It is the month of October, 2017, and we are about to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Over the past 500 years, Rome has not taken back her dogmas from her Council of Trent.
And over the past 500 years, the Zwinglians and the Calvinists have remained firm in their doctrines.
500 years later, the differences still matter.
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT JUSTIFICATION?
Martin Luther's concern was always pastoral in nature. His concern was for Christian assurance and comfort. Rome had placed the focus of salvation on works and merit, and turned the Sacraments into law. The Sacraments were supposed to be comfort. Instead, Rome had turned them into works that we did for God.
Rome views the doctrine of justification, still to this day, as infused righteousness in our hearts through which we cooperate with God toward charity toward final salvation. Although sins are forgiven at Baptism for Rome, one still has to cooperate with the infused grace given to them in the Sacraments to merit eternal life, albeit this merit is considered gracious.
Luther rightly saw that this still turns salvation into a work of man. If I am constantly worrying about striving to cooperate, or to be good enough, then this will leave me no assurance.
Luther saw sin for what it is--a condition of the heart. Rome sees it primarily as actions, and does not see sinful desire (concupiscence) as sin.
Luther believed it is the heart that needs to be justified. Not actions.
Therefore, for Luther, justification had to be a free and gracious act of God, whereby God declares the sinner righteous completely because of what Christ did for him on the Cross. After our sins are forgiven, we still have need of constant forgiveness. We remain sinners after we are saved. Luther said we are "simul iustus et peccator"--at the same time justified and sinners.
To ignore this fact is to not deal in the real world, and is to soften sin and its utter sinfulness.
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT THE SACRAMENTS?
But as Luther was dealing with Rome's errors on one side, he was also dealing with the errors of the sacramentarians on the other side. Today's reformed and evangelicals, although they have different understandings of the sacraments, nonetheless agree that God is not always present in the Sacraments to forgive, all the time. The evangelicals and Baptists see baptism and the supper as mere memorials or remembrances of what Christ did for us; the reformed see them as mere covenant signs that may or may not have grace present to effect salvation, but this only for the elect.
For Luther, this came down to the following question: Is God gracious?
How do I know that I have a gracious God?
Luther saw that God does not want us to look to His strange work or to the hidden G-d in creation. But God wants us to look at and see His heart in Jesus at the Cross, and delivered to us in the Sacraments as pure Gospel.
For Luther, Christ is always in the Sacraments graciously forgiving, because His Word forgives, and His Sacraments are His visible Word.
This is why confessional Lutherans also consider Absolution a Sacrament as well. (See the Apology.)
So Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Supper are truly Sacraments because they truly forgive and effect forgiveness. Every time. All the time.
ROME, EVANGELICALS, AND THE REFORMED ARE THE SAME
We can see in the above that, although the various theological nuances can be differentiated, Rome, evangelicals, and the reformed share in common the denial of the gracious nature of God's Word. For Luther, it came down to nothing less than this:
God's Word does what it says.
No qualifications. No reinterpretations.
Rome denies that God is that gracious in justification.
The reformed and evangelicals deny that God is that gracious in the Sacraments.
LET IT BE ENOUGH FOR YOU THAT YOU HAVE A GRACIOUS GOD
To this day, only the Lutheran faith, by God's grace alone, recognizes the beauty of this Good News. God continues to be gracious and forgiving. He knows that we always need forgiveness.
In a day where many so-called Lutherans tend to flirt with Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy, the Lutheran Reformation still matters.
In a day where Calvinists and Baptists try to say that they are really "not that different" from Lutherans, the Lutheran Reformation still matters.
It is all about assurance and comfort.
How do we know we have a gracious God?
Because God's Word does what it says.
It gives forgiveness, life, and salvation.
All the time.