What was the Reformation?

What was the Reformation? September 28, 2017

In some ways, it was a massive shift in world history centered in the actions of one human. The world is commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his questions and propositions for debate on the university message board in Wittenberg in 1517. PBS did a special on it. Popular authors are publishing books about it. Germany is hosting the Luther Year, and tour groups the world over are arriving in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg to gawk at the door where those theses were supposedly first nailed.

But the question remains, What was the Reformation? What event are we co-memorating this year? At least in part, we commemorate Martin Luther’s spiritual quest to find a gracious God. During much of the 20th century, existential philosophers and psychologists have leaned in to this aspect of Luther, his agony over the question of his own status before God. Am I under condemnation, or under mercy?

Christians today mull this question over through various modern lenses. Many Christians ponder the implications of God’s grace as it relates primarily to eternal salvation, life after death. Their question, somewhat similar to Luther’s but also weighted different, is not How can I find a gracious God? but rather How can I be saved? Their answer is aligned with Luther’s insight. The answer is Christ. But then again, the weight of the answer differs, as for the evangelical the answer focuses on belief in or acceptance of Jesus Christ, whereas for Luther the focus was on the justification of the ungodly through God’s righteousness.

In the end, this matters quite a bit, because it changes how Christians live in the world. If Christians are focused on getting themselves or others to accept Jesus as savior, then mission looks like gaining intellectual or emotional assent to propositions about Christ and salvation among communities who previously believed other things. And the existential drive to bring such a message has eschatological urgency, because people who do not assent to the propositions will not be saved (in the hereafter).

On the other hand, if the Reformation insight is about God’s righteousness justifying the ungodly, then Christian mission has a different form. It focuses on bringing the good news revealed as it were through the restoration of humanity in Christ that humans no longer need to convince God of their own righteousness, and can pour out all their energy in love of neighbor in the world.

This second way of thinking about salvation places much of the Christian imagination back in this world rather than the distant heavens. The Reformation insight reminds us that Christianity is less a religion with practices of whatever type that satisfy a capricious god, and more a way of life in the world that heals the world, that makes salvation concrete and present here and now.

The first thesis of those 95 theses gives a sense of this. “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), wanted the entire life of the faithful to be repentance.” Luther believed, convinced by Erasmus and his translation of the Greek, that the word here for repentance referred not to the sacrament of penance, but rather meant “to come to one’s senses.” The great Lutheran insight regarding penitence was therefore twofold. First, that penance could not and should not be an economic exchange between God and humanity, with the side benefit of financially helping the church. And second, that repentance was the coming to one’s senses that freed the Christian up from concern about their standing before God that they might be completely focused instead on their neighbor and their need.

This has all kinds of implications. It’s so deep it takes a lifetime, and a whole community of people, to work out. As just one example, it probably means that any group of people who really believes this will not focus on their own security and safety, but will instead focus on the moral demand of the neighbor’s need in their vulnerability. So when an elected official justifies significantly lowering refugee admission levels and says, “The security and safety of the American people is our chief concern,” Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service responds, we are “profoundly disappointed that at a time of historic, never before seen need, the United States would so drastically reduce the number of refugees to whom we are able to offer protection and safety.”

Serving the neighbor’s need is not a bonus or extra item tacked on to Christian life after you get saved and accept Jesus. No, salvation looks like humanity coming to its senses, and the proper sense is one that places as the highest value love of neighbor, from the neighbor across the street to the millions of refugees across the world.

Observing the anniversary of the Reformation, especially the 500th anniversary, is a big deal, and there are many events here in Fayetteville also. Our congregation is hosting a Reformation festival the last weekend in October. Our special guest Beth Lewis, president and CEO of 1517 Media (!) will offer a public lecture at the university Friday the 27th, Saturday night we host an Oktoberfest themed party at the church, Sunday morning we observe the Reformation anniversary in worship, and in the afternoon our organist and university faculty member Robert Mueller offers a concert of Reformation-era music. Later in November (the 9th and 10th), the university hosts its own event, Nailing Down the Reformation, with guest lecturers from all across the country.   Friday the The seismic impact of these 95 theses has been felt the world over. The Reformation was in one sense so influential that it has many meanings. 


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