In 1517, Martin Luther marched across the square in Wittenberg, Germany, and hammered his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral. This sparked outrage, a trial, and ultimately, a break from the Roman Catholic Church known as the Protestant Reformation. All because an obscure Augustinian monk called out the Church for its sin and hypocrisy.
Many before Luther had tried the same thing and lost their lives, so Luther knew all too well what he was risking. In fact, after his trial, he fully anticipated being captured, tortured and killed by the Inquisition. It was only the actions of some powerful friends that saved him. They also saved for the rest of us Luther’s powerful message of salvation by faith, rather than salvation through the church.
What Luther perceived was that the Roman Catholic Church had strayed so far from the teachings and redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ that it had become unrecognizable as a holy institution. It was no longer the church of Peter and Paul, or of the Gospel as recorded in the Bible. But once Luther returned that Gospel, and the Bible, back into the hands of the faithful, that was it, right? Mission accomplished?
Because of the corruptibility of the human heart, every generation must look at its institutions for evidence of that same corruption. It has happened many times since Luther’s day, as individuals have worked to unshackle the Truth and Freedom of Christ’s message from institutional inertia and error. Institutions are built on concepts like survival and power; Christ’s message centers on sacrifice and humility. It’s not that the Church is always corrupt or hasn’t helped millions to find His Word in community and service. But the church is at its best when it operates like a servant of Christ and focuses on the Gospel message. In Luther’s day the Church became distracted from this focus by power and money. Today it suffers from distractions like virtue-signaling and the cheap grace of relativism.
Luther was called by God, in the name of Truth, to reform the Roman Catholic Church. When that didn’t happen, he and his followers broke from the Church to set out on their own path. Although it might not be so obvious today, the need for change has never disappeared. The one Truth of Jesus Christ cannot be subdivided into your truth and my truth, and the institutional embracing of this kind of relativism cries out for the same remedy employed by Luther five hundred years ago: reformation.