Why The Reformation matters today
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What relevance could The Reformation possibly have to us today?
The Protestant Reformation began 500 years ago to the day when a German monk named Martin Luther posted 95 propositions for theological debate in Latin on the theologians’ notice board in the town of Wittenberg.
What relevance could that possibly have to us today?
There are two main reasons why most people in 21st C Britain would not give this event a moment’s notice:
- It happened 500 years ago – anything that old must surely be irrelevant today! This is the age of science and technology where we have knowledge that far surpasses anything in the past, let alone 500 years ago. That’s as good as prehistoric!
- It concerned religion, and we live in a secular age. Sure, many people still believe in God, but no-one actually thinks that religion is important any more. Yes it may have relevance for us in our personal and private lives, but there is no influence at the level of government or decision-making.
- Surely what a German monk kicked off in the church 500 years ago cannot possibly be of any significance today.
The fact that The Reformation is old and religious cannot be denied – and yet I want to show you this evening that it is incredibly relevant to us today. Indeed, without this Reformation our society would look extremely different in 2017, and we would certainly not have the freedom and the prosperity that we enjoy. More importantly, without the Reformation, we would still be under a dark and oppressive religious regime that uses the fear of death and judgment to cajole people into conformity, rather than having free access to a gospel message that sets the individual free from those fears for time and eternity.
But let’s begin by going back to Martin Luther, the man through whom it all began in the providence of God – but I promise to return later to the question of relevance and application to today! However, we do need at least some historical context in which to root our deliberations.
Martin Luther was born in 1483, the son of a copper miner from Eisleben in Saxony. His father, Hans, had prospered in mining and sought to elevate his son out of their peasant background by sending him to university in Erfurt to study law.
Despite his father’s aspirations for him, Luther grew up in a peasant society that was full of fears and superstitions and terrors:
- Thunder and lightning were signs of divine displeasure or demonic attack, which was to have a special impact on Luther himself as we shall see.
- Devils, demons and dark powers were believed to inhabit the shadows and the people lived in fear of their malign influence.
- Hobgoblins, fiends and witches lived in the woods and would come forth to attack the unsuspecting.
- Infant mortality rates were extremely high, as well as death in childbirth, and the fear of disease was rife. Yes the Black Death had passed over a century before, but plague still broke out, often spreading rapidly to ravish entire regions claiming many lives.
- Life expectancy was low and if a loved one became ill there was real expectation that they might not recover.
In this context, the distinction between the spiritual and the physical, the religious and the political, the temporal and the eternal faded and lines overlapped.
- For us there are clear lines separating these different things, and different remedies in each case: the physical, the social, the political etc.
- But for Luther and his contemporaries, these lines were far from clear! In fact, there was an inherent connection between them, which no-one really denied.
- The most powerful political ruler of the time was called the Holy Roman Emperor (ruling over Germany and much of Western Europe), and he often intervened in religious matters…
- Equally, the most powerful religious leader was the pope, and he regularly claimed authority in matters of government and politics across Europe.
- In addition, the church based in Rome under the authority of the pope exploited the people’s fears (whether real or imagined) to increase his own power base and establish his authority:
- Selling indulgences to raise money.
- Granting religious positions of authority on the basis of favours given.
- Reinforcing by means of the inquisition that there is no way to escape God’s judgment except through the Roman Church, its priests and its ceremonies.
I mention this because it shows that, for there to be any political or social change and any liberation for the people, a religious reformation was required! The two could not be separated.
Early years of Martin Luther’s life
So this was the world into which Luther was born. At the age of 18 he began his studies in law at Erfurt, but it only lasted a few weeks; being caught in a thunderstorm and believing that those evil spirits were about to destroy him, he promised to become a monk to escape from the power of darkness and earn God’s help and favour.
Luther became the best of monks and used everything in the arsenal of the Roman Church to win favour with God including prayer, fasts, religious incantations, self-denial, confession, pilgrimage to Rome and the saying of masses – all with the most intense energy and fervour (according to his personality). But all of this could not deal with the problem that he faced – how to be right with God.
Under the guidance of his mentor, a man called Johan Staupitz, Luther began to study and teach the Bible. At first, this only made his problem worse as Luther read about “the righteousness of God” in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and he was convinced that this righteousness was God’s holy standard of heavenly glory which we could never attain – he was in despair of his soul. But then he came to see that what Paul had in view when he spoke of the righteousness of God was in fact a free gift granted by God to men.
- Not that God was any less holy than Luther had thought.
- But rather that God had made a way for sinful human beings, like himself, to share in that same holiness by being clothed in the righteousness of Christ Jesus…
- A free gift, obtained by faith.
- Out of this came the five “solas” or “alones” of the Reformation:
- Scripture alone.
- Faith alone.
- Christ Alone.
- Grace Alone.
- God’s Glory alone.
Luther’s understanding that salvation was by free grace and not by the merit-system of the Roman church, caused him to question the authority of the church itself. However, at first this was merely an internal struggle that he confined to his inner circle of confidants.
Then something happened which moved Luther from personal struggles and considerations into open conflict with the church authorities. It was all to do with a man called John Tetzel!
- The Pope, Leo X, needed to raise more money for the building of St Peters in Rome, and as part of an elaborate scheme he issued a plenary indulgence.
- This meant that friars and monks could travel, often with relics of the saints, and offer people time off purgatory for family members (on papal authority) in return for the payment of a sum.
- Tetzel was a particularly gifted and persuasive hawker of these indulgences, and Luther became aware that his own parishioners were travelling the short distance to hear him and part with money they could ill-afford to be without to obtain such favours.
- This is an extract from one of Tetzel’s sermons:
Consider that all who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission of all their sins. Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?” Remember that you are able to release them, for:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.
Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise?
This was too much for Luther!
- Exploiting the fears of men to fill papal coffers!
- Impoverishing the German peasantry to pay for a massive building in Rome!
- And worse of all, deceiving vulnerable and sincere people into believing that they are rescuing the souls of their family members from a place that does not even exist, while plunging those already in despair into an even deeper need and dire distress!!!
- In other words, plying games with people’s souls and bodies for monetary gain, all in the name of God.
The fire burned in Luther’s soul.
- October 31st was the eve of all saints, and it was customary that the relics from the main church in Wittenberg were paraded through the town and indulgences offered to the people.
- On that very day, Luther took his 95 theses and nailed them to the church door.
- Luther wrote in Latin, but within days they had been translated into German, and within weeks they had even reached England!
- The content was not radical at this stage, but the principle was established, and things developed quickly, largely because of Gutenburg’s printing press and the growth of the printing industry!
- Luther’s writings sold well, far better than anything written by the papal party in opposition, so economics and technology took over.
By 1520, the pope was desperate! His authority was being challenged by a German upstart monk, and his capacity to raise revenue and exert power was being undermined. He decided to excommunicate Luther, which was done by means of a papal decree or bull.
- Luther’s reaction was characteristic, powerful and profoundly symbolic.
- He gathered together all the doctors, masters and students of the university outside the city gate and constructed a massive bonfire.
- He then proceeded to burn the entire body of medieval papal canon law, upon which the extravagant claims of the papacy were grounded. By doing so he was symbolically destroying the very foundation of the pope’s power and authority.
- He then took the bull of excommunication and threw it into the fire with the words: “Because you have destroyed the truth of God, may the Lord consume you in these flames!”
- This was iconoclasm at its most powerful – destroying the power of the church to manipulate and control the lives of the people.
- This was a bid for true freedom.
Of course there was a response from the papal party. Luther was summoned before the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, meeting in full session in the German city of Worms. (It was called a Diet, which simply means assembly). Gathered were representatives of the church, all the electors and the emperor himself. It took place in April 1521
- The demand was made that Luther should “recant”.
- He asked for 24 hours – why?.
- The following day the place was packed and Luther was summoned. The papal representative was a man called Jan Eck. This is the exchange:
Eck: Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith… I ask you Martin – answer candidly and without horns – do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors they contain?
Luther: Since then your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. So help me God. Amen.
The assembly was divided, but eventually the Emperor got his way and Luther was condemned by the electors 4 to 2. However, in God’s providence, posters bearing the boot of the peasants were posted up in the town overnight and this created enough uncertainty to bring the assembly to a premature end. Luther managed to escape and a friendly kidnapping was arranged by a supportive prince who hid him away in the Wartburg Castle for long enough to secure his safety.
During his time of seclusion, Luther translated the Bible into German from the original languages.
- Used Renaissance skills.
- Ad fontes.
- Wanted to get the original, accurate and authentic word of God into the hands of the people!
- It was not long before the printing presses were whirring, not with books by Luther (which were radical enough), but by the word of God translated into German – far, far more radical indeed!
- And then came the Bible in English, and French, and across Europe the word of God in the language of the common people. For years, only Latin – now accessible to all.
Thus began the most radical and profound change in European history of the past 1000 years!
Why does the Reformation matter today? Let me give you 7 reasons:
1) The freedom and autonomy of the individual
- By challenging the authority of the pope and the Roman church, as he did in 1521 in Worms, Luther showed the world what one man could do!
- He elevated the determinations of his own conscience, based upon the scriptures that he had studied carefully in the original languages, over and above the conclusions of all the “experts” and the so-called wisdom of centuries!
- In his day it was papal authority and church control that Luther opposed, but we fight the same battles today!
- Ironic that we have forgotten what exactly set Europe free 500 years ago – THE BIBLE! We have been brainwashed into believing that the Bible is oppressive and opposed to human freedom and fulfilment – the opposite is the case!
- By putting the Bible into the hands of the individual, Luther empowered each person to seek a relationship with God, rather than depending upon religious institutions or performances.
- This led to religious freedoms and then political freedoms, seen in the Act of Toleration in England at the end of the 17th C and the Bill of Rights in America in the 18th C.
- All because of Luther’s Reformation.
2) The value of human relationships and family life
- For over 1000 years the Roman church promoted a very distorted view of human relationships, especially marriage and sexuality – and therefore by extension family life.
- As we know, to be a priest or monk celibacy was required.
- This was because sexual activity was viewed as dirty or unclean.
- Luther turned this on its head when in his 40s he married an ex-nun – the story is quite exciting in itself.
- The picture of Martin and Katie around the dinner table, talking about the affairs of the day, surrounded by students and children, even daring to criticise the dignitaries and people in authority…
- Hence Martin Luther’s Tabletalk… SO RADICAL!
- It is ironic that we are led to believe today that the Bible is opposed to healthy human relationships and the enjoyment of human sexuality in its right context.
3) The revival of learning
- The Renaissance was an essential precursor to Reformation…
- But the outcome was the Bible in the vernacular – which was then a massive impetus for literacy and education.
- This led to the belief that what happens in this life is just as important as what happens in the life to come! There is good reason to seek to learn well and live well here & now.
- Many universities were established, and through the printing press the conclusions of scholars were disseminated for people to study.
- No longer were the people beholden to the declarations of experts who did not need to explain themselves!
- Rather, since access to God was through the Bible, there was every reason to study it carefully and find one’s own path!
- Again, notice that Reformed Christianity is not against learning, but the very reason why it is so embedded in our western society.
4) Liberation of scientific endeavour
- The Reformation had a tremendously positive impact on science.
- Throughout the Medieval period, the church had imposed a strict control on scientific endeavour by marrying scholastic theology with Aristotelian structures of thought.
- Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who believed that everything in the natural world could be explained in the context of earth, fire, water and air, and that the earth was the centre of everything.
- What Luther did when he nailed the theses to the church door on all saints eve was to challenge that authority, and so open the door for a new way of thinking!
- Building on those who had gone before, like Leonardo, it was not long before Gallileo was declaring that the sun was at the centre, not he earth!
- Again, how ironic that today the Bible is seen as being opposed to good science! Considering what happened 500 years ago teaches us the very opposite – the Bible promotes and liberates scientific endeavour!
5) Access to the word of God
- When Luther stood before the dignitaries at the Diet of Worms and took 24 hours to consider, it was like a pause for maximum effect.
- My conscience is bound to the word of God!
- Through this the individual is brought into direct contact with the word of God, which is the power of God unto salvation.
- This message of scripture transformed Europe!
- How important was the friendly kidnapping after the Diet.
- Now the Bible was in the hands of the people, and there was access for the individual to the very message of heaven!
- The Reformation is to be thanked for bringing freedom to the individual!
6) Motivation to preach the gospel
- And this began to be preached across Europe – no longer depending upon salvation by proxy, but getting personal access to God by faith!
- Remember those five solas, beginning with scripture!
- Scripture alone, faith alone, Christ alone, grace alone, to God’s glory alone.
- Now there could be full assurance of salvation, real peace, total pardon and fullness of joy!
- All because of the Reformation
7) The liberating message of salvation by faith in Christ Jesus
- What was it that Luther discovered from scripture?
- Yes humanity was made in the image of God.
- Yet now we have marred that image and our wills are in bondage.
- Freedom can only be found in the finished work of Christ Jesus.
- We can only lay hold on that righteousness of God, that in-the-right-ness with God, through true repentance, real faith and complete trust.
How much do we owe, under God, to Luther and the Reformation?
Perhaps now you can judge.
|For a full statement of the gospel message recovered at the Reformation
|To find out what we believe as a Church self-consciously standing on the ground recovered by the Reformers
|For the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, which we believe to be the most complete statement of the Bible’s teaching as recovered by the Reformers