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“Reform” Can Go Too Far

If two aspirin tablets take the edge off a headache, then four must be even better. If sixty minutes on the treadmill is good for the heart, then logging three hours nonstop will be especially beneficial. At least, that’s the thinking of some. Yet experience and common sense say otherwise. Too much of just about anything can be harmful or even fatal.

The same can be said of reformation. Martin Luther was a man whose convictions of faith grounded on Scripture compelled him to take action. He didn’t do things halfway. He wouldn’t sacrifice even a word of Holy Scripture in the name of compromise to keep outward peace. Where there was error, he pointed it out and called for reform. He wasn’t afraid to toss the papal bull of excommunication into the bonfire. At the Diet of Worms, rather than temper his replies to questions in ambiguous generalities, he refused to recant the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. His steadfast, “Here I stand!” still echoes in the confessional Lutheran church today. These will always be vital lessons to pass down to new generations of believers.

But history also shows that reform can go too far. One of Luther’s most ardent supporters was Andreas von Karlstadt, a colleague at the University of Wittenberg. Like Luther, Karlstadt was not afraid to speak out and take action. Unlike Luther, he impatiently pushed reform faster and farther than he should have. While Luther was in hiding at the Wartburg, Karlstadt wreaked havoc in Wittenberg. Without instructing the people first, he instituted a new form of the Mass, conducted services in German rather than Latin, and officiated at services without traditional vestments. He proclaimed that religious images, pictures, crucifixes, and statues of the saints and the Virgin Mary were sinful and should be removed from churches. He attacked music as well, saying, “Relegate organs, trumpets, and flutes to the theater.” (Here I Stand, Roland Bainton, p. 208). By forcing reform on the people and by insisting on things which Scripture does not mandate, Karlstadt incited rioting in the streets, burdened consciences unnecessarily, and caused spiritual harm to countless souls.

What Karlstadt lost sight of was the proper motivation and guiding principle for God-pleasing reform—love for Christ and love for those whom He redeemed with His blood. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. . . . If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. . . . If I give all I possess to the poor . . . but have not love, I gain nothing”
(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV84).

We surely need to stand our ground and not be afraid to take unpopular positions in defense of all the Lord reveals to us in His verbally inspired Word. On the other hand, we also want to be aware of the danger of pushing back so hard against false teaching that we end up going beyond Scripture and insisting on things the Lord doesn’t—whether it be a liturgy, Bible translation, forms of music, or some custom or practice—and so act in an unloving manner by restricting the amazing freedom Christ won for us on Calvary.

Let’s never hesitate to clearly point out sin, rather than defend or excuse it. Like Luther, may we find joy and courage in the exciting, life-giving news that the righteousness sinners need to stand innocent before God
is the righteousness of Jesus credited to them by faith.
That Gospel good news is the source and life of the Reformation then and now. Let’s keep our eyes on it and never stray from it.

Michael Eichstadt is pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, and president of the Church of the Lutheran Confession.