Mostly vs. Completely - Why the Reformation Matters
This past week began a year of celebration of the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the church. This year Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, and even some Roman Christians will commemorate the posting of the 95 theses by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther, as well as the following reforms that took place in the Western church.
For some, the Reformation is a source of triumphalistic, tribal taunting. Luther is seen as an iconoclastic maverick who set out to break free from tradition and start a new church. Nothing could be father from the truth. The fact that Luther sent a copy of his 95 theses to his archbishop shows that he was acting as a son of the church within the church. And a reading of the Lutheran Confessions shows that the Reformers saw themselves as Catholic Christians seeking reform from within rather than without.
Others would see the Reformation as a political move – an effort to break away from established authority and the power of the Papacy. This is true to some extent. The movement was more than just a church matter – it was deeply political – but not only political.
At the heart of the Reformation was an afflicted conscience before God, and the life or death difference between “mostly” and “completely.”
A "Mostly" Gospel
The church had always taught that we are saved by grace and not works (Eph. 2:8-10). But the church has often forgot, compromised, or clouded this beautiful truth. On paper, Augustine won over Pelagius (a monk who taught we can keep God’s commandments without his help), but in practice Pelagius persisted. The church during Luther’s time taught a “mostly” doctrine of salvation. To the question, “How am I right with God? How am I saved from sin rather than condemned?” the church had more and more responded with the following answers:
You can be mostly sure that you are saved. But never completely sure. So live in fear and work hard.
God does most of the work by sending Jesus to die for your sins, but you need to work with God to bring his work to completion.
And when you mess up and break the commandments, God will give you grace and let you back in if you do your best. “Do what is in you” was the phrase, which is another way of saying that if you do the most you can do, God will surely show you grace.
Very few people enjoy God's presence after death. Most people have to go through the process of purgatory because their satisfaction for sin is incomplete.
A Monk with a Guilty Conscience
As a monk, Luther lived in this “mostly” world of uncertainty about his salvation. He worked hard. He prayed more than you pray. He fasted more than you do. He tried to gain assurance of God’s grace the way Olympic athletes train for gold medals. But he always came up short. The piety on the outside thinly masked the sin and rebellion on the inside. Luther despaired. He even secretly hated God and wished that this distance deity did not exist.
He shares his experience candidly in his preface to his Latin writings:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God…
Luther was not mentally ill or hyper-religious. He was more sane than most people in that he saw what few see – how thoroughly corrupted our humanity is by sin. His conscience felt painfully what the prophet Isaiah experienced in the presence of God – “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). He knew that the holy Law of God demanded his complete devotion – not most of his devotion. And furthermore, Luther knew that God’s commandments accused him and found him guilty of being completely a sinner – not mostly of kind of a sinner.
Set Free by a Complete Gospel
But then… Luther discovered a gospel that was a complete gospel – not a mostly gospel. He goes on to share the light bulb moment in which the good news of the complete gospel broke in while he was studying Romans 1:16-17:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous will live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
What was revealed to Luther that set him free? It was a truth that the church confessed but often forgot – that God gives his gifts completely, not mostly.
When we were completely lost in sin, unable to make a single move toward God, the eternal Son of God completely took on our human flesh. The one who was completely and eternally God became completely and entirely human in one person so that he might redeem our entire humanity – not most of it. This is why Athanasius and others fought so hard to preserve the truth of who Jesus Christ is – “True God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary.”
And when Jesus Christ had completely fulfilled the Law and will of God for us, he completely died (nor pretend died, as the Docetists claimed), carrying upon himself the complete weight of our sins “once and for all” (Heb. 10:10). That means that all who cling to him in faith are completely forgiven – not mostly, or almost, or someday forgiven.
He was completely raised from the dead on the third day, meaning that all who are in Christ are completely alive to God (not mostly or almost alive), completely adopted into God’s family (not gradually approaching adoption), and completely secure and sealed for eternal life (once again, not mostly).
This complete work of Christ means a complete gospel that completely claims us - or as Luther put it in his Small Catechism, "He redeemed me... purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil... that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom."
The sacramental system of the medieval church was also an expression of the “mostly” gospel rather than the complete gospel.
The promises of baptism were watered down to a one-time removal of original sin, after which only penance could grant reentry into God’s grace. Luther called the church back to the complete work of baptism – a promise of God that completely kills the old man and completely brings to life the new – a work that reverberates through the entire Christian life, bringing forth the fruit of holiness in this life and the completed work of resurrection in the next.
The sacrament of penance had devolved into an guilt-ridden, obsessive enumeration of sins and a painful process of satisfaction that would almost certainly persist in purgatory. However, the complete gospel of Christ brought back the freedom of complete forgiveness.
Holy communion was a work performed to placate God, and in it grace was offered piecemeal. But the Reformation brought the Lord’ Supper back to its true meaning with the words “for you.” I think about this when I lean on the communion rail to receive the Lord’s body and blood on Sundays. I lean my entire weight on the rail as I heart the words “given for you… shed for you,” and I know that the weight of my sins and the work of my salvation lies completely on Christ. We receive in our mouths completed salvation – not mostly salvation!
Completely Owned by Christ
I could go on and on. But let me conclude with this final thought – the Reformation is no trivial matter – it is deeply personal, the difference between life and death. Those who know their sinful condition well through experience will know that only a complete gospel saves.
And furthermore, a complete Gospel leads to a complete offering of our lives to God and others. We cannot offer God most of ourselves, for he did not mostly redeem us. The complete gospel of the Reformation is a reminder that Jesus will not allow us to possess secret corners of our lives where he is not Lord. The Gospel is too sweet, too good, too complete for us to ever respond with coldness or complacency. Or as Luther said about faith in the complete work of Christ:
O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.
Pastor John Rasmussen – Our Savior Lutheran Church