The Reformation in a Verse

This Halloween is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther revealed his 95 Theses, setting off a firestorm of debate, controversy, change, and blessed freedom. Many passages of Scripture could claim to be the heart of the Reformation; Colossians 2:23 is one of them. If you want to understand the Reformation, seek to understand Colossians 2:23:

“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

The “these” refer to rules listed in verse 21. In Luther’s time Catholicism offered many rules and man-made religious methods for dealing with the flesh. Propounded in gold-gilded cathedrals, by gloriously-robed priests, they seemed wise and good. Some methods were sternly ascetic – I once visited the ancient catacombs of Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery in Ukraine, and saw where one monk walled himself into a cave to escape temptation, until he died.

One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen – all that effort and self-induced suffering did nothing for that poor man. Yet I bet he had a Bible with Colossians right there in his dark cave. He couldn’t see that legalism does nothing to stop licentiousness, because they’re both manifestations of the same problem –  the disease of unbelief, the idolatry of self, and the enslavement of the will to sin.

This bondage only breaks under crushing weight of a bloody cross. The answer to legalism is not license, to loosen up a bit. And the answer to licentiousness is not more rules. The rules only convict us of how deep our enslavement goes. They’re two ditches, on either side of the road, and yet underneath they’re connected – they’re versions of the same thing.

The solution to both is joy in our union with Christ:

In his death, we too died (3:3) to the world. Yet we were raised with him. Our great good is not found here, but where he is – at the generous right hand of the Father (3:1). Our life is there. Therefore we seek that life by setting our minds upon him – upon his death, his keeping our life in the present, and our glorious future when he returns. Faith and hope, yielding joy and gratitude.

And in that joy, we have power to kill all obstacles to love: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you . . .” (3:5) This is the “Reformation” Martin Luther set off. May it continue in each of us.