This Sunday, many churches around the world will mark an important event: it was on October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago – that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk from Germany, nailed papers containing 95 theses for the reformation of the church to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Thus began what we know from history as the Protestant Reformation.
Luther never intended to start a “new” church. He wanted to help the “old” church return to her roots. The pre-Reformation church had become a little too full of itself, spending more time, effort and money on propping up the institution (with all its bells and whistles) than on its true mission, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching” (Matthew 28.19b-20a, NRSV).
Luther’s mission was not to start from scratch, but to help the church he loved to be true to its biblical roots, particularly in five areas:
- People are justified before God by faith alone;
- People are saved from sin by grace alone;
- Jesus Christ alone is Saviour and Lord;
- The Bible alone is our authority for faith and life; and
- God alone gets the glory.
It wasn’t that the pre-Reformation church had no concept of these things; it’s just that so much had been added on top of them that these basic principles had been obliterated. Luther’s mission was to help put the church back on track with Scripture.
While what we call the Reformation took place in the 16th century, to be fair, the church has gone through a number of reformations since; in fact, the church – we! – do well to experience daily reformation, where we are put back on track with the Word of God.
How about you? Is it your church’s mission to make disciples? Is it yours? Those are questions worth asking as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.