Happy Protestant Reformation Day 2021

This year, Halloween, or as I prefer to celebrate Protestant Reformation Day, fell on a Sunday. Whether it is because of the continuing coronavirus fears or because of some latent respect for the church, I saw very few people dressed up for Halloween today. That is completely fine with me. Two years ago, I outlined the reasons why I choose to celebrate Protestant Reformation Day instead.

For those of you who do not know the story, here is the very short version. In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the chapel door at Wittenberg Cathedral. In his work, he outlined how the practices of the Roman Catholic church were unbiblical and should be stopped. Some practices were occasional to that time: simony, or the sale of religious offices; indulgences, the idea that buying a small token releases or reduces time in purgatory, and some of the excesses. If you have ever seen the movie Luther (2003) starring Joseph Fiennes, you have a good dramatization.

Luther might not have intended it, but he kicked up a hornet’s nest that eventually led to his expulsion from the Augustinian order, multiple upheavals, including a Peasant’s Revolt, rise of German nationalism, anti-Semitism, among other things. You’ll have to read multiple books to find out more. In short, Luther and his contemporaries like Calvin and Zwingli split the Protestant wing of the church off. This also shattered “Christendom” – the unified Christian western kingdoms (for good or for worse).

The upheaval was not just a Reformation for the church but a Revolution, to borrow the late Professor Harold Berman’s work. In my previous post, I outlined the three radical areas for Christians:

  1. It restored access to the truth.
  2. It changed the laws. This had a massive downstream effect in western laws, especially American constitutionalism.
  3. It reaffirmed the doctrine of grace.

What then should we do?

One of the most interesting and poignant commands in the Bible, especially Deuteronomy, is to remember.

1. Remember The Costs and Sacrifices

It is easy for people read about the events and accept everything as a foregone conclusion. There were multiple efforts to reform the church in the Middle Ages. There were plenty of people who saw what was happening and were stirred to speak out. Sadly, it was the Church that killed them and silenced them. I think about men like Wycliffe and Tyndale whose lives were taken. I think about the initial costs to Martin Luther and Calvin who must have thought and felt like they were the only ones who cared. I think about the friendships broken and lost. If you have ever been unjustly fired from a job, you know how much it hurts, especially the longer you have worked there. Now add in your faith and spiritual identity as “Brother Martin.”

After Luther’s famous stance at the Diet of Worms where he uttered the famous words: “Hier stele ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” For those of you who do not speak German, it means “Here I stand. I cannot do anything else.” Right after that, Luther had to go into hiding because the Holy Roman Empire put a death warrant on him. For the next few years, Luther had to hide. Some of us could handle it but others might not. All the time, perhaps we are thinking what we could have done differently.

2. Remember the Downside.

No discussion of the Reformation could ignore the bad things that happened. Beside the break and fracturing of the Church, Luther was responsible for the anti-Semitism in Germany for the next 500 years. It did not start out as bad; Luther actually hoped that the Jews would accept Jesus as their Messiah as promised in the Old and New Testaments. When that did not happen, Luther’s rhetoric changed from good to bad. I suspect he was a bit naïve to think that several hundred years of history could be erased and overlooked. Whatever the cause, much guilt can be laid at his feet.

I have read Luther’s Table Talk and some of the things he says are hilarious. They were very much like Tweets, if Martin Luther had a Twitter account. His comments were short and came from his dinner parties he held with his friends. I believe it was his friends who complied and published them. But like Tweets, if taken out of context, they could cause much damage.

Another downside was Luther and the other Reformers did not get along. They disagreed vociferously on various topics and vowed never to speak together. This is the beginning of the different denominations. Five hundred years later, I noticed that while there are even more denominations and independent churches, the differences stopped mattering. The unity of the church is not found in having just “one” church entity, but the unity in the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

3. Remember the Work is not over

I don’t the Protestant Reformation is truly over. Historians put an end date when the Roman Catholics and the Protestant nations stopped fighting over religion. Traditionally, the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648 was the first war fought not over religion. All of the countries ended up with a peaceful co-existence until the Enlightenment changed everything again. However, that did not mean the church was error-free.

In the 1700s and 1800s, the church stagnated and allowed secular influences to enter the church. By the time of Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and William Wilberforce, homilies and sermons were more like social commentaries than the actual word of God. It took such men to reform the church again so that the Gospel was preached again. It took men like C.H. Spurgeon to make sermons about Jesus Christ and his saving work, not whatever social or political fads were trending.

Fast forward to the 1960s and men proclaimed nihilistically “God is dead”. At the same time, the Jesus Movement began and revitalized the church. You could call it a mini-Reformation because other churches were affected. The Southern Baptists were theologically liberal in the 1970s. Today, they are much more theologically conservative and uphold the primacy of the Bible.

In 2021, I can see the same trends and need. Critical Race Theory has entered the church. Socialism is much more trendy even though every historian will tell you it will never work. The churches that died or are dying are the ones who do not preach from the Bible but supplement it with all sorts of nonsense.

The Protestant Reformation said there were 3 (or 5) solas: sola Scriptura, sola fides, sola gratia. For those who do not speak Latin, they are “[the] Scriptures alone”, “Faith alone” and “Grace alone.” If we hold to these principles, we will succeed in keeping the church true to her identity and calling.

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