5 Reasons We Need to Remember the Reformation

via Wikipedia

In honor of Reformation Day, we thought that we would run a post that originally appeared here two years ago.

Growing up, I knew almost nothing about the Reformation. I had a vague awareness of something that some people somewhere in the church celebrated about the same time of year that I was obsessing over Halloween costumes. I had little concern to learn more, being content to let others do the commemorating – especially if it did not interfere with trick-or-treating. My wife’s story is pretty much the same, but now we know better. The result is that when my children were younger, they bore the indignity of having to host Reformation parties (Recipe: Gather the church for soup, pie, and hot cider, ask the children to dress up in medieval costumes, sprinkle in some anecdotes about Martin Luther, and top it off with a rousing rendition of “A Mighty Fortress” and voila! You have a Reformation party. If you want to go the extra mile, struggle through the song in German. We even “encouraged” our two oldest boys to dress up like Martin Luther and John Calvin one year. Four years later, they are finally able to laugh about it.)

My wife and I truly do know better. As evangelical Christians, we are children of the Reformation. Its marks are all over us. In fact, I live today in Christ, even in my 21st century Pacific Northwest context, because the gospel was rediscovered some 500 years ago in Europe. The reason is simple: At its heart, the Reformation was about the recovery of the gospel. And it is worth remembering. Here are some reasons why:

1. The Reformation reminds us that the church is built upon the gospel, not vice-versa.

History will testify that Luther’s original intention was to call the Roman Catholic Church back to gospel fidelity, not to start a counter-Catholic church revolution that resulted in the division of that church. But the result was the Protestant Reformation, a stark reminder that no single church or denomination is greater than the gospel. We would do well to remember this today. The Reformation teaches us from experience what Revelation 2-3 makes explicitly clear: The Lord does not promise perpetuity or “success” to any particular local church or denomination – particularly if it is not faithful.

2. The Reformation reminds us that the gospel can be lost.

I often read the story of Josiah’s discovery of the Law of God (2 Kings 22:8-20) with some incredulity. How is it possible that God’s chosen people could lose the Book of the Law? How is it possible for there to be so much neglect of God’s word amongst his people that the very Law of God has to be rediscovered? I then often (smugly) dismiss them as being not like me, never actually praying the prayer of the self-justifying Pharisee, but sharing more in common with him than the humble tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Reformation warns us against such smugness and teaches us that the church, with all of its New Covenant advantages, must be vigilant because the very gospel of grace can be effectively lost to the church through distortion and neglect. This could happen in any number of ways (e.g., doctrinal distortion, lack of faith, giving priority to something other than the proclamation of the gospel in missions, etc.). The Reformation teaches us that unless we are vigilant, we will lose the very thing that matters most.

3. The Reformation reminds us that confusion over the gospel will ultimately manifest itself in abusive practices.

The gospel is always primary. The church is built upon the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The church’s mission is to proclaim that good news to the nations. Because the gospel is vital to the Church’s essence and mission, distortion of the gospel will inevitably result in distortion of the church and its practices – even those practices ordained by the Lord for the maintenance of his body. In the case of the Reformation, the practices of church discipline, baptism, and Lord’s Supper had lost their gospel moorings, resulting in their actually becoming instruments of abuse, rather than instruments of grace. This is evident in Luther’s earliest protest of the Roman Catholic sale of indulgences. The practice of selling pardons for sin did not spring up in ex nihilo fashion, but was accepted within the Roman Catholic hierarchy because it had long since abandoned the gospel. False prophets of our day are questioning the reality of the wrath of God, the coherence of substitutionary atonement, and the need for conscious faith in Christ. The Reformation reminds us that maintaining the purity of the gospel matters. Compromising on these essential matters will not only lead to destruction, but will lead us down a path that will hurt every step of the way.

4. The Reformation reminds us that the gospel is worth defending, even at great cost.

The Reformers were convinced that if the properly-translated Word of God could be placed in the hands of the people, the power of the gospel would be unleashed in the land and reformation and revival would be the result. But as we all know their work did not come easy. I wake on Sunday mornings, enjoy my morning reading of the Word of God and then gather with my local Church to pray the Word, see the Word in the ordinances, sing the Word, and hear the preaching of God’s Word. Assembling with my brothers and sisters in Christ every Sunday, where my largest concern is usually nothing more than arriving on time and finding a parking spot, is a tremendous blessing that has not been uniformly shared across Church history. For most of the sixteenth century, simply possessing an English Translation of the Bible was punishable by death. During Reformation week, I am caused to remember the convictions and sacrifices of such godly men as William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and Martin Bucer. They testified through their faithful lives, hardships and even deaths that the gospel is worth defending, at any cost. I am encouraged by their example in a day and society that cares so little for the things of God and that seeks to vilify faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord. The gate of religious pluralism is wide and the way is easy for those who bow to the spirit of the age and preach a message that is governed more by tolerance and political correctness than biblical fidelity. The gate is narrow and the way is hard that preaches and lives the gospel. The Reformers faithfully walked that difficult path before us, and point us to the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

5. The Reformation reminds us of Christ’s faithfulness to preserve his church.

The Reformers were raised up during one of the most spiritually bleak periods in the history of the church. Even many who claimed to shepherd the people of God could not perceive the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Yet in the midst of that dark time, Jesus Christ was faithful to his promise to build his church. Through the Protestant Reformation, the gospel spread across Europe. We live today in an equally dark world, one that shamefully glories in grotesque behaviors that ought to make even the hardest sinner blush. But God is able to make light shine in the darkest places. The Reformation reminds me of this, and encourages me to be faithful.


About Todd Miles

Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).

7 thoughts on “5 Reasons We Need to Remember the Reformation

  1. A footnote on Luther’s anti-semitism is appropriate for historical balance and intellectual honesty.

    Late in his career, having failed to convert Jews, Luther denounced them wholesale and campaigned for their harsh persecution.

    His main publications concerning Jews were the 65,000-word treatise Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies) and Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ), both written in 1543, three years before his death.

    Luther wrote that Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth. … They are full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine.”

    He described the synagogue as a “defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut …” and urged that synagogues be burned, Jewish prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated.

    Luther’s legacy proved deadly in the development of Nazism. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer wrote, “It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi years unless one is aware of two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther. The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He wanted Germany rid of the Jews. Luther’s advice was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Goering and Himmler.”

    We owe a great debt to Luther, whose courage and intellect brought aright a corrupt church which like a ship had morally keeled over; he reformed and saved it. Not so in 19th century Germany where the Dresden-native Richard Wagner, another brilliant intellect — arguably the greatest composer of his age — who took an extreme hatred to the Jews, also a favorite of the Nazis.

    My wife’s family are holocaust survivors; the unchristian intolerance of Martin Luther lived for centuries.

    1. Thanks for the reply Jock. I know that you recognize that a blog post is necessarily going to be limited in scope. The point of the post was to give some reasons to remember the Reformation. To remember the reformation is to remember what the Lord did through courageous and faithful, yet fallen, men. Do we really need a disclaimer every time we talk of someone’s faithfulness and work, that we do not endorse everything they ever said and did? It is a logical error do dismiss what someone did because they did some other bad things. If Luther’s anti-Semitism was consistent with and borne out of his Reformation work, then the criticism would be valid. The Reformation would be built on a faulty foundation and ought not to be celebrated. But Luther’s anti-Semitism (which constituted a material change in his treatment of the Jewish people at the end of his life) was inconsistent with everything that he wrote that helped sparked the Reformation. His anti-semitism was deplorable and a contradiction of the gospel of Jesus Christ that he preached so eloquently so often. It is precisely that inconsistency that allows us to remember his Reformation work with thankfulness to God, simultaneously remembering not to violate the first commandment by idolizing him.

      1. Todd,

        I simply point out that “late in his career” Luther behaved in a glaring, violent, intolerant and thus un-Christlike manner with devastating consequences for Jews.

        The church at that time was totally corrupt and intolerant; he successfully, single-handedly created a new denomination for those disagreeing with the Papacy.

        He was a great Christian, but no saint.

        My comment is a footnote for historical balance, that is all.

  2. Informative post. Both Luther and Calvin held to the belief of infant baptism, plus their view of the sacraments would most cartainly warrant caution.

    John Calvin had a dubious past— and as you consider his responsibility in the death of Micheal Servetus it really makes you think!: http://www.bcbsr.com/topics/servetus.html

    What I take from all this is; that my faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ and in his infallible Word. I love church history and have been helped very much by the writings of others.

    We are all dust, dust, dust, and to the dust we will all return-to God be the glory and honor.

    Stop by my blog – I’ve started a series on “what is the mission of the church?” http://christianmusings-brian.blogspot.com/

    1. Brian,

      I appreciate your concerns regarding Calvin and Servetus, but I don’t share your ad hominem evaluation that this gives Calvin a “dubious past.” Servetus had already been condemned by both a civil court and a Roman Catholic court, and was, in fact, on the run from both, after escaping from jail, when he arrived in Geneva. His blatant anti-Trinitarian beliefs were the root of these judicial actions. He was actually condemned and sentenced by the city officials of Geneva, with Calvin’s only role being to serve as a witness against him.

      I think we need to be careful about judging Calvin’s, or either of these other courts’ condemnation of him, with a 21st Century mindset. At that time religious beliefs were held as a much more serious matter than they are in our day, and deviant beliefs were often deemed worthy of corporal punishment. The 30 Years War, which wiped out between 1/4 and 1/3 of Europe’s population, was fought over religion.

      Am I condoning these practices? No, but we must remember that Calvin was, first of all, a sinner saved by grace, and second, a product of his time. Whether we love him or hate him, he was a man used mightily by God to provide a firm foundation for the new protestant church taking shape during this period.

      I would also love to hear your concerns regarding his views on the Sacraments and infant baptism as I have studied his writings on both and find them to be very Scriptural. How about doing a post on your blog about it?

  3. Hi Todd,

    Thanks for this post I appreciated it very much. Also, Crystal and I would love to drop by next years reformation party… we’ll be brushing up on our German.

Comments are closed.