Five hundred years ago, on October 31 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He was not the first nor the last of the reformers, but he stands out as a giant among them.
In Luther’s days a reformation of the church was long overdue. But today Adventists would tend to say that he was not radical enough. And many would argue, there is still a great need for reform in contemporary Christianity, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The famous theologian Karl Barth–possibly quoting church father Augustine–emphatically stated that the church is, and always will be, in need of reform: Ecclesia semper reformanda. The corporate crhurch and all individual church members must always be ready for a critical self-analysis and be prepared to change.
Luther will always be remembered for his emphasis on the three sola’s: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Sola Scriptura (only by faith; only through grace, with the Scriptures as our only source). And another (German) term that was essential for Luther is: ‘Was zum Christum treibet’ (what pushes us towards Christ).
Seventh-day Adventists proudly claim that they are heirs of the Reformation. As the world focuses on Luther in this year of the fifth centennial of his ‘coming out’, Adventists would do well to ask themselves if they are really doing justice to the key elements of Luther’s work. Officially things seem to be quite ok. We confess that we are saved by faith and through divine grace alone. And our Fundamental Beliefs make clear that we only accept as ‘truth’ what we find in the Scriptures. And, yes, we claim that Christ is the center of our theology, our beliefs and practices. But let us face up to the fact that we still have some major challenges in these areas.
This is, first of all, true with regards to the sola fide and sola gratia. There has always been the temptation to also strongly emphasize (and often over-emphasize) our own contribution in the salvation process. Problems with legalism and perfectionism have never been far away. We cannot claim to be true heirs of the Reformation unless the sola fide and sola gratia are key elements that reign supreme in our thinking and way of life.
But many Adventists also continue to struggle with the principle of Sola Scriptura. Officially we believe that the Bible is the ‘supreme, authoritative and infallible revelation of God’s will.’ But actual practice sometimes differs sharply. Many put the writings of Ellen G. White at the same level as the Bible, and some pay even more attention to her writings than to the Bible. I have heard many sermons, even preached by top church leaders, that contained more Ellen White quotes than Bible citations.
There is no doubt that Ellen White has played an important role in Adventist history. Her writings have been, and are, an important source of inspiration. But we must never lose sight of the important reformation principle: Sola Scriptura - our faith rests on the Bible alone.
Was zum Christum treibet–Luther placed a strong focus on the Bible. He translated the Bible for the German people. He constantly emphasized that in our dealings with the Bible we must look for Christ. and for what ‘pushes’ us towards him. Officially, Adventists fully agree that we must always make Christ the center of what we do and say in the church. But, in actual practice, many have a long way to go. For do we really make Christ the center of all our doctrines? Does the way we do theology and read the Bible always ‘push’ us towards Christ? After all, Christ said: I am the Truth. In other words: it is only in a relationship with Christ that we find Truth. Our doctrines, practices (and even our policies) must ‘push’ us towards Christ
We must constantly ask ourselves, at every level of the church: Do we bring people closer to Christ by the way we speak about him, the way we worship him and the way we practice our faith and organize things?
As I think about the meaning of ‘reformation’, Romans 12:2 comes to mind: ‘Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.’ (New Living Translation)
Reformation is not primarily about changing behavior or even correcting doctrine, although this is certainly involved. But what is most of all required is inner change, a transformation in the way we think: a new mindset – a way of thinking that ‘pushes’ us and others towards Christ.