Five hundred years ago, on 31st October 1517., 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 the 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 were two incompatible interpretations of the centrality and the role of the saving grace and faith in the lives of believers. On the one hand the Roman Catholic Church, through its teachings and popular beliefs acted as if it were the authorized administrator of God’s grace to believers. In other words, the grace of God came into the lives of believers with some conditions attached, of which the Roman Catholic Church was in control.
The Reformers, however, understood that if the grace of Jesus Christ were to be the undiluted grace, it had to be administered without any human strings attached. According to the Reformers, grace is no longer grace the moment subjective interpretations or requirements are added to it. Such was the case with the offensive sale of indulgencies in the days of Martin Luther, when the Roman Catholic Church of the days was adding a monetary value to the grace of Christ. It deceived the millions by the Johann Tetzel’s formula: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of the purgatory springs”.
As the Reformation reached its momentum, following the brave Luther’s declaration “Here I Stand, I can do no other”, the Reformers guarded the rediscovered Gospel by the following statements of faith: “Jesus alone! Grace alone! Faith alone! Bible alone!”
Today, 500 years later, we are hearing the choruses of Christian leaders and scholars declaring that the Reformation was a big mistake, and that all theological differences that continue to keep the Roman Catholics and the Protestants apart were caused by “a tragic misunderstanding”. “Our differences are only a matter of semantics. After all don’t we all believe that we are all saved by grace! Aren’t we sharing in the same Holy Spirit!” – many are reasoning today.
A case in point was the late Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer, who dedicated his life to building bridges between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants, especially the Evangelical charismatic communities claiming that the “Luther’s protest is over”. In his view the protest achieved its purpose in 1999 when the “Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Lutheran church signed an agreement that brought an end to the protest”.
Likewise, a recent visit of Pope Francis to Sweden, where he met with the top leaders of the Lutheran World Federation about the commemoration of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, seemed to be suggesting that Pope Francis too believed that the end of five hundred year-long separation was almost over. As the time of celebration of the important anniversary was nearing the voices declaring the ushering in of the age of new unity of the Spirit were becoming increasingly louder. It seems as if the embarrassment of the fragmented Christianity is about to end soon?
But, is that really so? Has anything substantially changed for better in our appreciation of the Gospel of Christ since that day in 1517 when Martin Luther protested against the religious manipulations of the day? 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, so that finally we “see no one and nothing 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 marketed across the entire spectrum of Christendom today, and not only by the fringe Christian movements.
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. There where the leaders of the church are still directing their followers to seek the redemptive and mediating qualities in their saints, bones, holy objects and holy places, reformation has not taken place yet.
By the same token, have we Protestants moved forward “always reforming” when many of us are relying on our subjective forms of mysticism? Listen, for example, to the popular contemporary praise and worship services and you will discover that too many Protestants/Evangelicals are indulged in the praise of their emotions rather than in the praise of Jesus the Redeemer.
Or, what to say about depending too much on the subjective prophetic and charismatic experiences 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 if it matters to us more that we feel right, rather than that we believe right?
Also, have we really understood the heart of Reformation if our mainstream denominations are watering down all the denominational statements that have until recently declared the 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 of any kind; or on our subjective inner feelings and notions; or when we are encouraged to look for the revelation of God in the inner mazes of our consciousness and emotions – 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. Claims that “since we all share in the same Spirit we ought to share in the visible unity too” are very deceptive claims. 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 “christs” 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 dare do it today.
Postscriptum added November 14, 2017 :
No church organization, movement or a group can honestly claim to be the flag-bearers of the Reformation if they have departed from believing in the central importance of the substitutionary life and death of Jesus Christ, and his literal, bodily resurrection. Trusting in Jesus-alone, plus no one or anything else, is the heart of the Reformation. Understanding its meaning is enough to know that the reasons for the Protest have not been removed yet, and that they are very much alive today across the Protestant spectrum too. Any Christian group that undermines or caricatures the most literal centrality of Christ in its teaching; or that pays Him a lip service only, or hijacks the Gospel of Christ for the promotion of its own peculiar teachings are not the Reformers of our days. Neither are those who major on the social and cultural benefits of the Reformation alone, while being embarrassed of its Christ-alone centered heart. Only those who continue to see and interpret everything they believe through the glasses of the exclusive and substitutionary importance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and are ready to get rid of all other additives to our salvation as redundant, are legitimate flag bearers of the Reformation.