Martin Luther started the Reformation, on October 31, 1517, when he posted the “Ninety-Five Theses” on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was deeply concerned about the collapse and corruption of Biblical doctrine by the professing Church. The Church had been selling salvation to the masses for centuries through something called “Indulgences,” a practice in which a person paid to have their sins forgiven. It was a very lucrative practice and brought enormous amounts of money to the Church. Luther came to a place where he felt it was time to speak up about this and return the Church to a Biblical foundation of grace alone. Suffice it to say the Reformation changed Western Civilization as we know it. It was responsible for the founding of America by Christian pilgrims and the eventual birth of our Nation in 1776. Simply put, without the Reformation America would not exist.
The lessons of the Reformation are many, but like most things, they tend to be forgotten and lost over the last 500 years. That is true because human nature is the same and so people tend to make the same mistakes and history repeats itself. As a result, the American Church is in a crisis that is very similar to the condition of the Church in pre-Reformation Europe. And while many people may not see it, the Church has subtly started to sell and market salvation to their audience. The Church is being marketed to people today to find a new generation of “seekers”. People are less likely to come to the Church today for salvation in Christ alone because they are not even sure what that is all about. The reason we know this is happening is because we are seeing a dramatic loss of basic, Christian doctrine about the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Many people are coming to the Church for their own fleshly reasons that are being reinforced by a Church world that is willing to cater to them. But when the Church isn’t being built on the real Lord and what the Bible teaches about Him, the Church isn’t the Church.
It is hard to believe that the practice of selling or marketing salvation would return. And yet that is exactly what is happening today. Much of the visible Church world has turned to church marketing where people define what they want. As a result, the religious consumer now decides what the Church is going to be, not the Lord of the Church. The Church is losing a clear view of Biblical salvation in Christ alone and replacing it with a human centered, cultural counterfeit that focuses on making people feel good. Many people today have come to believe that feeling good is a replacement for being good, that is why there is little difference in behavior between the Church and the world. Many people have also come to believe that the Faith is whatever you want it to be and less likely connected to some dry doctrine outlined in the Bible that define the Lord’s work in salvation.
Now on the surface such an assessment seems overly negative. And yet, the evidence is all around us if we look at the facts. Martin Luther said that the true Church would rise or fall on the Doctrine of Justification. Luther believed that IF the Church didn’t clearly understand, celebrate and embrace the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sins by grace alone, the Church had lost the Gospel message. Luther realized that the Doctrine of Justification was easily confused and lost without a clear Biblical foundation and witness. That is why the selling of salvation or “Indulgences” by the Roman Catholic Church had thrived for hundreds of years before the Reformation.
If you go to a typical church today and ask people, “What is the Biblical Doctrine of Justification?” you might get a lot of blank stares. Few people are even hearing that question asked, let alone have the ability to articulate it as the heart of the Gospel message. Now some might say, people don’t use that language, but they understand justification. Really? Do most people today in our churches really understand the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation?
A tremendous insight to these questions and issues was recently revealed by a study that examined what evangelical Christians believe about the Lord and their faith. This study was commissioned by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research, both outstanding evangelical ministries interested in Christian doctrine and faith. (You can find this study and report entitled, “The State of Theology” online at ligonier.org). What this study demonstrated is that a large majority of people in our evangelical churches are not clear about the Person of Christ. In other words, people cannot Biblically answer the question our Lord asked of the disciples in Matthew 16:13-18,
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
According to “The State of Theology” the vast majority of evangelical church members are not Christians based on their own beliefs regarding the Person of Christ, but hold to a view of Christ that is held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The study had asked people to agree or disagree with this statement, Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.
The response to that statement was that 78% agree with it, versus 18% that disagree. Sadly, a large majority (78%) of evangelical church members believe the Lord Jesus Christ was a created being, not God Himself in the Person of the Son. This unbiblical view of Jesus was first widely believed by the Arians in the 4th century and pronounced a heresy by the Church through the Nicene Creed. This false and heretical view of the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ was picked up by the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group that orthodox Christianity would call a cult. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the Trinity and believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is not God, but a created being. But without the Lord Jesus being our Lord and God, His death on the Cross cannot forgive our sin or restore our fellowship with the Lord.
Now if people in our churches are not clear about Jesus, Who He is, and what He accomplished though the Cross, salvation will not be experienced as a gift. If that is true, the modern Church is selling people a counterfeit, spiritual experience, a modern “Indulgence” if you will. People end up paying for appealing programs, trendy worship and music services, relevant preaching and a host of other things that sell a spiritual experience to people. However, without a clear, Biblical view of Justification that Luther fought for during the Reformation the true Church falls.
Over 500 years have passed since a courageous monk named Martin Luther stood up and said “Enough!” Part of the problem today is that people don’t even see what is happening. We are all somehow lost in our culture and missing the glory of our Lord and His Gospel. If there was ever a time to lovingly challenge people with the truth it is now. Indulgences won’t get anyone into Heaven. Creating a false Faith or one that doesn’t save people from sin is just as tragic as it was in Luther’s day. If there was ever a time to distinguish the true Faith from a counterfeit one it is now.
May each of us seek the true Lord and His Gospel and be a Luther as we stand up for the real Faith that was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Jeffrey Carlson is Pastor of Oakhill Church in Grand Rapids. He is a Distinguished Fellow at Salt & Light Global. You can read more of his writing at the www.carlsonreport.com