Pastor taggatz
"The Church's Constant Need for Reform"

 The Reformation of the church that the founder of our Church body, Martin Luther, brought about happened almost 500 years ago at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31st, 1517.   If there's one thing that Luther taught is that the church is in a constant need for reform, in order to keep from error and from moving away from the central doctrine of the Christian faith, that is, that Jesus is the only way to heaven through His sacrificial death and resurrection.   But, our sinful nature isn't content with Christ's forgiveness.   It longs to add something of itself to the equation, whether it be good works of mercy and sacrifice, self-chosen decisions to follow Jesus, efforts at self-sanctification, continual devotion and prayer.   Such efforts may make a person feel pious and holy, but in reality they are nothing before God, nothing but the self-chosen works of sinners.   How can such meager works improve on the holy and perfect work Jesus has already done for us?   Such efforts to add one's own merits to Christ's aren't Christian, for the Christian trusts in Christ alone.

So the Church must constantly be on guard.   She must be perpetually reforming herself.   She must continually move back to what makes her universal in the eternal Gospel of Jesus and what He's done for us in dying on the cross to save us from our sins.   So in our reforms we don't seek to bring forth new and different things, but always to return to the heart and soul of the Gospel message and to those things that work best to proclaim it.   When we have this Gospel in its fullness, we have everything that Luther was looking for, everything that the Roman Catholic Church of his day lost, everything that Christians have ever needed.   All of us need forgiveness, life and salvation through the new covenant found in Jesus' blood. 

But, today the Church faces a huge problem in teaching our youth and even ourselves as adults on the basic tenants of the Christian faith.   Has relativism within our post-modern culture so invaded the church?   Recently I heard a story about a Christian club that was sponsored at a local middle school somewhere within the United States.   Forty-three students signed up for the 13-week course to learn more about the Christian faith.   Everything was going well until the students reached lesson 10, which led them through a series of choices to learn the difference between matters of taste and truth. One of the choices, "believing Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity" flashed on the screen.   The students went nuts when they saw this on the screen.   The teacher was shocked when seven of the eight small-group leaders balked at distinguishing Christianity as true and other religions as false.

The teacher urged the young students to talk to their parents or pastors, believing these authority figures would straighten them out. The next day, they came back with their answers--and they were appalling. One teen's pastor said that no one can be sure of truth, that "it's all perspective." Parents of the seven leaders agreed that their teens shouldn't say that Christianity alone is true, because that could offend others. One girl had written a paper on "Why We Shouldn't Hurt Others' Feelings by Claiming Our Way Is Right." The teacher was forced to shelve chapter 10. "They can't teach what they don't believe," she said.

If this is representative of what's going on in the church, we've got problems--the same problem that Luther faced in the 16th century with his rediscovery of the Gospel from the third chapter of Romans.   We should be concerned not just about discipleship, but also about whether we're losing what sociologist Robert Bellah calls our "community of memory."   In the 1980s, Bellah conducted interviews with 200 average, middle-class Americans, searching for the "habits of the heart" that guide us. Many of the people within the study reported no sense of community or social obligation of any kind. They saw the world as a fragmented place of choice and freedom that yielded little meaning or comfort.

Bellah called this phenomenon "ontological individualism"--the belief that the individual is the only source of meaning. It stands in stark contrast to what Bellah called "biblical" and "republican" traditions, which provide a reference point of meaning outside the individual--telling us about the nature of the world, society, and ourselves. These traditions are embodied in "communities of memory" such as religious groups, traditional families, and cultural associations. They communicate a sense of order and context from one generation to the next.   Bellah predicted that such individualism could destroy the ties that bind people together and threaten the very stability of our social order.

Tragically, Bellah may have been prophetic. We've already seen what relativism and radical individualism have done to the family, which is so essential for the transmission of manners and morals from one generation to the next.   If you lose the community of memory for one generation, you can make it up. But after two generations, you've severed the arteries of civilization that transmit truth and virtue. Clearly, the stakes are enormous, not just for the church but also for our culture. This is why we're so centered on teaching not only our youth in Sunday School and Confirmation class every year, so that they may learn what we believe, teach and confess, but it's also why we continue to teach ourselves as adults on the basic message of the Gospel every Sunday and continue to learn what the Bible says about Jesus being the "The way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through Him." (John 14:6).   This message is a stumbling block to people in our relativistic age who believe that all roads lead to heaven and that one can get to heaven if they are a good and moral person. But, the message of the Gospel reminds us that "all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and are in need of a righteousness of faith from Jesus our Lord and Savior who saves us through His death on the cross from eternal death and punishment in hell.

If there's one place the community of memory must be maintained--even as the family and other cultural institutions falter--it's the church. We, after all, are people who live by revealed truth. The apostles' teaching was handed down from one generation to the next, faithfully transmitted with meticulous care. During the Dark Ages, Irish monks copied and preserved the Bible and other books. They understood that civilization could not survive if one did not pass down the wisdom of previous generations. But, here we are, hundreds of years later, unable to teach our kids how to defend Christian truth and to really know what we believe. We must get beyond the politically correct message of tolerance, because we know for a fact that Jesus wasn't tolerant in His ministry of anything that got in the way of the message of the Gospel, such as when He drove the people out of the temple who had been selling goods within it, or when he continued to oppose the Pharisees, the chief priests and the teachers of the law within the Gospels of the New Testament. Martin Luther did the same thing in his day some 500 years ago. He wouldn't tolerate the abuses that were found in the Catholic Church of his day and so he sought to reform it.

If we hope to preserve what makes life worth living, we as a church must preserve the ability to know the truth ourselves--to absorb the meaning of Jesus' claim: "I am the truth." And then we must transmit this to our children. One way we can do this is by continuing to go to Church and Bible Study on a regular basis. Bible Study isn't just for our children in Sunday School, but we too as adults are called to continue to learn and grow in God's Word. What message are we sending our kids, or to other adults, if we expect our kids to go to Sunday School while we go back home and relax some more before going to church, or if we don't support our spouse, but instead expect him or her to take the kids to church every Sunday, while we stay in bed sleeping an extra few hours on Sunday morning. Are we willing to make a heroic effort to stop the continued erosion of the most essential community of memory within the Church? The monks did it in an earlier dark age. So can we, if we're willing to stiffen our spines to the task of continuing to uphold and reform the basic truths of the Christian faith and the very heart and soul of the Gospel.