Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But unlike the work of Christ on the cross, this side of heaven, God’s work on his church will never be finished. We celebrate the Reformation, but, by the power of God, we are always being reformed.[i]
1500 years after Christ had called to the church to a radical resurrection-faith, the church had sold that cruciform grace for a religion that was more about moral conformity, more about earning your way into God’s favor, than it was about the transformative grace that flowed from a Savior who died and was resurrected that we might be multiplied into his children.[ii] We are always in danger of missing out on what God is doing with us. But reformation is always one open heart away.
The year was 1516 and a 33 year old professor was teaching a class on the book of Romans[iii] at a small university in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany: population 2,000. He was pierced by these truths: that salvation was a gift of God, secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The shocking truth that we must be righteous to be saved, but that righteousness could only come from God rocked this monk’s world.[iv]
This professor-monk-minister’s name was Martin Luther. He began working out this dramatic re-understanding of his faith first in his study, then, in his class, then in his pulpit and writings, and then, realizing how significant the 16th century Roman Catholic Church had departed from these core doctrines, he pushed for change within the church.
Most significant among these issues was that the church at the time was selling indulgences that offered to the purchasers a way to buy forgiveness from their sin. This is not how sin is forgiven. Luther thought for sure once the authorities were alerted that an end would be brought to this abuse of the powerful truth of the grace-filled work of Christ.
And so, 500 years to the day ago, on October 31, 1517, Luther posted a letter with 95 of his biggest concerns (otherwise known as theses) about the church on the door of the Wittenberg, hoping that it would initiate a conversation that would bring about a new breath of life and multiplication in the church. But Luther’s call fell on deaf ears. The Pope resisted Luther’s call for reformation and ultimately excommunicated him and labeled him a heretic.
Luther was a sinful man,[v] but he was used powerfully by God to breathe new life into the church.[vi] In reclaiming the foundation of our faith – built on the reality of the grace of God that flows out of the accomplished work of our salvation at the cross and proven by the resurrected Christ – Luther did not just change the understanding of the church, but the work of God in the church.[vii]
As long as we the church think we are the ones working our way to God, as long as we think our salvation depends on ourselves, we prevent the work of the Holy Spirit in us.[viii]
If we were to write out our own 95 Theses today – our concerns about the American church – what would be on our list? Surely a concern over the diminished authority of the Bible would be near the top. Another concern would certainly be the loss of a commitment to Jesus as the only way to salvation.[ix] On that list would have to be our lack of trust in the power of the Spirit to transform lives. The church has lost our evangelistic zeal. We have domesticated Christ’s purpose for the church. What would you add to this list?
Just as it did 500 years ago, may God’s reformation come anew to us. As we celebrate the Reformation, may we be continually reformed by our gracious and powerful God.
Photo credit: Alex Flash/Unsplash
[i] In Latin, the phrase is semper reformanda.
[ii] I commend these lectures by Timothy George on the Reformation: https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/evangelical-history/2017/10/19/timothy-george-lectures-on-the-reformation/.
[iv] Luther was a man of strict conscience and devotion. He once said, “I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.” And yet he could not find peace. He didn’t have assurance of faith and of his salvation. When he came to the realization that even his righteousness was not enough, it was a profound blow and also an incredible relief. http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1501-1600/martin-luther-monumental-reformer-11629922.html
[v] Two of Luther’s most saddening sins were his virulent anti-Semitism, especially as he grew older, and his complicity in violence.
[vi] God, in his providence situated Luther at an incredible juncture of history. The printing press created its first Bible just 60 years earlier in Gutenberg in 1455, putting the Bible into the hands of Christians in a way it had never been available. Similarly, the age of expedition was near its crescendo in Luther’s lifetime, allowing the spread of the gospel in a powerful historic moment.
[vii] Sproul’s post here does a good job digging into the theological significance of Luther’s position on justification by faith alone: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-does-roman-catholic-church-believe-about-justification/.
[viii] Eric Davis’s post is helpful in navigating the current teachings of the Roman Catholic church and where we remain misaligned in our understanding of the work of Christ and salvation: http://thecripplegate.com/reformation-500-can-roman-catholicism-be-considered-christianity/. It is important to note that where we can point to official doctrines of Rome (such a thing cannot be pointed to for Protestants), many Roman Catholics may well be orthodox in their own theology.
[ix] John 14:6