Originally published on the Forge Scotland blog.
496 years ago today one of the great heroes of the Reformation, Martin Luther, famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His original intention was to call the Roman Catholic church to change it’s ways, which he felt were ungodly. However, instead he sparked the Protestant Reformation.
In two weeks time the UK will once again be called to remembered those who died in the two World Wars on Remembrance Day. The motto of “lest we forget” will ring out again, urging us to remember what has gone before, in order to prevent it from ever happening again. Perhaps today we should do similar, and remember why the Reformation was “fought” and for what reasons.
I would like us to consider some of the key doctrinal issues that Luther and friends took issue with, and consider some of their modern day appearances:
- Indulgences. Luther’s primary point in his 95 Theses was against the sale of indulgences; that is, asking people to give money in order to ease their (or their relatives) path from purgatory into heaven. Not something we see all that often today, but is it such a far cry from the prosperity theology that we still see being preached from charismatic pulpits, particularly in America? And now it is spreading from the US and into Africa, much to the chagrin of many. And lest we think that we have avoided the trap, I think we would do well to avoid a “softer” prosperity theology that has invaded the church, which doesn’t necessarily offer blessings for cash, but does offer a better, healthier, more prosperous life that isn’t ours to give, and certainly wasn’t what was promised by Jesus.
- Priests. One of the problems with the priesthood in the time of Luther was that they had become the “keepers of the faith”, which included knowledge of the Bible, which was exclusively in Latin and not available to the common man. We face this danger in a couple of places. In some churches the “prophet” takes on a very priestly role, with a hint of “secret knowledge” and an air of infallibility. We also need to watch that the healthy resurgence of APEST gifting that we don’t end up with a new power structure, rather than the Biblically ordained offices that should encourage whole-body ministry.
- Extra-Biblical authority. Within the Catholic tradition, tradition itself had equal authority with the Bible. One of the cries of the Reformation was that of “Sola Scriptura” - Scripture alone with unequalled authority. In some context, either through incorrect belief, or through insufficient teaching, personal prophesy has become equal to Scripture or even in some cases, a simple lack of Biblical knowledge leads to it being a higher authority.
- Salvation by works. Along with Sola Scriptura, the Reformers cried Sola Gratia: by grace alone. Luther struggled with what he saw as his own failings to appease God, but realised through his study of Romans that it was not through our own works, but through the grace of God alone that we receive salvation. Sometimes our use of the spiritual gifts seems to stem from a desire to “do works” to please God. Gifts that are disconnected from our intimate relationship with the gift-giver (and the fruits of character that stem from him) can be used as a way to avoid suffering, rather than embrace the grace that comes through suffering.
- Icons, rosaries, Mary, etc. One of the other great Reformers, John Calvin, is often quoted as saying “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Protestant churches were notable for their sparse, plain appearance, which was to prevent people from focusing on created things, rather than their Creator. We too, both in the rise of prophetic art, dance, etc and also with the increase of “celebrity” within the Christian world, must guard our hearts against exalting anything but the Creator.
Sometimes I think we have a very simplistic understanding of how a church can go “off course” - a Hollywood-style villain twirling his moustache and perverting the minds of innocent Christians. But while I am sure that there are some definite villains in the course of church history (both on a local, and on a worldwide scale), it is mostly paved with good men who were trying to do their best to follow God but who weren’t perfect. One of basic tenets to come from Luther was “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” - “the church is always to be reformed”, or sometimes worded as “reformed, and always reforming”. He didn’t just want the church to change in his day, but to always be in a process of self-examination to maintain the purity of doctrine and practice. I think he was right.