Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Before we post the second installment in our Discipler’s Guide to Spiritual Conversations series we wanted to sneak in a quick note regarding the events of October 31, 1517.
A lot has been written and said, especially recently, about the Protestant Reformation. In light of the 500th anniversary of a man who couldn’t keep his fresh biblical insights and the stirrings in his heart to himself, we thought we’d chime in as well.
A quote dear to us at the Table Network is this one by Robert F Capon:
“The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace – of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel – after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps – suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started… Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.”
Capon, here, does what he does well in all his writings. He writes about grace with a provocativeness fitting to grace itself. But not only this, he touches on the nature of this Protestant movement phenomena. With this quote as a springboard, we’re reminded again of the sweetness of this theological and ecclesial protest and its subsequent movement.
First, we need to be reminded that all this ruckus wasn’t about reimagining the gospel. It was an effort to recover and return to it. Good news right under our nose in the Scriptures…or gathering dust in the basement of the church as Capon puts it. It was a movement set in motion because of something old and forgotten, not novel. As Niebuhr said, no doubt reflecting on what ensued after Luther publicly posted his pleas to the church and its leaders, “The great Christian revolutions came not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when someone takes radically something that was always there.”
Second, this was a movement of the gospel and its effect on those who discovered it. People who were weary and heavy burdened by the performance of religion met the one-way love of God and came alive in its freedom. The Reformation wasn't simply about theological accuracy, it was a time when hearts were set ablaze with grace. Sadly, for some, the truths recovered in the Reformation have become doctrines to guard like artifacts in a museum. To stretch Capon’s analogy, it’s almost as if we’re content to simply display & discuss these old 200 proof bottles. But it would be a shame to simply protect and preserve such a fine spirit. Why not crack a bottle open and drink freely? Why not invite our neighbors over for a pour? Especially, if we have an endless supply.
This leads to the third, and equally important, aspect of this movement. The reformation highlighted how good news ought to be shared. Luther opened the information floodgates by not only speaking out publicly, but also by making his thoughts (and eventually the Scriptures themselves) available in the language of everyday people. The way these truths began to flow after the fall of 1517 recovered something basic to the gospel itself.
The very fact that the Holy Spirit decided to grab onto the very common and cultural idea of “good news” as shorthand for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meant three things: 1) This news is good news. The very nature of it should cause celebration, joy, and gladness. 2) Good news is news, not advice. Advice has to do with an ongoing situation in which you might be able to affect the outcome. News implies the finality of the situation. It’s done. Finished. It happened. The only thing left to do is receive and respond to this Good News and live your life in light of it. 3) Here’s the main point of this paragraph. News is meant to be shared, word of mouth, not kept to ourselves. And certainly not chained to a pulpit or to an idea of church that limits the church and its life and mission to a service or building.
Have you ever tried keeping really good news to yourself? Like news of a pregnancy or a raise at work or a new tattoo. You can’t. Why? Because we naturally extend to others the things we enjoy.
The Reformation was a time where the Scriptures were unchained from the pulpit and it’s contents were rightly recovered. Not only were they recovered, they were consumed and they freed a multitude trapped in the theological dark ages. Equally important to the recovery of this good news was the nature in which these discoveries were shared. It was a movement of everyday people among everyday people.
500 years later and we’re still talking about one bold monk who was honest with himself and realized he couldn't pull himself up by his religious bootstraps. He couldn’t shake the simple thought in Paul’s letter to the Romans “the righteous shall live by faith”. Knowing he had been living by everything and anything but faith, God opened his eyes to see and sip a 200 proof grace. Luther simply couldn't keep it to himself.