Happy Reformation Day!
It was 500 years ago this past October 31 that Martin Luther published his famed 95 theses. He didn’t want to rebel. He was a very devout Catholic who earnestly wanted to have discussion about the abuses going on around him. What he saw was the commercialization of forgiveness. Zealous Catholic fundraisers were announcing that dead relatives would receive forgiveness if church members would give money. “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” was the sales pitch. Luther was hoping his arch-bishop and even the pope would intervene and stop this abuse. What he did not know was that half the proceeds were going to his bishop and the other half were going to the pope. They were not friendly to efforts to halt their revenue.
Luther took to the pulpit and printing press to restore the pure message of the gospel: “It is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) This is the central doctrine of the Protestant Reformation: Justification by grace through faith. Good deeds are ineffective. Financial contributions are ineffective. Volunteering doesn’t do it. Being a nice person doesn’t do it. Only faith—a living and certain trust—in what Jesus Christ achieved for us on the Cross can save. There are now more than 300 Protestant denominations but this doctrine is shared by all of them—including United Methodists. In recent years Catholics have dropped their opposition to this teaching.
The push back against Luther from the church hierarchy was severe. He went into hiding for a time. To defend himself in the face of church authorities he made his appeal to the authority of the Bible. This became the second great doctrine of the Reformation: The authority of scripture to determine the faith and practice of the church. “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2Timothy 3:16) Luther then took a step that changed history. He translated the Bible into German. For the first time in a thousand years, church members could read the Bible in their own language. A Bible study renaissance began.
John Wesley lived 200 years after the time of Martin Luther. Luther was instrumental in Wesley’s evangelical conversion. Wesley wrote in his journal on May 24, 1738:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation: and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
After 500 years it’s fair to ask if the Protestant Reformation matters anymore. The splintering of Protestants into hundreds of denominations signals quarrelsomeness and rivalry. Pluralism, universalism and attacks on scriptural authority abound. It’s no surprise that the churches who have retreated from Reformation doctrines have suffered the greatest decline. This being said, I believe a recovery of the teaching on justification by faith will reawaken Christian mission. And a return to embracing the authority of scripture will unite the church and end decline. The Reformation may be 500 years old but I say it’s the hope for revival.
Connect, Grow and Serve!
Pastor Tom Anderson