This weekend marks the 498th anniversary of a Roman Catholic priest, Martin Luther’s, challenge to the medieval Western Church: “Mother of my faith, you seriously need to reform!” He listed 93 points for debate! His challenge was not met but started a tidal wave of support and change that changed the course of history as well as both sides of Luther’s protest.
What’s so special about the Protestant Reformation for those of us who are Christians today? After all, we’re living almost 500 years later and our lives, the planet and our issues have changed hugely! True!
But what we have received from the Reformation is knowing and valuing.
- The Reformation gave the Christian Church in Europe a sorely needed clean up. Countless traditional ideas and practices had grown and grown (as traditions often do), hiding and choking the simple message of God in the Bible. For instance, the beliefs about Mary, the mother of Jesus grew (and have continued to grow), becoming the highlight of the faith and life of many – at the cost of what Jesus has done for us!
- The Reformation took Christian believers and their churches back to the Bible. When we lose our way, it’s always a good idea to consult a map – or a GPS which is based on maps although it doesn’t give us the “big picture” as printed maps and the Bible do. Before the Reformation the Bible was a closed book for almost everyone.
- The Reformation rediscovered absolutely basic Bible givens which had been lost in the growth of popular traditional beliefs and practices. The list is long: salvation is by grace alone (100% God’s gift), by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone (and not by our prayer effort or the special pleading of deceased believers), by faith alone (and not earned by living a good life), and, salvation taught by Scripture alone (and not necessarily by the clergy or popular ideas).
- Other areas of Christian faith and church life were also reformed from being ruled by elaborate ritual and clergy power to the simple basics taught in the Bible: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism again highlighted God’s promises and faith, the church again worshipped in understandable language, and worship was returned to the congregation with new songs sung to (then) popular tunes.
We can be thankful too that the Christian Church has continued to reform. The 16th century Reformation was not as thorough as we believe today was necessary. Largely this was because the 16th century was a very different time. The cosy relationship between the locally dominant church brand (Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Roman Catholic) continued, causing terrible wars and cruel persecutions of minority Christian churches, and especially the Baptists. It also took centuries for the New Testament teaching about the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Pet. 2:9 & 1 Cor. 12:27-30) to be as fully valued as it is today. The same can be said about taking God’s kingdom rule and the Gospel to the world (Matt. 13:31-33) & 28:18-20) in missions, evangelism, about social justice (think of slavery, child labour, the belittling of women, and the 19th century labour movement) and about caring for God’s creation (Gen. 2:15; many Christians today still don’t care much about the world care).
And finally: tradition continues to paralyse many of God’s people and churches. When Christian believers simply adopt their parents’ beliefs and values, and churches immobilise themselves in the past, they inevitably die. Growth and progress always involve constant change – which is always uncomfortable and usually messy!
Constant growth and reformation (or change) are essential for life and if we want to live well. This is also true for Christians and churches. Being an “alive” child of God means constant interaction with God’s Word and Spirit.
Sadly, many Christians and churches have been gradually paralysed and then killed off by thinking that Reformation, renewal, revitalisation and rejuvenation were all done with 500 years ago. The Bible teaches and shows us that they are constantly vital to God’s work among us.
This Reformation weekend, let’s take an honest look at ourselves! Have we been slack about serious work with our Bible? Am I afraid of (or “quenching”) the Holy Spirit? Is my church working on its growth and improvement in the things for which God holds us responsible? Am I helping my church to be part of God’s future plans for my neighbourhood, my country and the world?