Happy Reformation Sunday everyone! Today we commemorate that great movement in history known as the Protestant Reformation. While the actual historical date is October 31st most churches will celebrate today because it is the last Sunday in October.
Throughout the course of church history, the gospel has withstood attack from both within and without the church. The reason for this is that the gospel is the only thing with the power to save a man’s soul. The scriptures confirm that the gospel “is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes” (Romans 1:16). When we put our trust in anything but the cross the end will always be the same: disaster, disappointment, and death. Is it any wonder then that the simple Gospel message of repentance and faith in Christ alone is continually under siege? As soon as we mix the life-giving message of the gospel with something else we preach a compromised message. But when we preach Christ and him crucified there is new life!
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Christianity had become hijacked by false doctrines, man-made traditions, superstitions, corruption, and all kinds of spiritual abuse. What’s more is that most Christians were illiterate and had to rely upon those who did not have their best interest at heart to teach them. In fact, before the Reformation took hold, it was illegal to own a Bible. The people of God were hurting. Without a proper biblical understanding of justification they sought to justify themselves with good works and meaningless rituals that accomplished nothing except leave them poorer for it. As anyone who has ever been damaged by bad theology knows, the aftermath of false and abusive teaching can be devastating. It was out of these muddied spiritual waters that God raised up Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, to father a movement that would point the people back to what Luther called, “the church’s true treasure” – the gospel of Jesus Christ!
On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther, nailed a document to the door at the Wittenburg Church. At the time such an act was not unusual. Much like a community service board, it served as a locale where postings and announcements could be made. Luther’s document, known as Ninety-Five Theses, was an invitation of sorts to debate and discuss practices that he found questionable. On that day however, Luther got more than he bargained for. His Ninety-Five Theses caused quite the uproar and in a short amount of time the contents of his document would set off a firestorm that would sweep across Germany, Europe, and eventually the entire world. Of course, there were precursors to the Reformation such as the witness of John Wycliffe and John Huss, but it was Luther who ignited the first spark that actually “took.”
With a heart freshly set ablaze for the Gospel, Luther’s initial challenges revolved around the church’s tradition of indulgences, that is, the purchasing of time out of purgatory. This inevitably led to his central theme of the doctrine of justification by faith. Luther stood on the gospel truth that God justifies sinners by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. He questioned the authority of the church and argued against traditions that could not be found in scripture. While Luther’s motivation was never to separate but rather to reform from within, schism turned out to be the eventual outcome. Instead of provoking the religious establishment to self-examination and repentance, the medieval Roman Catholic Church responded in self-defense and anger.
In 1521 Luther was brought before the Diet of Worms where he was asked to recant or reaffirm his views. Not sure what to do, Luther asked for some time to consider his response. He returned shortly afterwards with a new resolve. It was here that Luther, in fear and trembling drew a line in the sand and famously declared, “I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture…I cannot and will not retract…Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God, Amen.” The reward for Luther’s gospel courage: excommunication. Thus began a seismic shift in the church, and in the world.
Reformation influence traveled like a locomotive picking up speed and barreling across continents and generations. To be sure, there was formidable opposition. Many endured great hardship and suffered unspeakable methods of death. But, as the apostle Paul declared, the word of God was not bound! (1 Timothy 2:9). When speaking of the great Reformation heritage that we all too often take for granted, Albert Martin says, “Men and women, girls, kitchen maids and plow boys were willing to risk life and limb to stand for the principles that we so glibly parrot and for which we are often so unwilling to pay any price. Heads rolled and bodies were wracked with the most unimaginable kinds of torture and families were decimated because some people took the truth of God seriously.” (Online Source)
Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, we are all beneficiaries of this great movement. The Bible, once available only to the religious elite, could now be read by men, women, and children of all backgrounds and levels of education. A high view of marriage, the importance of the family unit, and the dignity of womanhood was restored. The sermon became the center of the service. Congregational singing was introduced. Beyond the church, Protestant ideology has influenced much of Western civilization. It has left its mark in the scientific world, has laid the foundation for the free market systems, has established the groundwork for democracy, and has inspired a work ethic that has led to great innovation and productivity. Indeed we owe a great deal of debt to the Reformers and on this day we remember that!
This year, to celebrate the Protestant Reformation “Heavenly Springs” will be hosting a special series, starting tomorrow, called “Women of the Reformation.” You can read more about it here. In this series twelve women, passionate about Reformation theology, have collaborated to introduce some remarkable yet largely unrecognized women of the Reformation.
We invite you to join us in what we pray will be a blessing to the body of Christ, particularly the women. In the meantime, take a moment today and thank God for your Reformation heritage!