499 years ago to date a German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. This event set in motion the unstoppable wave of Protestant Reformation in Europe, and led to the departure of the churches identified with the Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church.
In the heart of the big split was how the two sides understood the centrality and role of grace and faith in the lives of believers. On the one hand the Roman Catholic Church claimed that she was the God given means of deciding the conditions under which the grace of Christ was to be administered in the lives of believers. The Reformers, on the other hand, understood that if the grace of Jesus Christ was to be grace, it had to be the gift of God with no human strings attached. Thus the well-known tag lines of the Reformation came into being: Jesus alone, grace alone, faith alone, Bible alone.
Today, almost 500 years later, we are hearing the loud choruses of Christian leaders and scholars on all sides declaring that the Reformation was a big mistake, and that all theological differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants were the consequences of “a tragic misunderstanding”. “Our differences are only the question of semantics. After all we all believe that we are all saved by grace, aren’t we?”, they argue.
But, has anything really changed over the centuries in our understanding of the Gospel of Christ to justify such bold claims?
Have we finally come to a clearer understanding of the meaning, centrality and all-sufficiency of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in our salvation? Have we finally stopped turning our denominations and churches into the ‘dens of robbers’ by selling in them our own brands of saving supplements? Have we all, after many debates, commissions and joint declarations come to share in the transfiguration experience of Jesus, when his disciples finally “saw no one else but Jesus”? Matthew 17:8.
I am not convinced that we have. And I am saying “we” because all kinds of self-saving placebos are on the market across the entire spectrum of Christendom today. The examples vary from the outrageous and extreme self-molestations of Catholics in Philippines during the days of Easter, to the superstitious veneration of relics and deceased human intercessors and co-redeemers, still very much alive even in the most liberal circles of the Roman Catholic Church.
By the same token, have we Protestants moved forward “ever reforming” when many of us are relying on our subjective forms of mysticism (listen to the most of the contemporary praise and worship music and you will discover that we praise our emotions more often than Jesus the Redeemer)? Or when we rely on the subjective prophetic and charismatic gifts for the assurance of our standing with God rather than on the firm promise that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?” Romans 10:13. Are we truly reformed and “keep on reforming” when many of us have lost any appreciation for the uniqueness of Jesus as “the only name given to men to be saved”? Acts 4:11.
In other words, wherever a Christian culture exists that encourages its followers to believe and act as if their salvation, or sense of God’s approval depend on our works (whether they are the works of the Law or our own rules); or on our subjective inner feelings and notions; or wherever we are encouraged to look for the revelation of God in the inner workings of our consciousness – through it all we are demonstrating that we are not sure if trusting in Jesus alone is enough to keep us in the saving relationship with God. Thus the grace of Christ, as the supreme and all-sufficient agent of our salvation is compromised, diluted, even lost.
As long as something is being added, whatever that may be, to which we give even partial redemptive attributes, we have not grasped the heart, meaning and continuing urgency of the Reformation. Instead of “always reforming” we are continually deforming.
Today many are praying for unity, quoting the prayer of Jesus “that all may be one”. Unfortunately, they are forgetting that the only legitimate unity shared among the followers of Jesus is the one with Jesus firmly occupying the throne, and deciding the rules of the game. “That all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You”’ prayed Jesus. John 17:21.
Jesus never prayed for unity at all costs. Unity that does not have Jesus-plus-nothing in the center is a hijacked unity. Cosmetic unifications are not based on the truth but on compromises that always sacrifice the Gospel. There where Jesus Christ is not on the throne, some other “Christ” will be enthroned. This is why the warning of Paul the Apostle sounds so urgent and so uncompromising: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned”. Galatians 2:8.
The 16th century Reformers understood that the heart of the Gospel was the gift of Jesus Christ without human strings attached. This was the landmark which they did not dare compromise or subject to improvisation. Neither should we today.
PS. The late Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer, who dedicated his life to working towards the unity of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches, said that “Luther’s protest is over”, namely that there were no more justifiable reasons for the separation between the Protestant world and the Roman Catholic Church since “now we all believe that we are all saved by Christ alone”. The current visit of Pope Francis to Sweden, where he is meeting with the top leaders of the Lutheran World Federation to commemorate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, seems to be suggesting that Pope Francis too believes that the end of five hundred year long separation is almost over. As we are becoming more and more aware of the claims and statements delivered by the prominent faith leaders we need to continue to ask: Is justice being done to the Gospel of Christ through the processes that are diligently working at the high levels to bring the Christendom together under one tent? I know this is one of those unpopular questions in the age of political, social and spiritual correctness. But it needs to be asked nevertheless.