The Reformation 500 Years Later: Three Lessons for Today

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

Today, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. There are countless celebrations taking place around the world. I thought I would dedicate space on my blog today to reflect on a few key lessons from the Reformation which might help us in our own struggles today.

First, complaining about abuses in the church does not a Reformation make.

It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed (and also mailed) his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. If you take time to Google the 95 theses you will quickly see that they are more of a laundry list of complaints than they were a positive statement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not difficult to complain about the church. This is not the genius or source of the power of the Reformation, even though we are known as the “protestors” (Protestants). The real spark which lit the Reformation was when Luther took time to read the New Testament in Greek and he re-discovered the gospel in that famous quotation from Habakkuk which Paul quotes in Romans 1:17—“the just shall live by faith.”

The lesson for us today is that it is not enough to complain about all the ways the church has erred and lost its way. The real source of an awakening is found when the gospel itself is rediscovered in the life of the church. Today, the crisis in the church today is not, fundamentally, a programmatic problem (i.e., the need for better church programs); nor is the crisis fundamentally a budget problem, or even a membership problem. Our problem is the loss of the gospel itself. When the gospel is re-discovered, then we will not be able to contain the vibrancy and life which will emerge. The re-discovery of Romans 1:17 and the centrality of Christ was the spark which led to hundreds of thousands of new Christians, as well as millions of baptized church-going Christians who gloriously heard the gospel for the first time.

Second, the Reformation was the church’s greatest act of catholicity.

If you lived in the 16th century, you would have heard a fairly constant refrain that the Reformers were schismatic and were a threat to the unity of the church. In 1555 three godly Anglican bishops, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake—all for being schismatic. Thomas Cranmer is probably best known today for being the author, editor in chief, and compiler of the Book of Common Prayer, the most influential prayer guide ever published. It is now evident that those men died because of the gospel itself.

In addition to the charge of being schismatic, the transcripts of their church trials reveals that they were also burned at the stake for the following: (1) Belief that the Bible should be rendered in English, the language of the people; (2) Belief that the laity should be able to receive the cup at communion, not just the bread; (3) That salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the works of the law. These are not schismatic beliefs. These are the rediscovery of the deeper catholicity which binds all true Christians together, regardless of denomination. Today, we must remember that our unity is found in the historic church which stretches back through time and around the world. The basis for our unity is in Jesus Christ and the gospel, not in any kind of organizational unity. Denominations come and go, the gospel is eternal.

Third, the Reformation brought about the rebirth of catechesis.

One of the signs of a church in the throes of death is the loss of catechesis. The young are not trained in the faith. The great doctrinal truths of the gospel are not taught to a new generation. People grow up in the church with no real clarity about the distinctiveness of the Christian message and the essence of the gospel. The Reformation brought on a whole new wave of gospel training and equipping of the young and newly baptized Christians. The basic introductions to the Christian faith were everywhere: Larger, Shorter, Genevan, Heidelberg, and Westminster Catechisms were among the most famous and have been used by millions of new believers all over the world. Today, we would use the word “discipleship.” A renewed church is a church committed to discipleship and the equipping of all believers for the work of ministry. The wonderful phrase from the Reformation which captured this was “the priesthood of all believers.”

Praise God for the Protestant Reformation! There was, of course, much more work to be done. Wesley extended the Reformation to new areas which had been neglected by the 16th century reformers. Today, we need renewal in many more areas. My fervent prayer this day is that the church would, once again, experience a profound awakening and renewal. For the gospel of Jesus Christ remains the power of God for every generation.

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