Tag Archives: Protestant Reformation

Indulgent Thought Both Then and Now

These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
Jude 1:19 (NIV)

The letter Jude wrote to Jesus’ followers in that day was prompted by one specific reason. There were individuals coming to various local gatherings of Jesus’ followers and spreading the belief that if all their sins are forgiven then they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. In the minds of these individuals they had a spiritual “get out of jail free” card and they were going to use it wherever their unbridled appetites took them. This was, of course, a tempting message for those longing to unbridle their appetites with a neighborhood shrine prostitute. The result was trouble in River (of Life) City.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes. Get any group of humans together and you’ll find a few (or more) individuals working the angles, looking for the loopholes, and seeking ways to twist things to their own advantage. This is human nature. The skewed thinking Jude addresses was not an isolated issue. Paul addressed similar troubles and similar lines of thought in his letters to Jesus’ followers in Rome and in the city of Corinth.

Fast forward 1500 years and we see the Roman Catholic church turning such thought into a lucrative racketeering opportunity. In those days the church sold “Indulgences.” These indulgences were basically guaranteed forgiveness, an actual “get out of hell free” card which could be used on demand with any future sin you might commit.

“Headed to your brother’s bachelor party at Brunhilda’s Bawdy Bordello? Stop by the church and stock up on indulgences, then have a great time!”

“Your friend’s spouse has been overly flirtatious lately and you’re tempted to see just how far things might go? Don’t go there until you buy yourself an indulgence from Brother Maynard over at the monastery! Come to think of it, buy two: one for you and one for your lover. You don’t want the threat of their soul being in mortal danger to cool off your mutually hot passions!”

Back in the day this lucrative money-maker for the Roman Catholic church and it was predicated on the same twisted thinking as what Jude was addressing in his day. In fact, it was this very religious racketeering that led Marty Luther to publish his medieval blog post on the local church door in Wittenberg (see featured photo) 500 years ago this October. His “95 Theses” post went viral and led to the Protestant Reformation.

Of course, along my life journey I’ve come to understand that human appetites come in all forms. There are “pretty sins” which we commonly overlook because they are covered in the religious veneer of self-righteousness. “Pretty sins” are simply appetites of human pride and ego-centric power which lead me to diminish and judge others in order to exalt myself and my ego. It was these same appetites which Jesus condemned in His rant toward the religious people of His day. Those “pretty sin” appetites are every bit as powerful and tempting as the “ugly sins” we routinely march out in order to shame people (and make ourselves feel better). In fact, I believe the pretty sins and their underlying appetites may be even more insidious and more dangerous.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. People are people. There is nothing new under the sun. The same human foibles Jude warned against in his letter were present in Martin Luther’s day, and they are present today. This morning is a heart-check for me. I don’t want Jude’s warning to stimulate my “pretty sin” appetites and send me off on a personal witch hunt looking for heinous local heretics who think such things today. I find myself more inwardly focused and asking:

“Are there any places in my life that I am glossing over destructive thoughts and behavior under the indulgent defense of ‘Oh well, I’m forgiven!‘?”

An Old Concept We Still Don’t Get

Luther Bible, 1534
Luther Bible, 1534 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant.
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NLT)

I’m a history geek. Forgive me. You might need another cup of coffee for this one.

In a few years we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of one of the most important events in western civilization. In 1517 a young Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther stopped by the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The door served as a sort of medieval community bulletin board in those days. He nailed to the door a theological challenge that he was presenting for public debate. There were 95 things that he felt needed to change in the Roman Catholic church and his 95 “theses” started a chain reaction of events that led to what we know today as the Protestant Reformation. Europe was split asunder between Roman Catholics and these new Protest-ants.

There were many reasons the Protestant Reformation happened when it did, and many of them had nothing to do with Marty’s 95 bullet points. One of the reasons for the Reformation had to do with one of Luther’s other pet projects. Until that time the Bible existed only in painstakingly hand written copies which were penned (generally by monks) in Latin which was the official language of the Roman Catholic church. Because of this, the only people who could read the Bible for themselves were priests, the educated, and the wealthy (a very small minority) which meant that priests and the church had tremendous power over the uneducated masses: “We will tell you what God says because we can read the Bible and you can’t. You’ll just have to trust us on this.”

Marty Luther believed that everyone should have access to reading God’s Message for themselves, and so he began translating the scriptures into the common German language of his people. His successful translation coincided with a relatively recent German invention by a guy named Johannes Gutenberg: the moveable type printing press. This allowed for relatively quick and cheap mass production of books. It was a perfect storm. Gutenberg’s printing press mass produced Luther’s German translation of the Bible and common everyday people began reading the Bible for themselves. They soon discovered for themselves that the Roman Catholic church had taught them some things that they couldn’t actually find anywhere in the Bible.

One of the most important theological concepts to come out of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” The Roman Catholic church had maintained a rather tight reign on the Western World for over a thousand years because only the priests could read the Bible and Roman Catholic doctrine developed the concept that you could only receive God’s forgiveness by going to a priest, confessing and receiving absolution from God through the priest. No priest, no absolution, no forgiveness. God’s Message, however, says that Jesus is the only High Priest of all believers and that everyone who believes is part of the “royal priesthood.” In other words, the local priest in all his regalia standing at the cathedral altar has no more spiritual standing before God than the everyday sinner sitting in the pew.

So what’s my point with this wordy history lesson?

The “priesthood of all believers” was a radical concept in the 1500s, but my experience with the 21st century protestant church is that it remains just as radical today.

  • We still like to make our pastors into priests by putting them up on the platform in the spotlight and bestowing upon on them a spiritual standing that they do not have.
  • We still like to sit in the pew and believe that we are held to a lower standard as if God grades us on a curve. “I never claimed to be a pastor or a priest, so God can’t possibly hold me to that kind of spiritual standard as my pastor.
  • Protestant churches eventually replaced the elite Roman Catholic priesthood with their own educational elitist system of seminaries, refusing to acknowledge that all believers are ministers of the new covenant (see the verse above, I knew I get to it eventually). Protestants replaced the remote and out-of-touch leadership of the papacy with their own remote and out-of-touch denominational offices.
  • Protestant churches regularly put educated but spiritually un-gifted people into positions to which they will ultimately fail, while refusing to encourage or allow spiritually gifted every day believers to use their gifts because they have not met some human educational standard.
  • We refuse to embrace the truth of “the priesthood of all believers” which means that EVERY person (man, woman, child) who believes and receives Jesus as Lord becomes a minister and receives a spiritual gift(s) intended for the carrying out of that ministry in their everyday lives and vocations so that others might come to believe and for the building up of fellow believers. EVERY believer of Jesus is a minister regardless of that believers education, I.Q., E.Q., age, race, background, social status, heritage, sinfulness, record, or history.

What amazing things would happen in our lives, communities, and the world itself if we zealously embraced the truth of the priesthood of all believers and started a 21st century reformation.