Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios (Twitter – @joelrainey). This post was originally published at his site.
Tonight, I will gather my kids–who will be dressed as Dr. Who, Captain America, and a Disney Princess respectively–and visit a downtown area near our central Maryland home on the only night of the year in which it is culturally appropriate to allow your kids to beg strangers for unhealthy food. For most in our culture, October 31 is merely that: a fun holiday that consists of costumes, candy, and haunted hay rides. But for the church, October 31 marks a major turning point in our history, and provides lessons to us today.
The story begins in Medieval Rome. The doctrinal integrity of the Catholic Church was at a breaking point. Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Empire, enabled by the church. Every kind of moral evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by priests to the fleecing of the poor and marginalized, was taking place in the “holy city.”
Into this context, in the year 1500, walked an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther. For most of his life, this young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed. But what he saw when he arrived shocked him to the core. His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed. But Luther was more offended by the way the poor and marginalized were treated by those who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus on earth. The system of indulgences that had been set up by the church to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor not only lived in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation. The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying “if there is a hell, Rome is built over it!”
Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences in Rome for the next seven years. But by 1507, the escalation of the abuse of the indulgences, and the extension of these abuses into more remote areas outside Rome by Tetzel’s preaching would compel Martin Luther to face the corruption head on. And face it he did, through a document that you and I now know as the 95 theses–nailed to the door of a Wittenburg castle 496 years ago on this very day. Though initially written to reform the Roman church from within, Luther would eventually come to learn that the immorality and abuse he was witnessing was enabled by twisted theology that held the edicts of the church as a greater authority than the commands of the Lord of the church. Medieval Rome was preaching a counterfeit Gospel, and it was time for the true church to separate herself and rise from the ashes. The Protestant Reformation had begun.
For those who would soon be called “Lutherans,” this reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530). For other groups who joined Luther’s followers in the break from medieval Catholicism, subsequent confessions of faith would be written–each of which would proclaim themselves as the “true church” over against the Catholicism out of which they had just emerged. The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complementary foundations of the priesthood of all believers and open access by all people to the Scriptures, which at this time were being translated into the various lingua franca employed around the world.
The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward. Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well–as it was our theological ancestors who would bear the brunt of their persecution. What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics–and force–to silence dissent were commonplace throughout this period of history, and included the execution of those who held different views.The big idea is this: by the end of the Reformation period, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel, but instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia that at times crossed the line into violence. As a result, Protestants would ultimately–and legitimately–be accused of violating Jesus’ “prime directive,” as the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggested to Luther that these new Protestants couldn’t possibly be the true church, because they had no missionaries.To be sure, no period of Christian history proves that sometimes, Jesus’ followers are Jesus’ biggest problem so much as the Reformation period. Two corollary messages rise from these events:
1. Truth is Immortal. What Luther eventually discovered in those days leading up to the assembly at Augsburg is that a counterfeit message produces counterfeit disciples. While maintaining what would be consider historically essential to orthodoxy (Belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, the deity of Jesus, and the necessity of salvation through His death and resurrection), the medieval church had hidden the Gospel behind centuries of syncretized tradition which, by the 16th century, was of great benefit to Rome’s ecclesial institutions, but counterproductive to the spread of Jesus’ message globally. In short, the Gospel was not preached with clarity, nor was it applied consistently to Catholic followers. The result was an immoral, greedy, self-centered church that sought the advance of its influence through power, and the intimidation of the marginalized. Ideas, as the late Francis Shaffer was fond of saying, have consequences.By the time of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther had come to realize that the dastardly oppressive actions of the church were the natural result of the bastardized “Gospel” being proclaimed by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. If October 31, 1517 reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us that actions flow from our true beliefs. Want to live a lie? Then simply start believing and proclaiming lies, and you are well on your way. On this day, the church is well-served by remembering that Truth, as revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture alone, is the starting point for any true church. Without it, even those who claim to follow Jesus will devolve into a 16th century Catholic-style oppression, or a Word of Faith style materialism, or an emergent-style relativism. Our Gospel determines not only what we say, but how we live. We’d better be sure we have the right one!
2. Truth Has a Purpose. Truth is supposed to be spread, not “guarded” to the point that we spend more time arguing about its content than we do spreading its hope. Protestant Christians of every tribe need to remember that not everything in our DNA is healthy. More particularly, we need to remember that while our ancestors–including Luther whom we all hold in common–rightly began this movement with a strong critique of Roman Catholicism, a recovered Gospel does no good if we merely maintain a posture of critique and as a result continue to fight over minutiae. Erasmus was right: no church can truly be the church without a missionary impetus that seeks to make Jesus more widely known. Furthermore, a clear understanding of sola gratia means that we will not approach non-Christians with the presumption that we are the sole monopolizers of God’s message. Instead, we are what D.T. Niles once claimed: beggars sharing enthusiastically with other beggars where we have found bread.
It would take a separate post–or perhaps more than one–to point out the flaws of Martin Luther. But on days like today, I’m thankful for the legacy God gave us through Luther’s fiery ministry–Scripture in the language of the people, the priesthood of all believers, and the non-negotiable element of saving faith–that it comes by faith alone in a crucified, resurrected Savior. We too, are imperfect people, prone to wander from our intended missional path onto side-roads of dissension that keep us from the more effective spread of Jesus’ message. As we reflect on the historic significance of this day and the theological axioms we’ve been given through it, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions:
sola scriptura: Have you drank deeply lately of the very Word of God, which has now been available in your language for many centuries?
sola fide Have you shared your ultimate hope in Jesus with others? When was the last time this took place?
sola gratia Have you approached non-Christians, not as an autonomous knower who is better than they, but instead as a trophy of the grace of God?
sola Christo Have you shared with others the identity of Jesus with clarity, and without so much of the western cultural baggage that weights-down His image?
soli Deo gloria Have you given God the glory for how he has worked through imperfect people throughout history, and for how He has worked through you?