On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany and, thus, unwittingly, launched the Protestant Reformation. Far from being stale history, this unleashed powerful religious, cultural, and intellectual forces that altered the course of western civilization. Secularists can appreciate the blow that Luther's hammer struck in behalf of the concept of freedom of conscience. Those who understand Luther's religious message have even more to appreciate. Unfortunately, many sectors of American Christianity have forgotten or even deny that message, and that has contributed to the impoverishment of the church's teaching, both to congregants and to those outside the church.
Luther was a volatile personality given to both emotional and rhetorical excess, but his early career gives testimony to the vacuity of the religion of do more and try harder. Luther read the biblical phrase "the righteousness of God," and he was terrified by the notion of a perfect and all powerful righteousness and justice that contrasted sharply with his own failures. Luther knew himself to be a lawbreaker and cowered at the idea of standing before the bar of justice of One who was perfect light. But what could he do to bridge that chasm?
As a monastic priest he spent hours in confession and flagellated himself at night in hopes of ridding himself of the sin lurking within him. Rigorous effort brought no peace, because he recognized that efforts at self-improvement and religious commitment could only take him so far. They could not rid him of the soul gnawing guilt that afflicted him. Liberation came with the understanding that "the righteousness of God" was not only the righteousness that God embodies and requires, but it is the imputed righteousness that God gives freely by His grace. By Christ's sinless life and substitutionary death, an exchange of accounts takes place: all of my sin was deposited upon Christ, who suffered for it; all of His righteousness was deposited in my account, and I am counted righteous as a result. Justification comes not to the one who works, but to the one who believes. Peace with God is His accomplishment, not ours. Thus, we can believe with gratitude.
Luther's soul liberating message centered around five "solas" (alones). Justification, he came to contend, was 1) by grace alone; 2) through faith alone; 3) through Christ alone; 4) for the glory of God alone. Ultimate religious authority was found in 5) Scripture alone.
Many churches now consider this message to be irrelevant to modern hearers, and so they provide congregants with a sort of light legalism of how to's: steps to a meaningful life, how to be a better leader, how to love your wife, and so forth. These are sometimes nice things that one doesn't need a church for. As the chief end of religion, they can bring guilt and more effort, but they cannot justify. These supposedly relevant churches fail to offer the message of true liberation from the slavery of sin and death, and of the joy of life for the glory of God. Churches don't need to go back to Luther to find this, but they do need to go back to the Bible and rediscover Luther's gospel.
Happy Reformation Day. And may churches experience a new reformation turning back to the primacy of the gospel in the 21st century.