The world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation starting on October 31st, 2017. That day, Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg. These theses began a series of events through which the Pope excommunicated Martin Luther, and other reformers were inspired to bring about their own protest movements.
For Martin Luther, the key discovery that sparked the reformation came from Romans, chapter 1. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
For the longest time, Martin Luther believed that the righteousness of God was terrifying for the Christian. God was a horrible judge, who looked down on your behaviors with just, but scary judgements. A righteous God, Luther believed, looks at human beings without mercy. He only sees their behavior, punishing sinners and rewarding righteousness. When this is your understanding of the righteousness of God, it would be terrifying.
Martin Luther was terrified, despite doing everything he could to be as righteous as possible. A rigorous and obedient monk, he could not shake the terror that bound his conscience. No matter how many times he confessed his sin, no matter how hard he worked, he could not feel confident in salvation. He remained terrified of God.
After meditating on this phrase, “The righteousness of God,” Luthern came to understand it in a different way. The righteousness of God is not about judging the righteousness of humanity. Instead, God’s righteousness is revealed through the promise of the gospel. Luther cites the original context, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The gospel, then, is the free gift of righteousness to the Christian. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ receives eternal life through faith.
Satan always takes the best things in life and twists them to his own ends. The reformation is no different. Since Jesus was raised from the dead, the church across the whole world was united for 1000 years. It wasn’t until the great schism of 1054 AD, that the church split between East and West. Western Christianity continued to be united for 500 more years.
This focus on unity reflects God’s design for his church. St. Paul writes repeatedly about the unity that we have in the body of Christ. His most detailed treatment comes from 1st Corinthians, chapter 12. He writes at length about how individuals within the church are united to each other. That unity extends beyond the congregation to the whole Christian community. It was important, then, for Christians everywhere to live as a united people as a reflection of the unity we have in Christ.
Unity was important to Martin Luther and the first German reformers. The 95 Theses were not a religious declaration of independence. They were a critique of the abuses of indulgences. If you read the text, you’ll see that Luther held a high view of the pope. He was trying to defend the church against what he assumed were disobedient practitioners using the church for their own gain.
After Luther had been excommunicated, even then they did not want to start a new church. When the German reformers were called to the Diet of Augsburg to explain themselves,They presented a confession, called the Augsburg Confession, that was an attempt to prove that their theology was good Roman Catholic theology. From the preface to the Augsburg confession , “Then the things in the Scriptures which on either side have been differently interpreted or misunderstood, being corrected and laid aside, may be settled and brought back to one perfect truth and Christian concord. Thus in the future one pure and true religion may be embraced and maintained by us, that as we all serve and do battle under Christ, so we may be able also to live in unity and concord in one Christian Church.” They hoped to come together around the truth of the gospel so they could live in unity in the one Christian Church.
What happened instead was a tragedy. The church split. After 1500 years of unity in the western church, there were suddenly hundreds of small denominations popping up across Europe. The trajectory continues today. Many people say that there are more than 33,000 Christian denominations , but the number is surely much smaller than that. But even a loose categorization of Christian groups gives us too many divisions. There are Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and even more. Each of these groups has divisions as well. In the west, they are often divided between “conservative” and “liberal” versions of their theological tradition.
Any division within the body of Christ is a tragedy. While we can celebrate the reformation with joy at the rediscovery of the gospel, we also need to mourn what happened afterward. The body of Christ split, probably irrevocably, into many, many pieces. We should always remember this with pain.
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