This week marks the 495th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany a statement listing 95 theses that condemned the theology and practices of a corrupt Roman Catholic Church. That was the beginning of the largest conflict in the entire 2000-year history of the Christian church.
Since then, of course, there have been many more, if somewhat less notable, conflicts in Christ’s church. There has been one consistently common thread, however, among all of those church conflicts. It is best captured by a question:
If we are justified before God not by our works but the free grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ, why are church conflicts almost always characterized by defensiveness and self-righteousness?
Christians in seriously conflicted churches are almost always defensive and self-righteous. Why? In church conflict, why do people defend their record of righteousness? Is it because they do not know the clear teaching of Scripture that it is Christ’s record, and not theirs, that counts?
“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” Romans 3:19-24
In many respects this passage captures what the Reformation was all about. The conflict over salvation by faith alone or faith plus our works is eerily manifested in almost every church conflict case where I have been a consultant. What happens when Christians fight is that they become either legalistic legalists or legalistic antinomians. They defend their actions on the grounds of either how their faith has been more righteous (that is, that they have kept the commandments—works righteousness—better than their opponents), or how their faith has been demonstrated with more love than their opponents (that is, that they have kept the commandments—works righteousness—better than their opponents). Either way, they forget that it is not their righteousness that matters; it is Christ’s and his alone.
The need to defend oneself concerning anything, if we truly believe that our righteousness rests solely in Christ’s imputed righteousness, becomes absurd and faith-denying. Our “good works” mean nothing and yet that is what is almost always being defended when God’s people turn against one another.
So why do we have church conflicts? In many ways, it’s because many Christians have forgotten the Reformation. They have forgotten that we are bound together by the five unifying cries of the Protestant Reformers:
- Sola Gratia (By Grace Alone)
- Sola Fide (Through Faith Alone)
- Solus Christus (In Christ Alone)
- Sola Scriptura (According to Scripture Alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria (For God’s Glory Alone)
As you celebrate the Reformation this year remember how much the unity of the church depends on remembering these foundational commitments. And then, when conflict surfaces, apply their principles to its redemption. We are Protestants for a reason: this is what the Word of God proclaims and why we willingly sacrifice any notion of personal righteousness as having such little value when stood next to our Lord’s.
In the Lamb,
 I admit that is an oversimplification of a complex historical and theological debate that continues to this day. If you want the rest of the story please listen to the sermon preached on October 28, 2012, by my pastor, Rev. Mark Bates, on Romans 3:19-31: Just Mercy. I recommend this as a fine way to celebrate the Reformation if your church hasn’t made any special plans.