Over the recent years we could hear numerous Christian leaders, organizations and committees calling for the restoration of unity within a divided Christian community. “Luther’s protest is over” – they argue. What they mean is that there exist no more justifiable reasons for the separation between the Protestant world and the Roman Catholic Church since, as they love to claim, “now we all believe that we are all saved by grace and Christ alone”.
Those calls to unity beg a question: are the currently known calls to theological reconciliation doing justice to the integrity of the Gospel of Christ?
Just over 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther, a German monk nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. This event, that was initially designed to invoke an intellectual conversation, set in motion the unstoppable wave of Protestant Reformation in Europe, and led to a major breakup between the churches identified with the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church.
In the heart of the big divorce were the differences between how the two sides understood the centrality and role of grace and faith in the lives of believers. On the one hand the Roman Catholic Church claimed that she was the God given means of deciding the conditions under which the grace of Christ was to be administered in the lives of believers. The Reformers, on the other hand, understood that if the grace of Christ was to be grace, it had to be the undiluted gift of God with no human strings attached, administered to all believers unconditionally.
The Reformers understood the workings of the grace in us as God’s declaration of righteousness. In Christ, and because of Christ, we were declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s merits alone. The Roman Catholic Church understood the workings of the grace as a means of making us righteous, and the Church was given the authority to decide how would that grace be operational in the lives of believers. Apparently what appears to be minute differences in understanding that keep us apart are actually much more than differences in semantics. It is true that most Christians believe that we are saved by grace, but what we mean by the statement would often differ radically.
Often we could hear that what led to the Reformation breakdown was nothing more than an unfortunate or ‘tragic misunderstanding’. But, has anything really changed for better over the centuries in the ways we understand the Gospel of Christ to justify such a bold claim? Have we all really come to a clearer understanding of the meaning, centrality and all-sufficiency of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in our salvation? Have we finally stopped turning our denominations and churches into the ‘dens of robbers’ by selling in them our own brands of saving supplements? Have we all, after many debates, commissions and joint declarations finally come to our transfiguration moment similar to the one when Jesus’ disciples “saw no one else but Jesus”? Matthew 17:8.
I am not convinced that we have. And I am saying “we” because all kinds of self-saving placebos are on the market across the entire spectrum of Christendom today. The examples vary from the outrageous and extreme self-molestations of the Filipino Catholics during the days of Easter, to the superstitious veneration of deceased human intercessors and co-redeemers, still very much alive even in the most liberal circles of the Roman Catholic Church.
By the same token, have we Protestants moved forward “ever reforming” when many of us are relying on our subjective forms of mysticism (for example, listen to the most of the contemporary praise and worship music and you will discover that we praise our emotions more often than Jesus the Redeemer)?
Are we really pursuing the spirit of Reformation when we rely on the subjective prophetic and charismatic gifts for the assurance of our standing with God rather than on the firm promise that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?” Romans 10:13.
Are we truly reformed and “keep on reforming” when many of us have lost any appreciation for the uniqueness of Jesus as “the only name given to men to be saved”? Acts 4:11. Unfortunately in many protestant and evangelical circles the real meaning of salvation by grace has been reduced to a meaningless cliche.
In other words, wherever a Christian culture exists that encourages its followers to believe and act as if their salvation, or sense of God’s approval depended on our works (whether they are the works of the Law or our own rules); or on our subjective inner feelings, notions or imagination; or if we are a part of a Christian community that has produced questionable exclusive beliefs – through it all we are demonstrating that we are not sure if trusting in Jesus alone is enough to keep us in the saving embrace of God. Thus the grace of Christ, as the supreme and all-sufficient agent of our salvation is compromised, diluted, even lost.
As long as something is being added, whatever that may be, to which we give even partial redemptive attributes, we have not grasped the heart, meaning and continuing urgency of the Reformation. Instead of “always reforming” we are continually deforming. Whenever and wherever we live in the attitude of helping Jesus to save us we are reducing the Gospel of Jesus to a caricature.
Let me share an illustration. Recently I’ve watched a video series covering the origins, life, beliefs and practices of the Amish people in the US. I even visited an Amish community in the state of Michigan a number of years ago. What impressed me then, and what has impressed me as I watched the series, was the work ethics, profound sense of belonging to a community in which people leave for each other and serve each other sacrificially. In the days of Reformation those people, better known as Anabaptists at the time, in the mountains of Switzerland decided that they would serve the Lord unconditionally. However, over the centuries those beautiful people, desiring to be the true faithful, got stuck in time and the legalism of their own making. The freshness and claims of the Gospel were replaced with their own customs and laws that had to do much with how and what they wear, and how strictly they keep separated from their non-Amish neighbors, and how thoroughly they would shun their own family members who abandoned their faith. Despite the best intentions they have added heavy loads of their own rules and regulations to their diminishing faith in Jesus, and in the process Jesus and the saving faith that brings assurance and the joy of salvation were lost.
The heart and legacy of the ongoing reformation, kindled by the Reformers of the sixteenth century is in this: no religious system is given the authority to hijack or manipulate the Gospel of Christ, or to expect believers to give their unquestionable allegiance to a religious system in the name of unity. Instead, the legacy of Reformation is calling us to go back to Christ again and again, and nudges us to genuinely seek to understand the heart of the Gospel and the mind of Christ. No religious system, organization or structure can ever claim the ownership of the truth of the Gospel and the gift of grace. This is the true legacy of the Reformation.
Today many are praying for unity and quoting the prayer of Jesus “that all may be one”. Unfortunately, they are forgetting that the only legitimate unity shared between the followers of Jesus is the one with Jesus firmly occupying the throne, and deciding the rules of the game. “That all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You”’ prayed Jesus. John 17:21.
Jesus never prayed for unity for its own sake or at all costs. Unity that does not have Jesus-plus-nothing in the center is a hijacked unity. Cosmetic unifications are not based on the truth but on compromises that always sacrifice the Gospel. There where Jesus Christ is not on the throne, some other, false christ will be enthroned. This is why the warning of Paul the Apostle sounds so urgent and so uncompromising: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned”. Galatians 2:8.
The 16th century Reformers understood that the heart of the Gospel was the gift of Jesus Christ without human strings attached. This was the landmark which they did not dare compromise or subject to improvisation. Neither should we.