Last year — 500 years on since the Reformation — was one of joyful commemoration, focusing on the exhilarating truths of the gospel.
Scottish Reformer and martyr Patrick Hamilton, explained in his little treatise, Patrick’s Places, why the gospel is such a glad herald: ‘The [moral] law saith: “Pay thy debt. Thou art a sinner desperate. And thou shalt die”. The gospel saith: “Christ hath paid it. Thy sins are forgiven thee. Be of good comfort, thou shalt be saved”.
‘The law saith: “Make amends for thy sin. The Father of heaven is wroth with thee. Where is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction? Thou art bound and obliged unto me, to the devil, and to hell”.
‘The gospel saith: “Christ hath made it for thee. Christ hath pacified him with his blood. Christ is thy righteousness, thy goodness, and satisfaction. Christ hath delivered thee from them all”.’
Only those who don’t understand such a gospel could have reacted to this 500th anniversary as some within the Established Church did last year, with joyless ambivalence. Only those without spiritual insight could find themselves apologising for the Reformation, as if the resulting schism in Christendom had been the Reformers’ fault.
The division was actually Rome’s fault. Its serious heresies had been endemic for centuries and its hierarchy clung to them doggedly in the face of overwhelming biblical evidence presented by the Reformers.
Justification by faith and the impossibility of being saved by the works of the law were anathematised by the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent in the mid-1560s, and have remained so up to this day.
But Rome’s intransigence is an important reminder to us that unbelief is not inevitably dispelled by irrefutable apologetics or by cogent biblical argument, necessary as those things are. Some people can have biblical truth set before them with overwhelming clarity and yet still react with vehement, illogical hatred towards it (see Acts 7:54-59).
More than argumentation is needed in order that sinners see the kingdom of God; they need a fundamental change in their ‘religious affections’, a new birth.
In this way too, the Reformation has reminded us of something easily overlooked. Although God protected the lives of well-known Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox, many others were called to bear witness to the truth with their deaths — men such as William Tyndale, the Marian martyrs, George Wishart, and Patrick Hamilton himself.
Today we pray for revival and a fresh reformation among Christian churches, but do we understand what such a visitation might involve? Do we realise that God often uses persecution to amplify and enhance the church’s witness?
It is easy to forget that, as early as the apostles, John was reportedly the only one among the twelve not to meet a martyr’s death. The greatest torch-bearers have often been ‘martyrs’ (the Greek word means ‘witness’).
It could be, in his mysterious providence, that the Lord will send to Britain uncontested revival, for ‘with God, all things are possible’. But if, as seems more likely, increased persecution is next on our menu, we will only be experiencing the same as millions of Christians elsewhere. In fact, we will only be going back to the world of the New Testament!
Nearly two millennia ago, Tertullian said: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. He also said: ‘The Lord challenges us to suffer persecutions and to confess him. He wants those who belong to him to be brave and fearless. He himself shows how weakness of the flesh is overcome by courage of the Spirit’.
The heroes of the Reformation were those who show us the ‘courage of the Spirit’. Let us not forget to commemorate this aspect of their witness too.