This Sunday, October 29, 2017, churches around the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, unwittingly kick-starting what we call the Protestant Reformation.
If you’re looking for one book to read on that time period, it’s still hard to beat Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, Here I Stand. Bainton compares Luther to a man climbing up a set of stairs in the dark, losing his footing, reaching up for something to steady himself and unintentionally pulling down the whole edifice. Luther, an Augustinian monk by training, didn’t set out to start a new church. He wanted to reform the church. He was protesting that the medieval church had lost touch with its Biblical moorings. But, in no way, did he have in mind the church splintering into denominations, and certainly not one that took its name from him. He wrote:
I ask that people make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone… How then should I – poor stinking maggot-fodder than I am – come to have people call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christian.
I think of that quote often, especially when I meet someone on an airplane and they ask me what I do for living. When I say, “I’m a pastor,” people often ask (but increasingly less than they used to), “What denomination?” I’ve always disliked that question and think of Luther’s quote – how he would have hated for anyone to say, “I’m a Lutheran.” For Jesus didn’t say, “Go and make Lutherans, or Baptists, or Methodists, or Presbyterians.” He said to go and make disciples.
Doctrines are important. They are essential and indeed unavoidable. Even the statements, “Doctrine is not important,” or “Doctrines divide; deeds unite,” are doctrines themselves. The Reformation mattered. Theology matters, and the Reformation’s organizing principles are still worth understanding and upholding today:
In Christ Alone
For the Glory of God Alone
For those of us who long for revival in our churches today, our challenge is learning to look back in order to move ahead. Robert Weber has said the church’s future is ancient, meaning we will need to recapture the spiritual depth and vitality and earnest practices of the early church – formation as a way of life. But, we must also recover what the five phrases listed above originally meant to the Reformers and why they were so important to them. We must then recall how they were corrupted and distorted, and what they came to mean. Only then can we ask – what might the recovery of the best of the Protestant Reformation look like in our churches today?
One of the mottos of the Reformation was “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda” – the church reformed and always reforming. While Reformation Sunday may prompt us to look back to the great truths articulated by the Reformers 500 years ago, it is even more important to look forward. We are going to do that in a special worship service this Sunday. I hope you’ll join us at 9, 11 or 5.