499 Years of Reformation

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Today marks the 499th year since Martin Luther unintentionally sparked the Protestant Reformation. Noticing what he deemed to be beliefs and actions from the Catholic Church that were contrary to true Christianity, Luther penned his 95 theses and nailed it to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, 1517.

It was a relatively small gesture that sent Christianity and the modern world in a whole new direction. To this very day, Catholics and Protestants are still divided over certain doctrinal and ecclesiastical differences. Though there have been many attempts over the centuries to find full reconciliation—including some current-day efforts by Pope Francis—the Reformation continues forward without finding satisfactory resolution.

What’s the Reformation All About?

Luther’s primary issues in his 95 theses were twofold: the emphasis on indulgences and the abuse of papal authority.

Indulgences are Catholic sacraments which can alleviate some of the temporal punishment of sin. Though Catholics believe that confession and repentance will absolve one of the guilt of sin (and thus deliverance from hell), that does not mean that further temporal punishment may not be necessary. This temporary punishment can be paid off in this life and, if it is not done so in full, is exacted in purgatory.

Enter into this scenario “indulgences”, methods by which a sinner can absolve themselves or loved ones of temporary guilt. In Luther’s day, the main way indulgences were obtained was through monetary payment. A convenient system, don’t you think? If you don’t want to suffer in purgatory for a while, or you don’t want that for a deceased loved one, just give the church some money and they will declare you to be off the hook.

Luther saw this as a serious affront to Christianity. He believed it was a manipulative scheme to acquire wealth, preyed on vulnerable and poverty-stricken people, and diminished the work of Christ’s wrath-bearing sacrifice on the cross. Not to mention, if the church really did have the power to alleviate the temporary punishment of sinners at will…why did they not extend that grace freely, but instead profit from it?

Another issue was that of papal authority. Luther accused the Catholic Church, and in particular the popes, of abusing their authority and overstepping their God-given bounds. He saw that they established the traditions of men as being on par with the teaching of God’s Word and wrongly placed the Church as a mediator between sinners and God. Luther strongly believed in what is commonly known as “the priesthood of all believers”, which is a doctrine that teaches that every Christian has direct access to God the Father through Jesus Christ, and does not need the intercessory work of a priest or church or anyone else to have a real relationship with God.

An Evolving Reformation

Luther was not the first to take issue with the Catholic Church over some of these issues, and he would not be the last. Evidently, his critique of the Church resonated with some and quickly sprang into a movement which it doesn’t appear he really expected it to snowball in to. As the Reformation gained steam, the split between Catholics and what we now call Protestants grew and developed. Other disagreements besides those mentioned in the 95 theses cropped up, including:

  • The canonization of saints
  • Praying to Mary
  • The perpetual virginity of Mary
  • The immaculate conception of Mary
  • The books canonized in the New Testament
  • The existence and function of purgatory
  • The office and authority of the Pope
  • The role of the Bible and tradition in church authority
  • And, most significantly, the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone

The last three of these probably constitute the majority of the discussion between Catholics and Protestants today, and represent the most significant divides. As we enter into the 499th year of the Reformation, there is still enough lack of agreement on these central issues that the two branches of Christianity don’t typically mingle very well.

How Should We Think About These Things?

There are a few major schools of thought when it comes to the Reformation. One is to minimize the differences between Catholics and Protestants and wonder why we can’t just all get along. To those who think this way, consider that the disagreements between the two groups are on issues that quite literally define Christianity. They are core doctrines. To be in error on them is to lose the essence of Christianity. Therefore to pretend like the differences are minor and assume we can overlook them easily to achieve unity is to trivialize the seriousness and gravity of the issues debated.

Another school of thought is to go beyond division into resentment. It is one thing to sharply disagree over matters that are important; it is quite another to let that foster anger towards the other side. While I agree that the disagreements are important enough that Catholics and Protestants should be slow and careful to find unity, and not do so at the expense of truth….they still should seek unity around truth. And in that sense I am glad that the Reformation continues to exist. It is clear that the problems on the table have not been resolved, and as long as they continue to be unresolved, there should be reformation and discussion and debate about these matters. It’s simply too important to just move on from.

And that leads to the third school of thought, which is to be honest about the actual differences that still exist, to admit that they matter, to refuse to compromise on your own convictions, and to pray for God to bring unity around truth while seeking that out in practical ways. We need to be charitable in the process, without demeaning the other side with careless words. (Though that is not to say that clear and strong words are inappropriate.)

Rolling Into Year 500

As we hit the half-century mark a year from today, I hope that we are closer to resolution than it appears. Five hundred years is an awfully long time to have dug in our heels, and the longer the rift exists, the more entrenched each side is likely to become. God will need to do two supernatural works if we are to unite: (1) he will need to clearly reveal the truth on these matters to the hearts of those involved, and (2) he will need to humble those who are in need of repentance and correction.

Perhaps he intends to do these mighty works in the not-too-distant-future. Perhaps he intends for the fight to continue on as part of his plan moving towards the end of human history. Either way, I would encourage anyone who is interested in these matters with a few recommendations:

  1. Realize that these are weighty issues.
  2. Study, think, and pray them through for yourself.
  3. Be kind, respectful, and patient with those who disagree with you.
  4. Remember that we are all, as individuals and collectively as a church, going through some kind of reformation to make us more like Christ.
  5. Bank on the truth that God has a plan for all of this that will ultimately result in his own glory.

May God’s truth prevail and his Church be a bride that is without spot or wrinkle.

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