October 31st is Reformation Day–the day we celebrate a movement that “began” in 1517 when the now famous German monk/theology professor Martin Luther challenged the preaching of indulgences. This is an overly simplistic historical understanding of what happened, but it gets the main point across.
In truth, scores of men and women contributed to the recovery of the Bible and proclamation of the biblical message of salvation. The unique convergence of technology, politics, economics, and theology created a perfect environment for people at large to rediscover and receive the Word of God.
Why should we care about what theologians were debating 500 years ago?
In 16th century Europe, Bibles, always in Latin, were the possession of the church. The average person (and often priest) couldn’t read Latin. This wasn’t a problem because the official position of the Roman Catholic church was that only church leadership should read and interpret the Bible. The average person couldn’t be trusted with such an important task.
Long story short, the theological convictions of men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale, combined with access to Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible and the invention of the printing press, resulted in the widespread (albeit illegal) availability of Bibles in German and English. Pastors did something unusual at the time: they started reading and preaching directly from the Bible.
Or, at least you wouldn’t think you have access to God. In the Roman religious system, the priestly class is the only qualified mediator between you and God. If you pray on your own, you would likely pray to a “saint”–a super Christian of sorts as designated by the Roman church. These exalted humans, treated like gods or goddesses, would theoretically plead your case to God.
In the Reformation, reading of the Bible resulted in a remarkable discovery: Jesus’ death on our behalf makes it possible to have direct access to God. In Hebrews 4:16 people read,
Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.
It is notable that in no part of the Bible do we find prayer to a human. Why? Because by faith in Jesus we can approach God’s throne directly and receive mercy.
When it comes to thinking about “salvation”– your personal state of forgiveness of sin in the sight of God and hope for enteral life versus judgment–without the Reformation you would simply be unsure. You know you have committed “mortal” sins, sins that remove God’s grace from you, and for which you have to make satisfaction. Your priest will tell you what to do, but no doubt your time in purgatory continues to get longer and longer. Maybe you’ll make a pilgrimage or start a monastery to alleviate the punishment, but there’s still no guarantee on how long you’ll have to suffer before entering heaven.
Once again, the reading of the Bible exposed this entire system to be theologically fraudulent. We can be sure of our state before God because we are justified not by our works, but by faith in Jesus and his works on our behalf. His life, his death, and his resurrection are our hope. We read in the Bible verses like Romans 8:1,
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
Or Galatians 2:16,
…and yet because we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.
All those who have genuinely put their faith in Jesus for their salvation can be absolutely confident of their justification, sanctification, and glorification.
Part of the Reformation was the reclaiming of the worship service as something Christians do rather than something done to them. This meant the restoration of music as a meaningful way to exalt God when Christians gathered. Luther was the early champion of this renaissance, writing many songs for use in worship services, some like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” that Christians still sing today.
These songs were ways of teaching truth in a memorable way and encouraging believers. The Reformation produced a legacy of writing worship songs that remind us of God’s character and the great truths of the gospel.
Before the Reformation, the teaching and practice of the church was that celibacy was a holier state of life than matrimony. Marriage was necessary for procreation and to combat lust, but it wasn’t thought of as sanctified. Once again, the Bible came to the rescue. Marriage is not only designed by God for human benefit, but in Ephesians 5 it serves as a picture of the gospel to the world.
Not only did pastors now get married (did you know that Martin Luther married a runaway run?), but they also taught their congregations to view marriage as a divine blessing, designed for our good. In short, marriage wasn’t to be tolerated, it was to be treasured.
As with marriage, before the Reformation serving as a priest or in a higher church position was viewed as the pinnacle of careers. Other jobs were just that. But as people read the Bible, they learned that before sin entered the world God created humans to work. The mundane, routine jobs that needed to be done were infused with biblical significance. What better way to love your neighbor than to be an excellent baker or blacksmith or clock-maker? These weren’t just jobs, they were vocations–a calling by God to serve him in a specific way. People discovered verses like Colossians 3:23-24,
Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.
We could go on and on. The people who were instrumental in the Reformation weren’t perfect. They are flawed just as we are. Yet by God’s grace, he used them to effect much needed and eternally significant change.
Thank God for the Reformation. Thank God that he is sovereign over history. Thank God for the recovery of the Bible, and the preaching and teaching of the truths we find in the Bible. Treasure the gospel as found in the Word of God, and make sure that whatever happens in your world, you never lose sight of what matters most.