October 31 is the anniversary of an event, which, although seemingly insignificant at the time, was the great impetus for a movement that changed the history not only of the church, but of western culture as a whole.
That movement was the Protestant Reformation. The event, occurring 495 years ago this year, was a simple invitation by an Augustinian monk to debate 95 points of doctrine.
|The “Theses Doors”, commemorating Luthers’ 95 Theses.|
Admittedly, most people today aren’t interested in the Reformation; they either disapprove of it or consider it irrelevant.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Reformation, while supposedly ‘aiming at an internal renewal of the Church, really led to a great revolt against it, and an abandonment of the principal Christian beliefs’.
Clearly many view the Reformation in similar unfriendly terms. But was it really a revolt against the church? Was it not a call to recover apostolic Christianity, upon which the church was first founded?
As to its relevance, there are three reasons for studying it. The first is doxological; we want thank the Lord and commemorate his continuing work in the church. The second is educational; only a fool lives as if wisdom began with him. God admonishes us to hear the instruction of our spiritual fathers (Proverbs 1:8).
The third is experiential. We must allow history to examine us too. Do we need a personal reformation?
There are several important factors that help us frame the events of the Reformation.
First, realise that physical conditions for the Medievals were deplorable. One fifteenth-century man described his life like this: ‘O miserable and very sad life! We suffer from warfare, death and famine; cold and heat, day and night, sap our strength; fleas, scab mites and so much other vermin make war against us’.
Spiritual welfare was equally poor. Medieval folk were constantly reminded that they were speedily nearing personal confrontation with death, and therefore heaven or hell. But, rather than directing troubled souls to the finished work of Christ, their clerics urged parishioners to ‘do what lies within them’.
Faced with the standard of God’s holiness as the requirement for salvation and their own inability to meet that standard, desperate souls lost hope. The established church was in crisis because it failed to resemble the church built upon the foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
As early as the twelfth century, God raised up such men as Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe and John Hus (who was burned alive for his convictions) to challenge the medieval church’s errors. Yet, their efforts largely failed and, in the sixteenth century, the Reformers continued to focus on changes needed in the following seven areas.
First, there was a lack of pastoral leadership. The Catholic Encyclopedia admits: ‘The clergy’s chief object¬¬¬¬¬ — to guide man to his eternal goal — claimed too seldom their attention, and worldly activities became the chief interest’.
Pastoral care fell largely into the background and whole generations were left ignorant of the gospel’s reconciling power.
Second, there was an elevation of monasticism that undercut the significance of Christianity lived out by common people in ordinary life. Third, there was undue emphasis on Mary and the saints. Fourth, there was inappropriate homage paid to tradition.
Fifth, the church controlled her members’ worship from the cradle to the grave, through a sacramental system in which church leaders performed acts of worship on behalf of parishioners. This choked out pure gospel preaching.
Sixth, Rome insisted that man is justified (made acceptable to God) through faith in Christ’s work on the cross plus the addition of man’s works. This, the Reformers argued, strikes at the heart of Christianity and nullifies God’s gracious and sovereign work in salvation.
Seventh (the immediate problem that prompted reform) was the papal system of indulgences. An indulgence, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, is ‘the remission of the temporal punishment for sin … granted by the church’.
Indulgences could be secured by many means. But what most stirred the ire of the Reformers was their sale by peddlers. Forgiveness had bypassed the heart to the wallet. It was this abuse that sparked the Reformation.
Image: Rainer Knäpper, License: artlibre
On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther made his way to the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He pounded a few nails through a piece of paper into the door of the church, making a sound that would be heard around the world.
On it were written 95 theses or propositions. Initially, he was simply calling for a debate on the question of the abuses of indulgences, not on the practice outright. His request was denied. Instead, the Roman church deployed its theologians to reinforce the official position and attack Luther for his ‘heretical’ views.
Luther was excommunicated and his safety threatened, but he did not back down. He continued writing against the abuses, still with the intention of reforming the Roman Catholic Church. However, after much opposition, he published The Babylonian captivity of the church.
After reading this treatise, the Dutch scholar Erasmus, a contemporary of Luther, predicted that ‘the breach is irreparable’. His prediction proved true. The Reformation would continue to spread, not now from within the established church, but through writing and preaching outside it.
As Luther continued to write against abuses, others became inspired and propelled the movement forward. Around the 1530s, the Reformation divided into two branches — the Lutherans (more moderate in their reforming efforts) and the Reformed (more rigorous).
The latter group was represented by Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger and John Calvin, who was only eight years old at the dawn of the Reformation. All of these laboured in Switzerland.
Chiefly from Calvin’s home of Geneva, the Reformation spread to the lowlands of Germany and Holland, as well as the British Isles, finding vibrant expression in English, Scottish and Dutch Puritanism.
Calvinism, as the Reformed faith is sometimes called, was carried to America by the English pilgrims and later by European immigrants. It is estimated that, by the time America declared independence from England in 1776, two thirds of the population were at least nominally Calvinistic.
Despite its earlier vibrancy, Reformed doctrine and life began to decline in the 1800s, owing to such influences as the Enlightenment in Europe and revivalism in America. In the twentieth century, the impact of liberalism and the revived teachings of Jacob Arminius (Arminianism) further damaged the Reformed cause.
But today Calvinism is experiencing a revival. Previously non-Reformed seminaries are embracing reformed doctrine; Reformed books which had long since fallen out of print are rapidly being reprinted.
As one writer says, ‘Calvinism has a bright future, for it offers much to people who seek to believe and practice the whole counsel of God. Calvinism aims to do so with both clearheaded faith and warmhearted spirituality, which when conjoined, produces vibrant living in the home, the church and the marketplace to the glory of God’ (Joel Beeke, Living for God’s glory).
The Reformation began in the heart of Luther as he faced his own sinfulness. The established church offered no remedy for his struggle and so he rejected man-made religion and embraced the gospel of God’s grace. Let us follow Luther’s example by examining our own hearts in the light of three Reformation principles.
Sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’)
During the Reformation, thousands of biblical Christians died defending the Bible. They were not defending the right to have Bibles in their homes, but rather a way of life and thought based upon the Word of God and not the traditions of men.
Are we orienting our lives around the Word of God with the same intensity? A deeper Christian life comes about only as the Spirit works upon our hearts using his chosen means — the Bible. Are we reading it and worshipping in a church where the Scriptures, not people, are the final authority?
Christianity as a practical religion
The Reformers placed a premium on church worship, but their worship services were geared to promote practical piety outside worship. Does your religion happen only in church, or is your faith robust enough to be useful in real life?
Soli deo gloria (‘Glory to God alone’)
How concerned are we about the glory of God? The Reformers were effective in their work, among other reasons, because they were passionate about God and his kingdom.
The personal kingdoms that you and I may be building in terms of wealth, reputation, personal gratification will be gone within a few generations. How do you glorify God?
The Christian glorifies God ‘by confessing his sins to God and fleeing to Christ for forgiveness and for having God’s nature restored to him.
‘By praising, worshipping, and delighting in the triune God as creator, provider and redeemer. By trusting God and surrendering all things into his hands … By walking humbly, thankfully, cheerfully before God and becoming increasingly conformed to the image of his Son. By knowing, loving, and living the commands of God’s Word. By being heavenly minded and cherishing the desire to be with God for ever’ (Joel Beeke).
The author is pastor of Covenant Reformed Church, Carbondale, PA. He has written three illustrated books introducing the Three Forms of Unity to children, including The glory of grace: the story of the Canons of Dort (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012)