Today is Reformation Day. In fact, 500 years to the day since Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. You could be forgiven for not noticing this in Australia. Our shops are full of ghosts and skeletons for Halloween; there is a lack of Martin Luther memorabilia. Many Christians know vaguely that the Reformation was something important in the past, but today in particular it is worth thinking through what happened and why it mattered.
The Protestant Reformation was a return of the church to what the Bible taught. The medieval church had moved a long way from the simple message of the gospel. Itinerant preachers were offering the sale of indulgences, contracts that could release your loved ones into heaven if you only paid the right amount of money. A typical church service celebrated Jesus’ death in the mass, but you would not hear the Bible taught. Part of the reason was that many priests were not educated in the Scriptures but had bought their positions. In addition, the Bible was in Latin, a language that most people could not understand.
Martin Luther was not the only person to notice that these practices jarred with what the Bible taught. Before Luther, people like Wycliffe and Hus spoke up about many of these things. But it was the 95 theses which Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg that had the biggest impact. Luther didn’t want to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, only to reform its practices. When this was rejected he became the fountainhead of the new Protestant Movement. Our church today is one of many who stand in this tradition.
(If you want a brief overview of Luther’s life, you can watch this short video here. It is a stop motion explanation with Playmobil, and your kids will appreciate and understand it as well.)
I confess that I am not a big fan of commemorating everything with a round number, with the 20th anniversary of this and the 500th anniversary of that. But the Reformation and its impact deserves to be remembered and reflected on. Our response to all this must not just be “Martin Luther was wonderful and changed the course of history” but “isn’t God amazingly kind to give us Jesus”. Although Luther was important and a larger-than-life figure, at its heart the Reformation was a rediscovery of the gospel that Christ died for sinners.
So what practical impact did the Reformation have? Let me outline three key areas:
- A new focus on the Bible.
Luther and the other reformers called people back to study the Bible. The Bible was translated into German, English, and other languages that people actually spoke. The printing press made Bibles available and affordable for common people to own and read. Instead of asking “what does the church call me to do?” people were asking “what does God call me to do in the Bible?” Today, in our church, we preach working through the Bible carefully with everyone having a Bible and reading along. We encourage personal and family Bible reading and prayer. We evangelize and disciple people using the Bible. All of this would not have happened in the years prior to Luther.
- Rejoicing in grace, not overwhelmed by works
The life of a common Christian person in the medieval church was one of guilt and burden. Poor people felt they needed to pay to save dead relatives. Faith was expressed in tradition, attending church and taking mass and doing confession. Following Jesus would have seemed a burden. In the reformation church things were different. The gospel that we are saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection alone, by grace alone through faith alone, was at the heart of church. People were serving Jesus with joy being confident in their salvation. They did good works not to earn their way into God’s favour but as a response to his grace.
- The priesthood of all believers
The medieval church was controlled by priests, who were the only ones who could rightly interpret the Bible and dispense the grace of God. But the rediscovery of the gospel meant that people understood there was only one class of Christian in the world. Everyone had access to God’s grace in Jesus, not just the priests. Everyone could read and understand the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit. Common people were encouraged to use their gifts to serve in the church instead of coming to be served by the priest.
Does it still matter today? I am sure you are not surprised that I believe it does. The Roman Catholic Church today still teaches with many of the same emphases and has practices that contradict the Bible. A typical Catholic service will still not have much Bible in it and will emphasize taking the mass to receive the grace of God dispensed by the priest. Many in the Catholic church are not encouraged to read their Bibles and only know what they have been told.
However, our ignorance of history can be a real danger. Many churches in the Protestant tradition today do not hold the same emphases. There are churches that focus on the mystical experience of being with God, or the tradition of candles and robes, and do not carefully and deeply study and teach the Bible. And many churches are so keen to respond to the great physical needs around them that they have lost the desire to preach Jesus as the way to fix our deeper problem of sin.
I don’t want to end with discouragement. There are a great many churches in the world today that clearly teach the gospel of Jesus, and many individual Christians who have the Bible in their own language and love it and read it and grow in their faith. The fact you can cheaply purchase a Bible you can understand is a blessing many in the history of the church have not had. Make the most of it. Read your Bible, thank God for his wonderful gift of Jesus, and pray directly to your Father without a priest. And as you do all these things today, thank God for his servants like Luther who rediscovered what God has revealed to us.
Soli deo Gloria. To God be the Glory.