We all know bad relationships. We may not all realize it, but at one time or another we have held up the hope of pleasing someone just to be left with broken pieces on the floor. We know the feeling that often comes along with it. The one that creeps up in frustration, despair, and exhaustion and finds us just wanting to know what it will take to make this person care, forgive, love or even just notice us. For many in sixteenth century Europe this was the normal Christian view of God.
The world was different at this time. The Church was more government than ministry and to step out of line promised eternal consequences. Many scrambled to do whatever they could do to please church leaders. Villages would become recognized for their church buildings and the relics they housed. Doing their best to attract patrons, churches would house so-called relics that were often nothing more than a broken piece of wood or bone. No matter if you thought it was a fake or not, many would come and pay to see them with the hope that it might improve their relationship with God. Many would commit much of their life traveling to see and touch these holy items. This and so many more things left people with either a false sense of security, or a reinforced sense of despair. Church building projects would leverage this sense of burden to raise funds. Indulgences were established by the church under the idea that people could pay money and have credit added to themselves or a loved one’s spiritual account. People bought it too. Lots of them. This was how life would go. Pray, follow the rules, pay your tithe, attend mass daily and hope you are one of the lucky ones God likes. If you had any doubt that something was missing just do more.
This left many with the same reality staring them in the face – it was never enough and you never really knew where you stood with God. This was the burden that filled the air of Reformation Europe. In 1500, the Church did not exist as we understand it today. In Western Europe you were part of the Roman Catholic Church or you were "anathema" - that is, damned to hell. This is the kind of power that many assumed the Pope and Catholic church had. So to resist any of the teachings of the church was to disagree with God himself. As you can imagine, this was not a very popular option. Over the years, and throughout Europe, different men began to have serious issues with many of the teachings that would be promoted by the church. Unlike the common-folk, these men were well trained and could read and understand their Bibles apart from what the Church told them. But no matter their resistance to the Church teachings, they would not successfully bring change because no one was really willing or able to adequately challenge the Catholic church. That is until the disruptive noise of Martin Luther’s hammer rang throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.
A monk who had devoted his life to reading and studying the Bible, Luther was known by his peers and priest for his great sense of guilt. Luther was said to have burdened his priest for hours with his confessions and sense of constant grief before God. Like many in Europe this struggle marked much of Luther’s adult life. That is until Luther’s eyes were opened to see the Gospel in his Bible.
"There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.' Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates."1
The Gospel of grace transformed how Luther understood everything. And on October 31st, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door for the community and world to see. Propelled by the Gospel of scripture, Luther was publicly challenging the Pope and the Catholic church. This was the beginning of what would become known as The Protestant Reformation. What followed was a series of events that changed the world. Men and women all over the Western world were rejecting the false notion that they could appease God with their actions and like Luther they became transformed by the truth that Jesus alone would restore their relationship with God. No longer was the burden present. No more would they be haunted with the fear of a missed step, or slurred prayer. Jesus had done all the work for them. It was as if a light had finally been turned on and now the world could see that the big angry God that they had imagined, was actually full of grace and calling people to himself. It changed everything.
We can all be tempted to live a life like those 500 years ago. We can go throughout our day fully aware of all the ways we fail to measure up. It is far too easy to suppose that our experience with bad relationships is somehow replicated in God. But that is simply not true. One of the most profound truths we must settle in our hearts and minds is that Jesus has really paid it all. There is nothing left for you to do to be right with God. Your sin is not special. It is not too great. You do not have to wait until you are ready. He has paid it all. This Reformation Day (tomorrow, October 31st), let us take time to reflect on the effective work that Jesus has done that restores our relationship with God. Let us consider how there is no work for us to do. Let us consider how we can turn to God in confidence and know he is not tapping his foot with arms crossed. Instead look with Luther and see your God with arms extended, full of grace and love for you.
Jeff Palen is a member and Small Group leader at Center Church who is also on staff doing an internship with the Youth Ministry. He is married to Barb and together they have 4 wonderful children and live in Queen Creek.