Throwing out the bath-water (and keeping the baby)

Nearly 500 years ago, a German monk pinned a paper to the bulletin board inviting discussion about things disturbing him related to the practice (and thus teaching) of the church. That “bulletin board” and German monk are familiar to those acquainted with history. The bulletin board was the door of the Wittenberg castle, and the monk was Martin Luther. The particular issues he raised in his paper (aka “95 theses”) had mostly to do with the sale of indulgences, a practice that was quite prosperous for church fund-raising but derived from a faulty understanding of how Christ’s death is effectual for believers.

The Roman Catholic Church placed a high emphasis on the role of the priests, so much so that the priest was essentially a mediator between man and God. It was believed that forgiveness was the priests’ to grant and the sacrifice of Christ was the priests’ to re-present to atone for the sins of the penitent believer. The Roman Mass was moving and evoked the transcendent nature of the Holy God through its reverence and liturgy. It largely flowed from the Scripture, was engaging to the believer, and “awe”some. But at the same time it presented the elements of communion as the actual body and blood of Christ (not in their “accidens” or outward appearance but in their “essence”). To take communion offered by the priest was considered a meritorious act that contributed toward a person’s salvation. God “infused” grace into the penitent believer through mass. It was believed that if a believer had enough merit when he died, he went immediately to heaven. But if he did not, then he would go to purgatory until he could gain enough merit.  (Indulgences could be purchased for him by those still alive.)

When the reformers protested against the works-based righteousness put forth by the Roman Catholic Church, the result was a break. These “protestors” had no choice but to form their own churches and lead a growing number of people that were convinced by their teaching. If there were erroneous things going on with Roman Catholic worship, what would worship in these protestant churches look like? We might be tempted to see it as a fresh start and take a pragmatic approach by asking questions like: what seems to attract the most people? What do the people want? This was not the approach of the reformers. Not everything about the Roman Catholic worship was wrong. They didn’t want to throw the right out with the wrong, the “baby out with the bathwater”. So the liturgy (order of service) of these early protestant churches looked much like a Roman Catholic mass, but with a very different teaching regarding communion (and largely with a change from Latin to the culturally spoken language). The work of these reformers to recover the doctrines of grace has left a lasting imprint upon all protestant churches today. The work of these reformers to reform worship has left a legacy among reformed churches today and we are richer for it.

When we meet this Sunday for worship, we will remember the protestant reformation by adopting the liturgy of 1539 used in Strasburg assembled by the reformer, Martin Bucer. As you will see, it is not unlike our typical order of service. At the same time, there is enough difference that I hope you are moved by the work of the reformers who sought to retain the God-centered attributes of worship while removing the man-centered, works-righteous component.

Sola Deo Gloria,

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