[This appeared first at LifeChurchNC.com]
October 27, 2017
While Halloween and trick-or-treating will be on most people’s minds come Tuesday October 31, 2017, this October 31 in particular holds particular significance for another reason. Depending on your background, how much you have been following the news in the ‘Christian world,’ or how much you’ve been paying attention to events happening with some of the local churches around us (in particular, our Lutheran brothers and sisters), then you’re likely aware that next Tuesday is the 500 year anniversary of an event known as the Protestant Reformation. There are several great articles and resources available HERE and HERE that I would recommend for those of you who would like to dig a little deeper. For the sake of keeping this email to somewhat a ‘manageable’ length, I will not take the time to go into as much detail here.
In summary, on October 31, 1517, a German professor named Martin Luther nailed a document to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, infamously known as the ’95 Theses.’ In this document, Luther disputed the institutional corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, in particular the selling of indulgences by the church that granted forgiveness, or penance, to the people for their sins, or on behalf of the dead in order to release their souls from purgatory. (Thesis 27). While the ‘95 Theses‘ was much more comprehensive than its focus on indulgences, much of the focus of this disputation centered on what were deemed necessary and corrupt practices that had been innovated and adopted by the Roman Catholic Church during medieval times.
The event of October 31, 1517 sparked a series of major events that ultimately led to Luther’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church in 1521. Luther’s intent, along with other somewhat like-minded theologians at the time, was to call-out and reform these corrupt and unnecessary institutional practices of the Church in an effort to recenter the focus on the Gospel of God’s saving work in Christ. To say it more bluntly, Luther’s convictions led him to confront a traditionalism that had become the dead faith of the living, and instead to rethink tradition as a living faith of the dead.
What’s interesting about the early years of this movement is that Martin Luther himself never intended to leave the Catholic Church. His claim was that he did not leave the Catholic Church, but that the Catholic Church left him. This eventually happened in 1521. While Luther was rejected by the Catholics, he was embraced by a group that had become known as the Protestants. In 1529, this group of radical reformers was dubbed the name, Protestant, referring to a growing movement of protestors who were beginning to stand against the practices, pressures and imminent threats of the Roman Catholic Church. Today those events are referred to as the Protestant Reformation.
In speaking with a few fellow pastors recently, I was reminded that the 500 year anniversary Protestant Reformation (despite how others have referred to it) is NOT something to celebrate, but rather, commemorate. It was a time of volatile, sometimes violent, but necessary division (which breaks the heart of God) among followers of Jesus who recognized the corruption of institutional religion and who rediscovered three basic tenants of faith that have served to shape who we are and how we practice as a local church today:
- The Authority of God’s Word.
- Salvation by Grace Alone
- The Priesthood of the believers
These tenants are more fully explained in The Augsburg Confession (1530). From this movement stemmed three main Protestant traditions from which almost all denominations of Western Christianity find their origins – Lutherans(Germany & Scandinavia); Presbyterians or Calvinists (Switzerland, France, Holland, Scotland), and the Church of England. One might also add here the Anabaptist tradition that that stemmed from Lutheran areas, also known as the Radical Reformists.
With respect to our Lutheran brothers and sisters, it’s also interesting to consider that the very thing that Luther asked not to be done was done – a denomination named after him. Luther: “I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one.” (See Lutherquest.org for a great counter-explanation)
So, why is all of this history important? Although October 31, 2017 commemorates a pivotal event in the history of the Church as we know it today, it is important to remember that Jesus is still reforming His Church today, calling forth reformers who would continue to challenge the institutionalization of the Body of Christ which was always meant to be organic, Spirit-led and God-controlled. Our tendency with the church is similar to that in our lives – to attempt to control the things we cannot; to take credit for things we should not; to build the thing that we are not meant to build (referring to the Church, which is Christ’s to build – Matthew 16:18); and to advance a Kingdom that will not budge without Christ moving it forward (Luke 17:20-21) – He has invited us to come along for the ride and contribute along the way!
Reformation is how the Church has survived and thrived for over 2,000 years, and while people are often used to catalyze it, Jesus is the Great Reformer. May we continue to be faithful, grace-filled, Gospel-centered co-reformers as responsible stewards of His Gospel and His Church, for the Glory of the name of Jesus.