Most people think of the Reformation that occurred in the 16th century as a theological, and ecclesiastical shift. And it was, but it was also a massive political shift. The start of the Reformation is generally tied to Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Door – a scholarly act. But the Reformation was also an enormous cultural shift – along came the printing press and widespread literacy – and a massive political shift – Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, thus supplanting the Pope. The Reformation was far more than just a theological revolution.
Most people think of the great religious revolution that Jesus launched as a fight between law-based salvation and grace-based salvation. That is certainly the language of the New Testament. But we should also remember that it is, in the context of Scripture, a theological debate and as such is carried out in theological terms. But like the Reformation there was far more involved. The political shifts, while taking longer to occur, were just as consequential, if not more so, as those seen in the Reformation.
Theological shifts, even in cultures that are not a part of the religion in question, can have world shattering consequences. That happens not because of explicit theological formulations, but because of new understandings that are woven into the theological debate. For example, as Jesus shifted our understanding of salvation, He also shifted our understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. Law-based salvation is very tangible, “You shall do X.” If you do X, you are saved, if you do not do X well…. It’s pretty easy to figure out who is a person of faith and who is not with law-based salvation. Problem is that leads to all sorts of mischief.
Years ago I visited the Soviet Union and had a discussion with a municipal water official in Leningrad. He opined that full compliance with all the laws and regulations was impossible – there were simply too many and not enough resources. That’s how we seem to end up any time we get into law-based salvation, whether we are speaking religiously, like the Jewish officialdom of Christ’s day, or in today’s grossly over regulated culture. Eventually salvation escapes us because compliance becomes impossible. The discussion with my Soviet official friend ended up being about how to make good judgments in prioritizing compliance to meet the goals of supplying good clean water to the city and make the regulatory masters satisfied with sufficient compliance. In other words it was not enough to know and obey the laws and regs, one had to be smart enough and wise enough to make very difficult decisions.
Most people these days think of grace-based salvation as the regulatory masters (God) being satisfied with sufficient and properly prioritized compliance. In other words, grace means we do not have to be fully compliant as long as we are using good judgment and wisdom in meeting the overarching goals and in what laws and regs to comply with fully. But the grace based salvation Christ brought us was something far more radical. In the paragraph above we noted compliance was impossible because of two reasons, the multiplicity of regs and also a lack of resources. The grace based salvation that Christ brought to us is not just about forgiveness for the inability to comply, it is also about gifting – that is graciously supplying us with the necessary resources to achieve full compliance.
Now the problem of identifying who is a person of faith becomes far more problematic. The resources provided by grace are far less tangible than simple compliance. Compliance is an indicator of having those resources, but it is not a sufficient indicator to serve as proof. It is the difference between acting better and actually being a better person. These less tangible resources – this grace is what made the theological shifts Christ introduced so world changing, not the theology proper. When the world had begun to lose sight of this grace, along comes Luther to rediscover it. Thus his theological insight nailed to that door is far more consequential than one might imagine just in their reading.
The unease that sits at the base of this election cycle stems in large part from the fact that we have lost sight of and value in those less tangible characteristics and focused entirely too much on the more tangible strict compliance aspect of things. Even when candidates spout programs, policies and proposals that we agree with, we have a hard time trusting them. It is those less tangible characteristics from which trust flows.
We are in this place in large part because our theology has “evolved” to that limited forgiveness-based definition of grace and lost sight almost entirely of the gift-giving definition. As good theological insight has had implications far beyond the scholarly, so has this less-than-good theological evolution. This election, regardless of outcome, is not going to solve what ails this nation. We, as Christians, need to rediscover the true, gift-giving grace that Christ brought and Luther rediscovered. Until that happens I expect things to continue to get worse, not better.