Free Indeed

Reformation Sunday (observed)
John 8:31–36

I have to confess that I have ambivalent feelings about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. I am grateful that the Reformation happened, because it brought about many important changes. Foremost among these were the emphases on Scripture and salvation by grace—concepts that are known by their respective Latin terms, sola Scriptura and sola gratia. Luther’s “rediscovery” of the power of grace dealt a serious blow to every form of legalism and any hint that we can somehow merit salvation, and the Reformers’ emphasis on the Bible led to the dissemination of the scriptural texts in the common languages of the people, so that each person could read the words for herself and not have to rely on anyone else for their interpretation. A number of doctrines that Baptists have long held dear derive from these developments, among them the centrality of the Bible for faith and practice, the notion of each person’s autonomy before God, and the priesthood of all believers. As a Baptist, I am grateful for these fruits of the Reformation.

At the same time, however, as a Baptist I cannot help but remember what happened in the years after the movement of the Spirit known as the Reformation had become encrusted into an establishment religion of its own. When our spiritual forebears, the Anabaptists, laid claim to the spirit of reformation themselves and ran afoul of the new Protestant rulemakers, they suffered immensely. Anabaptists had their tongues ripped out, were sewn up in sacks and drowned in rivers, and were burned at the stake, all at the hands of those who claimed to be following in the footsteps of reformers such as Martin Luther, the prophet of freedom.

During his own lifetime Luther revealed the limits of his commitment to liberation and reform with his response to the Peasants’ Revolt. Inspired by the wave of reformation that was inaugurated when Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, peasants across Europe began to rise up against their feudal overlords, believing that the spiritual liberation Luther had preached must also find expression in social liberation. Luther, however, had powerful patrons among the German nobility, so he took a stand against the Peasants’ Revolt and in favor of the status quo. Slaughter, violent reprisals, and centuries more of oppression were the sad result.

Add to all this Luther’s unfortunate espousal of the “two realms” doctrine, which effectively privatized religious faith and gave kings and governments free rein over so-called secular affairs, as well as the centuries of inter-religious warfare and bloodshed that followed the Reformation, and I have a tough time looking at Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and the other Reformers with an entirely unjaundiced eye. The spirit that animated the Reformation was real, and the positive developments really have been good for both church and society, but history makes clear that reformation must be continual or it becomes corrupted. Thomas Jefferson thought there ought to be a new political revolution every generation or so, and the idea holds true in the religious realm as well. Like a shark that has to swim constantly, the church must keep reforming itself or die.

What happens is that what starts out as a pure and high-minded movement of protest or reform evolves (and devolves) over time until it comes to resemble the institutions it started out to protest. This happens in all such movements. It’s inevitable, as psychologist Abraham Maslow discovered in his study of what he called “peak experiences.” Maslow said that a visionary leader or mystic would have a genuine firsthand experience of numinous reality—God, or the Sacred, or the Ultimate—and would be inspired by that encounter to embark on a new spiritual or reformatory path. Think Moses or Jesus or the Buddha or Muhammad or Francis of Assisi or … you get the idea. In the wake of that profound experience, the leader would gather a group of disciples and relate the experience and what he had learned from it to them. But now, by the very nature of things, that first generation of disciples are one step removed from the founding experience itself. For them it’s secondhand at best unless, like Paul of Tarsus, they have their own mystical encounter.

As the years go by, the followers of the original leader get farther and farther removed from the genuine peak-experience, and it becomes necessary to come up with rules and creeds and structures to maintain the movement. Before long the movement has morphed into an establishment, and much of its energy goes into self-protection and institutional survival, so much so that if the founder could see it he might not recognize it as having anything to do with his experience at all.

By the time of Luther, the institutional church had done such a good job of surviving and consolidating its power that Jesus almost certainly would have found it unrecognizable. The church was the largest landholder in Europe, and the pope exercised enormous temporal power, not only as a ruler in his own right but as the spiritual authority who could make or break other rulers through the power of excommunication. That was no empty threat, because over a millennium and a half the church had developed a theology and ecclesiology that said salvation was only possible for those who partook of the sacraments, most notably the Eucharist. The most venal or corrupt person could remain in good standing with the church, and therefore, presumably, with God, simply by taking the wafer on his tongue once a week from an accredited priest.

In addition to holding the means of salvation, the church also claimed the authority to lengthen or shorten one’s stay in purgatory, the place of painful rehabilitation that one had to go through to be purged of one’s sins before entering heaven. Pope Leo X claimed the power to grant indulgences, certificates that would knock off years of one’s purgatorial sentence. You could earn indulgences through good works or pious behavior, and before long Leo, who wanted to refurbish St. Peter’s basilica, got the bright idea that you could purchase them as well. That led in time to the notion that you could also buy indulgences for others. Say a loved one has died and you don’t want her to suffer, so you go to the parish church and buy an indulgence on her behalf. The church’s marketing department took this idea and made it into a jingle: “The moment the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Cute, huh? Many of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses related to the practice of selling indulgences, which he considered abhorrent, and understandably so.

Luther thought the church had arrogated far too much power to itself, and he was appalled on his rare visits to Rome to see the depravity and corruption that had taken root even within the Vatican. He believed the church had been abusing its pastoral responsibility for the people, not unlike the strong sheep in Ezekiel’s prophecy who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [their] horns until [they] scattered them far and wide” (Ezek 34:21). Luther thought the church had sold the people a bill of goods, and had removed any possibility of the people’s reclaiming their power by keeping both the liturgy and the Bible in Latin, making it incomprehensible to the average worshiper. Unlike Jefferson, Luther didn’t necessarily want to start a revolution, but he knew something had to be done to reform the church, so he launched his protest.

The Protestant Reformation was based in large part on the twin sentiments that Jesus expresses in today’s gospel reading. He says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (v. 32), and a few verses later, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36). The second of these statements is really a reiteration of the first, because the condition Jesus sets for knowing the truth comes in verse 31, when he says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Being a disciple of Jesus, the Son of God, is the prerequisite, according to John, for knowing the liberating truth.

It goes like this: if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. For the Son to make you free, however, you must be a disciple. To be a disciple of Jesus, you must continue in his word. You must abide in Jesus and keep his commandments, to borrow language from last week’s gospel reading. Only when we abide in Christ, like branches on a vine, will we understand the truth that makes us free. To abide in Christ and his word, we must have access to his word, and for that we owe a great debt of gratitude to Herr Doktor Luther.

Perhaps his greatest gift to the church was that he translated the Scriptures from Latin into the vernacular German of his day. True, others had tried this before—John Wyclif, for example—but Luther had the good fortune to live in the age of the printing press. Instead of having to painstakingly copy each manuscript of the Bible by hand, a process guaranteed to limit the number of copies and therefore the number of people who could read them, now Gutenberg’s invention could produce multiple copies in a matter of days. Before long, Luther’s Bible and his other writings were promulgated all across the Holy Roman Empire and throughout Europe. This had the double effect of spreading the seeds of protest far and wide and of inspiring translators in other countries to produce Bibles in their languages as well. Our ability to continue in Jesus’s word and therefore to know the truth that will make us free comes from Luther’s work, so … thanks, Marty. And he had the free time to do it because the Elector Frederick III of Saxony saved him from the Emperor and squirreled him away in Wartburg Castle, where he started his translating work, so … thank you, too, Fred.

Through his study of the Scriptures Martin Luther had become convinced that salvation was not mediated by the church or the sacraments, but rather was available to all who would simply receive it with gratitude from God. It is the work of God alone; our only responsibility is to exercise the faith to accept this gift of grace. Good works cannot save you, but good works will naturally flow from one who has been saved. If I could coin a metaphor, I would say that good works are the fruit that a plant produces simply by virtue of being rooted in the soil or connected to a central vine. As Jesus says, those who love him will obey his commandments and produce much fruit, but apart from him we can do nothing.

No doubt, Martin Luther and the Reformation he ignited had their failings and their blind spots. His failure to recognize that the freedom of the soul must be mirrored by the freedom of the body, as the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt argued, was one of Luther’s blind spots. The rigidity and dogmatism of some of the Reformers, which led them to demonize their opponents such as the pope, persecute dissenters such as the Anabaptists, and engage in bloody warfare in the name of the Prince of Peace, was one of the failings of the Reformation. We sometimes suffer from some of the same weaknesses, which is a strong argument for the need to seek the ongoing reformation of the church and of ourselves.

But the central testimony of the Reformation holds true to this day: we are saved by the grace of God and by no other means. We can each of us approach God directly, with no mediator other than Christ, bringing our petitions to the throne of grace with confidence. We have the capacity and the responsibility to read the sacred texts of our faith for ourselves and to form our own opinions regarding their meaning. We do better when we voluntarily join with others in relationships of mutual support and accountability, but we are ultimately answerable only to God for the state of our souls.

The best news of all is that we can know the truth, and that truth—that God loves us each beyond measure and wants us to join God’s team in the reformation of the church and the building of the reign of God—can and will make us free. Free of guilt and condemnation. Free of the need to earn God’s favor or work our way into heaven. Free of the suspicion and fear that threaten to separate us from our neighbors. Free to live in peace, and to love and serve with joyous, reckless abandon.

That’s freedom. Indeed.

Robert Turner