life of witness.

If I earnestly believe that Christ is true God and that He became our Savior, I will never deny this but will proclaim it publicly against the Turks, the world, the pope, the Jews, and all the sects. I will confess that it is true. I would rather forfeit my life or jeopardize my property and honor than disavow this. Wherever faith is genuine, it cannot hold its tongue. (AE 22:392-93)

May our tongues be loosed in confession and praise of the Christ who has died and risen again that we might have eternal life.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

 

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