Reformation Day: The Church is Always Reforming (John 8:31-36)


In the name of Jesus, Amen. Ecclesia semper reformat: the Church is always reforming. Beloved in the Lord, it is truly meet, right and salutary that the Church would always be about the business of reforming. Why? For the same reason reformation was needed in Luther’s day: because the Church is filled with sinners.

We heard our Lord say it again today: Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Anyone in here ever sin before? Indeed, I would be shocked if anyone in here hasn’t already sinned at least a dozen times today already, myself included. We sin. It’s what sinners do. St. Paul said it too: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  For this reason, the Church is always reforming.

Yes, we are the heirs of the Reformation, but we’re also sinners. We make messes of things. Our lives and churches are always in need of reform. If we always stuck to the pure Gospel this wouldn’t be necessary, but the problem is we take our eyes off of Jesus and are all too easily led astray. Even Dr. Luther himself, of blessed memory, was a sinner. He erred from time to time, and he recognized the need for a daily reformation, even a daily death and resurrection, in his own life.  He describes the daily pattern of the Christian life classically in The Small Catechism. To be a baptized child of God, he says, means that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever (Baptism, IV).

Just as our lives are in continual need of reform, even of death and resurrection, so it is with the Church.  The Church needed to be reformed in Luther’s day because just like today, it was filled with sinners.  To this day our Roman Catholic friends teach that no one can know [for certain] that [they have] obtained the grace of God,[1] and they condemn anybody who has confidence in their salvation, calling it the vain faith of heretics.[2] So also our Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ believe that salvation is the result of man’s work—a decision for Christ—rather than being accomplished fully and solely by Christ on the cross. Both rob Christ of His glory and leave sinners in a constant state of uncertainty, wondering whether they’ve done enough or been good enough to merit salvation.

What this teaches us is that doctrine matters—vitally so.  False doctrine puts a wedge between Christ and his people.  Pure doctrine points clearly to Christ, that salvation is a gift of God, apart from any works or decision we make.  Anything that puts a barrier between you and Jesus is an idol that needs to be crushed with daily contrition and repentance.  God’s saints and the holy, Christian and apostolic Church cannot tolerate anything that puts a barrier between the Church and Her Lord. 

Luther didn’t set out to be disagreeable; he didn’t even set out to start a new church.  He was even willing to tolerate much of what the pope taught as long as they would concede that salvation is a pure gift of God apart from works.  Luther couldn’t stand to see anything come between Christ and his church.  Neither should we. 

But sinners just can’t help themselves.  They took their eyes off of Jesus, as sinners are apt to do.  And just like Peter, when you do this, you will sink.  Is it possible that the church today, even here at Zion Summit, has taken her eyes off of Jesus?  Is it possible that we, too, are in need of reforming?  If there are sinners here, the answer will always be “yes.”

Today I’d like to give you a very concrete example of how, in my pastoral judgment, we have done this here.  I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, “Pastor, we’re so glad you’re here. But we’re losing our children.  We need to do a better job of keeping them in church.”  Now I know I’ve only been here for a few weeks, but if I had to describe one of the biggest anxieties our congregation faces today, it would be the loss of our children.  A while back I heard a statistic that less than 50% of the children baptized in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod back in the 80’s were confirmed.  If less than 50% of our baptized children are making it to confirmation, and then even more fall away from the Church after confirmation, there’s a problem there.  Is it possible that we’ve put a barrier between Jesus and our children?

Now of course nobody would set out to do this, but it seems to me that somehow, we have.  I think one of the biggest problems facing the church today is waiting until the 11th hour, right before our youth enter high school, to begin communing them.  When Jesus says, “Drink of it, all of you,” certainly “all of you” includes children, much in the same way the “all nations” of the commission to baptize includes children. Luther did not wait until 15 or 16 years of age to begin communing children.  In the preface to his Small Catechism, he writes: We should be at pains to teach [the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments to] the young a simple people… But those who are unwilling to learn the catechism… should not be admitted to the Sacrament.   

On the other hand, with Luther, we ought to welcome those who have learned the chief parts of our faith to the Lord’s Table.  Our Synod has encouraged us to begin communing  children when they learn these things.  Lutheran Service Book: Agenda says:

Candidates for admission to the Lord’s Supper have learned the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  They have received careful instruction in the Gospel and Sacraments.  Confessing their sin and trusting in their savior, they desire to receive the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of their faith in Christ and their love toward others.[3]

In the Sacrament our Lord offers to us the entire treasure that He has brought for us from heaven (LC, V:66).  We rightly boast in the fact that our church is all about grace alone.  I would encourage this congregation to begin considering the importance of offering this free gift of grace to our children once I’ve had the chance to examine and absolve them.  In this way, the grace of God will have more time to work in their lives before they endure the relentless assaults of Satan in high school.

In truth, it can be overwhelming when we examine our lives and realize just how many things we’ve let come between us and Jesus.  But fear not; God’s mercy is even greater than your sin.  You have been justified by God’s grace as a free gift, by the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross.  Your Lord died for you so that every sinful barrier that comes between you and him might be removed. 

At the font, Christ’s righteousness became your own, just as on the cross, God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).  And in a short while, when you come to the altar, Christ will feed you again with his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  Jesus doesn’t wait for you to reform yourself, nor is such a thing even possible.  He puts you to death and brings you to life.  His life is your life; there is life in His blood. 

It should be clear, then, that the Gospel is no mere message that God is good.  He is good, of course, but the Gospel is so much more than a mere message.  The Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16)As we sang in our opening hymn: It is the power of God to save from sin and Satan and the grave; it works the faith which firmly clings to all the treasures which it brings (LSB 580, st. 5).

The Gospel is the power of the Holy Spirit to actually do something in your life: to forgive your sins through water, words, bread, and wine.  The Gospel enacts the miraculous, creating something where there was once nothing.  Just as God once brought creation into being out of nothing, so also He creates faith in your heart where there was once unbelief through the Word of the Cross.  The Gospel does what no morality or attempts at godly living cannot: it makes you a child of God and gives you eternal life.  To make the Gospel into a mere teaching is to make it into something other than the Gospel, a false Gospel. The true Gospel is in itself the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus, our only Lord and Savior. Faith clings to Him, to the forgiveness, life, and salvation He would give so freely to all of His children in Word and Sacrament.[4]

God worked through the reformers to purify doctrine and institute practices that pointed faithfully to Jesus, and Jesus only.  We are the heirs of this rich heritage, which has been passed down to us in our confessions and the historic liturgy, passed down by the Church through the ages.  May God grant us faithfulness to this Christ-centered heritage, always reforming the Church so that we remove anything that leads us and our children away from Jesus, and keeping our lives founded on Christ and His grace alone.

Soli Deo Gloria

+ Rev. Eric Andersen
John 8:31—36; Romans 3:19—28
Reformation Day (observed), 2013
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[1] Leith, 414.

[2] Leith, “Creeds of the Churches.”  Louisville: WJK Press, 1982: 413.

[3] Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, 25.

[4] This portion has been adapted from Bo Giertz, Preaching from the Whole Bible (tr.: Clifford Ansgar Nelson). Ft. Wayne: Lutheran Legacy Publishing, 1967 (136-7).

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