October 29, 2006
A Sermon for Reformation Sunday
Today is also, of course, Halloween, a consumer-driven holiday rooted in ancient pagan superstitions and an adolescent propensity to dress up like politicians and comic-book characters (the trick being to tell them apart). That the two "holidays" coincide is both ironic and instructive, as October 31 is when we should celebrate our liberation from the dead.
It was on October 31, 1517, that an Augustinian monk (who shall remain nameless)—the obstreperous, arrogant, and undeniably brilliant son of a Saxon miner—nailed a document, 95 theses, or propositions, to the door of a castle church in Wittenberg. The proximate cause of this bit of carpentry—a common-enough act when a teacher or scholar was eager to engage a debate—was the sale of indulgences.
To make a long doctrinal development quite short: the unreformed Church had taught for centuries that it was not enough to be sorry for one’s sins, to beg God’s forgiveness, even to confess them to a priest and receive absolution. One had also to perform penance: a good work intended to undo the temporal penalties for that sin. According to Romanist theology, sacramental confession, in which a priest pronounced forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ, eliminated the eternal consequences of that sin. But there was still an earthly debt to be paid. And if it weren’t paid in this life, it would be paid in the next, in a place or state Rome calls purgatory—the last stage of sanctification, which is, by its reckoning, also the last stage of justification. (The Eastern Orthodox deny there is any such place, though they do believe in some kind of a final purging of the soul after death. To Romanists it’s a distinction without a difference; to the Orthodox it’s enough of a difference as to make them distinct.)
Further, it was not only possible to remit the penalty for your sin in this life; it was also possible to aid those who had already died but were undergoing their final purging. By praying for the dead, or having masses said in their honor, one could in some way “hasten” the purgatorial process for dead loved ones. I put hasten in quotes because they exist outside time, and how the “holy souls” experience this purging—its pain, duration, etc.—has been the source of much speculation, not to mention superstition. Catholic scholar Eamon Duffy relates in his work The Stripping of the Altars that, on the eve of the Reformation, the images painted by preachers—and even such “saints” as Thomas More, Bridget, and John Fisher—of the pains of the holy souls in purgatory were something out of what would become Gothic horror novels: gruesome torments meted out by “cruell damned spirites” who would “scourge them, roll them in spiked barrels, boil them till they melt, choke them with scalding pitch, and rend their flesh with irons.” Nice.
A full-blown doctrine of indulgences (as opposed to the earlier practice of substituting light penances for more severe penances) first appears on the theological scene in the 11th century. The church (read "pope") would now offer the wholesale remission of part or all the temporal debt owed on confessed sin by drawing on an accumulated “treasury of merits” of the saints—but only if you met certain qualifying dispositions or conditions. (They proved particularly useful in motivating men to fight in the Crusades: restore the Holy Land to Christendom, and if you die in the process, you earn a ticket straight to heaven—no stopovers in purgatory. Sound familiar? Kill for God, win big prizes? Ever wonder why this scheme had no role in the Church before the advent of Mohammedanism?)
Now, take an act of charity as a condition for an indulgence, add the prospect of releasing a loved one from his or her pains in purgatory, shake well in a catechetically confused time, and you get the immediate cause of my night sweats: Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, selling indulgences to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome. And a gullible German laity, eager to make a few easy payments to get themselves or dead family members off the purgatorial hook, was buying. “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was probably the first commercial jingle in history.
Enter the original Anxious Young Man, yours truly, wracked with guilt and what my miserable execrable assistant likes to call a “creeping conclusion” that sacramental confession, contrition, and penance (not to mention Tetzel’s indulgences) had been emptied of any power to relieve my aching conscience. How can one be certain that an absolutely righteous and just God is satisfied with what you have done to appease His wrath against your sin?
I was counseled by my monastic superior, Johann Staupitz, to squelch my scrupulosity by reading the offer of forgiveness in the Book of Romans—and read it I did. “The righteous will live by faith”—an Old Testament verse appropriated by the apostle Paul for his theological purposes—jumped off the page. It was faith, not works, not rules, not coins tossed into the papal coffers, not penance, not even love, but faith in what Christ had done, faith in the love Christ had shown us even when we were still in rebellion against him, that freed us from sin, death, and the devil—and, it should be said, from the scourge of penitential religion. What began as a protest against the abuse of a medieval invention morphed into a revolutionary re-formation and re-consideration of how someone, anyone, is made right with Almighty God.
I was not alone in reinterpreting the role of faith in justification and sanctification —$10 words for the declaration of our right standing with God and how, subsequently, we are made to look like Jesus through discipleship. Some had been influenced by me (Calvin), some had made these discoveries independent of me—even within from within the Roman camp (witness English cardinal Reginald Pole and Italian cardinal Caspar Contarini, both of whom died defeated men). But could the Church be truly reformed from within, at least to the extent that the scriptural witness would supplant all medieval accretions and traditions as the foundation for belief and practice? It was clear that penance should no longer have any role in the Christian life. Faith was the sole sufficient instrument through which God justified us sinners, not only forgiving our sins but sanctifying us in Christ. But with the end of penance came the end of purgatory. Then what of our dead? They were either in the loving arms of God or were lost. After all, if the living could not earn the love and forgiveness—even the holiness—of God in Christ, what on earth could be done for the dead? Nothing need be done but to trust in the steadfast love and mercy of the Savior. This was no mean reform in the eyes of Rome; this was revolution.
The implications of this revolutionary paradigm, this upending of an entire civilization’s psychology, go far beyond the eradication of the guilt trips to the museum of the suffering purged, the painful mental pictures of our aged parents being tormented for venial sins, begging for more prayers or more donations to traveling salvation salesmen. It was an end to unnecessary guilt trips of all kinds: over lost time, lost opportunities, lost dreams. They were ALL with God—to be redeemed at the proper time, at the resurrection of the dead. No more magic scapulars, miraculous medals, rote labyrinthine prayers, and perfunctory offerings, all desperate attempts to pry blessings out of God’s hands. No more neurotic self-deprecation and self-mortification in order to get a little more grace, a little more mercy—or even to control the passions. “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 3:23).” In short: we no longer had to hurt ourselves in order to please God, because God, who is love, hurt Himself at Calvary in order to release his life-giving blood, the only balm our wounds would ever need, once and for all: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).
Lest a resurgent traditional Romanism be thought the only remaining purveyor of purgatory and its attendant insanities, N.T. Wright begs to differ. In his excellent little book For All the Saints, Wright expresses his concern that purgatory is being introduced into various Protestant contexts, for which he lays the blame at the feet of theological liberalism: “[T]he marked tendency toward universalism . . . has produced a quite new situation. If all are indeed to be saved, then not only professed Christians, but the mass of professed non-Christians, are going to have to be got ready for salvation in the time after death.” So medieval Romanism meets liberal Protestantism, and the perdurance of purgatory is the result.
This is where the battle is joined, precisely with the idea that we will need to be “got ready” for salvation postmortem, that our souls will still be “dirty” from all those “venial” but otherwise forgivable sins. That we are both “sinners” and “justified” no Lutheran would deny; the question is—who does the cleansing, and how? And what about those who came late to salvation, and in whom there were no discernible marks of sanctification? Does God need to rough them up at the gates of heaven to finish the job of sanctification?
The answer is rooted in the nature of what Christ accomplished at the cross. No believer in purgatory would deny that Christ’s sacrificial death is sufficient to save all those who believe. Which is why it is emphasized repeatedly that purgatory is only for those saved already. Purgatory is just the “dressing up” part of the process. The soul must be purified before it can enter the City of God because, as Revelation 21 states, “nothing unclean will ever enter it.” But whose suffering is sufficient to purify a sin-stained soul? Mine? Yours?
But why aren’t the words of Our Lord sufficient to put this issue to rest once and for all? “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). If mere name-calling puts one in danger of eternal damnation, what is a fit “penance” for something more heinous? How much suffering must one be subjected to in purgatory to undo the temporal consequences of one errant thought, never mind one errant deed. How much pain must one endure before everything is “made right,” before I am “clean enough” to be fit for the Glorious Presence of God our Father? It is insanity to talk this way. Our suffering will never prepare us for the presence of God—only the suffering of the God-man, Jesus Christ. The error lies not in failing to take our sins too seriously, but in not taking Sin seriously enough. Just as there are not enough lives in a thousand thousand years to undo sins committed in mythical former lives—just consider the indignities to which the poor “Untouchables” of Indias are subjected—there is not a flame hot enough in purgatory to purge the damage of Sin to one’s soul. That is why our only hope is to rest on the merits of Christ, even when it comes to the “temporal” consequences of so-called venial sin.
Allow me to introduce two parables at this point: In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus illustrates the nature of grace in the parable of the laborers. The wage of someone who has labored only one hour is the same as someone who has labored all day. How can this be fair? Jesus answers: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Notice what Jesus does not say: “Don’t worry, the wage of the one who labored only an hour will be parceled out in small denominations over a long period of time.” Or “Don’t worry, this slacker will have to travel a long distance over treacherous roads to collect.” Grace is Jesus’s to dispense, and as the parable suggests, he does so generously—not with conditions or penalties (which would no longer make it gracious but simply a deal with small-print attachments).
And to those of the justified for whom sanctification left scant evidence in their behavior—either because of a late-life conversion or a rocky, sloppy life in the faith—they are promised the same wage, without penalties or fees exacted, not because they’ve been good enough (whatever that means in relation to the incomprehensible holiness of God), but because Jesus is generous.
Matthew 22 is also pertinent. The Kingdom of God is like a banquet at a wedding feast. The original invitees reject the King’s invitation, going so far as to kill the messengers! So a fresh invitation is sent out to the last people you’d expect to see enjoying the King’s wedding—namely us. Only one thing is required: proper attire. How can the poor and rejected of the earth ever hope to afford clothing fit for a king’s wedding? Their hope lies in one option only: the King Himself must clothe them. The King provides the wedding garment—the much misunderstood “alien” righteousness” of Christ—that makes us able both to stand in his presence and to enjoy the feast without self-consciousness! Beneath the garment is only what nature has provided. The garment is pure grace. Not an admixture of nature and grace—a wedding garment refashioned and custom-fitted by human hands. It is a fabric woven purely from the generosity of God.
And so this Reformation Day is a time not only to remember old Reformation battles won but also the Good News that is the positive core of the Evangelical faith. Remember that we need no longer worry over our dead. Those who died in faith are at peace with God, waiting for the resurrection, waiting for the new heaven and the new earth. Their pilgrimage is over; having fought the good fight, they can finally rest on Christ’s laurels—not on ours and not their own. They are sanctified not by suffering purgatorial fires but because of the suffering of the Sanctified One.
And we need no longer worry over our own past, our own nagging doubts, regrets, and fears. Christ nailed them to the cross along with a law that could only show up our shortcomings and heighten our anxieties. We are free of the dead—dead works, dead rites, dead thoughts, even the imaginary needs of our beloved dead. But, like Halloween’s ghosts, they can still come back to haunt us. “Isn’t there more you should be doing to set things right? Isn’t there something you should be suffering to repair the damage?” On those occasions, the only weapon in our ghost-busting arsenal is the unencumbered Word of God: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27).
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