The Jesmond Conference 2017 at the end of February for clergy, church workers, charity leaders and educationalists was entitled, "Reformation in the Nation and Church" (the talks are all available on Clayton TV). The first session's subject was "The need for a new Reformation in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in response to what is happening in the wider world and church." Below is an extract from the second half of my 20 minute introductory talk. This came after detailing some facts about the wider world that show we obviously need a new Reformation.
But do the figures suggest there are specific problems to be addressed? The answer is most certainly, "Yes!" The problems are evident when examining some statistics. For the evidence is that those churches committed to basic biblical faith (Jesmond's "sound scriptural and evangelical truth", which in fact is the Christian faith as established by law for the Church of England), and those in other denominations committed to the same theological understanding, will be, on average, seeing growth.
There was a recent five year longitudinal survey entitled, Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church attendees. It was published after contacting 2,225 churchgoers and surveying 29 clergy and 195 folk from the pews. And according to David Haskell, the study's lead researcher:
"If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner … The researchers compared the beliefs and practices of congregations and clergy at mainline Protestant churches whose attendances were growing with declining churches. On all measures, the growing churches 'held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading'."
Among the key findings are:
- Only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was "very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians", compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches.
- 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches.
- 46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches.
- 93% of clergy and 83% of worshippers from growing churches agreed with the statement "Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb".
This compared with 67% of worshippers and 56% of clergy from declining churches.
- 100% of clergy and 90% of worshippers agreed that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers", compared with 80% of worshippers and 44% of clergy from declining churches.
- The study also found that about two-thirds of congregations at growing churches were under the age of 60, whereas two thirds of congregations at declining churches were over 60.
So with all these challenges in the world and the church, what has Luther to say to us in this anniversary year of 2017? For any not knowing, let me first give you a brief summary of his life.
Luther's Life and Theology
Born on 10 November 1483, he had a good education ending up at the University of Erfurt. Luther then entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt at the age of twenty-two. In 1508 he was made Professor at the new University of Wittenberg where he remained more or less until his death in 1546. While lecturing there his doubts as to his own salvation were resolved through studying Paul's letter to the Galatians. Then in 1517 he posted his 95 theses on that church door in Wittenberg that included an attack on the false assurance of indulgences (money you could pay the Church to release you from purgatory). And so began the Reformation.
Luther then discovered that the Christian life was one of conflict – soon conflict against the Pope and the Emperor, then against the clever but weak Erasmus, then against the Radical Reformers, and then against the Peasants with their rebellion who jumped on the Reformation band-wagon and, in spite of some justifiable grievances, Luther saw as harming its cause.
So how can Luther help us today? I believe it is, first and foremost, by, one, his belief in God and the centrality of Christ – so relevant for our Islamic friends; two, his strategy and the resulting energy he put into the Reformation cause; and, three, his tone when necessary – he could call a spade.
Carl Trueman, I think has got it right. He is a Reformation scholar who sees the value of Luther, and the Reformers, in these terms:
"It is only to the extent that they brought God and Christ to bear upon the Church of their day that the Reformers have any ongoing relevance for us today. Luther himself hinted at this when he described the difference between himself and his precursors, John Wycliffe and John Hus. They, he said, attacked the morals of the papacy, but he attacked its theology. It is vital to grasp this: Luther's crusade was not ultimately a moral one; it was theological. Of course, the two are intimately related. His attack on indulgences in 1517 was in large part an attack on abusive pastoral practice driven by church greed; but it was also rooted in his changing theology which saw the sale of indulgences as cheapening God's grace, trivializing sin and misleading the laity. He did not attack the practice simply because it was abusive in its practical out-workings but because it rested upon a false view of God and of humanity's status before God."
Trueman argues that a recovery of the doctrine of God will result in a recovery of one, understanding Christ's work for us on the Cross for our justification through faith; two, the Bible; and three, the doctrine of assurance. Luther's doctrine of God, therefore, requires that we pray for all those things. How much we pray, of course, will reflect our belief about God.
And may I say that in this anniversary year, a good way to remind yourself of Luther and his theology, or to introduce yourself to it, is to read The Bondage of the Will and in the translation of, and with the introduction by, J I Packer and Raymond Johnston (former Church Warden of Jesmond Parish Church).
To conclude let me give you two non controversial quotes, as a taster, from Luther. First, Luther on God's grace and how it works:
"All the many countless blessings which God gives us here on earth are merely those gifts which last for a time. But His grace and loving regard are the inheritance which endures throughout eternity…
In giving us such gifts here on earth He is giving us only those things that are his own, but in this grace and love towards us He gives his very self. In receiving his gifts we touch but his hand; but in His gracious regard we receive His heart, His spirit, His mind, His will.
Man receives grace immediately and fully. In this way He is saved. Good works are not necessary to assist Him in this: they follow. It is as if God were to produce a fresh, green tree out of a dry log, which tree would then bear its natural fruit."
And finally here is Luther, so sane, on the normal Christian life:
"This life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being but becoming; not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.
We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.
All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified."