The Reformation: Attacking Roman Catholic Doctrine

Text: John 8:31-36

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Over 500 years ago, the great Reformation occurred as that no-name German Monk published 95 Theses – 95 Statements - against the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church. But what did Martin Luther oppose so greatly? Well, Luther went after the incorrect doctrine of purgatory and the idea that you could pay for people to be sprung from purgatory. He went after false preachers who spiritually abused faithful parishioners. Luther also criticized an incorrect view of good works in the church. He went after unethical uses of finances with those in religious authority and then attacked heresy spoken by bad preachers. But perhaps what was his biggest assertion was his assertion that the church needed to follow Christ, even if it would bring pain and suffering, as well as the church needing to learn about true repentance and their false doctrine concerning the Pope. 

Now, it might be easy to think that Luther was mainly advocating to fix a bunch of bad morals and unethical practices in the Roman Catholic Church. While it is certainly true that Luther was fighting against some bad ethics in the church at that time, it would be better to understand that Luther was fighting to reform not mainly morals but mainly doctrine. You see, when those 95 Theses were published, Martin Luther was seeking to discuss and debate - doctrine. And as you know, doctrine is the teaching of Christ and the Holy Church. And so, when you have bad ethics in the church, more often than not, it is tied back to bad doctrine. And bad doctrine, well… it does not lead to freedom, but it leads to slavery and bondage.  

Our reading from the Gospel of John brings this truth to light when Jesus says, 

“If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

And so, with those words of Jesus, we learn that freedom is not found in the Reformation of morals, policies, practices, our works, and our lives, but instead, freedom is found in the Word of Truth – Jesus Himself. In other words, while it is good to have good morals, policies, practices, works, and lives, a person can have it all nice and neat and still be in slavery and bondage.  Hear this loud and clear; freedom is not in the actions and conduct of our lives, but it is in Christ. This is why the Apostle Paul says in Romans that the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God.  Thinking wrong doctrine that is not of Christ leads to thinking wrongly about God and about our neighbor. False doctrine divides. It disables. It imprisons mankind.  

Dear friends, I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. False doctrine impacts everything in the church. 

If we get doctrine wrong, we teach other people wrongly, we react to situations wrongly, and our practices become wrong as well. And then to boot, bad doctrine will create bad policies and rules and so forth.  

And so, wrong doctrine leads to wrong morals, wrong works, and a wrong life. How can we expect freedom when there is only bad doctrine?  

But here is the catch, we can actually embrace some good doctrine, but as soon as we combine good doctrine with bad doctrine, well… everything becomes polluted. What do you get when you mix good ice cream with stinky manure? Well, you just get a bunch of manure. That is how it works with doctrine. Only a little yeast will leaven the whole lump. In other words, the church has historically embraced good doctrine to a certain extent; however, good doctrine is often felt as if it were lacking, insufficient, and not good enough. The ancient Jews in Galatia wanted Jesus and their heritage, circumcision, dietary laws, and the tradition of the elders. Rome wants penance, saints, satisfactions and merits, relics, and even a Pope. Modern Evangelical Christians want mystical experiences, passion, small groups, individualism, and pious experiences. Big box nondenominational churches want loud bands, 10 Step Sermons on a Better Marriage, and 40 days to become a better you. The Pentecostals want signs, miracles, speaking in tongues, and warm fuzzies after the service. Mark this; wanting ‘more’ than the Word and teaching of Jesus is actually wanting something more than Jesus. When we attempt to add nice little things to Jesus to make Jesus better, well… we are dumping manure in the ice cream dispenser. We are ruining good doctrine. We are trampling on the Son of God.  

But Jesus won’t let you and me go this way. He doesn’t want us to exchange good doctrine for bad doctrine, and He doesn’t want us to pollute and combine good doctrine with bad doctrine. Furthermore, we also have to be soberly clear on this point that when we reform morality, works, feelings, piety, programs, policies, and so forth, we aren’t really doing that much except giving the illusion that we can save ourselves. That is why you and I, as well as the people of the 16th Century Reformation, did not need to only reform their morality, practice, and actions; instead, they needed to repent. For, when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ said, “repent,” His wish was that the whole life of a Christian be one of repentance. They needed to repent of bad theology that got them into the pickle in which they found themselves. And dear friends, the same thing is necessary for you and me today. We need to repent of our bad theology, repent of our false assumptions, repent of our inflated egos, repent of our pride, repent of our self-righteousness – we need to beat our chests and repent, saying,

“God be merciful to me, a sinner.” 

Baptized Saints, think of it this way, a slave does not need to remodel his prison cell. A slave does not need to spruce up his prison cell with some nice cleaning, fresh paint, and a nice plush Martha Steward area rug. No, slaves need to be liberated. Captives need to be set free from their prison cells. A slave in a million-dollar prison cell is, at the end of the day - still a slave. 

That is why there is really no difference between the people of the 16th Reformation and us. The Pope and indulgences could not liberate them, and you and I cannot free ourselves by reforming our morals, reforming policies, reforming our good works, or trying to add something else to Jesus to somehow obtain freedom. Only through Jesus and only through the good doctrine of His Word are we free.  

Baptized Saints, Jesus’ Word gives you freedom because it is good doctrine. In the good doctrine of Jesus’ Word, we are blessed with the gifts of Jesus' Birth, baptism, righteous life, His supper, His death, His burial, His resurrection, and His ascension. All of this He did for you. All of this is done so that you can be free from the sting of death, the fear of wrath, and the condemnation of sin. All of this He did for you so that you can be free through and through. 

And so, as we celebrate the Reformation this day, and as we see all the abuses and reforms that were addressed during the 16th Century, we again understand that it was not primarily a reformation of morals and ethics but a reform of bringing the church back to the doctrine of Christ-crucified for the forgiveness of sins.  In fact, I will be so bold to say that on this side of eternity, we will never have complete and total reform of morality and ethics, which is why we must never stop repenting and being forgiven.  But the Word and Doctrine of Christ? Christ and His Word are the sure and true foundation that we must learn to live under and by, not to earn our salvation but to remain free – to remain alive by Christ and the power of the Spirit working through the Word. 

Luther once remarked, 

“Wycliffe and Huss fought merely against the life of the Pope. That is why they did not attain their purpose, for they were sinners just as the papists were. But I attacked the doctrine. With this weapon, I defeated them. For this matter does not concern life [morals]; it concerns doctrine.” 

Indeed, doctrine is the teaching of Christ. Where the teaching of Christ is right, there will be right life leading to right morals and right works that spring forth from right faith. Get the doctrine right, and you get Christ right. Get Christ right and you get forgiveness, life, and salvation as a gift given by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.

And so, Baptized Saints of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, this Reformation Sunday, remain, abide, and stay free, my friends, in Jesus and His Word, which are all for you.   

In the name of Jesus. Amen. 

Portions of this sermon are indebted to Rev. Tony Sikora’s Reformation Sermon from 2012.  

CLICK HERE to 'Like' on Facebook
CLICK HERE to 'Follow' on Twitter
CLICK HERE to Subscribe on iTunes
CLICK HERE to Subscribe on Podbean