My letterbox is full of invitations from local shops to buy dress-ups in the form of monsters, ghosts and skeletons. The shops would love Halloween to catch on in Australia, but I suspect it is not as popular as they would like it to be.
Christians, however, have a reason to reflect and commemorate something this time of year. October 31 is Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. He wasn’t intending to form a movement separate to the Roman Catholic Church; he simply wanted to correct excesses and places where the established church had departed from the clear teaching of Scripture.
Many Christians don’t know much church history, and might wonder why anyone cares what a German monk did to a church door in the sixteenth century. This blog post doesn’t aim to give any kind of comprehensive explanation of all that happened in that time of history – if you want to know more, Kirsten Birkett’s ‘The Essence of the Reformation’ is clear and to the point, the Diarmid MacCulloch’s ‘Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700’ covers it all in far more depth.
For now, let’s note a few things we enjoy today in the Protestant arm of the church that came about due to the Reformation.
- We have the Bible in our own language.
In the established church of Luther’s day, the church services were in Latin. The priests were often uneducated themselves about what was in the Bible and just read the set passages, but no-one could understand them.
Martin Luther translated the Bible into German himself and a great many translation projects began in different places (including the English Bible). If the Bible is the word of God, then people need to read it and know it. And for that to happen they also need to have it in their language. Through God’s providence, Gutenberg’s printing press was invented around the same time, allowing for fast and affordable distribution of Bibles and teaching material.
The fact you have a Bible in your house that you can easily read is a wonderful gift, and one we should never take for granted.
2.We are encouraged to read the Bible for ourselves, and all believers are encouraged to pray and serve.
If you were to attend a regular established church in Luther’s day, the priest would read from the Bible and perform the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for you. The thinking was that the priest was interceding between the people and God. Individual believers were not encouraged to read and draw conclusions for themselves but to trust the word of the priest.
The problem is that priests are people, and are therefore sinful. The Bible teaches that all believers are priests and can connect with God through the work of Jesus. And all believers are to use their gifts and wisdom to serve their God. The Reformation led to believers not just relying on a priest to connect them to God, but being encouraged that Jesus had already done this once for all.
- We have a strong emphasis on grace and the gospel in the teaching of the church.
One of the practices of the established church in Luther’s day was the selling of indulgences. These were slips of paper that promised the immediate salvation of dead relatives (for the right fee). Much of St Peter’s in Rome was built on the proceeds of these indulgences from poor, superstitious believers in places like Germany. This sent the wrong message, that you can either buy or earn your salvation through works or religion, something that corrupts the gospel.
If we read the Bible for ourselves we cannot help but be struck by God’s grace to an unfaithful people. We cannot do it for ourselves, and we don’t need to. We must remind ourselves of grace often so we don’t lapse back into thinking we can impress God and earn our way in.
It is right that we thank God for his servants who came before us and strived to serve Him faithfully and in line with His Word. We need to constantly assess our personal beliefs and church structures against God’s Word as well, aiming to be faithful to the One who called us. To Him be the glory.