While many in our culture celebrate this day as Halloween, there are some who would recognize it as Reformation Day — the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door (i.e. bulletin board) in Wittenberg, Germany.
When Luther penned his Theses, he had no intention of becoming an international celebrity. The document was written in Latin — the language of the universities and scholars — rather than in German, and his goal was to challenge someone to engage in an academic debate with him on each of the points. While there is no evidence to suggest that a debate ever took place, an unknown individual (or group of individuals) took the 95 Theses, translated them into German, and made thousands of copies for distribution. Within a matter of weeks, Luther was inadvertently thrust into the public spotlight.
But why did Luther make this challenge in the first place? It was because he was concerned for the parishioners under his care. They were being duped into paying money to have their time in purgatory reduced. This was made popular by John Tetzel, who advertised these services by stating “when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
When we look at what Luther was trying to accomplish, he had no desire to destroy the Catholic Church or to separate from it. In fact, in the 95 Theses he makes several appeals to the Pope, even suggesting that the Pope would not approve of the corruption that was taking place if he were to know about it. Yet, as time went on, it became clear to Luther that not only was the Pope aware of what was happening but that he had even endorsed it. Tetzel had been acting with full Papal approval.
I bring up this story in order to highlight the importance of reformation. The term “reformation” simply refers to the idea of bringing something back to its original, or more correct, state. It involves re-forming something that had become de-formed.
Of course, any healthy organization or system will contain built-in methods for reformation, or correction. In aviation, every navigational system will decay over time if it does not find some way to re-align itself. The term for this is “drift.” As a navigational system drifts, it becomes less accurate in calculating an aircraft’s location. To correct this drift, the navigational system must communicate with something that is fixed and reliable. In the ancient world, seafarers would reference the North Star and other interstellar bodies. Later, the compass would provide an accurate reference to magnetic north. Today, navigational systems communicate regularly with GPS satellites and receive realignment updates.
A similar process occurs in industries and business. Standards are put in place in order to ensure that a product is of good quality and that both workers and consumers are not harmed. If production quality declines due to laziness or from cutting corners, a reformation, or re-alignment, needs to take place in order to get things back on track.
But any attempt at reformation implies that there is a fixed standard by which one can measure. If there is no standard, then we cannot know if we even need to reform. If there is no standard, we do not know what to change or how much to change. In other words, without an ultimate standard, there can be no reformation or realignment. There can be change, but there is no way to measure whether that change is good or bad.
Going back to Martin Luther, the ultimate standard for him was the word of God — Scripture. There was no other option. For any standard to be a standard it has to be true and trustworthy. If a standard is false or inaccurate, it cannot perform its function, since it will actually cause de-formation rather than re-formation. If a standard is untrustworthy and ever-changing, it cannot perform its function, since it will be too unstable to re-align anything. In other words, if the North Star is constantly changing location then it will do no good to try to navigate off of it.
Yet when it comes to matters of faith and practice, Scripture is the perfect standard. Being both true and trustworthy, it is the only thing that the Church can use in order to reform itself. And yes, the Church must always be reforming. For it will always be subject to drift. This is true for any organization that contains sinful human beings. If erroneous beliefs or behaviors creep in, realignment must take place. But there must always be some ultimate standard that one can reference. For the Church, that measuring stick — or canon — must be Scripture.
Scripture, being breathed out by God, provides a fixed foundation upon which realignment and reformation can take place. It is no coincidence that Jesus Christ, who described himself as “the way, the truth, and the life,” was also described as “the word made flesh.” Christ is the incarnate Word of God and is the cornerstone upon which the Church is built.
So, while we celebrate the 503rd anniversary of the Reformation this year, let us not neglect the fact that we must always be reforming. Yet the measuring stick that we use is neither our own personal whims nor what is considered to be popular opinion. If we use ourselves as the standard, we make God in our image and force the church to conform to our satisfaction. We go “church shopping” in the hopes of finding something that meets our needs and makes us happy. And when the church we choose fails to satisfy our personal preferences, we go find another.
Similarly, if we let the culture be our standard, we setup Demos — the people — as our god and cause the church to lose its saltiness. Instead of being a light to those around us we cover the lamp in order to join them in darkness. In trying to be “relevant” by “coming along side” the culture, we depart our firm foundation and find ourselves standing upon the same sinking sand as the rest of society.
To avoid both of these errors — personal preference or popular culture — we must look to Christ and His word as our firm foundation. Furthermore, we can look to those Christians who came before us in order to learn from them. This does not mean that they are equal to God’s word in authority. Far from it. They were navigators just as we are. We can appreciate the work that they did just like we can appreciate the discoveries that the first explorers made. But even the ancient navigators needed a firm and fixed point of reference. The same is true for the early Christians. That is why we can simultaneously affirm God’s word as our final authority while learning from those who came before us — for they too saw God’s word as the ultimate reference point.
So, in what ways do we need reformation today? In Luther’s time, the primary issue involved abuses and errors within the Catholic Church. While some of those errors (and some new ones) remain within Catholicism, the Protestant/Evangelical Church has begun embracing the errors of our secular culture. Critical race theory and socialism are two of the big ones, although there are some others as well. Yet if evangelicals are not careful to realign themselves to God’s word, they will quickly find themselves without saltiness in a decaying society that desperately needs some more salt.