Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
It was normal, not an aggressive act, to post the questions for academic discussion; and Martin Luther was doing this as he posted his 95 theses on the door of one or more churches in Wittenberg, Germany. The traditional date (perhaps a couple weeks too soon) of this posting is October 31, 1517–500 years ago today. The content of Luther’s theses were indeed critical and aggressive, and his incisive intellect and powerful style of writing lit a fire of discussion and catalyzed opposition to a superstitious but then common practice that was being flagrantly abused.
The following 95 questions are also offered for discussion. They are designed to turn hearts and minds to a better understanding of a variety of practices of sharing core spiritual truth. These practices, which commonly grouped under the term “evangelism,” have been abused. Although I feel comfortable with the term, such abuse, together with antitheistic resistance to even excellent practices of proclaiming truth in thought, word, and deed, together with other factors in the contemporary history of religion, have created a widespread repulsion to the common term among a majority of readers and listeners today.
But the main thing is . . . to ponder the questions.
How did you come to know God? Did you ever have a time when you were listening to someone who said something and you received a spiritual intuition or insight, a pulse of conviction that what that person was saying was profoundly true? In what conditions are you most spiritually receptive? What qualities stand out in some of the persons who have blessed you with truth and divine love?
What is the gospel—yes, “good news”—but what is it really? How can we express it so that its goodness and freshness comes through? People speak of “the” gospel, as though it is one in an obvious sense and as though everyone should have the same understanding of it—but is that correct? Would Jesus impose intellectual uniformity as the gateway to spiritual unity?
If, as most scholars agree, the Christian gospel centered on the risen Christ, the gospel launched on Pentecost by Peter and proclaimed by Paul, was not the same as the gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed—what are the differences? What are the great truths in each, and where do they overlap? Will not the truths of Christ-centered proclamation continue to bless people for countless generations to come? Could the rediscovered gospel of Jesus go places where the traditional gospel cannot go, and do things that the traditional gospel cannot do? If not everything Jesus said was his gospel—the core, the leading edge of what he proclaimed to his generation—then what is Jesus’ gospel?
Why did Jesus use the language of family so often to express his concept of the kingdom? If the kingdom of God is many-sided: present and future, a spiritual reality within and a social reality that you can join, a personal experience and a planetary destiny, an occasion for celebration and a commitment that can cost the believer’s life—can we formulate this gospel once and for all in a single phrase? How much of its many-sided truth have you made your own? Is not the truth in the gospel eternal? Did not Jesus express the eternal truth of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man in a way that addressed the spiritual difficulties of his time and place? What spiritual difficulties do we face today? Could the Spirit of Truth be addressing our generation with a fresh expression of the gospel? What good has come from the evangelism of the past? And what changes would enable us to launch the spiritual renaissance that our world needs now?
If your life were going to proclaim something, what would you like your message to the world to be?
Do you pray sincerely for the extension of the kingdom of heaven? What are your ways of responding to someone else’s spiritual need? How do you reflect your faith at home or school or work? Do you prefer to live your faith rather than to express it in words? Can you really live your faith without ever saying anything about it to anyone? Can you recall a time when you reached out and touched someone spiritually? What is it like? Is there a spontaneity that imparts an artistic touch to the interaction? If some of your attempts to reach out have been unsuccessful, what lessons have you learned? Think of the persons you meet from week to week—what are they like? Do you have a sense of what spiritual needs are common today? Do you pray with rejoicing for opportunities to share truth? Do you ever imagine how you might start a conversation with a particular person? How might you improve in getting to know people? Do persons ever come to you with spiritual questions? Can your loving interest in getting to know people touch them in a way that leads some of them to ask you questions? Can you teach by questions as well as by answers?
When you do something for someone else, do you often feel good afterward? Do you worry about doing it in order to feel good, or do you accept the good feeling as God’s blessing, strengthening your soul? Is it sometimes best to do something for another person without saying anything? Have you ever proclaimed to someone silently, without words, the truth that you know they need? If silence is sometimes golden, can a gracious word be golden, too? What quick verbal responses or brief sayings have you created for daily interactions that convey a touch of the spirit without any religious language? Is the way we say things even more important than what we say?
If you live or work in a social environment that is hostile to religion, how can you express truth, beauty, and goodness in ways that do not trigger that hostility? Can you find loving motivation for the patient work of getting to know people, doing things together, whetting others’ appetites for truth, and building on the truth that they already have? Have you ever created a parable to use in teaching?
If you were going to express a spiritual truth that has made a difference for you, how would you put it? Is it a concept, image, or teaching; an assurance, promise, or invitation? If you were sharing core spiritual truth with diverse groups of people would you always say it the same way? If not, why not? If there are different legitimate approaches in sharing and proclaiming, how can the spirit of God dissolve the tendency for differing approaches to enter into conflict with each other?
Do you have to know the Bible well, believe orthodox doctrines, and have answers to lots of religious questions in order to share the abundant life of God with others? Can there be mustard seed evangelism as well as mustard seed faith? How transformed do you have to be before starting to share the truth that has saved you?
Are there spiritual difficulties at the root of our ecological, social, economic, and political problems? And what about the problem that many professed believers are secularists without realizing it?
Can we see divine ideals of sharing and proclaiming as invitations to gradual growth with promises of spiritual support? Why is evangelism so scary? Must it be as tactless, offensive, dogmatic, and presumptuous as many people think? If we assume that any mention of God will be taken as offensive, how will that attitude affect us? Have you ever spent an hour at a social gathering with the prayerful intention of finding an opportunity to lead a conversation gently toward spiritual things? What things can we do to avoid coming on too strong?
To what extent is our problem with evangelism a matter of not being adequately in touch with the spirit presence of God within? Of not having sought and found any gracious and acceptable methods? Of lacking the supreme desire to reach out to those in darkness?
Have you ever had the experience of helping someone find God? Is that something you’d like to do or do more of? Could the spiritual treasure that has been given to us, the treasure hidden in a field or the pearl of great price, really be worth giving ourselves to it totally—“selling everything we have,” so to speak, in order to acquire it? Does total commitment to God mean neglecting our responsibilities to family, work, and community?
Why did Jesus train people as evangelists? Why did he ask others to proclaim the good news? Why is there so much rejoicing in heaven when someone who had been lost gets found—reconnected with the circuits of the family of God? Can spiritual truth really bring life to someone? What happens if you take time to imagine how offering gospel truth to someone can actually partner with God in giving another person a chance to say yes to a wonderful, adventuresome, authentic, meaningful life, full of purpose in this world and beyond? Do we care enough about those who live in darkness to get engaged in this mission, dedicating a portion of each month, week, or day to this work? Is there a person that God needs you to reach out to? Can you take 30 minutes to pray for that person?
What kinds of things can we learn from the sciences, the arts, and philosophy that will help us communicate truth? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using social media for this purpose?
Can you contemplate the urgent spiritual needs of our world without becoming anxious and driven with consequences that distort your ministry? Can you trust each person and our planet into the care of God? Can you allow your ministry to unfold according to the divine rhythm? Can you accept that the sovereign Creator has given each personality free will? And that we must necessarily share the consequences of wrongdoing? But that this time of difficult transition, dangerous though it is, is a stage on the path to a divine destiny for our world?
Do you have any idea of how much God loves you? Do you open yourself to receive the Father’s divine affection and love him in return? Do you know how many persons, seen and unseen, love you and believe in you? Do you trust that, if you fully commit yourself, you will receive the power to do the Father’s will? Do you realize how he is leading you to learn to love others well? Have you any idea of the glories of destiny that await you and all other brothers and sisters who persist in saying yes to God?
Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Luther_95_Thesen.png