Reformation Day Is Here, But Are Protestants Still Reforming?

By Mark A. Kellner

What might Martin Luther, the erstwhile German monk appalled by the excesses of his faith’s leaders, think of the Protestant Reformation some 501 years after it began?

He might well wonder whether those who adopted the label “Protestant,” taken from Luther’s own protest of clerical abuses, are still protesting all that much. 

A scan of news headlines published in the run-up to “Reformation Day” on October 31—the day Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany—shows a variety of approaches to the Reformation’s anniversary. Sadly, not all those approaches are reflective of the notion that something has indeed separated people from a given religious tradition.

But let’s be clear: Even though Luther, and many of his spiritual descendants today, recognized the profound differences with the Roman Catholic Church over issues of theology, doctrine, and religious practice, those disagreements should never trigger hatred, violence, or oppression of others. Amazing Facts simply believes that the Bible suggests an approach to faith that many other Christians do not share. 

Luther and his contemporaries openly distanced themselves from some of the church’s more objectionable practices—particularly the notion that donations to the church would trigger “indulgences” that release the soul of a departed loved one from “purgatory” so that it might continue a post-death journey to heaven. (Where did Luther find the basis for his dissent? In the Bible. Visit our Bible Answer archive to hear Pastor Doug Batchelor discusses the purgatory doctrine.)

And apart from the fact that some practices and teachings contradicted the Bible, Luther was also distressed over the physical and financial toll these traditions took on those who were least able to afford it. Paying to ransom a “soul” from torment might seem noble, but not when it puts a peasant family in financial danger. Praying on one’s knees is commendable, but not when it involves a procession up the steep staircase of a church in Rome, simply because it was believed that such physical exertion was more helpful than direct communication with God. (The costs involved in such a pilgrimage, let alone the physical toll, was quite substantial in those times.) 

Perhaps most important, Luther was anxious to see the Bible available to everyday people, and not just the clerical class—or those wealthy enough to afford a hand-copied set of Scriptures. The Bible’s pages showed Martin Luther many precious truths he’d felt had been hidden from the majority of believers, and the reformer didn’t want that understanding to be hidden any longer.

These noble and commendable goals of the Reformation were not only important ideals, but they also changed the lives of people around the globe. The fires lit by Luther’s opposition sparked the dissemination of Scripture and its truths around the world, leading to missionary efforts that crossed continents and oceans and setting the stage for revelation and discovery that have reached down even to our own day.

However, there are signs that Protestants are forgetting, or at the least minimizing, the reasons for the great disruption that began in 1517.

For instance, more than five centuries later, Roman Catholics and Lutherans are finding common ground and worshiping together, the diocesan newspaper of the British Columbia, Canada, Catholic Church states. The headline reads, “1 year later, Lutherans, Catholics continue the journey.” A journey toward some sort of unity, it appears.

One Catholic participant involved in organizing a joint Lutheran-Catholic worship service noted “there was a genuine interest, an awareness that this fragile and awkward moment looking for a path was an attempt to fulfill the will of Jesus ‘that they may be one’ (John 17:21).” An Evangelical Lutheran bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop recorded a joint video affirming points of commonality between the two communities. 

From the Lutheran perspective, a member of a local church council crafted a somewhat contradictory assessment: “I do not think of the Reformation as a triumph of Lutheranism, even though the event did affect the whole church. Let us try to focus on the message that it is God who gives us grace, forgiveness, and hope. Grace can build new relationships. The spotlight is on God. This is an age where interfaith relationships in our communities are important. We should be inspired to continue to move toward ongoing reform.”

If the Reformation is not the success of Luther’s views, what is it? The whole point of the posting of those 95 questions about what was going on in the Church of Rome and how it affected believers at the lowest levels was to spark change. While it’s true that Luther did not want to create a new spiritual movement, Rome’s reaction to his honest questioning left him no alternative. As a result, people suffered, faced imprisonment and exile, and some were even killed merely for standing up for what they believed the Bible taught.

Yes, “grace can build new relationships,” and, yes, we should “live peaceably with all men,” as Paul tells us in Romans 12:18. But the “ongoing reform” they desire cannot ignore the lessons of history, or it may become a regression back to deceptive religious traditions. Indeed, the Bible predicts that such a thing will occur in the last days.

Instead, this might be the time for thoughtful Christians to rediscover the roots of our Reformation-fueled faith. Last year, on the 500th anniversary of the event, Pastor Doug presented a series about the Foundations of Faith that clearly explains what the Bible says about faith, life, death, and the world beyond—among many other topics. It’s worth your time to watch this FREE online series so that you can keep the flame of the Reformation burning in your own heart and life.

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