The Reformation Continues!
Today, we honor and give thanks to God for Martin Luther and the Reformation that he began over 489 years ago. We honor the man who had the courage and bravery to stand up in the face of extreme opposition and conflict. He was not afraid to let his voice be heard. He was willing to die for the faith that he knew to be true. He knew that Jesus Christ was his Savior from sin- that He died on the cross, rose again, ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the quick and the dead. Studying the Word of God with great diligence and thoroughness allowed him to see the errors of his Church. Believing his beloved church to be in error broke his heart and yet he could not stand idly by and do nothing. “Here I Stand! I can do no other! So, help me God! Amen.” These are words of strength and power- not his own strength, but the strength of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. These words ring loudly down to us as we sit here this morning.
As we look at the Lutheran Church today, we wonder what Luther would say? What would he reform today if given the chance? Does the church even need to be reformed today? What are the errors that need to be dealt with and what needs to be done away with in our church? This morning, I want to give you a kind of a unique sermon. Presidents give a state of the union speech. Governors give a state of the state speech. Mayors even give a state of the city address. Today, I give a state of the church sermon. This sermon may appear to be more scholarly or more like a paper than many of my sermons, but hopefully, you will understand what I am trying to say. May God bless both my words and the hearing of those words this morning!
Let me start of by asking you: how many Lutherans do you think there are worldwide? Well, according to Wikipedia, my favorite source for info, says there are 82.6 million people who call themselves Lutheran worldwide. That number-82.6 million make up about 4 percent of the people who call themselves Christian in the world- 2 billion worldwide. A little closer to home: we are part of the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod. There are 2.5 million in our Synod, making us the 8th largest Christian denomination in the USA.
Even though we are not the biggest Christian denomination in the US or the world, we need to be thankful for what God has done for the Lutheran Church and specifically for our church here at St. John over the years. Many mainline denominations are declining at a very rapid pace. Many beautiful churches in downtown areas and in small towns have had to close their doors. Over the last several years, the Missouri Synod has not grown as we would have liked, and maybe our own church has not grown as much as may have liked, but we are remaining steadfast and solid. That is a testament to the fact that God has been with our church in the midst of some very trying times. Our own church, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church of Berea, Ohio, with its principle office in Strongsville, as our constitution calls us, has been in service to God for 116 years- something to be truly thankful to God for. How many companies that existed in the 1890’s are still in existence today? Or how many companies that are in existence today, will exist in the year 2122? Probably, not all that many! The point is we need worry about the state of our church. As we continue to be faithful to God and His Word, He will bless our church and Lutheranism. God is in control! I believe that we have a very bright future!
With that said, it is also fair to say that the Lutheran Church today would not be easily recognized by Martin Luther. What goes on in various Lutheran churches across the world and across the USA would make Luther’s head spin. Despite what the media wants us to believe, all of Lutheranism is not united. Far from it! What has contributed to the demise of the Lutheranism today is not a simple matter. Let me share with you a couple of movements that are affecting our Lutheran church today. Hopefully, by doing so, we can see the danger that we are in!
What has contributed to the state of the Lutheran church today, first of all, I will call the “ecumenical movement.” This movement began roughly 100 years ago, at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910. With very good intentions, this movement believes in the importance of bringing all denominations back together again. It believes that all the denominations in our world today are a tragedy. However, to come together, this movement does something totally and completely “un-Lutheran.” It downplays, or in some cases, completely rejects the importance of doctrine and theology. It stresses unity of faith in Jesus above all else. Their motto is, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials diversity and in all things charity.” You may have heard of that phrase.
The debate comes up for us as Lutherans, with just what those essentials are and is it right, ethical, Biblical to join with other churches that have such drastic differences? Unfortunately, the “essentials” are very few things. Basically, faith in Christ, a belief in the Trinity: God as Father, Son and Spirit, some form of sacraments, and a desire to spread the Gospel and that is about it.
This “ecumenical movement” has caused our sister Synod- the ELCA- to declare altar and pulpit fellowship with non-Lutheran denominations, something unthinkable just a few years ago. Again, what a church actually teaches is secondary to the desire to join together, to have unity, even if what the two groups teach is miles apart.
This movement has deeply affected the state of the Lutheran Church. The conventional wisdom of so many in our world today says that there is not all that much that really separates the churches. Why shouldn’t we join together with other denominations? Luther would turn over in his grave if he knew that Lutheran churches today have joined with non-Lutheran churches despite significant differences in teaching. He risked his life because of those doctrinal differences. What right do we have in our enlightened times to ignore the differences? None whatsoever! Doctrine matters and it is unthinkable that doctrine is being ignored for the sake of unity!
Another movement that is affecting the state of the Lutheran Church today is the “non-denominational movement.” This movement began with a man by the name of Charles Finney in the 19th century, in a town not too far from us, Oberlin. Finney, a lawyer turned evangelist, began what was called, “revivalism” or the “Second Great Awakening.” He toured the country and large numbers of people left other Christian denominations and followed him. He believed deeply in the importance of joining together American culture with Christian belief, so that there was not a difference between what went on in the world with what goes on in the church. That is, he attempted to bring the church and the world together in his teaching and practice. He, also, stressed enthusiasm in the faith- that is the church should be about entertainment, excitement and feeling good. In doing so, he stressed the importance of making a “decision for Christ.” Finney led to other great revivalist preachers such as Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and today Rick Warren. This movement continues all over the country and is present right in our back yard.
What is wrong with the Non-denominational movement? Is it not a good thing that these churches are bringing in large numbers of people and converting them to Jesus? Well, yes, it is a good thing that they want to tell others about Jesus. We have a lot in common with these churches. But, what we don’t have in common is not insignificant. In fact, it is of utmost importance. Just as false teaching existed in the Catholic Churches of Luther’s day, so does false teaching exist in these large mega-churches. What a church teaches in all areas of theology matters.
And here’s the kicker. Because we saw many of these non-denominational churches growing, and we wanted to grow ourselves, we attempted to imitate what they were doing, especially in worship style. However, by doing so, we changed who we are and our doctrine also changed!
These two movements, “the ecumenical movement” and the “non-denominational movement” have affected our Lutheran Church in so many ways. Today, Lutherans allow for diversity in worship styles that was never there before. Our communion practices differ. We don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to the role of women in the church, to our doctrine of the office of the pastor, in how we relate to other churches, to our teaching on the End times, to our teaching on good works, just to name of a few. The bottom line is that these two movements, among many others have watered-down our Lutheran teaching. For those whose heritage comes from Martin Luther, it is a shame and a tragedy to reject what has been handed down to us.
But other than just pointing out what is wrong with our Lutheran Church today, it is also my humble goal to give us some helpful direction on what can be done. Like I said before, I believe that we have a bright future. As I have said, we have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to our Lutheran church. As we are faithful, God will bless our church. And I believe from the bottom of my heart that there is a place for conservative, confessional Lutheranism in our world today and especially in our area.
What we need to do is know what our church teaches and boldly confess that truth. We need to diligently study our Lutheran doctrine ourselves, so that we can teach it to our children. We need to appreciate the desire for sound teaching. We need to see doctrine, as something that is vitally important and is relevant to our lives. How we understand who God is, how we understand what sin is, how we understand who Jesus is, how we understand what Jesus has done for us, or what Baptism is, or what Holy Communion is. All of these things affect us in our lives. We are a church body that believes in the importance of a solid and clear confession of faith, not watered down, not changed, not altered, not softened, not politically correct or changed to make people feel good about themselves. We care deeply about honoring God’s name among us so that we can give a clear and consistent confession to the world. May God help us to do just that!
Today is the celebration of the Reformation. What Luther was willing to die for was the teaching and preaching of God’s most Holy Word based on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. For us, it should be no different. I conclude with a quote from one of my favorite books, “The Fire and the Staff.” Pastor Klemet Preus proclaims, “The church needs to set her sights high and expect what God expects. He expects neither numerical growth in every situation nor glorious reports of how well we are doing. He expects faithfulness to the pure doctrine and the Sacraments. This faithfulness will always involve proclaiming justification by grace for Christ’s sake, teaching Luther’s catechism, and teaching the theology of the cross. Faithfulness is compromised when anyone, is indifferent to doctrine or actually suggests that doctrine is harmful. Our “success” ought to be measured by the cross. Wherever true doctrine is valued and taught, the truth of the Gospel burns itself into the lives of people. Christ’s church can light the fire only by teaching purely.” I add one final comment. When this happens, dear friends in Christ, the state of our church is good.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.