On October 31, 2017, it will be 500 years since Martin Luther, then a scrawny-looking monk from an obscure town in what we now call Germany, nailed a printed document called The Ninety-five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the local church.
It sounds more aggressive and dramatic than it actually was, and as always, looking back from the perspective of what this action triggered makes it seem so. The church door was in effect the local notice board, and people nailed things to it all the time. What Luther was doing was calling for a theological debate, and proposing some items for discussion. He was a lecturer at the local university. That’s what they did.
No big deal, you would have thought.
Nevertheless, what Luther proposed in his theses sparked off the movement which we know now as the Reformation, and which gave birth to the Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist churches among many others.
It was also a movement that had a profound and ongoing impact on politics, science, education and business. We now live in the world shaped by the Reformation.
But should we really be celebrating what is in effect the tearing of the Christian church? Don’t we live in an era where we are more tolerant and peaceable than before?
In Australia in particular, many of an older generation can remember the “sectarianism” which divided Australian society in decades gone by. You knew who was Protestant and Catholic even in the Australian cricket team! We treated one another with suspicion and mistrust.
Of course, this division in Australia did not lead to the kind of violence that has played out in other places, most recently in Northern Ireland, but before that in various wars that wrenched Europe apart, particularly in the 1600s.
Is celebrating the Reformation then a little bit like celebrating the Crusades – perversely revelling in a shameful division?
Certainly, a celebration of the Reformation could be that. In fact, it would not be in the spirit of Martin Luther himself to forget to weep at the rift between the churches of the Reformation and the Church of Rome. It was not his intention to cause a fracture. In fact, the name “Reformation” hints at what he was getting at. Luther hoped that the Pope would listen to his pleas, and that there would be a reformation of the Church of Rome.
But Luther and the other reformers in Germany, Switzerland and England were determined that any true church of Jesus Christ should be subject to the Bible alone as the sole authority in the faith, and that any such church should continually preach grace and grace alone as the way in which human beings come to be justified.
In lecturing on the Bible to his students at the university, Luther had come to the realisation that salvation for human beings was not on the basis of anything merited by them.
Now, no one was so crass as to say that you could simply earn your salvation by doing good deeds. Rather, the claim was that if, having been baptised, you did your utmost to please God, then he would see that as sufficient grounds to grant you entry into heaven.
This was a kind of co-operative model of salvation. “God helps those who help themselves,” we might say.
But there are two problems with this, and they are very far-reaching.
The first is that the human condition is far graver than that. Even if helping ourselves would please God – we can’t. We are too far-gone. We aren’t merely sick because of sin; we are dead – which is what the Bible says (in Ephesians 2:1 for example). We need not simply healing but a whole rebirth. That’s why Jesus talks to Nicodemus about a person being “born a second time”.
And for that to take place, we can’t just count on a fine example to guide us. We need something more radical than that.
And that’s what the cross of Christ is. Jesus dies on the cross not simply as a model of noble self-sacrifice to admire and copy, but to make atonement for human sins. He stands in the place of judgment, so that we can stand in the place of innocence.
Now, the only way we human beings can connect to this offer of salvation is by … accepting it. If we have to do anything to earn it, then it collapses, because it isn’t the work of God in Jesus Christ any more but something that is good about us. It leads us into the sin of pride. We become our own judges, rather than God.
That is what Luther means by that much-misused word “faith”. He doesn’t mean “believing certain truths”, but “believing and accepting God’s promise of salvation in the cross of Christ”. That’s it! It is so simple that people refuse to believe it could be so. We are so convinced by our own capacity to do things that we can’t believe in the grace of God as a gift but try to make it something we earn.
That is what had happened in the Roman Catholic Church over many years, and the system by which it dispensed salvation to the people was a very effective and far-reaching means of social control. It certainly had its saints and its profound teachers, from whom we should continue to learn.
But so long as it imposed conditions on people’s salvation other than faith in Jesus Christ, then it was dangerously perverting the biblical gospel, to the peril of the souls of men and women.
The supposedly infallible Church had openly and indubitably erred. It had, said Luther and the others, wandered away from the very sources of its own faith, and was now teaching something that was a poor shadow of the shining truth of the gospel. Many critics had said so in the two hundred years before Luther: men such as John Wycliffe in Oxford and Jan Hus in Bohemia and, later, the great scholar Erasmus.
But the hope was that by re-reading the text of Scripture, the Church would reform itself. Erring is what human institutions do, after all. It is to be expected that we would make mistakes. But a church that properly submits itself to the voice of its Lord in the Bible has a chance to admit its mistakes, repent, and change. That’s harder to do if you are claiming that you don’t make mistakes.
So here’s the reason that we should celebrate the Reformation. It would be weird to celebrate it because of a sense of superiority, or because of the unchangeable and infallible character of the heritage we have received from the Reformation and its great teachers. That would be to make of them the very thing that they protested against!
Lutheranism, Presbyterianism and Anglicanism are no less to be held accountable and reformed according to the word of God than Roman Catholicism should be. If we fail to see the ways in which our traditions have failed and continue to fail, then we are guilty of a rank hypocrisy.
This goes for our tendency to hero worship, too. The great teachers of the Reformation had their faults, some of them despicable. Luther’s anti-Semitism is inexcusable, for example.
But a Reformation understanding of the human condition and of our need for God’s grace gives us a way of seeing the whole person without whitewashing the story.
And that insight gets to the heart of why we need to celebrate the Reformation – because the hero of the Reformation is really the Jesus Christ of the Bible. The Bible was opened in the 16th century, as it hadn’t been for many years, and from its pages leapt the living Jesus Christ. From him we learned that human beings are in a much graver spiritual
state than we ever thought. But we also learned that the salvation we are offered is much greater than we ever dreamed. Christ alone is our hope in this world!
This is a message we need to hear even more insistently today. Just as half a millennium ago we needed a church that listened more intently to the word of God, so today we need a church with open ears, waiting patiently on its Lord to speak.
We live in a culture that cannot bear to admit the reality of spiritual helplessness, because it cannot find the antidote to it. But the biblical gospel is that cure, just as Luther saw it!
There are many ways to celebrate the Reformation over the next 12 months. But the best of all ways would be to open your Bible and read and read.