This year is the 500th anniversary of what is commonly believed to have started the Protestant Reformation; namely that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg castle protesting certain beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his time. To understand what Luther faced with every blow of the hammer, we must understand that for the previous 1205 years 19 days, the entire universal Christian Church had been incorporated into the state, having full military backing to persecute any dissenting voice—which it did with great relish; for the latter 463 years 103 days, the Roman Catholic Church claimed authority over all of Western Europe, enjoining a political dance with its varied nations and rulers. In short, one did not simply express opposition to any opinion of the Catholic Church and expect to live very long. In fact, one could expect to be heinously tortured to death, all the while enduring the taunts of their Inquisitors promising eternal condemnation in hell with no chance of redemption regardless of whether they second-guessed or recanted their belief.
Amazingly, Luther was not martyred; it was not long before Luther’s stand became a movement across Europe with a life of its own. As it should be obvious by the name, it was not the Reformers’ original intent to leave the Catholic Church, but to address its unbiblical practices. But like the nation of Israel, the Roman Church refused to listen to its prophets; rather than allow their message to quicken its heart, the Church increasingly hardened itself until its kingdom was taken away.
To be sure, the Reformers did not completely bring the Church back to the glorious design of its first century counterpart as Jesus and His disciples would have envisioned it: they created little duchies of their own, and persecuted any outsiders—including any other Reform sects with which they disagreed, just as the rest of the Church was doing; they thoroughly denounced and afflicted the Jews among them time after time; they played havoc with the canon of Scripture, despite their reliance upon it; their systematic theologies were based on contemporary European philosophical and logical constructs every bit as much as in a knowledge of the Biblical texts rather than a rediscovery of the Jewish context in which Christianity was born; they retained many of the unbiblical practices of the Romanized Church; they all but ignored the role of the Holy Spirit in producing a changed, dynamic, and victorious life; and gave credence (Calvinism in particular) to the subjugation of non-Christian, indigenous peoples around the globe as their imperialistic host nations sought new lands to conquer. Even after the founding of America, which was the most truly noble experiment in government of the people, by the people, and for the people, it was not until the conclusion of ‘Manifest Destiny’ that humanity truly began to realize the idea of religious freedom.
But for all the Reformers’ faults, Protestantism produced five important ideas (the Five Solae) that began to train the arrow back toward the direction of the bulls-eye (I will create another post soon to explain my position on these):
- Sola Scriptura: the Bible alone provides authority for faith and practice. The original language used to formulate this concept implies that nothing else CAN provide any direction from God, which is debatable; therefore, as time went on, the Wesleyans developed the concept of Prima Scriptura, which states that any form of enlightenment is subordinate to Scripture.
- Sola Fide: salvation from sin is by faith alone, through which God gives us grace. Good deeds do not atone for sin.
- Sola Gratia: forgiveness of sins comes by grace alone, which God gives at His pleasure without regard to merit. A person cannot generate merit that God must recognize.
- Solus Christus: Christ alone is our priest, in that He provides the only bridge between God and man. We can only have fellowship with God through faith in Jesus the Messiah. (This is different from the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, in which every baptized believer is able to serve as a representative of God to the world.) Both concepts, however, serve to exclude a recognized class of priests for service of absolution, administration of sacraments, or for spiritual guidance.
- Soli Deo Gloria: God alone is worthy of worship or veneration; neither Jesus’ mother Mary, nor saints, nor angels, nor any other being is meritable for salvation or help, and to seek any other is to commit idolatry.
These were very important steps in restoring the Church as a Bride without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:27); however, even five hundred years down the road, much more needs to be done, especially since the decline of Biblical literacy in the West, the advent of post-modernism and a post-Christian society, and the maturation of moral relativism. Even in the last five years, there have been two pronounced shifts that have taken place—one within the Church, and one within society as a whole: the Church is steadily and increasingly rejecting its own beliefs, while seeking acceptance of the world’s value system; and the world is becoming both more opposed to and more violent toward both Christianity and Judaism. For all its efforts to be liked, the data shows the Church’s attempts are having the exact opposite effect.
This should come as no surprise; Jesus stated explicitly that anyone who followed Him would be hated by the world—in fact, people would believe they are doing God a favor by killing us (John 16:2). The apostles warned that in the last days before Jesus’ return, there would be a great falling away. News flash: we aren’t meant to be liked by the world system. So, what then—do we just roll over and let the world bulldoze us out of existence? Do we make enemies of the world's people, attempting to take geopolitical control over society by force? Well, that was what Constantine did, which caused the Church to careen away from its prescribed direction in the first place. But don’t we have a Great Commission that challenges us to make disciples of all nations? Of course we do—despite our living in a a world that hates us.
There is an answer; many are calling today for a new Reformation. Some are saying (and I have said) that we should complete the work that was begun by the Reformers 500 years ago. Call it what you will; what this really means is that we need to return to Biblical faith, and that's what I’m aiming for. Rather than rejecting the Scriptures as God-breathed truth, it’s time that we fully understand and embrace it for the gift of life it is. I produced a special article that appears at the main navigation point for my website entitled "Where Is God Taking Us?" detailing what I believe a return to Biblical faith looks like.
You’ll notice at the center of the article, there’s a diagram showing a comparison/contrast between Biblical values and the values we often see in the Church. At the top encompassing everything, of course, is the contrast between Biblical Faith vs. Traditional Faith (the traditions of men having superseded the Scriptures). It lists many of the wells the Church has drawn from in its pursuit apart from the Bible. Not that any of these are intrinsically bad, mind you—they’re just not suitable paradigms from which to run the Church. None of these represent God’s agenda for His kingdom.
The rest of the values form a circle, and each one is connected to all the others; but at the center is God-worship vs. Self-worship, because this is the central question of the entirety of Scripture: will we worship God or ourselves? It has been often said that you become what you worship; a person who worships God will exude His love in every direction—away from the self toward God and others. A self-worshipping person’s world is aligned in one direction—toward the self. It is a stance of taking: only looking to receive from God rather than to enjoy Him; striving to get as much as one can for one’s own benefit, to the detriment of others if necessary. Everything that is called sin in the Bible stems from the condition of self-worship, and it is God’s priority to transform us from having the nature of self-worship to become God-worshipers. This concept is completely different from how the Church presents the Gospel. In The Upside-Down Kingdom, I related the difference this way:
Constantinian Christianity asks us to mentally assent to a doctrinal formula, which states that we are sinners, that Christ died for us and was raised so we can go to heaven and be with Him someday. Not a bad formula, nor do I immediately disagree with the doctrine in the formula. The doctrine in the formula is just scratching the surface of what God wants of us, however. Look at the difference:
Biblical Judeo-Christianity, in contrast, asks us to commit ourselves to a shared life of God-worship called the Kingdom of God. We connect into the nature of God by Jesus, and we allow God to live through us, whereby His love and life pour through us out to the world. We receive His life in the transfer and are transformed into the people we were created to be.
The remainder of the values forming the circle are perspectives that naturally flow out of Biblical truth and God’s selfless love.
- Judeo-Christian (vs. Constantinian Christian): Simply put, this is a return to the foundational framework suitable for understanding Christianity as intended. God revealed Himself through the Jewish people; He sent the Messiah through the Jews; Jesus and all of His original followers were Jews, the Scriptures were written primarily by Jews for Jews—the list goes on and on as to why and how Biblical Judaism is connected to and is the foundation of Christianity. We cannot understand Christianity without looking at it through a Jewish lens; and when we do so, we find that Biblical faith looks a lot different than what a Gentile-based Christianity is practicing. This doesn't mean we have to be ethnically or culturally Jewish in everything we do, but we have to understand and apply the truth from the Jewish perspective to where we are.
- Holiness (vs. Happiness): This doesn't mean that we can't be happy; we must merely change our perspective from being predisposed toward whatever benefits the self to whatever God says is right, just, good, and full of outwardly-focused love. It is living a life concerned about what God thinks rather than continuously positioning ourselves to receive maximum sucess and satisfaction. Those who understand this concept know that true happiness comes as a reward for righteousness.
- Real (vs. Sensational): Humanity often tends to favor style over substance. It is very easy for us to look at our feelings, what is exciting, or the supernatural as evidence of God’s work or as a measure of our success. This is the case particularly in the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Word of Faith branch of Protestantism, but can also be found in many Jewish and Christian rituals: somehow thinking that keeping Jewish mitzvot or praying in Hebrew while wearing a kippah makes us more holy, or using Elizabethan English when we pray. Jesus said to be careful not to do good deeds for the purpose of being seen and honored by men (Matthew 6:1-18). Furthermore, when the disciples came back rejoicing that they had power over the demonic, Jesus focused their attention on the greater miracle—that they were written in the Book of Life (Luke 10:19-21). Similarly, Paul said in Galatians 5:22-23 that the fruit of the Spirit's work is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—not speaking in tongues, deliverance, healing, raising the dead, performing other supernatural miracles—even though God still does these today. When God is doing these things, we'll experience them; but it's time that we follow hard after God and His truth rather than after exciting experiences to fulfill us.
- Family-Nation (vs. Institutional-Professional): The Romanized Church destroyed the framework providing a dynamic, organic life in the Kingdom by turning the Church into an institution with professional clergy. This removed ordinary people from participation and study, relegating them to the status of a spiritual consumer. Even though the Protestant version was more relaxed, they kept this format rather than reverting back to the Spirit-led, family structure of the early Church. It is time to return to this model, which will promote contribution from all members of the congregation rather than an ordained minister being the designated dispenser of truth.
Jesus said that the world would know we are His disciples when we love one another (John 13:34) and prayed that the Church would be one as He and the Father are one (John 17:6-26). Paul elaborated by stating that when we contend for the faith as one, the world sees this and is convicted concerning their own destruction (Philippians 1:27-30). Getting back to these simple truths is what is needed to complete the mission. Join me in the Reformation!