The Protestant Reformation was started in 1517 by Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk who was revolted about the selling of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. The indulgences were on that occasion simply documents sold by Rome that would guarantee access to heaven for those who bought them. Luther understood that the Bible taught something different: salvation is through Christ alone, and can’t be bought or sold. Jesus’ death on the cross was substitutionary: he died in the place of sinners. Those who put their faith (their trust) in this sacrifice are saved from hell. In a nutshell, this is the gospel (the good news) as Luther understood it and as Protestant churches have been understanding it in the past 500 years.
However, for Luther, the Protestant Reformation didn’t begin in 1517. What happened to him in that year was just the culmination of a process that started many years before. Luther was obsessed with the idea of sin. More so than the average person, he understood that as a sinner he could never be considered just by God, no matter how much money he spent on indulgences. The distance between God’s justice and human sin is simply too great. Understandably, instead of loving God, Luther hated him. that’s when he discovered salvation by faith alone. Yes, it is true that our justice can never satisfy God. But it doesn’t have to. We can rely on Jesus’ justice. And that is what for Luther begin the Reformation.
Luther’s idea of salvation by faith alone can easily be mistaken by antinomianism. Antinomianism is the idea that the law has no importance at all, especially for salvation. That is certainly not the case for Luther and other reformers. For them, we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. True faith will always be followed by good works. So, although the good works in themselves do not save, they are part of faith. Nevertheless, Luther’s idea of salvation by faith alone is pretty radical. Can we be sure that faith alone will not fall into antinomianism? Can we be fully confident that this idea will not lead to licentiousness? This debate has been going on for the last 500 years.
In any case, I find it fascinating how the Reformation begin with one unsuspicious monk in an unimportant region of Germany over 500 years ago. The Reformation is part of the modern (re)discovery of the self. Before Luther, other people were trying to reform the Roman Church already. Notoriously, Erasmus was criticizing the excessive pomp of the church and the shortcomings of the official Latin translation of the Bible. However, as important as they could be, these were external things. Luther’s reformation begins as a reform of the self. A someone said, nothing is deeper than a man full of regret. If Luther was simply pointing to the mistakes in the Roman Church, and not to his own sinful nature, his reform wouldn’t produce the change it did.
The problem with the Left, since Rousseau, is that the problems are outside the self. For Rousseau, we are born in chains. Society turns an otherwise noble savage into an egoistic person. For Marx, man is nothing but a soulless homo economicus, trapped into the materialistic engines of history. The New Left believes we are poor victims of advertisement that makes us buy stuff we don’t really need. And that inevitably turns leftists into hypocrites. One can never perform well enough to these standards and is left pointing to the speckle in somebody else’s eye.
Ever since I can remember, one of the most common reasons people give to stay away from churches is the Christians. Churches are full of hypocrites, they say. I can’t really access the veracity of this statement, but one thing I can say is this: salvation by works is a game set to be lost. If your religion says that you obtain salvation by performance, that will inevitably turn you into a hypocrite. Or a cynic. Or both. And will also make you hate anyone outside your religious group.
The problem with the left is that it preaches salvation by works and sets the problems outside the self. The gospel of the left lacks a sense of personal sin and of grace.