On a cold October 31 morning in the year of our Lord 1517, a tempestuous professor of theology from the Augustinian University of Wittenberg seeking to secure a theological debate with the Roman Church nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church. The 95 Theses were in fact wide ranging, but there was no doubt as to what had motivated the author. Martin Luther was incensed at the corruption of the clergy, superstition masquerading as doctrine, and overt financial manipulation rampant throughout the church.
Specifically, his anger was directed to the unbiblical doctrine of penance and its Papal-approved application of securing indulgences from the supposed prison sentence of loved ones in Purgatory, promiscuously sold through the rhetoric and theatrical presentations of Johann Tetzel. In fact, Tetzel had set up shop the week before across the river in a sister city of Wittenberg to carry out the plan of Pope Leo X designed to raise funds for Papal initiatives in Rome, and to alleviate the massive debt incurred by the Roman Church. Luther was determined that Tetzel would not enter Wittenberg.
The issues referenced undoubtedly needed to be addressed but almost everyone was astonished at the firestorm ignited by this act. Martin Luther had unexpectedly sparked a movement that would be identified as the Reformation and would spread in the ensuing months through the public colloquiums, forums, and debates.
This process began at the Heidelberg in April 1518. A series of theological debates followed throughout the subsequent months with each one bringing greater clarity and focus. The Leipzig Disputation ultimately highlighted the crucial issue of what is the final authority for doctrine and practice in the life of Christians and the Church. In the Disputation Spalatin liberally quoted the church fathers declaring the doctrine of an ecclesiastical Magisterium. In other words, the final authoritative rule in all matters of doctrine and life was the Church speaking through the Church fathers and church councils ultimately administered through the Pope. Martin Luther increasingly understood what was at stake, and in response, he initiated and began to refine the Magisterium of the Scripture as the only and final authoritative rule of faith and practice. Finally, the moment of truth arrived at the Diet of Worms (April 17-18, 1521), where all of Christendom gathered under the full authority (and actual presence) of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
Martin Luther was interrogated by Johann von Eck, the appointed and effective advocate of Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V. Luther was called upon to recant of all his published works and sermons. After requesting a time for reflection, which he was granted on the evening of April 17th, he was summoned back into the presence of the regal authorities of both Church and State the next morning with his life in the balance. His official statement is familiar to many Christians and still inspires many: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. Unless I am convinced by Scripture or clear reason, my conscience is held captive to the Word of God. God help me. Amen.”
With these words Luther had emphatically announced that it was no longer simply a “Time to Stand.” It was now a commitment to stand – “Here I Stand.” But what had also become clear was “Where to Stand”. False doctrine, corruption of morals in the clergy, superstition in liturgy, and manipulation of the Lord’s people would no longer remain unchallenged. With boldness and humility, as well as graciousness and conviction, it was “Time to Stand,” and it was abundantly clear “Where to Stand,” so with affirmed resolve Luther now declared, “Here I Stand.”
The Reformation addressed multiple issues, most of which revolved around how a sinner can be right with God, and then how that saved sinner can rightly serve God with worship that is pleasing to God and a witness that exalts God. The Biblical answer to the issue became insightfully clear in what would become the Five Mottos of the Reformation. These Mottos were consequential to Luther’s “stand” and would be refined by other Reformers who would later take their “stand” with him.
- Sola Gratia– We are saved from our sins by Grace alone
- Sola Fide– We are saved from our sins by Grace alone through Faith alone
- Sola Christus– we are saved from our sins by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone.
- Soli Deo Gloria– We are saved from our sins by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone to the Glory of God alone.
In each case, the key word was “alone.” While being saved by grace through faith in Christ infallibly produces evidences which are inseparably tied to the work of grace and the exercise of faith that leads to an evangelical obedience to God’s Word; the “alone” intentionally declares the sovereignty and sufficiency of a Triune God’s saving grace. In other words, these evidences of our salvation affirm the authenticity of our salvation but make no contribution to its efficacy.
But, as the Gospel of grace was being clarified during these debates, the foundational issue of the Reformation had now crystallized at the Diet of Worms. There Luther understood that the ultimate issue was Magisterium. In a word, what is the sufficient, infallible, and supreme rule to reign with majesty over what a Christian and the Church is to believe and practice? The answer was memorialized in the 5thMotto of the Reformation, derived from Luther’s brief but profound “Here I Stand” speech. Where would Luther make his stand? He left no doubt – God’s Word.
- Sola Scripture–The Scripture alone is our only rule of faith and practice.
Thus, in the Reformation the Scripture was once again declared to be our ultimate authority and was affirmed as infallible, inerrant, and sufficient because it is God’s Word through man and to man; not man’s word about God.
THE NEW MAGISTERIUM
The same issue is before us today. The church is facing a new contender in the battle of Magisterium. This new contender is propelled by the onslaught of secular humanism, which has been enabled by the Biblical illiteracy and spiritual impotency within the contemporary evangelical church. This weakened presence of the church is revealed by the loss of God-centered worship which is marked by reverence and joy; the loss of intentional and personal evangelism; the debilitating presence of theological ambivalence; as well as impoverished prayerlessness and an intentional abandonment of the primacy of God’s Word preached expositionally in the power of the Holy Spirit by God’s anointed servants. This weakened presence has created a vacuum which is now being filled by celebrity-acclaimed salesmen masquerading as pastors and preachers, who “preach” as theatrical entertainers in the tradition of Tetzel.
All of the above has brought us to a crucial moment in the life of the church, particularly within the denomination I gladly and gratefully serve – The Presbyterian Church in America. But it is also equally true in the entirety of the contemporary professing evangelical church. In Luther’s day, it was “Time to Stand,” therefore he declared, “Here I stand,” and he pointedly identified “Where I Stand” – the Word of God. Would doctrine and life reign through the Magisterium of corrupt Popes and erring Councils buttressed by quotes from selected church Fathers, or would the inerrant and sufficient Word of God be the majestic and final rule for Christian doctrine and life?
Today, the issue is not the Ecclesiastical Magisterium faced by the 16thCentury Reformers in opposition to Biblical Magisterium. The issue today is a Cultural Magisterium. It is painfully obvious that the culture is shaping the mission, the message, and the means of ministry for today’s church. It is painfully obvious for multiple reasons that the culture is shaping the mission, the message and the means of ministry for today’s church. It is an inescapable reality that when the culture shapes the mission of the church, it will soon shape the message of the church. In particular this has never been more obvious than in the debates of how or if the church will respond to the tsunami-like cultural sexual revolution.
Therefore, it is again “Time to Stand.” The question is, “Where Will We Stand?” The legacy of Luther is “Here I Stand” in the Word of God. Christian doctrine and practice, as in the days of the Reformers, must be governed by the Word of God – not the culture. I would suggest each of us, beginning with myself, need to ask ourselves, “Has our doctrine of contextualization in response to the Biblical call to be ‘in the world, but not of the world’ become a practice of cultural accommodation?”
Contextualization calls us to meet the challenges of the day with “the whole counsel of God,” the “preeminence of Christ” and His Gospel. In Biblical contextualization, we are called to speak in the terms the world understands and speak to the issues it erects in rebellion against the authority of God. That is why Luther himself said, “if we retreat from the challenge of Satan through the world, at any point, then all else we do is cowardice.” Yes, we must speak in terms the world understands but we do not speak on the terms the world demands. We must preach clearly, courageously and compassionately the Word of God. Furthermore, we are “innocent of the blood of all men,” not by their love of us or by their approval of our message, but by declaring in love to them the “whole Counsel of God.”
It is “Time to Stand.” But where will we stand? Will we stand where the culture tells us to stand and only preach the message the culture approves, and confront only the sins the culture applauds, or will we declare “Here I Stand,” in the Word of God? By God’s grace I will proclaim the Word of God, identify the sins of idolatrous rebellion against God, and call men and women to faith and repentance to the God of the Word who alone can save them from their sins and who will surely save us from the penalty, the power and increasingly, though unevenly, the practice of our sins.
HERE I STAND
The world has thrown down the gauntlet in its unabashed commitment to secular humanism expressed in multiple ways but with specificity in a sexual revolution. It has employed the culture shaping power of the media, academia, economics, psychology, and government. With increasing boldness, the world tells us what our mission, message, and ministry is to be – Cultural Magisterium. It is “Time to stand.” So, “Where do we stand?” We the beneficiaries of the Reformation must hear the voice of Luther and join him – “Here I stand.”- Biblical Magisterium.
So unashamedly let us proclaim the Gospel to a culture seeking to shame us into silence, while it shamelessly embraces evil, calls evil good, and good evil. To a culture that in vanity attempts to remove the shame of sin, we must speak the Gospel which alone can remove not only the shame but also break the power of sin and increasingly emancipate sinners from the very practice of sin. The culture has unabashedly committed itself to eradicating the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of life, the sanctity of family, the sanctity of sexuality, and the sanctity of gender. Now will the culture shape and conform us or will the Word of God shape and transform us?
Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.