The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Preparations are being made to celebrate this event in many parts of the world. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Vatican plan to celebrate this occasion together.

Many wonder how such common commemorations between Lutherans and Roman Catholics can take place when the Vatican still considers Luther to be a heretic and considers Protestants to be merely “churchlike communities” but certainly not “church in the proper sense.” If Luther were alive today, he might find such joint commemoration rather comical. Whether he would consider member churches of the LWF to be Lutheran is a matter beyond the scope of this piece.

Recently, a man named Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote an opinion entitled “The cowardice and hubris of Pope Francis”* in a publication online called “The Week.” Mr. Dougherty opens his piece by stating, “To universal fanfare from the mainstream and Catholic media, Pope Francis has issued a long-awaited document, Amoris Laetitia, ‘the Joy of Love,’ as his conclusion to the Catholic Church’s two-year Synod on the Family. But to this Catholic, the pope’s supposedly reformist document is a botch job.” For Mr. Dougherty, if sin is no longer sin but just an “irregular” situation, then God’s commandments become “ideals” which have no force and correspondingly cannot be enforced.

Mr. Dougherty concludes his opinion by saying, “This supposed paean to love is something much sadder. A Church so anxious to include and accept you that it must deny the faith that transforms and renews you. It admits that God’s commands are not just beyond our reach, but possibly destructive to follow… Pope Francis is trying to be more merciful than God himself. He ends up being more miserly and condescending instead.”

Mr. Dougherty laments that the Pope as supreme pontiff (pontifex maximus literally the greatest bridge builder) is actually embodying what his title implies. Historically, however, this title was not the pope’s but rather was once held by Julius Caesar over four decades before Christ’s birth. Likewise, this title was not Caesar’s because Julius commandeered it from the head priests in ancient, Roman, pagan religion. Thus, by employing this title, the papacy in one way or another ties pagan religion, Roman imperialism, and elements of Christianity into a single church-state (now multi-national corporation) with its capital (or headquarters) at the Vatican in Rome. By accommodating neo-paganism’s false gospel of inclusivity today, Pope Francis is courageously exercising his roll as supreme bridge builder, and where necessary, infallibly circumventing or excluding Catholic teaching to do so.

During the Reformation, Luther undertook a radically different endeavour. Instead of building bridges, renewing the old, or engaging in remedial actions, Luther sought to extricate the gospel and thus the church from the church-state, imperial paganism of the papacy. Luther’s valiant, pastoral concern, however, was already being undermined in his lifetime by some of his closest colleagues. Likewise, the protection of Protestantism by Lutheran princes would be transformed into the trappings of being a Lutheran state church. As secularism developed through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, such state churches would be infiltrated by a renewed form of paganism whose anti-Christian designs have eventually made Protestantism perfunctory (something carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection).

Under the influence of the neopagan gospel of inclusivity, from now until October 2017 many strains of modern Protestantism and the papacy will be “building bridges” with each other in order to “include and accept,” as Mr. Dougherty phrases it, rather than to “transform and renew.” As dismayed as Mr. Dougherty may be about Pope Francis, as a Roman Catholic he fails to see that the Roman Church’s programme to “transform and renew” fails to tread the biblically and theologically correct path which starts life in Christ with baptism as death and resurrection.

From a Lutheran standpoint, life in the risen Christ is life under the cross, crucifix rather than pontifex. For Luther, Christ was not crucified to bridge the gap between God and humanity and thus to transform and renew sinners. Instead, Christ was crucified in order to make sinners dead to sin, death, and the devil. This happened in Christ’s cross and resurrection and still happens to sinful believers when the word of God is purely proclaimed in law and gospel and received in Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thereby Christ erects a “dead end” to humanity’s sinful, in-born and inbred paganistic ways in order to raise justified sinners into that new creation in Christ. From Luther’s perspective, death and resurrection in Christ far exceed being “transformed and renewed” by an ecclesial institution. Instead, it involves being re-created in the image of Christ.

As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, the LWF and the Vatican are finding each other again in neo-paganism where just about any religious, political, social, or personal persuasion is included, valued, and enforced, except the law found in Scripture and gospel inaugurated by Jesus Christ. In contrast, the life to which Jesus calls sinners is not remedial but cruciform: Ancient pagans wield a cross. Neo-pagans may even wear a cross. Only Christians, however, bear the cross because their Lord and Saviour has incorporated them into his body to witness to him, his cross, and his resurrection not only before the world of paganistic non-believers but for the sake of those same paganistic non-believers, as hostile as they may be or become.

At the Reformation, Luther was concerned that sinners would have a true faith in the one true God in order to be confident that they were justified by that faith alone for the forgiveness of their sin. If people today no longer have sin but just irregularities, then Jesus was crucified in vain and was resurrected for no reason at all (I Cor. 15:12-19). In contrast to Scripture and to Luther, the LWF and the Vatican today seem primarily concerned that sinners and their sinning can find a place in an ecclesial institution to belong. If the church, however, is merely a Welcome Wagon for self-righteous, self-justifying sinners, then it has divorced itself both from its head, Jesus Christ, and from the forgiveness of sin which only he can grant.

In other words, if the church is no longer the church but just a club of inclusively enforced irregularities, then why would such “irregularities” want to join such a church, proper or otherwise? Would it not be much easier to be self-righteous and self-justifying all by oneself without an offering plate?