Today is Reformation Day, the 495th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences. Some people have been criticizing Lutherans and others who celebrate this day. Why should we celebrate the shattering of the universal church?
First of all, the posting of the theses did not shatter the universal church. Luther was reforming the church, and it needed reforming. Financial corruption (the sale of church offices, the indulgence and relic trade, profiting from Christians terrified of purgatory), sexual immorality (popes with illegitimate children whom they named bishops, brothels for priests, the notion that fornication is better than marriage for clergy under vows of celibacy), and political power (popes with armies waging war against other countries, popes claiming temporal power over lawful earthly authorities). Even worse, the gospel of Christ was obscured in favor of an elaborate system of salvation by works. To be sure, the medieval church taught Christ’s atonement on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, but in practice that was relegated to baptism only. After baptism, Christians had to atone for their own sins in a complex penitential system, requiring the confession of each sin, works of penance, and even after absolution the punishment of those sins after death in purgatory (unless an indulgence was purchased or rewarded).
That the church needed reforming because of these practices is proven in part by the Council of Trent, which addressed the most blatant financial and moral faults, while keeping the penitential system, though also encouraging personal piety (another fruit of the Reformation over against what had become a mechanistic approach to religion).The splitting of Christianity came when the Roman church excommunicated Luther for his stance on indulgences, even though it would later grant most of his points.
Reforming the church, though, is something to celebrate and something to keep working on. I would argue that the same issues that sparked the Reformation are still problems in today’s church, including protestant and Lutheran congregations: financial corruption (the prosperity gospel, religious scams), sexual immorality (scandals among pastors and church leaders; the pornography plague), political power (the new social gospel of both the right and the left). And now, as then, we see the Gospel consigned just to first becoming a Christian, so that many people think of Christ’s atonement as applying to conversion, but feeling themselves now as being under the Law. They have lost the sense of God’s grace and forgiveness as a continuing reality, available through the Word and Sacraments as the constant life force for the Christian life.
So we still need Reformation Day and we still need the message of the Reformation.