500 years ago on 31st October 1517 a hitherto unknown German monk nailed to a church door a list of 95 objections to what he saw as abuses of the church. These objections are more commonly known as Luther's 95 Theses.
Martin Luther, for that was his name, had initially trained as a lawyer but following a miraculous escape during a fierce thunderstorm he dedicated his life to serving God as a monk. He threw himself wholeheartedly into monastic life and excelled in all the duties assigned for him. However in the midst of his religious privations and duties he found himself tormented by a failure to find rest for his soul.
He was a man of considerable intellectual capacity and theological understanding and so his abbot recommended he take up a teaching position. It was while he was in this role teaching his students through the book of Romans that he came to the realisation that salvation is by grace through faith. No amount of good works or religious piety can make us right with God. Rather it is through the unmerited work of Jesus upon the cross that we can know forgiveness. We take hold of this forgiveness by faith. This revelation transformed Luther and revolutionised his life.
His intention in publishing his 95 theses was to bring the church back to a biblically based understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He did not anticipate the shock waves that using the 16th century equivalent of posting on Facebook would send through the Holy Roman Catholic Empire. His hope was that the Cardinals and the Pope would recognise the wisdom of his pronouncements, rid the church of corrupt clergy, abolish unbiblical practices and call everyone to a simple life of faith based upon truth revealed through the pages of scripture.
He was not the first to challenge Rome on such matters. However his publication coincided with the invention of the printing press that meant multiple copies of his writings were quickly distributed across Europe and were regarded by some influential church leaders as seditious and undermining the status quo. Secondly a number of Kings and Princes were becoming tired of being dictated to on how they should govern their territories by the Pope in faraway Rome. Consequently his ideas led to nations such as Germany and England breaking away from Rome and new, protestant churches being formed.
Tragically in the centuries that followed Catholics and Protestants persecuted each other and carried out unspeakable atrocities on each other. Indeed at times even Protestants persecuted people within the various reformation splinter groups. Thankfully 500 years on there is a far more harmonious relationship between the various different denominations and streams of the 21st Christian church which has led to love for each other and unprecedented cooperation.
So what value is there in remembering the reformation? Is it not just raking up old coals? I believe that there are two key reasons for remembering this anniversary. Firstly by recalling the atrocities we are able to embrace each other through repentance and forgiveness for the hostilities of the past. Together we can rejoice and respect the differences between us.
Secondly, and more importantly, the Christian church faces a new challenge today where human reason and understanding is held above the authority of the bible. This challenge expresses itself within the church as the belief that their personal interpretation of favourite texts is more valid than the full revelation of God in the entire bible. The challenge is also present from outside the church as the doctrines of tolerance, diversity and equality are applied in such a way as to rule biblical truth as bigoted and outmoded. Like the 16th and 17th century reformers we are every bit as in need of a return to standing upon the truth of God's revelation through the bible and upon receiving salvation through grace by faith.