Thursday, October 31, 2013

A New Reformation

On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther, acting on his growing sense that his church had lost its way, posted a list of 95 propositions for public debate. The result was the Protestant Reformation. In the last three weeks, I have visited the three largest and most influential churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.  My experience suggests to me that something comparable to what happened in Luther's day needs to happen again.  Christianity, as expressed in American evangelicalism, has lost its way, and it has done so in many of the same areas that Luther addressed.

The Reformation centered around five "sola's" ("alone's").  Justification is 1) by grace alone 2) through faith alone 3) in Christ alone 4) for the glory of God alone.  The only authority that can bind men's consciences is 5) Scripture alone.  These matters strike at the very heart of the Christian religion.  To lose them is to lose the Gospel, the good news that liberates from tyranny.  A church that has lost the Gospel does more harm than good, placing burdens and guilt on its followers without offering freedom in Christ, and rests its teaching on improper authorities.  Luther's concerns were central concerns.  To the extent we have lost these sola's, we are losing Christianity.

This brings me back to the three churches I have visited recently.  Regarding Scripture alone, all of the churches I visited would claim adherence to an authoritative Bible.  Yet, all of the ministers either neglected or badly mishandled biblical texts. One treated the Bible as a sort of Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations, taking verses out of context to find words that would go along with his theme for the day. Another limited his text to a few verses that would appear to support the central assertion of his sermon, when reading the wider text clearly shows that his interpretation was unsustainable and irresponsible.  Another treated an event in the life of Moses as a kind of Aesop's Fable for teaching a moral lesson -- which was not the point of the text. None of the ministers grappled with the context of the passages that they used, and none of them dealt with their Scriptures in the context of the history of redemption that serves as Scripture's central theme. Claims of belief in biblical authority ring hollow when ministers give such shoddy attention to the text.

Regarding the sola's related to justification: they were simply ignored by the ministers on these three Sunday's.  The glory of God never arose as an issue in any of the sermons, and only one of three made any mention of the redeeming work of Christ -- the other two made none, not even in passing.  While I was glad of the one sermon that mentioned Christ's work, I nevertheless thought that the point was lost because it was unrelated to the minister's central theme.  One of the pastors I heard managed to talk about being released from bondage without a single mention of any aspect of Christ's redeeming work -- not a single mention. I guess for him Christian liberty is unrelated to the work of Christ.

All of the church services had large, exuberant crowds, and I couldn't help but remember the religion of Huxley's Brave New World, which was emotional, communal, and devoid of content.  The Brave New World religion was cathartic, being designed to provide an outlet from the banality of their lives, but it provided nothing of transcendent significance.  If American Christianity is drawing crowds in this manner, then the churches have certainly lost their way.

Luther's discoveries followed a long period of anguish:  the religion of his youth provided no relief from his sense of guilt over his sins or his fear of divine retribution.  When he discovered that "the just shall live by faith:" that is, when he realized that God saw us in our hopeless state of spiritual death and depravity and determined to justify us through faith in Christ's death and resurrection and based on no merit of our own, he found joyous freedom.  What Luther found in Scripture needs discovering again.  To lose it is to lose the Gospel.  Without it, we have nothing to offer the crowd.

May God see fit to restore these truths as central to our churches.

Happy Reformation Day.

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