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A Decisive Moment Worth Singing About:
Remembering The Protestant Reformation

Guest essay by Sam Rowen (PhD, Michigan State), who has spent his adult life in international ministries, most recently in theological education in Asia.

For Sunday November 4, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4 or Isaiah 1:10–18
           Psalm 119:137–144 or Psalm 32:1–7
           2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12
           Luke 19:1–10

Martin Luther.
Martin Luther.

           When Mark Noll decided to write a general introduction to the history of the church for students and the members of a Sunday school class in his church, he gave his book the title Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.  His idea was to select events which for him were “turning points” that substantially changed the course of the church.  Martin Luther (d. 1546) and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th-century formed one of those points.

           Identifying the acts of God in providence is a complex and murky task.  In the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) wrote his famous Rules for the Clergy (Liber Regulae Pastoralis, c. 590).  These "rules" for pastoral care formed the basis for all subsequent writings in the field of practical theology.  Gregory also set in motion processes that eventually necessitated what became known as the Reformation.  However, those same acts also guaranteed that there would be a church worth reforming.

           Martin Luther embodied a similar mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.  He was not a particularly pleasant person.  He was sometimes crude to the point that he embarrassed his friends with his opinions and vulgar forms of expression.  In his papal bull Exsurge Domine, Pope Leo X was not without his reasons for deriding Luther as a "wild boar" rampaging "in the vineyard of the Lord." Luther himself was perhaps the quintessential exemplar of his famous statement that “we are at the same time both justified and sinner.”

Johann von Staupitz.
Johann von Staupitz.

           Luther struggled with periods of deep depression.  He became introspective in his search for the assurance of God’s acceptance.  It was on the counsel of his monastery supervisor Johann von Staupitz, the superintendent of the German Augustinians, that Luther began to study the Scriptures.  This journey into the Word of God to find his peace with God laid the foundation for the remainder of his life.  It was in particular Paul's letter to the Romans that assured him, in what became the clarion call of Protestants, that "justification was by faith alone."

           On April 18, 1521 Luther was called to appear before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, at the Diet of Worms, in order to give an account of his writings.  With a pile of books and pamphlets on the table in front of him he was told to change what he had written.  He said he would gladly change them if it could be shown that what he had written was out of harmony with the Prophets and the Gospels. 

           Again ordered to recant, Luther uttered the words which forever changed the social, cultural, economic and religious landscape of Western Europe. He said, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason. . . , I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”  More important than any of the conclusions reached by Luther, or the other reformers, he showed us the true way to hear the voice of God—by attentively listening to the Word of God in Scripture.

Charles V.
Charles V.

           Habakkuk had a crisis in his day which was the same in principle as Luther’s crisis.  Habakkuk complained about the disobedience of the children of Israel.  They no longer heard or understood the voice of God.  Habakkuk said they had “paralyzed the Torah (Law)” (1:4).  The Law was the voice of God for the ancient people of God. The reading in Psalm 119 clearly pictures this; it's the longest chapter in the Bible with 150 verses, each of which contains a reference to God’s word.

           Habakkuk was distressed and longed for God to bring judgment against Israel.  This was a dangerous request, because when God speaks it is not always in harmony with the way we want to have things work out.  God said he would do something that, even if he told Habakkuk, it would be hard for him to believe.  God said he would use the wicked Babylonians as the means of bringing judgment on Israel.  This caused Habakkuk a great deal of stress.  He did, however, have the faith to say, “I will look to see what he will say to me” (2:1).  When he hears the voice of God he offers his praise, even though he still doesn’t understand all the implications.  “But the Lord is in his holy Temple, let all the earth be silent before him” (2:20).

           In the midst of Luther’s crisis he penned a loose paraphrase of Psalm 130.  This hymn has enriched the liturgy of the church ever since it was written in 1523.  It has made it possible for our theology to sing.  And so I suggest that the remembrance of Reformation Day is best sung.

From trouble deep I cry to thee,
Lord God, hear thou my crying;
Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me,
Open to my sighing.
For if thou mean’st to look upon
The wrong and evil that is done,
Who, Lord, can stand before thee?
With thee stands nothing but thy grace
To cover all our failing.
The best life cannot win the race,
Good works are unavailing.
Before thee no one glory can,
And so must tremble every man,
And live by thy grace only. . .  

Although our sin be great, God’s grace
Is greater to relieve us;
His hand in helping nothing stays,
The hurt however grievous.
The Shepherd good alone is he,
Who will at last set Israel free,
From all and every trespass.*

*Luther, “The Hymns,” in Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-76), 53:223-24.

For further reflection:

Luther at the Diet of Worms called by Charles V.
Luther at the Diet of Worms called by Charles V.

* On the Protestant Reformation see Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea; The Protestant Revolution; A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (2007).
* What do you think Luther meant when he described people as "simultaneously saint and sinner?"
* What are the ramifications of justification by faith alone, the idea that God's righteousness is "imputed" rather than "imparted" to us, that it's a "declaration" by God rather than a "demonstration" by us? Some critics have described this as a "legal fiction."
* Consider a letter that Luther wrote to his younger protege Philip Melanchthon who was super-scrupulous and anxious about God's grace. Luther rebuked him: "If you are a preacher of grace, then preach true grace and not a fictitious grace. If grace is true, you must bear a true and not fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world." What does Luther mean?

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