Note: This is a sponsored post from the Christian History Institute. It was prepared by John H. Armstrong
Over the course of a dark and divisive political debate last year Americans became more polarized than ever.
We have a traditional motto: E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). This saying has run through our society as an expression of great unifying force. We are the land of diversity united in the common pursuit of freedom. But something has happened in the last few decades. The unum (oneness) of America is disintegrating.
My friend Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin spent two decades abroad before he returned to serve the diocese of Indianapolis. He says he found our American divisions “shocking and distressing.” I agree. But while division in the political and cultural environment is to be expected, in the church we should all get along, right?
There are very few historical personalities with the magnetism of the famous Augustinian monk Martin Luther, a man who also lived during a dark political and social time.
Luther’s internal journey began with a deeply personal question that vexed his soul: “How can a sinner find mercy with a just God?” He discovered the answer in Romans 1:17: “The righteous live by faith.” God’s mercy alone was his only hope in life and in death.
October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a movement begun when Luther nailed his 95 grievances on the door at Wittenberg Castle Church.
And ever since, Luther has been the object of both praise and scorn. For some he bears specific blame for dividing the church. For others he remains a hero because he recovered the Gospel and opposed massive church abuses. Love him or hate him, Martin Luther gets a response.
And it’s no different on the eve of this historic anniversary. Some Protestants are aglow with celebration, while others have long ago forgotten there was anything to protest. Meanwhile, many Catholics are more interested than ever in new dialogue about some of Luther’s burning concerns, while others fire shots at all who are part of the longstanding “protest.”
Pope Francis himself marked the 499th anniversary on October 31 last year with a historic trip to Lund, Sweden. He met with leaders from the Lutheran World Federation to celebrate a document titled: “From Conflict to Communion.” The document does not pretend to solve all the disagreements between Lutherans and Catholics. It does something more important by seeking forgiveness for our multiplied divisions.
The pope and the Lutheran leaders look for greater celebration of our differing gifts, while they long for a time when unity might reign in the midst of our amazing diversity.
But, what can we glean from our sixteenth-century forebears as we draw nearer to the precipice of social and religious demise? Throughout history the church has grown and declined. At times the influence of Christianity has shifted from one region or continent to another. But now our “shocking and distressing” divisions can be seen in everyday life.
There seems to be a harsh and persistent debate that marks us. We argue over politics, race, gender, marriage; and we still debate doctrinal issues that are neither confessionally-essential nor Christ-exalting. So while Luther himself reminded the world of the importance of justification by faith, the sad legacy of the Reformation is tightly linked to our ongoing divisions. It seems we are now reaping what we have sown at a dizzying pace.
What should we work and hope for at such a time as this? In the sixteenth century, when great moral and spiritual darkness covered Europe, the words Job 17:12 reminded many that the light would always be found nearest to darkness.
The Latin phrase Post tenebras lux (Light After Darkness) became a Calvinist motto in Geneva. This idea was subsequently adopted by the entire Protestant Reformation. The Reformers believed the gospel was the light that would arise in the midst of pervasive darkness.
Through five centuries the church, both Catholic and Protestant, has experienced great times of gospel transformation when the good news has changed people and cultures. Luther’s great vision of mercy has, at our best moments, overcome the darkness of our divisions.
The signs of our times call for a recovery of God’s mercy. We need the light of the gospel, not more division. Luther can again be a model, for both Catholics and Protestants. He is right: only God’s mercy can heal us from deep wounds.
The pressing questions remain: Where can we find mercy for today and bright hope for tomorrow?
The answer is exactly where Luther found it, in the good news. God’s mercy can heal our hearts, restore our love, transform our homes, rebuild our churches, and visibly unite us in the love that leads us to serve our neighbors.
Could the divisions of the sixteenth century actually lead us to fresh discovery of unity in the twenty-first century, with a unity rooted in God’s mercy? I pray so.
By Dr. John Armstrong – Presenter from “The Reformation: This Changed Everything” , President/Founder ACT3 Network, Author – Costly Love (April 2017)