Its not that often that one experiences a 500th anniversary! Significant milestones deserve our attention, and this is one of them.
Martin Luther’s nailing 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church has reverberated down through five centuries with resounding influence. One cannot understand Western civilization adequately without understanding the significance of Luther’s Reformation. Not even he knew the significance of the debate and ensuing conflict. He was simply living truthfully in his time, responding to the issues of his day, engaging matters of significance with courage. There was no master plan to bring about a Reformation, and it did not unfold the way he hoped. He never intended to split the church; he wanted to defend the truth of the Gospel from the extremes of some who were abusing their position of authority.
Living 500 years later we have the advantage of hindsight, of reading from a different context. Some things are clear when you are not living in them. Reading about the state of the church in the 1500s is shocking. It is so obvious to us today that some things were very wrong back then. I commend Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity for a truthful and balanced view through church history.
How could the church get so far off track?
As I reflected on this troublesome time in church history I was reminded of the story of Israel in the Bible. The Old Testament is an honest and transparent account of the good and bad times of Israel. And when it got bad, it got really bad. It is to the credit of the Jews that they did not edit out these embarrassing stories from their history. They have left it all there for the world to see. It is a truthful account of how God works with us.
Reading the Bible we see patterns emerge:
- Israel did well when her leaders were godly; Israel suffered when her leaders did not follow God
- When the people called out to God in their pain, God heard and responded
- God sent prophets to call the leadership back to God and to challenge the people to return to their faith
- These prophets spoke with sharp and provocative language, designed to shock people out of lethargy into a reaction
- There was usually strong resistance from the powers of the day that often degenerated into violence as the powers resisted accountability
- The prophets write down their challenge for the record
Reading Stark’s book of the ups and downs of the history of Christianity reveals the same pattern with the church. There were good times when the leadership was godly, and the church prospered. And there were times when the leadership strayed from God, and things got bad – real bad. The groaning of the people in prayer brings a response from God – to send prophets.
Martin Luther was one of those prophets. He has all the characteristics of a prophet. Here’s a good documentary about what happened.
It was not an orderly reformation; things spun out of control, painful things happened. And yet through all the chaos God brought forth truth and correction to his church. There were ideas in Luther’s day that were wrong, dead wrong, but powerfully in control. Luther challenged these authority structures with truth from a higher authority – God’s Word. His ammunition was his pen and his cannon was the printing press. It was a battle of minds for the hearts of the people.
500 years later, we continue to benefit from Luther’s struggle. It has shaped Western civilization. The truths from Scripture that Luther fought for have come down to us:
- We have the Bible in our own language, available to everyone
- We have direct access to God, through Jesus Christ; we are not dependent on a human structure
- Salvation is a free gift, available to all who believe Christ’s offer; we do not have to earn our way to God
- Authority structures are accountable to God’s higher law
- Freedom of conscience and respect for the individual
Ideas matter. Ideas result in actions, practises. The Reformation was a battle over ideas and the practises that followed. Luther came to the point where he had to say, “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God!”
Ideas still matter. Today there is an contest of ideas every bit as crucial as in Luther’s day. There is increased tension in the air as ideologies advance that are out of line from God’s Word. We as Christians, like Luther, have to engage with the issues of our time. We don’t have a masterplan, we don’t know how this will all play out, and it will probably involve a fair bit of chaos and hurt. It’s a messy experience to challenge ideas of our time.
The challenge to us is, where do we stand? Are we engaging the issues of our day? How far will we let things go before we say, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help us!”