It was October 31, 1517. Despite popular characterizations, it was merely a standard procedure for the young monk to post his debate proposal on the church door. By no means did he intend to start wars and create a permanent rift in the Body of Christ. It was simply the matter he took seriously the words he was being taught in his seminary classes about what really mattered in this world. Business as usual grated on his conscience. Nor was he alone in his complaints, so he hardly expected to become the lightening rod for institutional efforts to crush every dissenting voice.
In these latter days, celebrating the Reformation has nothing to do with opposing Catholics, nor even rubbing salt into old wounds of broken fellowship. It's about the general need of the Body of Christ at all times to consider if things could be done better, to consider if we have not confused the method with the mission of reaching a lost world with the message of Jesus Christ.
Today that answer must be a resounding YES! Protestant churches in the West hardly comprehend the underlying message of the Reformation any longer. An essential element on Martin Luther's complaints was how the natural political power of the Church had eclipsed her spiritual purpose. As with all things political, it became a pursuit of money, fame and more power. The Vow of Poverty had become a joke as church offices were sold; the Vow of Obedience had become cronyism; the Vow of Chastity was merely for show, as Rome itself had brothels designated for monks and priests. Actually trying to fulfill the written rules was regarded as quaint and ignorant. Yet somehow, to call attention to such things was regarded as an attack on God. Are we any different today?
Within the Evangelical Protestant community today, we are very nearly in the same place which broke Luther's heart. We have an informal hierarchy. The highest vestments are based on talents more suitable to television and marketing. It's all about the packaging; no one seems to care much about the content, our declarations notwithstanding. We do not need another dynamic leader; we need spiritual direction which points to Jesus Himself. Forget the CDs and DVDs, the books and programs. We don't need more information, a new explanation, or another touchy-feely experience. We need a fresh examination of the same eternal truths, a fresh commitment to what we already know. If the primary complaint is boredom, maybe we need more people actually reborn and changed by the miracle of God bringing to life a dead soul.
There's nothing wrong with making minor adjustments in the verbiage, expressing things in the slang of the day. That's really no different from translating the Scripture into yet another language. There's nothing wrong with paraphrases, because the New Testament authors did it all the time. There is something wrong with rewriting things to suit modern tastes. Things are already shallow and empty enough; that's what got things to the state Luther found in his day. You cannot dumb down the Cross. Jesus calls us to follow Him by picking up that Cross, the one with our name on it, each of us. Making church more like the empty feel-good entertainment of our day does not bring more people to the Cross. Go ahead and create a new ritual, but don't institutionalize things and create a new brand, a new denomination. Don't mistake the method for the mission. Make it new, make it fresh, bring it to the people where they are, but don't make it something else.
When a man becomes rich and famous from his message in this fallen world, that message is almost certainly not the Word of God. It may well be derived from Scripture, but it is not the Gospel. The message of Jesus is about Jesus, not the messenger. The real message of Jesus is to forsake fortune and fame. The message changes people, not circumstances. The world is hostile to the message, would silence it by hiding it in the corner, impoverishing the messenger. We embrace this hatred as the mark of holiness and purity. Otherwise, it is not His message. Perhaps there is something to that business of monks vows to accept poverty, obedience and chastity. Having a soul overflowing with the treasures of the Word often leaves our pockets empty. To be accountable to a community of fellow believers is the ultimate freedom, though quite the opposite of today's hedonistic individualism. Sexual restraint, the object of ridicule in this modern age, is most certainly the greatest expression of brotherly love. Have we forgotten the world is fallen, that the spirit of this age is our Enemy?
We call it Doctrines of Grace because it's all about the miracle power of God. He chooses to include us, He chooses to remake us, He chooses to build us up into a powerful presence, and makes His grace known by those who rely on nothing else. It's not in our organizations, it's not in our liturgies, it's not in our non-liturgical free form meetings, it's not in our histories, and certainly not in our famous faces. It's in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We need a reformation.
Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business. Ed operates a computer ministry in Oklahoma City. He loves computers, runs FreeBSD and GNU/Linux and reads all sorts of things. You can reach Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.