October 31, 2017 was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg. In this document, Luther boldly criticized the Roman Catholic Church’s rather unbiblical sale of “indulgences”–where laypersons were pressured to pay money to church leaders in exchange for the forgiveness of not only their own sins, but the sins of people who have already died and are supposedly languishing in purgatory (which, spoiler alert, isn’t even a thing).
Underlying this practice is the idea that the justification and salvation of human souls is dependent first and foremost on their own merit, particularly when this glorious merit is demonstrated by lining the pockets of popular figures in the local church. It doesn’t sound too far from the truth, even in contemporary Christian culture, does it?
History has a habit of coming full circle in this way…that’s why the concept of reformation is still important today, will still be important tomorrow, and then onward still until Christ comes back to claim his Bride and we no longer feel the constant, pressing threat of inward and outward corruption.
The phrase “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda” sums up this concept wonderfully: the Church reformed, always reforming. However, this call for continuing reformation has been distorted by some seeker-friendly movements within the church to promote “reforms” like contemporary music instead of hymns, stadium seating instead of pews, rejection of moral laws that people don’t “feel” like following anymore, and so on. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with elements like contemporary music and modern seating, of course, but when the church is focused more on constantly molding and re-molding itself to be more enticing to the world–instead of molding and re-molding to better please God when it finds itself drifting from the already-established truth–then Semper Reformanda is not being upheld after all. It’s being sorely violated.
Frankly, it is no small matter that what has often passed for Christianity in society over the past century or so does not demonstrate biblical Christianity much at all. And it is also no small matter that the act of speaking or writing that statement, in and of itself, is considered more offensive than the extent to which the truth of it offends God who has been infinitely gracious enough to give us even just one infallible rule of faith when He was never obligated to give us any at all. Even this one rule has been spurned over and over in favor of a relativistic, individualistic, good-intention-driven pursuit of a Christian faith that can be twisted and redefined by human beings, as though we have any right to tell God how He should let us worship Him…as if He’s lucky we do in the first place. Yet, this is how “Christian” culture has dared to approach Him in the present age, and we are too blinded by ourselves and the cares of this world to even recognize it sometimes.
It should horrify us that churches across America, let alone the Western world as a whole, are celebrating divorce, homosexuality, vulgarity, selfishness, materialism, and theological ignorance, the latter of which rests at the root of the other problems. As long as you feel and say that you love Jesus, you’re good to go, regardless of whether you even know what it means to love Jesus or what this Jesus whom you supposedly love is actually like in reality (no matter that He is a person with objective and definable attributes and a standard by which He rightfully demands to be known and loved).
It should horrify us that the most popular religious literature in bookstores–the books that remain on the “Best Sellers” shelf–are filled from cover to cover with selfish and materialistic philosophies that are no different than the world’s philosophies, only sprinkled with out-of-context Bible verses to make it all pretty and palatable. Even more than that, they are often riddled through with blatant heresies which have already been condemned in past church councils throughout history–back when it mattered to people more than anything else that God’s one true establishment of the Christian faith should be protected at all costs. It should horrify us that Christianity is treated as an empowering self-help program that celebrates the worth and goodness of the individual more than it celebrates God’s goodness in saving people who very well don’t deserve to be saved in the first place.
What message do we see promoted by women’s ministries, Christian art campaigns, and televangelists more than anything else? “You are enough.” It looks beautiful in brush-lettering on Instagram, and it appeals to our deepest fears and insecurities in the process, but it will never fully address them because it’s completely contrary to the foundational message of the Gospel. We are in desperate need of Christ’s reconciling work since we could never do or be or have enough in and of ourselves. Let’s put that on a coffee mug.
On that note, it should horrify us that countless people–more than half of the statistic of people who call themselves Christians, I’d dare say–believe they are a Christian simply on the basis they recited a sinner’s prayer or knelt at the altar with mom and dad as a child. We have been told over and over that to be assured of our salvation, we should look not at where our deepest hope and hardest surrender lies, but at the moment where we supposedly chose to approach God and rejoiced at His meeting us halfway. You will never find this in Scripture. On the contrary, Christ says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21), and “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (7:14). Salvation is not unreachable, but it is Christ who does the reaching, and we cannot base our profession or anyone else’s on the idea that salvation is about escaping from hell, leaning on our family’s evangelical heritage, or merely believing that Jesus Christ existed at some point. But you won’t hear that from many churches now, since they measure their success by the number of people who raise their hands rather than by the number of people who take up their cross and follow Christ for the rest of their lives.
I find myself sympathetic with the author of Jude: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3:3). To “contend” for something means to proclaim it, guard it, and defend it. There isn’t much room for a hollow and out-of-context call to “Judge not!” in light of the fully exegeted passages in Scripture that urge us to care about truth and sound doctrine. And the most interesting and important thing about this urging is that it is not done for the sake of itself. We don’t contend for the sake of contending. We contend–in light of the multifaceted mess we are wading through in the church today–because “love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). We contend in love and for love. Truth is inseparable from genuine love (Ephesians 4:15), although the world won’t tell you this, and many within the church do not seem to have gotten the memo, either. The issue of sound or false doctrine is an issue of spiritual life and death. This is what Luther and the other Reformers understood in centuries past, and we would do well to begin to understand it again now and in the future to come. Semper Reformanda.