HAZARD, Ky. (BP) — October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of what historians have overwhelmingly agreed is the event that launched the formal beginning of what we call the Reformation.
At the center of the controversial movement was an obscure Augustinian monk in an insignificant German town whose search for peace with God drove him to Scripture while his frustration with exploitation compelled him to activism. Both quests set him on a collision course with the established norms and authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Reformation was, of course, the birth of Protestantism, which manifested itself in various forms in short time. It was also a revolt against the religious establishment which many considered corrupt in teaching and practice. This conflict was intense, fracturing western civilization’s religious, political and social spheres. Because of the wedding of state and church in 16th-century Europe, bloody conflict between states and within their own citizenry resulted.
Now, 500 years later, the hostilities have long since ceased. In modern western civilization, we now cherish individual freedom in matters of religion. We have effectively compartmentalized government and religion to keep them out of each other’s business, even if occasionally we find ourselves debating which has the proper jurisdiction on a certain issue.
Five hundred years seems to separate two worlds completely foreign to one another. Those of the 16th century could not have imagined such individual freedom and the toleration of certain beliefs and behaviors today. Conversely, we can’t imagine people literally killing each other over what we would consider religious issues. Because of this stark contrast between then and now, it may be natural to wonder why the Reformation should matter to us today. Why celebrate it?
Among all the complexities of the Reformation — within all its triumphs and tragedies — two key aspects of its significance for faith still need our historical appreciation and current attention and application.
The Reformation offered revolutionary answers for two vital questions: How do I know what I should know about God? And what must I do to have favor with God? The reformers’ answers to these turned the common notions upside down and ignited a true spiritual awakening.
A renewed authority
The first reason the Reformation still matters: The reformers boldly established the Bible as the supreme authority for the church. The Roman Catholic Church asserted that three sources of authority worked together — the Bible, the papacy and its official laws and customs. In theory these three sources of authority worked harmoniously together. In reality, educated men like Martin Luther saw clearly where popes and councils and Scripture had often contradicted one another.
The reformers declared that for matters of faith it was no longer a matter of what the church hierarchy declared to be true, but whether doctrine and practice were upheld by the clear teaching of the Bible.
This continues to be of vital importance for us today. Our culture suffers from the church’s lack of biblical authority. Individualism rules the day, with one’s right to personal opinion seen as a sacred treasure, even in the church. Our intellectual default is to respect each other’s opinions, which sounds reasonable, tolerant and enlightened. However, it’s pure nonsense if our goal is to know truth.
Truth by nature is specific and absolute, not subject to my opinion. I am subject to it. We have no problems with this when it comes to subjects like math or physics. However, many push back at the notion of an absolute religious truth to which we must submit, especially in matters of morality.
For the Reformers, the Word of God would no longer be subject to the control of the church; it would be unleashed so it would dictate to the church the truth of God.
The second reason the Reformation still matters: The reformers, through the Bible, recaptured a biblical understanding of how each of us can have forgiveness and the favor of God.
This understanding became captured in the phrase “justification by faith alone.” In other words, personal salvation was not the result of earned merit through a sacramental system of religious works and observances. The Roman Catholic Church had conditioned people to think of salvation as doing. Protestants seized upon the biblical truth that salvation is about believing, after which came the doing. Salvation was through grace through faith solely based on the merits of Christ.
Today, this still must be repeated over and over because human nature continues to want to earn God’s favor.
Martin Luther found himself desperately seeking to accomplish various aspects of devotion in acts of penance and spiritual disciplines. However, he never achieved peace in his soul but only became more aware of his own hopeless sinful condition. Only when he was enlightened to the truth of the Bible — that the just shall live by faith — did he finally encounter the truth that brought spiritual transformation and satisfaction for the soul.
We must never lose sight of the biblical truth for each man and woman. Reconciliation with God comes through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. Our relationship with our Creator is not based on what we can bring and offer to Him; it is dependent on faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And if that faith is real, then it follows Him, loves Him and keeps His commandments.
The Reformation is not dry, dusty irrelevant history. What we wrestle with today in regard to questions of authority and how we have favor with God is exactly what they were wrestling with then. The reformers’ voices still speak loudly to these matters on which we need greater clarity and stronger conviction. We would be wise to renew our commitment to that for which they sacrificed so much.