If you’re like me, you may have at one time or another wondered why some Christians care so deeply about a series of events, beginning with Martin Luther, that happened so long ago. How is it that the Reformation has had so much historical precedence in Protestant churches, yet so many within the church can hardly articulate its significance or what it was. Don’t worry, I’m not here to shame you for your ignorance regarding the Reformation (I must confess much of my own ignorance), but I do want to help you understand, at a very basic level, why it was so important.
In his book The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, Dr. Stephen Nichols spends the first chapter helping his readers discover the importance of history, and especially recognizing why the Reformation still matters. He likens the importance of the Reformation to the Exodus. Nichols makes the appropriate distinction between biblical history and church history, but as I read through this chapter I was struck by the importance of these two great events. In the Exodus God appointed Moses to deliver his people from bondage by defeating Pharaoh and his army, providing his people an escape from his judgment through the Passover lamb, leading them by his presence through the wilderness, and securing their entrance into the promised land. The Exodus was the gospel in the Old Testament. It was a prefigure of the second Exodus, what one author calls the Easter redemption, recorded for us in the New Testament. In the New Testament we come to learn that the Father appointed his own Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver his people from bondage by defeating the enemy (Satan) and providing pardon for their sins through his Son’s death, now leading them in this world by his Spirit, and securing their place with him in eternity. Without the Exodus, that is, without the work of Jesus Christ on behalf of all who believe, all men will die in their sin and face the righteous wrath of God (1 Thess. 1:10) in eternity. During the Reformation period, Luther and others began the unveiling of the dark cloud the church had, over centuries, placed over the gospel. Luther’s initial protest (hence protestant) unleashed a series of events within the church that were to bring the gospel front and center.
In his book, Nichols recounts an early turning point in Luther’s life as he was journeying back to Erfurt (where he had just received his law degree) from a visit with his parents. Nichols writes, “A violent thunderstorm caught up with Luther. He took it to be the very judgment of God upon his soul. He clung to the only mediator he knew, or at least the only mediator he dared approach—St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, his father’s profession. He cried out, ‘Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk.’ He survived the storm and made good on his vow. His troubles, however, did not find resolution in the monastery. In fact, Luther’s struggles intensified.” The chief struggle to which Nichols is referring, was that Luther found himself at a loss as to how he, a sinner, could meet the demands of a holy and righteous God. (Psalm 130:3) This was one of the two major theological issues underlying the Reformation.
Theologically speaking, the doctrine implicit in Luther’s struggle was the doctrine of the justification by faith alone. This doctrine teaches that faith in Jesus Christ, and faith alone, is the basis of our justification. When we believe in Christ alone for his salvation, God declares us “just” on the basis of the work of Christ alone. There is a great exchange that takes place when we come to faith in Christ. Our sin is imputed to Christ (2 Cor. 5:21) and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us (Philippians 3:9), reconciling us to God.
Fast forward 12 years from that encounter in the storm. Luther has received various degrees, including his Doctor of Theology, and was also ordained. On October 31, 1517, he posts his 95 Theses on the door at Wittenberg Castle church. At the time of posting his 95 Theses Luther hadn’t even formulated the doctrine of justification by faith alone as we articulate it today, but his 95 Theses began the unraveling of the shroud that was covering this precious truth. For those of you unfamiliar, the posting of theses was a common practice in Luther’s day, so there was nothing terribly scandalous about what Luther did. It was the right of the doctors of the church (teachers) to dispute or debate any subject, and it was also their right to subject those who were candidates for becoming a teacher to defend their theses. According to the University of Wittenberg, theses were to be posted on the doors of the churches in town. Theses would then be circulated and taken up for debate. This is what Luther did. So why all the fuss?
Well, the shorthand version is that Luther’s 95 Theses began debates surrounding the issue of sacerdotalism (pronounced sass-er-doh-tal-ism). Dr. R.C. Sproul defines sacerdotalism as the idea that salvation was accomplished chiefly by the ministrations of the church, specifically through the priesthood and the administration of the sacraments (of which indulgences were included and were among Luther’s chief objections).
Now, to help you understand what was at stake here, if someone today were to ask you, “How can a person who knows he is guilty be saved; justified?” What would you say? Would you respond by saying, “By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone?” Or would you say, “Through the ministrations of the priest and the partaking and participation of the sacraments?” The answer to that question reveals the difference between Protestants and Catholics. This was the unraveling of the Reformation.
Luther’s theses, though not his initial intent, questioned the authority of the church, calling attention to the second major theological issue undergirding his protest. Namely, the issue of the authority of the Scripture versus the authority of the church, and which of the two had ultimate authority to bind the conscience of believers. This issue was not new! Jesus’ refutation of the Pharisees for allowing their traditions to usurp the authority of the Word of God that is recorded for us in Mark 7:5-13 was the same sort of controversy stirred up by Luther 1,500 years later.
So why does the Reformation matter today? First, it matters because it points us to the true authority, the Word of God. Since God is sovereign and supremely loving, good and just, he is worthy to be obeyed and can be trusted. If you do not think that submission to the authority of the Word of God is relevant, then I would ask you point me to a greater and more life-giving authority. Authority abhors a vacuum. Authority is bound up in the nature of God and to deny it is not to live without it, but is to live under an assumed authority be it your own autonomy, political ideology, philosophy, or favorite TV personality.
Secondly, the Reformation matters because corruption, immorality, pain, addiction, hostility and despair are the only realities in a world without the gospel. If we deny the authority of the Word of God, then we deny what that Word declares as it relates to the remedy to these problems. And thirdly, the Reformation matters because people matter. The necessary consequence of a church that knows she has been justified and forgiven by Jesus Christ alone, is that she will now view herself as a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread. The love that is poured into her heart and mind through the power of the Holy Spirit will be a love that manifests itself not only towards Jesus, but also to her neighbor. In the end, the Reformation was the recovery of the mission of God in the world.
Many in the church today are confused about the mission of God because they didn’t learn from history. The Reformation taught us that our loves need to be ordered: God, his Word, his gospel, and our neighbor. I think this speaks to the church in America today because it is often the evangelical’s tendency to reverse the order. Our mission cannot prioritize the love of our neighbor as our supreme love. Conversion of the sinner should be among our chief desires and motivations in this world, but it should not be placed above our desire to love and obey Jesus. It was not mean to. Jesus made this very clear when he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37, ESV)
The story was once told of a small Methodist church whose pastor had just retired after 35 years of faithful ministry. It came to pass that the church formed a pastor search committee and together they drew up a letter and sent it to their bishop requesting another pastor who preached hell, fire and brimstone. Their bishop wrote back and said they only had a few of those left in their denomination, but he would see what he could do. A few weeks later the congregation received their new pastor, but to their chagrin, they let him go two weeks later. The committee reconvened and wrote another letter to the bishop with the same request. A few weeks later they received their pastor. This pastor made it a month, but once again, was asked by the congregation to leave. Just as before, the committee met, drew up another letter and made the same request to their bishop, “Send us another pastor who preaches hell, fire and brimstone.” The bishop sent the last pastor he knew that fit their description and this man served his church faithfully for 25 years. The church held a retirement party for their beloved pastor, and the bishop, now in his 80s, was to be a guest. At the party the bishop pulled aside one of the old-timers who had been on the pastor search committee and remarked, “I sent you two other pastors prior to this one who preached hell, fire and brimstone, why is it that you chased the other two away and kept him?” To which the old-timer responded, “Well, this man treated us as though he didn’t want us to go there.”
I share this as an illustration because I want Eastminster Church to remember that love for the truth and love for our neighbor are not mutually exclusive. In our culture we have been led to believe they are because we have been inundated with the lie that to believe that man is a sinner in need of a Savior is hate speech. It is not. The most loving thing we can share with the world is that Christ died for sinners.
In April of 1521 Luther was brought before the assembly of Rome (known as the Diet of Worms; pronounced Vermz) to publicly confess that his views were not in line with previous statements made by the church and its former popes. One of his most famous quotes prior to his denunciation by the church at the Diet or Worms was, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”
Luther and others stood up to the corruption that plagued the church so that the gospel could resound in all the world. The gospel that freed Luther is the same gospel that has freed us. And the gospel that has freed us is the same gospel that we are to take into the world. To call others to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ is to call them to their highest joy. The Apostle Paul labored to love his neighbor because he wanted those who didn’t believe to share with him in the blessings of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23). This labor requires a deep love for Christ, an unflinching commitment to his ways and his word, and a humility expressed with a great concern for those who are without Christ. This is why the Reformation still matters. I would invite you to pray with me for the Lord to burden Eastminster Church with an abiding passion to make the name of Jesus famous as we GO the end of the street and to the ends of the earth.