It’s been 500 years, since the hammer hit its final blow and the document lay impaled on the church door trembling in the wind. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and the world has never been the same since. It’s been on my mind especially since I’m almost finished reading a book called Protestants – THE FAITH THAT MADE THE MODERN WORLD, by Alec Ryrie, a professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University. It’s a masterful book which traces the impact of the Reformation on our world from Luther’s time up to the present. Professor Ryrie has obviously done his homework well.
Yet I come away from this scholarly work with profoundly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I believe a reformation was needed. The Church had lost its way, badly needing reform. I think that even many modern Roman Catholics would agree with this, at least in some areas. Martin Luther, as R.C. Sproul has pointed out, was seeking reformation not revolution. He hadn’t wanted to abandon the church and start a new movement. He’d simply wanted to bring it back to holiness and to its biblical roots. In the end, however, the changes were too radical, and Protestantism became its own entity. Many of the changes were positive and God-honoring. I’ve benefitted, for instance, from truths like sola scriptura (only Scripture) and sola gratia (only by grace). Scripture should be the final authority, not human leaders, and salvation is by grace alone, not by works (aren’t you glad about that?). For these reasons, and others, I’m grateful for the Reformation.
My mixed feelings come from another direction. While the Reformation did bring spiritual freedom and advance to the Church, it also created a great deal of chaos. There was, of course, enormous conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics. But it didn’t stop there. Like a mirror hit with a hammer, the Protestants themselves, soon cracked and split in many different directions. Once each person was freed to follow his conscience, based on God’s personal leading and His Word, it turned out that everyone didn’t agree with each other. Soon there were Lutherans, Calvinists, Arminians, Anabaptists, Moravians, and many, many more. Each sect thought it had the most accurate biblical interpretation and practices. And because the government and church were often intertwined, these differences sometimes resulted in bloodshed and even wars. Heretics were tortured, executed and sometimes burned at the stake. If you want details, read the book. You’ll find hundreds of them. Lots of ugliness in the name of Jesus Christ.
Even today, when Christians have mostly separated church and state, and have achieved greater religious tolerance, the Protestant Church is still deeply divided. Reading this book saddened and humbled me. This is the “Reformation” prompted and led by the Spirit of the Living God? And even if we go back to the “good old days”, in biblical times with Israel and then the New Testament church, amidst the flowering beauty of holiness we still find our share of thorns. God’s people have often been an embarrassment to Him. I include myself in that number, though I deeply desire to be like Jesus.
I have no wish today to rain on the Reformation Parade. Much good has come from it. It was needed. There’s much to celebrate. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from its downside as well. Here, in my opinion, are a few of them.
Lessons to be learned from the Reformation’s problems
1. The government and the Church make uneasy partners
I realize that the clause “separation of church and state” has been misinterpreted at times in the United States, in ways which have impinged upon the Church’s rights. That’s unfortunate and wrong. But to equate the government with a particular denomination or religious group is also an invitation to disaster. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, a combination, but the New Testament church never attempted this. The government and the Church each have different loyalties and roles and while they can assist each other, each needs freedom in their own domains. This leads to the next lesson:
2. Religious freedom is a God-given right to be guarded
From the Garden of Eden onwards, God has given people freedom to choose Him or not to choose Him. In the end, He is the one who will judge each of us for our spiritual choices. While there are certainly limits as to what we can do in the name of religious freedom (ISIS being a prime example of abuse of that privilege), in the end, coercing someone to be a Protestant, Catholic, Methodist, or whatever is not only going too far, it flat-out doesn’t work. Even Jesus didn’t force people to believe in Him.
3. Sin often masquerades in religious garb
Just because someone claims their action is “Christian” doesn’t mean it is. Religion is one of Satan’s favorite tools. Think of how many people were slaughtered in the Middle ages in the name of Christ. Or, in our day, how often churches divide over power plays presented as theological issues. This, is perhaps one of the meanings of the commandment which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Even good theology does not excuse bad actions.
4. God can use imperfect saints
While sin is never excusable, if God could only use perfect people, the church would be a discarded tool. Martin Luther was anti-Semitic. John Calvin had a heretic, Servetus, burned at the stake. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Even in biblical times, God’s saints had feet of clay – King David, a “man after God’s own heart” also committed adultery and murder. Peter denied Jesus three times. These are all actions we’d condemn today, though some of these, to be fair, were seen as less objectionable in their time than we see them today. The point is, anyway, that God has always used imperfect people while accomplishing His will. That would include us.
5. God, for some reason, allows for, and uses religious diversity
While there are certainly clear limits as to what can be called “biblical truth”, there still seems to be quite a bit of leeway for diversity, both in interpretation and practice. God can, and has used a variety of approaches to the Christian faith. Who’s to say that the Baptists are more Christian than the Lutherans, or the Reformed Church more Christian than the Pentecostals? There are people afire for God in many denominations. In the Reformation, God used even opposing factions to bring people to the same salvation. The “great multitude which no man can number” standing before the throne in Revelation 7:9, will be composed of every color and theological stripe.
6. In the end, it’s God, not us, who makes it all work
The Reformation was a mixture of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, but, in the end, God used His imperfect tools to accomplish His purposes. This is no excuse for sin, or mediocrity, but it’s also a comfort for those of us who know that we and our fellow saints are far from perfect. Martin Luther, though imperfect, sought to be faithful, and God used him to help launch a moment which has brought millions into the Kingdom and still impacts our world today. He will use you and I too if we’ll take His hand and stay by His side.