This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and I’m having a hard time celebrating. Let me explain.
I know that as I write this article and you read it, there are many who have not learned or been taught what the Protestant Reformation is, many still wonder deeply about the differences between the religions of Catholic and Lutheran, and still some are so well versed in the history of the Reformation that you have taught me many things. So when I write “this month marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation”, it is received with a mixture of confusion, excitement, and not knowing what we are celebrating or why.
But for me, here is why I’m having a hard time celebrating.
Often, when we hear about the Reformation, we hear the name Martin Luther spoken synonymously. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther is the namesake of our heritage of Christian faith and the man who the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was named after. There have been some great movies made about Martin Luther (the 1500’s reformer and not the other great reformer of modern civil liberties), including a really good and informative one that came out on PBS last week. With all of these Lutherans celebrating what Martin Luther accomplished, you would think that this celebration was all about Luther and being Lutheran. But it’s not. Here is a quote from Martin Luther about this difference.
I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. Let us extinguish all factious names and be called Christians whose doctrine we have…I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one general teaching of Christ who alone is our master.
Admonition Against Insurrection 1522
In what is his very Luther-esque description of the craziness of naming the children of Christ after a poor, stinking bag of worms like himself, Luther made himself very clear, this movement that had begun was not to be called Lutheran but Christian. It may come as a surprise that the term Lutheran was actually first given by the counter-reformer and opponent of Martin Luther, Dr. Eck, using the title Lutherans as a derogatory term. So, when we celebrate the Protestant Reformation, along with Luther’s very strong feelings about the subject, we are not celebrating Martin Luther at all, but what we are celebrating is being Christian.
That is at the very heart of what this celebration is all about, it is about holding firmly to the center of what it means to be Christian. That is, You are saved by the Grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by what you’ve done. This means:
- You are Saved- Saved means you once were separated from the God who loves and created you and now you are not. Like a person who drowned in the ocean God came, pulled you out, resuscitated you and gave you a new lease on life.
- By the Grace of God- Because you were already drowned and dead at the bottom of the ocean, you obviously could not help yourself, God had to come to you. Apart from God, we are spiritually dead and that condition continues when we die and we stay spiritually dead forever apart from God. But God loves us so much that He came to us who were dead, only because of his love for us, and breathed new life into us, so we could be alive spiritually, even when we die in the body, we are alive forever with God.
- Through Faith in Jesus- Jesus is the rescuer, the coast guard who came into the ocean and pulled you out and brought you up on the boat called His Church. But, we keep looking back at the waves and think, maybe we should go back. Like the old siren songs of old, when the sirens (or mermaids, depending on the legend) sing beautiful songs that lured the sailors to crash their ships right into the rocks, the ocean keeps calling us back. The ocean is everything that kills us, spiritually and physically: like hurt, jealousy, lust, and anger but it says you’ll feel better if you hurt others, you should be jealous, lust is good and anger is justified, but pretty soon you’ve jumped off the boat and you’re drowning in the ocean again. Faith means trusting Jesus and staying on His boat where he keeps us safe and believing that no matter how much we might deserve to get thrown back into the waves, God will never do that to us because of how much He loves us.
- Not by what you’ve done- We still like to pretend we can do this all by ourselves, even though we are actually dead spirits at the bottom of the ocean apart from Jesus. Simply, the Reformation retaught the Church what has always been true—Jesus alone saves.
That’s what Martin Luther himself would want us to celebrate, You are saved by Grace through Faith in Jesus, not by your own works. That is what the Reformation was all about and that is truly something worth celebrating, not a man or a movement, but the grace of God that gives us life forever. Here is a closing quote from Luther.
“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”