Yesterday, on the 500th anniversary of the event that triggered the Protestant Reformation, NPR tweeted all 95 of Luther’s 95 Theses.
Yes, that NPR. National Public Radio
Most of the 95 are aimed squarely aimed at the indulgence controversy in the early 16th century. They don’t have a lot of specific application for issues we face in the church in America five centuries later, unless you see indulgencies as a metaphor for some modern method of seeking to acquire God’s grace via a transaction of one sort or another.
But some of the 95 still speak powerfully to us today.
Like the first one. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Or 36. “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.”
Or 62 (maybe the best of the 95). “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
Or the last two.
94. “Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.”
And 95. “And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace.”
The issues facing the American church in 2017 have nothing to do with the medieval practice of selling remission of sins for yourself or for others in exchange for donations to the church.
But the need for reformation remains. The need for Christians to live lives of perpetual repentance (and perpetual grace) continues.
The need to treasure God’s glory and the gospel above all else remains.
And the need to remain diligent in following Christ, even in the face of adversity and tribulation remains.
Dr. Russell Moore wrote a penetrating article this week on the need for reformation in the church in America. Here is his article, reproduced in full:
A Reformation Day for American Christianity
October 31, 2017, is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation, started with Augustinian monk Martin Luther’s 95 theses against the practices of the Catholic Church of his era. Most American evangelicals will probably not even notice the historic day, except as one more Halloween. Nonetheless, what drove Luther to protest is everywhere present in the 21st century American church.
Most of the 95 theses aren’t about the big, broad theological anchor issues we now see came to be the core of the Reformation. Most of them are about instead the church’s use of indulgences. The indulgences are, of course, rooted in the broader system of medieval church thought. Before there could be an articulation, though, of a systematic treatment of justification, there had to be a sense first that what was happening all around, though seeming normal at the time, was out of step with the New Testament. The church maintained power over the people through political entanglements with rulers and through a system that tied the church’s finances to the eternal destinies of the people. The Reformation said no.
Now, whatever one thinks of the Reformation, shouldn’t it be clear that the problems in our current context are just as bad or maybe even worse? The Reformers were right about the gospel—that God justifies the ungodly, “apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 4:1-25). And yet, look around. There is, thanks be to God, a gospel resurgence within American evangelicalism. But, along with that is what sociologists identify in American religious life as a growing sense of “spirituality” unhinged from biblical revelation or even from church attendance. And that’s just among those who call themselves “born again, Bible-believing Christians.”
One can see this problem easily by attending a Bible Belt funeral in which, far too often, an allegedly evangelical minister presides over the death of someone he doesn’t even know with the assurances that “Uncle Ronnie isn’t in pain anymore; he’s singing up there with Jesus now.” The same has been said all around the funeral parlor by those gathered. And it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s not just that what they are saying about the departed is hard to believe, but that they don’t believe it themselves. It’s just the sort of thing one says at a funeral, right along with “Doesn’t he look natural?” American religion asks, “What can wash away my sin?” Nothing but embalming fluid is the apparent answer.
This combination of cheap grace with a performance-based sort of works righteousness is, in many ways, even worse than the old indulgence system. Consciences are left bound. People know, intuitively, that there is a day of reckoning, and they tremble. Deep within awakened consciences there is the same question that plagued Luther, “How can I find a gracious God?” That’s true even for those who do not have Luther’s religious vocabulary to give expression to it.
This is not a medieval problem, but a primeval one.
Add to this, the widespread distortion of Christianity, exported from America all around the world, in the prosperity gospel. These heretical preachers promise health and wealth and wellbeing to those who will complete the transaction of praying a prayer (and, usually, giving money to the preachers), despite the fact that this is the exact opposite of what Jesus and his apostles taught, at every point. Despite this, these purveyors of what Paul would have called “a different gospel” are welcomed as fellow evangelicals by those who purport to hold to the gospel. And, as we do so, the prosperity gospel goes all around the world, damning souls and picking pockets at the same time.
This is the natural result of an American Christianity that equates “bigness” with truth, again the very opposite of what Jesus and the apostles taught. In a church reform movement started to say that Scripture alone should be our final norming authority, we see widespread biblical illiteracy, with slogans and memes replacing the authoritative content of the Bible. After all, it is much easier to find out what it is that people already believe and add Bible verses to that than it is to shape and form consciences, over decades, with the Word of God.
The greatest challenge facing American Christianity in the years to come is not secularism but cynicism. An entire generation is watching what goes on under the name of American religion, wondering if there is something real to it, or if it is just another useful tool to herd people and to make money. Is Christianity really about the crucified Christ, they ask, or is it about ethnic superiority claims or wacky televised end-times conspiracy theories? One need not spend much time on a college campus or among previously churched young adults to see why they’ve rejected whatever calls itself “Christianity” around them—and sadly, they often leave not only it aside, but any consideration of the gospel itself. This has eternal consequences.
American Christianity will reform or die, because the sort of market-driven religion we have seen in years past only works among people who think spirituality and religion have social benefits. That is changing. No matter what, the church will thrive, though maybe not in America, and the apostolic gospel will go forward. The Word of God is not chained.
God is gracious. Jesus is alive. The gospel is true. The kingdom is coming.
The reform of American Christianity is not ultimately about the survival of American Christianity. It’s about, instead, what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Galatia about why he stood down the almost-gospels of his day: “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:5). Martin Luther sought to recover the clarity of the gospel so that the gospel would clearly be delivered to the generations to come. Will we do the same?
My prayer is that by God’s grace, we will continue to be a church where the gospel is not obscured, but is taught and lived out with passion and joy.
It’s time again for Kids Small Group! Thursday night, November 2, the kids will start to gather at 5:45 and will wrap up at 8:15. Your kids will have a blast! Dinner is included. Contact Matt Gurney with any questions. Mattgurney77@gmail.com.
Last call to sign up for our new members class, set for Saturday, November 11. If you’re interested in finding out what’s involved in being part of the Redeemer family, check out what’s involved here. And if you have any questions, Matt Gurney can answer them for you. Shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And speaking of Matt Gurney, as we’ve mentioned in church over the past few weeks, the elders believe God is setting Matt apart to serve as a shepherd at Redeemer. Our plan is to install him as an elder during our worship service on Sunday, November 12.
If any member has a concern about Matt serving, or knows any reason why he is not qualified to serve, please address them to Matt or talk to one of the elders.
Some have called Romans 8 the greatest chapter in the Bible. If they’re right, then the final verses of Romans 8 are the crescendo.
And we’ll explore why these verses are so powerful this Sunday.
See you in church!
Soli Deo Gloria!