Thursday, November 2, 2017

Two Blogs, One Curmudgeon

Why Two Blogs? 
The Curmudgeon and 
A Reformed Reformed Episcopalian

The Curmudgeon
A Reformed
Reformed Episcopalian

I have recently created a new Blog titled A Reformed Reformed Episcopalian. But first a word about the older Blog The Curmudgeon. I chose that name for the Blog, partly in jest - poking fun at myself - and partly telling some of the truth about the perspective of the Blog. But I have found, as often happens with humor, that a few took me seriously as though I meant to say that I, to quote one definition, am “an ill-tempered (and frequently old) person full of stubborn ideas and opinions.” Well, I'm old for sure. I will soon reach threescore and ten. I can be ill-tempered, though I do not think I should be nor do I want to be. I am stubborn, but I hope not so rigid that I am not willing to listen to the ideas and opinions of others or incapable of appreciating nuance and distinguishing black, white, and gray. 

Perhaps I can answer the question of what I mean by quoting a few lines from my original Blog The Christian Curmudgeon where I explained what I meant by "curmudgeon."
The curmudgeon partakes of the spirit of Linus Van Pelt: “I love mankind – it’s people I can’t stand.”... The curmudgeon is often disappointed with people, not least himself. He understands well why the Bible tells us not to trust in man...
The curmudgeon also partakes of the spirit of Network’s Howard Beale who persuaded viewers all over the United States to open their windows and shout “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” ...  He agrees with ... (Christian philosopher) Cornelius Plantinga...that things as they are “not the way it’s supposed to be.” 
He has low expectations, at least in the short run...the world is so messed up that nothing short of the personal coming of Jesus Christ in glory with power, to defeat the powers of darkness, to fix the broken world, and to set his people free from sin and death can put things right. 
In the end of curmudgeon is something of an idealist, even romantic...but he is too realistic (and, I think, too Biblical in outlook) to be a utopian so long as this present age continues. In that sense, he longs for the final in-breaking of the kingdom of God...
I hope that helps. If not, I'm sorry.

But, why two different Blogs? I noted that I had used Just a Curmudgeon Blog to comment on matters from of the American Presbyterian-Reformed (P-R) worlds and on matters of the Anglican-Episcopalian (A-E) world. It seemed to me that some might find that confusing. Some of my P-R friends experienced consternation when I wrote things that reflect my distinctive views and practices as an A-E - such as (though this is a very broad statement) clerical dress, the church year, liturgy. On the other hand some of my A-E friends wondered, if I were really an Anglican or Episcopalian (take your pick) if I followed and commented on the P-R world. In fact, my doing so might be proof that I am really "a Presbyterian with a Prayer Book."

So, if I am really an A-E, why do I follow the P-R world? Two reasons: (1) I get paid to do it. I have a one hour a day job in which I collect materials from that world for an e-zine. Now on, as they say, a fixed income, I need the money!  (2) It interests me. But why does it interest me and why do I sometimes comment? Let me explain it in this way: I was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, but I live in Mississippi and consider myself a Mississippian. I am and expect to die a Mississippian, but I have never lost interest in my hometown. I visit from time to time, follow the local news, and have opinions about local issues. I have even left comments on the electronic version of The Pensacola News Journal

I am an A-E, expect to die an A-E, and to be buried according to A-E rites. But I was born and raised a Presbyterian, ordained a Presbyterian minister, and served for 41 years. Moreover, I believe in Protestant catholicity. So, why should I lack an interest in the P-R world? 

But what of a Blog on the A-E world and of the title A Reformed Reformed Episcopalian? The reason for a different Blog is that I want to look at and comment on matters of the A-E world without confusion with matters of the P-R world. I want to comment as an Anglican (the word in America is used to distinguish various stripes of conservative Episcopalians who are not, even if they once were, members of The Episcopal Church, and to tie most of them to worldwide Anglicanism by means of their connection with the Global South. (Of course, while their orders are recognized by the Global South, they are not recognized by TEC.) So, inasmuch as I am a theological conservative and my denomination is a jurisdiction within the Anglican Church in North America, I am an Anglican.

But my denomination is the Reformed Episcopal Church. The church in America, whose mother is British Anglicanism, calls itself Episcopal. It would not have been acceptable after the Revolution for a church in America to be The Church of England in America. Since my church's mother is TEC, it has always called itself the Reformed Episcopal Church. 

But why, if my church is the Reformed Episcopal Church, do I call my Blog A Reformed Reformed Episcopalian? The second use of the word "reformed" refers to the name of my denomination. The first
use of the word "reformed" refers to Reformed theology by which I mean not Calvin's Institutes, nor the Westminster Standards, nor Calvin's liturgy, nor the Westminster Directory for Worship, but simply the theology held in common by the Continental and English Reformers. 

To ask if one can be a Reformed Episcopalian who is Reformed in that sense, while it may be disputed by some, is to ask a ridiculous question. Could Cranmer be in the Reformed Episcopal Church? May the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion be held by ministers in the Reformed Episcopal Church? May the 1662 Prayer Book (the first service of Holy Communion in the Prayer Book of the Reformed Episcopal Church) be said by a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church? I will explore these questions further in future posts. I will ask what authentic Anglicanism is, what the Anglican way is, what the via media means.  

For now it is enough to say that I am a low church, Reformed, Reformed Episcopalian, a Cramnerian, an Articles and Prayer book man. I am not a not a Puritan or a proponent of the "regulative principle." I am not a Presbyterian, and, heaven forbid, certainly not a Baptist, with or without a Prayer Book. But I am not an Anglo-catholic or one who believes that authentic Anglicanism is the Church of England after its liberation from the Pope and before its Reformation. I do not believe the Tractarians won the battle - historically, Biblically, doctrinally, or liturgically. I honor and follow our English reformers and martyrs. I believe in what the Articles and Homilies teach about such things as  election, justification, faith, and the presence of Christ in Communion. When I say Morning or Evening Prayer or Holy Communion, I do so strictly according to the Prayer Book. In light of these statements I ask, "If a Reformed minister cannot be in the mainstream of the Reformed Episcopal Church, then who authentically can?" I don't believe Reformed Reformed Episcopalians should quit the field. We have as much right to be on it as anyone else.

It is not my purpose with this Blog to be contentious but to be charitable and collegial as I explore questions. Yes, sometimes I will contend for what seems to me to be plain historical and doctrinal truth regarding the Anglican-Episcopal tradition. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Earthquake That Shook Western Civilization

  A Look Back 500 Years Later

Reformation Day 2017

There was no day on which anyone announced, “Today the Reformation begins.” However, the date historians have traditionally used to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is October 31, 1517. No one could have known it then, but what happened that day would set in motion an earthquake whose aftershocks are still being felt in the western churches today.

That earthquake had three epicenters, one in Wittenberg with Martin Luther, another in Geneva with John Calvin, and still another in Canterbury with Thomas Cranmer.

What were the contributions of each of these men?

Wittenberg: Martin Luther (1483-1546)

On October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints' Day, the monk Martin Luther nailed (or someone else for him) a statement to the church door in Wittenberg, offering to debate his Ninety-five Theses in which he took exception to Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. At the time what most troubled Luther was the sale of indulgences which were said to obtain remission of the temporal punishments of sin for the individual or for a loved one in purgatory. Tetzel, their salesman, is supposed to have created a couplet to aid the sale of the indulgences:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings
the soul from purgatory springs

There are two contributions I associate with Martin Luther.

Supremacy of Scripture. Luther was required to appear and answer for his condemned writings at an assembly held at Worms and presided over by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V. The man who represented the Empire and the Roman Catholic Church was John Eck. Eck laid Luther's writings on a table, and asked if the writings were Luther's and if Luther stood by what he had written. Luther was backed into a corner. Would he assert that what he had written was the truth or would he submit to the church and recant his writings as being in error? His famous answer was:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Secularists and theological liberals like to think that Luther struck a blow for the supremacy of individual autonomy against authority, particularly church authority. That's wishful thinking. Luther had studied the Bible and become convinced that the Roman Catholic Church now held serious error. Popes and church councils could make mistakes and had. What then was the ultimate authority? God speaking in Holy Scripture. The Scriptures stood above the church and its hierarchy. The church had to submit to Scripture interpreted by the use of God-given reason.

What Luther did was serious and revolutionary in his day. It put his life in danger, but, more important, it potentially put people's souls in danger. It was not his intent to undermine the church or its legitimate authority. He surely was not thinking to assert the authority of private judgment, every man alone with his Bible and the Holy Spirit deciding what Scripture says and what he would believe. But what was he to do with the dilemma? Would he choose to submit himself to the authority of the church or would he call upon the church to submit itself to the authority of Holy Scripture?

Luther's choice had consequences he could not have foreseen and which he would surely reject. He did not mean to make every man his own pope or to subject the church to seemingly endless divisions. Nevertheless, Luther made the right choice. The Bible is the supreme authority, and even the church in its teaching ministry must submit to the Scriptures.

Centrality of Justification. Luther faced a theological and personal problem. The theological problem was, "How can a man be right (justified = accepted as righteous) with God?" The personal problem was, "How can I be right with God?" Luther believed that God is righteous and that God requires righteousness of us. But how can man who is a sinner be righteous before a perfectly righteous God? Luther tried very hard to be a righteous man, but, no matter how hard he tried and how successful he was, he always came up short. His best was never good enough. His conscience tormented him. He was frustrated with himself and angry with God, because what God demanded of him Luther could not produce.

The breakthrough that opened all of the Scriptures to Luther came as he contemplated Romans 1:17: "For therein the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to to faith; as it is written,The just shall live by faith." To this point his understanding had been that God is righteous, that God requires that man attain righteousness by doing the things commanded by the Law and the church, and that God in righteousness must condemn and punish unrighteous man. Then he realized that the righteousness of which Paul speaks is the righteousness that God provides in Christ and is received by faith. Forgiveness comes from Christ's dying for our sin. Righteousness is found wholly in Christ and his obedience on our behalves (an "alien" or "outside us" righteousness) and is imputed (accounted) to us. We are saved by the grace of God alone, not by human co-operation with God. We are saved by faith alone, not by human works or goodness.

In recent years, the theologian N.T. Wright (with others) has challenged Luther and asserted that he (and the other Reformers) did not understand Paul. For Luther justification is a legal term having to do whom God regards as righteous; for Wright it is a relational term having to do with membership among God's covenant people. Justification for Luther is about the doctrine of salvation; for Wright it is about the doctrine of the church. For Luther justification is individual; for Wright it is communal. For Luther we are justified (declared righteous) by faith in Christ and his righteousness; for Wright we are justified (included among God's people) by acknowledging and following Jesus as Messiah and Lord. What is a amazing is how many have capitulated to Wright’s novel view, how ready they seem to think Wright and themselves wiser than our fathers,  and how willing they are to put at risk the Gospel of righteous standing before God by faith alone through Christ’s righteousness and sacrifice alone.

Anglican Gerald Bray with Wright in mind has written: "Nowadays some people claim that the righteousness of God refers primarily to the covenant community of God's people, something which was achieved by the works of the law in the Old Testament and is now by the church as the body of Christ." After pointing that this "communitarian" view was held neither by Roman Catholics or Protestants (both of whom Wright believes wrong because they did understand Paul's religious background), Bray says, "Either way (R.C. or Protestant) it (justification) applied to individuals not groups and modern theories to the contrary notwithstanding, this approach still seems to be the one that is most faithful to the meaning of the Biblical text" (The Faith We Confess, pp. 74-75).

Luther said of justification by faith alone,"This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness."

Geneva: John Calvin (1509-1564)

Some think he is flashing
a gang sign to his hommies.
Luther was bombastic; Calvin was rational. Luther was hot; Calvin was cool (though he had a temper).  Luther was the man I'd like to drink beer with on Friday; Calvin was the man whose class I'd like to attend on Monday. I'd like to sit at Luther's table; I'd like to sit beneath Calvin's pulpit. I'd prefer Luther's style; I'd prefer Calvin's content. Two of Calvin's best biographers are Anglicans, T.H.L. Parker and Alister McGrath.

There are two contributions I associate with John Calvin.

Clarity of the Commentaries. Calvin produced commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible. Calvin's commentaries are scholarly, but clear, concise, pastoral, and practical. Though written 450 years, ago they remain very helpful aids to the understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

Dr. Joseph Haroutunian of McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, writes:

...we find Calvin bent upon establishing what a given author in fact said...Allegorizing was misunderstanding, and misunderstanding was the evil a scholar had to avoid by all means... he was protesting not against finding a spiritual meaning in a passage, but against finding one that was not there. The Word of God written for the upbuilding of the church was of course spiritual, but in the primary sense of leading to the knowledge of God and obedience to him. Calvin’s “literalism” establishes rather than dissolves the mystery of the Word of God, provided for the Christian’s help and comfort.
...Calvin was a conscientious historical critic. His comments did not degenerate into the undisciplined exhortation which often goes with “practical preaching.” He neither practiced nor encouraged irresponsibility toward “the genuine sense” of Scripture...any “spiritual” meaning other than one derived from the author’s intention was at once misleading and unedifying.

One has only to consult Calvin on a few given passages of Scripture to recognize that he is indeed a teacher without an equal. Calvin comments with the conviction that any passage of Scripture he may examine contains a Word of God full of God’s wisdom, applicable to the condition of his hearers and readers in one respect or another. This conviction enables him to respond to the Bible with a vitality and intelligence...

Dr. Haroutunian sums up nicely:

Calvin published his Commentaries to give his readers insight into the Word of God and to point out its relevance to their own life and situation. To this end he cultivated accuracy, brevity, and lucidity. He achieved his purpose to a degree that has aroused the admiration and gratitude of generations of readers. And in this day...a man who would understand his Bible will do well to have Calvin’s Commentaries within easy reach.

System of Theology. When Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago was asked by William F. Buckley if there was anything omitted that he wished had been included in the Great Books series, he replied "Calvin." The second edition of the Great Books included a whole volume (20) with selections from Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Historian Will Durant counted the Institutes among the world's ten most influential books. Calvin scholar John T. McNeill wrote, "Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the few books that have profoundly affected the course of history."

Calvin was the first of the Reformers to produce what we now call a systematic theology, the first edition published in 1536, the final much fuller edition in 1559. The structure of the work is the traditional Christian catechesis: The Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. With this structure Calvin deals with all the essential subjects of theology, including the Trinity, the Person and Work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, ecclesiology, sacramentology, etc.

A systematic theology is an effort to organize the teaching of the Bible in categories such as the doctrine of God or the doctrine of salvation. The Institutes are a systematic exposition of the Christian faith, an explanation and defense of the historic catholic faith. Calvin reveals an excellent working knowledge of the church fathers, whom he greatly respects. More important Calvin consciously intends to go "back to the source" and ground all of theology in the Holy Scriptures.

Recently the whole idea of systematic theology has been questioned by many scholars, by N.T. Wright again (see above) and others.The criticism is that systematic theology imposes an order and system on the Bible so that the message of the Bible is distorted. The way to approach and understand the Bible is by means of exegesis (vocabulary, grammar, historical setting, immediate context) and in light of Biblical theology (the unfolding of God's saving work in the Bible and its history). Systematic theology is categorized as "scholastic" because it takes a "scientific" approach to the Bible, treating it as though it were another department in the curriculum of the university. The criticism extends not only to systematic and confessional theology but to the catholic creeds of the church which declare the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Christ.

This objection to systematic theology seems to me wrongheaded. Systematic theology begins with the conviction that the Bible is a book of truth given to us by God. It is true that truth is not revealed to us in the abstract but concretely in history and God worked out the plan of redemption. God has spoken in the Bible progressively, revealing himself and his plan of salvation. However, while God revealed himself progressively in history, he did not contradict himself. What God has revealed is harmonious with itself.  Systematic theology believes that God has so constructed the human mind and human language as to lead us to think about truths in categories. The truths of God's Word can be developed and understood in relationship with one one another. Systematic theology answers the questions, "What does the Bible say about....?" and, "How does what God says about x relate to what he says about y?" Exegetical theology, Biblical theology, and systematic theology are not enemies or even rivals but friends who work together and mutually support each other.

Biographer T.H.L. Parker brings together Calvin the exegete and Calvin the theologian:

I am eager for people to know Calvin not because he was without flaws, or because he was the most influential theologian of the last 500 years (which he was), or because he shaped Western culture (which he did), but because he took the Bible so seriously, and because what he saw on every page was the majesty of God and the glory of Christ.

Canterbury: Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

Luther was bombastic; Calvin was rational; Cranmer was careful. Luther was hot; Calvin was cool; Cranmer was temperate. Luther was the man I'd like to drink beer with on Friday; Calvin was the man whose class I’d like to attend on Monday; Cranmer was the man with whom I’d like to worship on Sunday. I'd like to sit at Luther's table; I'd like to sit beneath Calvin's pulpit; I’d like to receive the Holy Supper from Cranmer.

There is one man who links Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer. Martin Bucer was the friend of all three. Bucer came to the Protestant faith under the influence of Martin Luther. Later in Strasbourg he influenced John Calvin. After his exile to England, he had an impact on the Reformation there, especially on the second Book of Common Prayer.

Of the three Reformers we are considering, only Cranmer died for the Protestant faith. Cranmer served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Henry had set the church and nation free from Rome, but he wasn't much interested in reformation of the church's worship and doctrine. Cranmer was, and, when Edward VI, still a boy and a convinced Protestant, succeeded his father, the Reformation made real progress. However, Edward died still a teenager and was succeeded by his half-sister and Henry's daughter, the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor. She reversed the Reformation and eventually had Cranmer burned at the stake.

There are two contributions I associate with Cranmer.

Book of Common Prayer. The primary factor that led me to Anglicanism was The Book of Common Prayer. I came to believe that the so-called "directed worship" of Presbyterianism allowed for all the chaos of worship one sees across the spectrum of evangelicalism. The only solution I saw and still see is prescribed worship, and I believed that the Prayer Book provided ordered, Biblical, Protestant, reverent worship. I came also to believe that there is no reason to drive a wedge between written prayers and the spirit of prayer. And, as one friend (a Prayer Book user but not an Anglican) puts it, "If you can do better than the Prayer Book with free prayer, have it." My conviction is that the Prayer Book gives us substance to pray that would never occur to the vast majority of evangelical ministers or people. To put it another way, my heart resonates with the Prayer Book.

Cranmer wanted to reform the church's worship to make it consistent with Protestant theology while conserving as much as he could of the historic liturgy. James Wood in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer writes:

Theologically the 1559/1662 Book of Common Prayer is both radical and conservative. Its Protestantism can be felt in its emphasis on man's sinful depravity, and on the unearned gift of God's salvation (justification by faith alone, not by good works). One scholar has said that "the triple beat of sin-grace-faith runs through the whole book."

Cranmer ensured that the Anglican Prayer Book took a definite position on the fraught (and violent) issue of the eucharistic "real presence"...This insistence can be felt in the words the presiding minister says to the Anglican communicant as he offers the sacraments:

The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed upon him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

Still...the Book of Prayer was also an eclectic and consoling, even conservative document, the least revolutionary and more Catholic of the European Protestant liturgies...Along with the services of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Holy Communion the 1662 Prayer Book has a calendar of the church year; a list of saints' days...liturgies for special days...; and services for the Burial of the Dead...and so on. Gordon James points out that it was clever of Cranmer to borrow collects and prayers from the English Catholic and monastic traditions, from Greek Orthodox and from old Spanish rites…

Above all, the Book of Common Prayer offered Cranmer's language as a kind of binding agent, a rhetoric both lofty and local, archaic and familiar...
Articles of Religion. In addition to the Prayer Book Cranmer also gave us the Articles of Religion. One of the things that troubled me about the branch of Presbyterianism of which I was a part was subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism. I heard man after man take no exceptions and offer no clarifying statements. Every time I wondered, "With as many words and and the amount of detail there is in these documents, how can this be?" While I believe that the Westminster Standards, which as J.I. Packer points out were written by an Assembly the majority of whom were Anglicans, are a most excellent statement of Christian faith, I appreciate the Articles for their brevity.

But what kind of doctrine is found in the Articles? They are catholic in that they affirm the catholic theology of the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. But they are also clearly Protestant, as distinct from Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologies, in places reflecting Lutheran theology and in other places (especially on Baptism and the Lord's Supper) reflecting Calvinistic (Reformed) theology. Gerald Bray has written:

The Thirty-nine Articles are usually printed with the 1662 Prayer Book, but they have a different history (from The Prayer Book)...The Articles were given official status by King Charles I in 1628; since then they have been the accepted doctrinal standards of the Church of England. Other Anglican churches have received them to a greater or lesser has to be said that most Anglicans today are scarcely aware of their existence. Even the clergy have seldom studied them, and only evangelicals now take them seriously as doctrine.

The Articles are not a comprehensive systematic theology in the way that the Westminster Confession is, but they do address questions of theological controversy in a systematic way. In that sense, they are more advanced than earlier Protestant doctrinal statements. They start with the doctrine of God, go on to list the canon of Scripture, and then get into more controversial subjects. Justification by faith alone is clearly stated, and there is also a clear defense of predestination. The sacraments are numbered as two only, and they are defined as witnesses to the Gospel. Towards the end there are articles defining the powers of the civil magistrate, along with one that sanctions the two books of Homilies, collections of sermons in which the doctrines of the Articles and Prayer Book are more fully expounded... perhaps their brief and judicious statements will one day gain them greater acceptance within the wider Reformed community.

I would prefer for Anglicans not to separate Cranmer the liturgist Cranmer from Cranmer the theologian and not to separate the Prayer Book from The Articles. The Prayer Book and the Articles come to us from the same author (in the main) and should be assumed to be in harmony with one another.  On the great Protestant doctrines of the authority of Scripture and of justification by faith alone they are one. On the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion there is to my mind no conflict between the Prayer Book and the the Articles nor between them and the Continental Reformed. The Prayer Book and the Articles both give us doctrine and worship which is truly catholic and decidedly Protestant.

It is disappointing to hear and read some conservative Episcopalians or Anglicans treating the Reformation in England as a historical anomaly, relevant perhaps to the controversies of the 16th century but not to the issues of our day. However, so long as the such questions as, “How shall I attain eternal felicity?”, How do I receive the grace of God? “How am I to approach God?” and “How am I to worship him?” are relevant to the human predicament, the Reformation will remain forever relevant.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Five Lonely Words

Five Lonely Words

Collect for the Church:  O gracious Father, we humbly beseech thee for thy holy Catholic Church; that thou wouldest be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever liveth to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.

Children and teenagers know October 31 as an annual important day - Halloween, a day for costumes and candy. But the day is also important for another reason. October 31 each year is Reformation Day.
This year marks a very special Reformation Day. It will be the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. What happened 500 years ago that began the Reformation?
A priest and monk living in Wittenberg, Germany, wrote out 95 statements that challenged some of the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and offered to debate them. At the time it did not seem an extraordinary event. But looking back we see that event triggered an earthquake, called the Reformation, that changed the western world. Luther, along with John Calvin at Geneva and Thomas Cranmer in England set out by God’s grace to reform the church they believed had become deformed. Without the Reformation there would be no Anglican Church, no Reformed Episcopal Church.
But what was the Reformation all about? There are five lonely words that answer that question. They are lonely words - lonely because the word “alone” is attached to each of them.

1. Scripture Alone

Luther kept writing, and eventually the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire ordered Luther to answer for his writings at meeting in the city of Worms. At that meeting a theologian named John Eck would question Luther. Eck instead laid Luther’s writings on a table and asked him if he were going to stand by his writings or submit to the church’s teaching and retract his writings that contradicted the church. Martin Luther’s back was to the wall.

After seriously thinking about it, Luther gave his answer:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or
by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in
councils alone, since it is well known that they have often
erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the
Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to
the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Many people today think the significance of what Luther was to strike a blow for individual freedom and the conscience against all authority. A lot of people think, “Whatever I think the Bible says is what it means - at least for me. I’ll decide what I believe and don’t believe, and no one can tell me different.” But that’s not what Luther intended to do.

John Eck pushed Luther to face a question: “What do you do when the teaching or practice of the church is clearly contradictory to Scripture?” His answer was, “Scripture is God’s Word to us, and so God’s Word must have final authority.”

What Luther did was to say Scripture is supreme over even the church. It is not the Bible plus church traditions or church declarations, but the Bible alone - the  Bible alone that has ultimate authority in the church. The Bible is not a book about every subject. If you’re having a heart attack, you don’t pick up your Bible to find out what to do about it. You go to the emergency room and let the doctors and nurses handle it.

What is the Bible about? Paul told Timothy:

...from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred
      writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation
      through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by
      God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction,
      and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may
      be complete, equipped for every good work (3:15-17)

This teaching that the Bible alone is the final authority in the church is not a theory to talk about. The Bible is first a book to know. Today, there is a great ignorance of the Bible, even in the church. We need, as Cranmer put it in the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest (the Holy Scriptures).” Second, the Bible is second a book to believe and obey. The Bible alone, not our opinions or societal trends, tells us what to believe about God and salvation and how God wants us to live.  

2. Christ Alone

There are two important questions about God. First, How can we know God? The Bible says no one has ever seen God - he dwells in unapproachable light. Second, how can we any relationship with God? He is absolute holiness. His eyes are too pure even to look upon our iniquity except to judge it.

Luther and the other Reformers answered the first question, “Here is how we can know God. We know him in Christ, and in Christ alone. He the eternal Son who was made flesh and lived among us.” He is “he radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). The four Gospels tell us about his life, his words, his deeds.
The Reformers answered the second question” “Here is how we can approach God and not die for our sins. Here is how we can have a relationship of peace with God. We can approach God and have a relationship with him in Christ, and in Christ alone. St. Paul wrote “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”(1 Timothy 2:5,6). St. Peter declared, “...there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

One teaching the Reformers had to confront was that the priest is your mediator with God. The priest represents you before God and represents God to you. His great act of Mediation was to transform the bread and wine of Holy Communion into the body and blood of Christ and then to offer Christ on the altar as a sacrifice. But the Reformers said, “The priest is not your mediator with God. A priest or minister is a preacher of Christ’s Word and and administrator of Christ’s Sacraments. Your Mediator is Christ, and Christ alone.

The challenge we face today is the view that Christ is not the only way to God. We can approach God any way that works for us. Jesus spoke unambiguously: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We know God and and are reconciled to God through Christ alone.

3. Grace Alone

The Bible is clear that we are sinners and that the consequences of sin are judgment and condemnation. Since we are sinners, there are two questions we need to ask ourselves: The first is  “What do I as a sinner deserve?” The second is “What can I do to help my situation?”
What do I deserve? Some people we know today will say, “I’m  not perfect, but I’m a pretty good person, especially compared to all the bad people. I do many good things. I think I deserve good from God.”

But other people may know there are some things wrong with them and believe they need to change. So how? Quite a few try self-help. They find a therapist, or get a life coach, or search for the right self-help book so they can deal with their “issues.” They want to be less uptight and angry, to be a nicer, kinder, more helpful person, a better friend, parent, or spouse.

But other people sense that that sin is a bigger problem than some imperfections. They believe that we will have to answer to God and face judgment. They are right.

The question for anyone who knows he is a sinner and faces judgment is: “How can I be saved?” The natural human response is to try harder to be better and do better. Follow the example of Jesus. Try to make up for the bad with good. Maybe God will accept our best sincere efforts in place of perfection. In other words, they believe in self-salvation.

In the Middle Ages no one believed is self-salvation by self-effort. The Roman Catholic Church did not teach that. Everyone knew we need help. That’s where Christ comes in. But what does Christ do? How much does he do? How much do we do? Do we need his merits, plus our merits? Is salvation partly Christ’s work and partly our works. What he did for us? What must we do for ourselves?

The answer of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was that it’s mainly Christ’s work for us, but there must also be our work. Salvation is God’s doing his part, but we must also do our part.  God’s grace to us in Christ accomplishes most for our salvation, but we must cooperate and do our smaller part.

This is the natural human tendency, even among strong Protestants who would never put their foot in a Roman Catholic church. We want to do something to contribute to our salvation. Suppose I invite you to supper. You say, “What can I bring?” I say, “Nothing.” You say, “Well how about a dessert?” “No.” “How about salad?” “No.” “Well, could I bring some  the bread?” I answer, “No, I am preparing the whole meal; don’t bring anything.” What do you do? Accept the gift of supper I provide? Or, do you despite all I said, bring something you made anyway? Or, do you refuse since you can’t bring a little something? That’s a picture of the human tendency when it comes to salvation.

The Reformers became convinced from Scripture that God provides the whole of our salvation in Christ. We don’t contribute anything. In fact we can’t. We don’t have the willpower, or strength, or ability to do anything good enough the help toward our salvation. Christ does it all. It is grace, all grace, grace from first to last - grace alone. The Apostle Paul tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8,9).   

4. Faith Alone

Martin Luther had a theological and personal problem he could not resolve. He could not figure out the first part of Romans, chapter one, verse 17: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed.” OK. God is righteous. He expects us to be righteous. But we are not righteous. Luther found that no matter how hard he worked to do good works, no matter how faithfully he observed the disciplines and rituals of the church, he could not achieve a righteousness a righteous God would accept. He was frustrated with himself and angry with God. He could not provide the righteousness God requires.

The breakthrough for Luther came when he understood the second part of that same verse: “For in it (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Righteousness is not about being righteous or doing righteous things. It’s about God’s verdict, God’s pronouncement, that you are righteous. This declaration by God is called justification. You do not attain righteousness by works - whether those works are obedience to moral demands of the law or works you think mark you out as belonging to God’s people. God justifies you. He declares that he does not count your sins against you but considers you righteous in his sight. He does this on the basis of Christ’s work. Christ gained the forgiveness of your sins by suffering the law’s penalty; he gained for you a righteous standing by keeping God’s law for you. Your righteousness is not grounded in what you are might become, in what you do or might do, but wholly in what Christ did for you.

But how can you get this verdict you are not guilty, but righteous? How are can you be justified? Paul says it is by faith: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works” (Rom. 3:28). As salvation is not partly by God’s grace and partly by our merits, so justification is not partly by Christ’s work for us and partly by our works. We receive what Christ did for by entrusting ourselves to Christ and what he did for us. As Article Eleven expresses this truth, “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort...” We must understand this, and we must remind ourselves of it every day, because we will naturally fall back into some kind of reliance on ourselves. We are right with God by faith in Christ and his merits, or we are not right with God at all. The Gospel is that Jesus did it all, and we receive it all by faith - faith alone.

5. The Glory of God Alone

Scripture alone tells us we do not figure God out. He speaks t us in Scripture. Christ alone tells us we do not find our way to to God but he comes to us in his incarnate Son. Grace alone tells us that salvation is not by our efforts, but by God gracious work alone. Faith alone tells us we are not saved by our good works, but by trusting in the work of Christ for us. Therefore, to God be the glory - to God alone. It’s not all about us but all about God. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).