I was being interviewed by an 8th grade boy from a nearby Catholic school whose assignment was to speak with a member of another faith or church tradition and try to understand the differences and similarities. I've done several of these in the past., and enjoy answering the questions. I'm also careful to explain that after 500 years many of our core beliefs as Catholics and Protestants are actually very similar. Even so, I shared about the critical ideas that sparked the Reformation, summed up in the five "solas." Sola Gratia (grace alone), Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone); and Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone). When we were close to finishing I asked one more time, “Do you have any other questions?” “No,” the boy said, but then turning to his father, “Dad do you have any questions for Pastor Steve?” That was a first! The father seemed caught off guard by his son’s remark: “No, I don’t have any questions for Pastor Steve.” The son pressed further then looked at me, “My dad’s an atheist,” he added. I smiled and tried to look un-surprised. Then the father proceeded to tell me about his un-belief; and yet his respect for Jesus and his moral teachings. I get that a lot. He also said that his wife was a strong Catholic, but did not share her beliefs. I think he raised an eyebrow when I challenged him to keep asking questions. I shared with him that I too have occasional questions for God, and that questions have helped me find answers. I invited him to give me a call if he ever wanted to talk further before they walked out the door.
The Christian Reformation, whose 500th anniversary we are celebrating today, began when a few people started asking some very good questions. Among the 95 objections Luther had against the Medieval Church, complaints which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, Luther questioned why the church was selling indulgences. Indulgences were contributions that one could make to the church with the promise that dead relatives would be freed from the fires of purgatory. Luther objected to this distortion of the gospel message, rediscovering as he read the book of Romans that salvation is a free gift, offered to us by God’s grace alone through faith alone in what Christ has accomplished for us (Romans 1: 16-17).
Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers also questioned why the Bible could not be translated into the language of common people. At the time, the Scriptures were in Latin and inaccessible to all but the educated priests. Luther dared to remedy this situation by translating the Bible into German. Luther’s bible sold five thousand copies in the first two months, the first mass media in history.
The Reformers also questioned the infallibility of papal authority, and said that the only rule of faith and practice was Scripture. Moreover, the Reformers emphasized that Christ alone was the mediator between God and human beings; and that it was his once-for-all sacrifice that cleansed us from sin. They therefore questioned the idea that one must confess to a priest before receiving absolution from sin. Each of us may boldly approach the throne of grace through Christ with confidence that we will receive grace and help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
John Calvin also underscored the truth of “the priesthood of all believers,” (1 Peter 2:9), catapulting the church into a new phase of shared leadership, no longer dominated by clergy alone. Just as Copernicus, a contemporary of Luther, proved that the sun and not the earth was at the center of the known universe, the Reformers re-oriented the constellation of the church around the grace and power of the Son of God and his ever-reforming work in our lives.
The Reformation was all about asking good questions. Questions, as I explained to my atheist friend, are not to be avoided, and they are no hindrance to spiritual discovery and insight. Jesus and his word can handle our deepest and most difficult questions, and when we take the time to listen to the doubts and questions of those who come to us from outside the church, or from within, we are honoring Jesus who said, “and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Hope to see you soon…