What I Grieve and Celebrate about the Reformation

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Today is Reformation Day.  It was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the Wittenburg Castle church in hopes to ignite a discussion on what he felt were unhinged and ungodly practices of the Catholic Church.  It is the moment that Protestants consider as the birth of the Reformation.

Many think back on history and imagine Martin Luther as cavalier, desperately wanting to pick a fight.  It could not be further than the truth.  Luther was a Catholic monk.  He loved God and the Church, but considering the practices of his day, he could not stay silent.  He posted the 95 theses in Latin, so that only those within the church could read them.  They were not a public statement; they were a private notice begging for a future discussion with church leaders.  In the end, Luther was labeled a heretic and excommunicated from the institution he loved.  He didn’t celebrate that mark; he grieved it.

While I consider myself a Christian in the reformed tradition, I have many Catholic friends that I call brothers and sisters in Christ.  If you were to examine what the Catholic Church considers the greatest heresies throughout history, the Protestant Reformation would top the list.  To the Roman Catholic tradition, the Reformation marks a great rebellion, a rejection of God’s appointed Apostolic leaders, and the schism of the Body of Christ.

In Jesus’ final prayer the night before his arrest, He prayed, “My prayer is… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).  

When Jesus spoke of how he desired the unity of His followers, he used the analogy of the Triunity of God- the most mysterious union inside and outside the universe.  The clearest example of the vitality of the triune relationship of God can be seen in its absence: Jesus’ most desperate moment came when He bore the sins of the world, prompting God to turn away.  Jesus’ historic cry still haunts us, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

If Jesus’ desire was for His people to be unified like the Godhead, and the greatest tragedy Jesus experienced was the broken relationship with that Godhead, we can therefore conclude that the disunity of the church may be likened to the anguish of the separation of the Godhead that occurred at the crucifixion.  

As much as we may rejoice in the message of the Reformation, we must bear the heavy weight that was caused as the church was ripped apart.  While such a schism was not Martin Luther’s intention, nevertheless, a broken relationship occurred followed by a long future of bloodshed.  I believe the clash, disunity, and even wars between the Protestants and Catholics have only grieved the heart of God.

So while I disdain the discord of the Reformation, I rejoice in the message at the center of the Reformation and seek to continually apply it.

Martin Luther, a biblical scholar, saw some of the practices of his church during his day, and he questioned their legitimacy.  While the Catholic Church considers its tradition to be holy and sacred, Martin Luther felt that there were practices that specifically contradicted Scripture.  His aim was to reform those by bringing them to light and comparing them with the Bible.  

Francis Chan, a contemporary theologian, pastor, and writer often tells stories about encounters with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon missionaries.  After some discussions about their different beliefs, he gets to the gist of his disagreement.  “When I read the Bible,” he explains, “I just don’t see how you can come up with many of your beliefs.  I just don’t find them in Scripture.”  Martin Luther’s claim was exactly that.

This is the pertinent message of the Reformation and something that still should be applied today to those churches esteeming the Word of God.  We are creatures of habit that crave leaders.  It doesn’t matter the flavor of Protestantism, whether we are Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, even non-denominational.  Sometimes we get into ruts, and we participate in ecclesiastical activities out of sheer habit.  Catholics are not alone in their esteem for tradition.  We all have traditions.  What we need is the courage to continually stop and ask, “Is what we’re doing in line with Scripture?”  

On this Reformation Day, I offer these three prayers.  

First, may we have the courage to examine our hearts and our practices and test them in line with Holy Scripture.  Does what I’m doing, what I believe, what we are doing as a church contradict the Word of God in any way?  And if it does, may we have the courage to bring them to light.

Secondly, in our zeal, may we have the humility to bring them to light in a way that honors God and our fellow believers.  May Martin Luther be an example to us in how we ought to bring our objections to the church in gentle love.  Our goal is not to call people out on social media or to embarrass them in any way.  It is to do things in a that would counsel them to change directions.

Thirdly, may we who are church leaders have the grace and humility to listen to those who feel that the church has lost her way.  May we not be blinded by an unbiblical clergy-laity class system.   But rather, may we see everyone within the church as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and treat them as equals.  

May we always be reforming to the likeness of Jesus, while seeking to maintain unity in the likeness of the Trinity.

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