Before we go back in time 500 years, let’s meditate upon these Zen Koans for the Internet Age: If an anonymous comment goes unread, is it still irritating? What is the sound of no hands texting? If nobody likes your selfie, what is the value of the self? To see a man’s true face, look to the photos he hasn’t posted.
On October 31, 1517, in one of the signal events of western history, Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, purportedly posted 95 theses on the church door in the university town of Wittenberg. That act was common academic practice of the day and served as an invitation to debate. Luther’s propositions challenged some portions of Roman Catholic doctrine and many specific practices.
Luther had been especially appalled by a common church practice of the day called the selling of indulgences. These papal documents were sold to penitents and promised them the remission of their sins. To Luther and other critics, it appeared that salvation was for sale. Rome enthusiastically supported the use of indulgences to raise money for a massive church project, the construction of St. Peter’s basilica.
There was nothing secret about Luther’s challenges. He sent a copy to his bishop, who in turn forwarded the theses to Rome. With the help of the moveable type printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, he quickly writes out, duplicates and distributes this new collection of ideas challenging indulgences across the entire land.
Wittenberg is the epicenter for a wave of new thought whose affects reach as far as Rome. In June 1518, a heresy trial against Luther begins and some months later in Augsburg, the papal envoy Cardinal Thomas Cajetan interrogates the reformer, who steadfastly refuses to renounce his ideas.
Provocative theses, reformation writings, stubborn refusal to revoke ideas, it’s all too much for the Pope Leo X who in January 1521 excommunicates Luther. In April that same year, Luther defends himself before the emperor.
In his famous April 18th speech, the reformer states that he will only take back his words if biblical fact can disprove them, and underlines he can’t act against his conscience. “Here I stand. God help me. Amen,” he supposedly concluded his speech. Emperor Charles V places the Edict of Worms upon Luther, declaring him an outlaw and banning his writing.
Luther doesn’t have to wait long for help. His countryman Frederick III, Prince of Saxony, arranges for the outlaw to be kidnapped during his return home from Worms and brought to safety in Wartburg Castle, where he writes under a pseudonym.
Luther uses these ten months to compile numerous writings that further define Reformation issues. He also becomes the first person to translate the New Testament from ancient Greek into German. Luther’s translation, printed in 1522, is a linguistic masterpiece, and a bestseller carrying the hefty price tag of half a fattened ox.
In 1525, the once celibate monk marries former nun Katharina von Bora. Together they raise six children and found the first Protestant parsonage, which serves as the model for a parish’s spiritual and organizational center well into the 20th century.
During Luther’s travels, he realizes that his most of his countrymen know very little Christian belief. This spurs him in 1529 to write both the “Small Catechism” for the common man and the “Large Catechism” for the priesthood, creating the fundamental instructive works of Lutheran and even Protestant belief through today.
The same year reform-oriented princes in the Imperial Diet in Speyer protest the ongoing Edict of Worms. Their actions give “Protestantism” its name. Luther had previously referred to his movement as “Evangelistic.”
The Holy Roman Empire risks breaking up, in part to the religious divisions brought to life by Luther. However, Emperor Charles V can’t afford to crack down on the Protestants. The Ottoman army threatens both the Christian West and the Holy Roman Empire, making him dependent on any form of military aid. To secure internal unity, the emperor grants Protestants religious freedom in exchange for military participation in the Ottoman-Habsburg wars.
In 1534, Luther and collaborators finish translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into German. The reformer’s vivid and memorable language helps educate inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire in literacy, making reading the Bible accessible to everyone, as well as furthering a feeling of national unity. Hundreds of the idioms and sayings from Luther’s Bible remain woven into German language today.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century changed Christianity forever. Roused to action by the corruption and abuses they saw in the Roman Catholic church of the time, visionary pastors and leaders like Martin
Luther and John Calvin spearheaded a movement that transformed Christianity and eventually led to the emergence of the Protestant denominations that exist today.
Now not everything is bad between Catholics and Protestants, as you know. In fact, one day, a priest and a pastor are standing by the side of a road holding up a sign that reads “The end is near! Turn around now before it’s too late!” A passing driver yells, “You guys are nuts!” and speeds past them. From around the curve, they hear screeching tires, then a big splash.
The priest turns to the pastor and says, “Do you think we should just put up a sign that says, ‘Bridge Out’ instead?”
The Reformers were guided by the conviction that the church of their day had drifted away from the essential, original teachings of Christianity. The Reformation sought to reorient Christianity to the original message found in Scripture.
The Five Solas, the five “onlys,” are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about Christianity’s essentials.
Let’s have a brief look at each of these five points. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Scriptures are our ultimate and trustworthy authority for faith and practice. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only place where truth is found, but it does mean that everything else we learn about God and his world, and all other authorities, should be interpreted considering Scripture.
Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone. We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit. We are not saved or made righteous by our works.
Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): God has given the ultimate revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. Only through God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus do we come to a saving and transforming knowledge of God.
Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): Glory belongs to God alone and is the central motivation for salvation.
I know that was a lot. History may not be your strong subject. Forgive me if I went on too long. I promise I won’t do it again for another 500 years.
You might say, ultimately, the Protestant Reformation sought to put God back on top and humans where they belong. What Luther and others did was to put God’s grace front and center in our relationship.
Someone said, “Without a heart transformed by the grace of Christ, we just continue to manage external and internal darkness.” Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel Some people may opt for managing things on their own but that’s not what God intended for us. It’s not in our best interest either.
Phillip Yancey, who wrote the book, What’s So Amazing about Grace?, talks about his friend Tom. He says, I met my friend Tom, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Tom was a hard-drinking, lovable partygoer who stopped going to church soon after college. Last year his live-in girlfriend decided she wanted to attend church because of some crisis she was going through. Tom reluctantly agreed.
That morning he sat down and started playing his guitar. Thinking of church, he resurrected three hymns from his distant memory. “Those are beautiful—what’s the music?” his girlfriend asked. Tom explained the words to the hymns.
They chose a church out of the phone book, and to Tom’s utter astonishment that Sunday the congregation sang all three of those hymns. It so rattled Tom that he completely turned his life around.
Listening to him tell the story, I couldn’t help laughing in surprised joy. I have a memory of Tom so drunk that he fell over while trying to roll a ball down a bowling alley; we had to pull him away from the ball return channel. And now here he was, weeping, telling me how God had changed his life. Think of the “coincidence” of those three hymns being played the one Sunday that Tom dropped in to church. Was that a miracle? It was certainly grace.
Reach out for God’s grace. Believe there’s more help for you. Strive to do right but know that Christ can work more miracles than we comprehend.
It’s not like we don’t need the help, you know. Merely managing your life leads to a lifetime of mediocrity. It’s God’s love that sets us on fire. It’s God’s will that leads us in new directions. It’s God’s grace that lights up our lives. But we first must admit that we’re still looking for it, still in need of it.
Give up on the idea you’ve got it all figured out. Leave space for God to do something amazing. Come to the Lord in need, as someone who’s lost, whose life could use being put under new management. It’s how Christ can works his magic in you.
All of Jesus’ stories made the wrong person the hero: the prodigal son not the responsible older brother, Lazarus not the rich man, the good
Samaritan not the Jewish rabbi. What is common to all of them is grace. Christ saw the world differently.
Things normally run by un-grace, ranking people, holding them accountable, insisting on paying up. We like rules, such as gravity. Isaac Newton studied the universe and came up with fixed rules like “Every action deserves an equal and opposite reaction.” Athletics runs that way, as does business. Stop making your car or house payments, and the bank repossesses them.
So often this continues in the religious realm. We like someone to tell us, “If you just follow these rules and this program, you’ll do the right thing and be accepted by God.” But here’s the thing, Jesus didn’t like it this way. He didn’t see it this way. The power of his ministry didn’t come from things having to be this way.
It’s impossible to keep God in a world devoid of grace. We eventually squeeze God out. We take over. We run the machinery and tell everyone where they belong and how far they can get and who’s in charge and what must be paid and who must lose. And the system gets keep getting tighter and tighter. The winners keep winning more and more and the losers keep losing worse and worse—until it gets to be as tight as a fist, a ball of steel, no flesh, no blood, no grace, no compassion, no God.
God must be filled with grace for the world to come out right.
Someone might ask however if God is all about grace then isn’t there a danger of excusing behavior, of lowering standards and accepting failure? Grace implies a risk, the risk that we might abuse it. Yet it appears from Christ’s view, God seems quite willing to take that risk.
It should be added, though, that Jesus deliberately “raises the bar.” If you look at the Sermon on the Mount, he keeps raising the ideal, so high that no one can meet it. You don’t murder, but do you get angry with your brother? You don’t commit adultery, but do you lust? He raises the bar so high that no one can meet it, and then provides the safety net of grace. We don’t have to gain God’s approval by jumping over the bar. Indeed, when we fail, grace is there to rescue us.
There is nothing we can do to make God love us more…and nothing we can do to make God love us less. Grace is God’s gift. But to receive a gift you must have open hands. Sense your need for grace. Face your failings and weakness. We do nothing to merit grace, and yet we get life eternal.
Can the church say Amen?