sermon preached at Blantyre Old Parish Church
Habakkuk 2: 1-4
Romans 5: 1-11
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Costly grace”
Five hundred years ago this coming Tuesday, the friar Martin Luther sent to his Archbishop in Mainz ninety-five theses protesting against the practice of indulgences. He almost certainly did not at this stage attach them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg whether with nails or glue; that story emerged later, around the time of his death, or perhaps at the first centenary in 1617. Quite why this event has become known as the anniversary of the Reformation is historically unclear, but it has been marked, in 1617, 1717, 1817, and in complex fashion in 1917, in the midst of the First World War, when German Lutherans and American Lutherans took very different approaches to understanding its meaning.
Luther’s ninety-five theses were written in Latin and took the form of a typical academic set exercise. Strangely, they nonetheless soon started to attract popular attention, because their content resonated deeply with the mood of the times. One of Luther’s friends very quickly made an unauthorised translation of the theses into German. Luther soon composed his own German version in the shape of a sermon on indulgences and grace, in which he reiterated the key points of his theses. People’s attention was caught, and both churchmen and lay people began to engage with his theology in ways that sparked a series of events, as the church sought to silence Luther and popular and political support for him grew. Within a generation, the Reformation had affected not only Saxony, where Luther lived, and other German territories, but also countries in Scandinavia, Switzerland and north-west Europe, including England and Scotland; later Reformation ideas would shape the New World. By the end of the sixteenth century, Western Europeans lived in an entirely new ecclesiastical landscape, shaped by a whole new set of churches that we now call churches of the Reformation, or Protestant churches. Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican – all of these would see the sixteenth century as a key moment of definition, and the Catholic church was changed too, as it responded to the emergence of these new churches.
In 1517, Luther did not want to start a new church; he just wanted to change, to reform the church of which he was a part. He wanted people to understand that grace was not a commodity, not something that could be bought or sold. As he said in the first of the ninety-five theses, citing Matthew 4:17, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.” Repentance and grace, Luther wanted people to realise, are about recognising the need for change, for amendment of life. Luther also wanted people to realise that forgiveness lay, not in the hands of the church, but in the hands of God. In thesis 6 he wrote: “The pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God.” And he wanted people to recognise that faith in God expresses itself not only through one’s personal relationship with God, but also in love of neighbour: “Christians should be taught that those who give to the poor, or lend to the needy, do a better action than if they purchase indulgences. Because, by works of love, love grows, and a person becomes a better person; whereas, by indulgences, they do not become a better person, but only escape certain penalties.”
In 1517, Luther was not yet preaching the doctrine of justification by faith. By the spring of 1518, he had come to affirm that grace was given and accepted through faith alone: “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.” Or, as we might perhaps put it: “It is not the people who worry about behaving right who are righteous in God’s eyes, but people who believe in Christ.” In other words, says Luther, “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” This is an early indication of Luther’s dichotomy between the law and the gospel: the law which sets us a standard which we cannot reach, and therefore shows us where we fail, and where we have need of grace; and the gospel which proclaims the promise of grace.
Luther rooted his theology of faith and grace in his reading of Romans. The passage we heard earlier was one of those which inspired him deeply: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Here are his glosses on this passage:
Since we are justified, through God’s imputation; therefore by faith, not by works; we have peace, in conscience and spirit; with God, although not yet with men and the flesh and the world and the devil, indeed, we have the more trouble; through our Lord Jesus Christ, as through our Mediator and not through ourselves, even though we are already justified by faith.
The doctrine of justification split Lutherans and Catholics in the sixteenth century, when the Council of Trent anathemised a number of the positions affirmed by the Lutherans. It was a great ecumenical breakthrough, therefore, when in 1999, Lutherans and Catholics were able to proclaim together, in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:
Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
The danger of the doctrine of justification by faith, through grace is, however, that people think it does not matter what they do. Luther did not mean that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarises the problem in his description of “cheap grace” in the passage that precedes his description of costly grace, which we have just heard read:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Bonhoeffer, as I think did Luther, understood that grace, give freely, requires response, a response rooted discipleship, in the call to follow Jesus Christ, a response that can put us at odds with “other people, and the flesh and the world and the devil” and take us, as it did Bonhoeffer, to difficult, challenging places.
Luther’s theological conviction about grace and works led him further, to ask questions about the theology of the mass, and particularly about the practice of offering masses for the souls of those in purgatory. Mass should be about communion, he thought, about people gathering to receive the body and blood of Christ and with them the promise of God’s grace. Luther’ eucharistic theology rejected the idea of transubstantiation as taught by the late medieval church: the idea that at the moment of institution, the bread and wine change in substance – in the essence of what they really are – into the body and blood of Christ. But Luther was convinced that the body and blood of Christ were truly and corporeally, physically present in the eucharistic elements, and that idea was rejected by Zwingli in Zürich.
The disagreement between the two men split the Reformation. By the mid-1520s, Luther found himself outside the structures of the Catholic church, excommunicated and with many of his teachings condemned. But he also found his own theology rejected by those who believed that he had not gone far enough in criticising the theology of the mass. Zwingli argued for an understanding of the Eucharist, as he preferred to call it, that was symbolic: the bread was not actually Christ’s body, but signified, or symbolised it. For Zwingli, the community aspect was central: the Eucharist was a moment of thanksgiving by the community to God for the gift of his grace. Calvin emphasised the spiritual reality of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, his preferred term. These were the theological directions that would influence the Church of Scotland so strongly, through George Wishart, John Knox and others who carried the Swiss theological ideas to preach them in Scotland.
It was these theological differences between the Reformers that gave rise to the different churches of the Reformation, with their different confessions or denominations. They reflect the fact that in different contexts, those who sought to bring the church back to what they understood as its scriptural or early church roots had different priorities, often influenced by the different situations in which they found themselves. If the Reformation was introduced by a city council, or by a local prince rejecting the authority of the local bishop, who in Germany would also be a territorial ruler, it took a different shape from the Reformation when it was introduced by a king who could direct his bishops to reform the church, as in England, or by reformers and lords acting against the reject and suspicious of her influence over the bishops, as in Scotland. The multiplicity of local contexts gave rise to a multiplicity of different understandings of what a Reformation church should look like. And the Catholic church changed too, as it responded to the Reformation and defined its theology and practice more closely. The gospel was heard differently in different contexts; where and how do we recognise this happening today?
The Reformation, then, laid the foundations for the church landscape we know today. And that is a landscape which reflects – and represents – considerable disunity amongst Christians. This is a disunity which doubtless represents a failure of the church, since the Reformation, at the Reformation, but also before, as the Western and the Eastern Church split in the eleventh century over their understanding of the relationship between the Holy Spirit, the Son and the Father, or still earlier as the church fractured in the Trinitarian controversies. In 1920, reeling from the aftermath of the First World War, and with a strong sense that the churches must act to prevent another such atrocity, the Anglican Bishops issued an impassioned call for church unity. They spoke of the sin of fractured unity: “… self-will, ambition, and lack of charity … together with blindness to the sin of disunion, are still mainly responsible for the breaches of Christendom.” And, they pointed out, people cannot hear the gospel because of these divisions: “The faith cannot be adequately apprehended and the battle of the Kingdom cannot be worthily fought while the body is divided, and is thus unable to grow up into the fullness of the life of Christ.” And yet they also recognised the multiplicity of gifts in the different confessions, “standing for rich elements of truth, liberty and life which might otherwise have been obscured or neglected…” Five hundred years the beginning of a process which led to disunity, I would want to affirm, with those bishops a century ago, and with many ecumenists since, that each of the Christian churches has gifts which we need to recognise in each other and receive from each other.
Some years ago I came across a text which I have lost and have not been able to find again. It offered a vision of unity and I have come up with my own version which goes like this: “When the church is one, it will have the hymns of the Methodists, the liturgical sense of the Anglicans, the prayer of Roman Catholics, the local rootedness of the Baptists, the spirit of the charismatics, the social care of the Salvation Army, the theological education of the Reformed, the preaching of the Lutherans… .” We could argue about which gifts we bring to the table. But the point is clear: we have gifts to offer one another, to receive from one another. And many of those gifts are rooted in the way in which its history in and with the Reformation and its legacy shaped each individual church.
And so, at this Reformation anniversary, let us pray for unity:
you have called us in the Body of your Son Jesus Christ
to continue his work of reconciliation
and reveal you to the world:
forgive us the sins which tear us apart;
give us grace to recognise each other’s gifts,
and us courage to overcome our fears
and to seek that unity which is your gift and your will. Amen.
 Ninety-Five Theses, LW 31, 25.
 Heidelberg Disputation, LW 31,41.
 LW 25, 43.
 Church of England, ‘Collect for Unity’ (amended).