What difference does the Reformation make for Lutheran mission work?
This is the question I have been pondering this month, as we head toward the annual celebration of Reformation Day, when we remember Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The LCMS is ramping up for a grand observance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 (click here to see what’s going on).
An article/video by Pres. Matthew Harrison talks about the ongoing importance of the Reformation, because “it’s still all about Jesus!” That is a good place to start and end a discussion of the Reformation – Jesus.
But what about the Church’s mission? What does the Reformation have to do with mission/outreach? Well, the answer to that is two-fold.
First, the Reformation frees the Church to engage the world in the mission of God. In medieval Roman Catholic theology, the religious (the priests, nuns, monks, etc.) were somehow holier and better than the average housewife or handyman because they were “serving God”. They were holier because they had renounced worldly cares and forsaken all to “do God’s work”. And mission work fell right into the midst of this; it takes a pretty darn godly person to go and do God’s work, and it earns you lots and lots of divine brownie points (so they said).
But the central teaching recovered in the Reformation is the teaching of justification by grace alone. You and I are justified not by our own works, but solely by the righteousness of Christ, fulfilled on the cross and accounted to you by faith. I am not holier than thou because I am a missionary; we are on the same level because we are both baptized into Christ.
What that means for mission is that we go out and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world in need because the world needs to hear it. Period.
Not because I need more brownie points to get that extra gold star in heaven. Not because my critical-event counter somehow is linked to my number in St. Peter’s queue. Just because the people who sit in darkness need to have the Light of Light shined upon them.
Second, but equally important, the Reformation distills the content of the Church’s mission. The “eternal Gospel to proclaim” to the nations of which St. John speaks in his vision (Rev. 14) is nothing other than the Faith once given to the saints, which is believed always, everywhere, and by all. This faith is nothing more or less than the confession of Christ crucified for sinners.
The driving force of the Reformation was to cling tightly to the Gifts God has given and revealed to us, and to jettison the ropes which tied the Church down to things that are contrary to the Gospel and are harmful to Christians.
In this sense, ecclesia semper reformanda est – the Church must always be reforming. We must always be evaluating ourselves in the Light of our Lord’s Word, clinging to Him and His Gifts, and rejecting that which He condemns. We don’t tie ourselves down by requiring that our mission efforts generate XYZ numerical results, or that $A = B outcomes. We don’t entangle ourselves in things that don’t deliver the Gospel medicine of immortality to a world dead in sin.
We resolve to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified for sinners. And we want everyone everywhere always to know Him, too. That’s what the Reformation is about, and that’s what the Church’s mission is. God help us!