The Reformation: why it still matters

I want to take you back in time.  The year is 1517.  The place is Wittenberg, a small, sleepy town in East Germany.  A young Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther makes his from his monastery and walks across town to the Castle Church.  Under his arm is a wad of papers.  He walks up to the front of the church, takes out a hammer and nails his papers to the door.

Luther’s intention was not to start a Reformation.  He had no intention of breaking with the Catholic Church.  His thesis was simply an invitation to a public debate.  It was a 16th century version of a blog post inviting online discussion.  However, before the Bishops had time to respond Luther’s students swiped it and had it printed on the newly invented Gutenberg printing press.  It soon made its way through Germany and the rest of Europe.  What began as a small protest erupted into a firestorm that swept the world.

So what was it exactly that got Luther so worked up?   Luther was frustrated.  He had tolerated a number of things up to this point.  He had tolerated the religious hierarchy in the church – a system of Popes and Bishops and Priests that ruled over the people with an iron fist.  He had tolerated the services and the sacraments which every good Catholic was obliged to participate in.  But what he could not tolerate was the actions of a certain Dominican Friar by the name of John Tetzel a few days beforehand.  That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tetzel was going from town to town selling indulgences.  An indulgence was a payment one could make to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for certain sins.  People feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven.  Or worse, they wind up in hell for failing to repent.  The purchase of an indulgence would fix that.   Well Pope Leo saw this as a great way of making revenue so he opened it up for those who were living and dead.  Now you could buy an indulgence for Uncle Semas who hadn’t been a very good Catholic and you could get him out of purgatory.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse – it did.  The Pope wanted to finish building St. Peter’s cathedral.  To do this, he authorized a special indulgence that would provide forgiveness for all sin.  This could be bought for your dead relatives in purgatory.  This was what Tetzel was selling.

Tetzel would come rolling into town in a grand wagon.  Trumpets would blow and banners would unfurl.  A table would be set up in the town square.  On one side there was a pile of parchments and on the other a large chest.  Then Tetzel would cry out:

Johann Tetzel selling indulgences

Listen now, God and Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and your departed loved ones departed… Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you… 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 the flames? Will you delay the promised glory? [1]

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice,

“Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”

This was religious exploitation to the extreme.  But the people didn’t know any better.  They were completely in the dark.  They had no bibles, no theological instruction, nor did they have theological books.  They were utterly dependent on the priests.  But the priests were just as ignorant.  When John Hooper was first appointed bishop of Gloucester in England in 1551, he reported out of 311 of the clergy, 168 were unable to repeat the 10 commandments, 31 couldn’t even state in what part of Scripture they came from, 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was written and 40 couldn’t even say who authored it!

This was the state of things prior to the Reformation.  J.C. Ryle gives an avid description of the time.  He says the Roman Catholic Church was…

“an organized system of Virgin Mary worship, pilgrimages, almsgiving, formalism, ceremonialism, processions, prostrations, bowings, crossings, fastings, confessions, absolutions, Masses, penances, and blind obedience to the priests.  It was a grand higgledy-piggledy of ignorance and idolatry, and service done to an unknown God by deputy.  The only practical result was that the priests took the people’s money and undertook to unsure their salvation, and the people flattered themselves that the more they gave to the priests, the more sure they were going to heaven.”

When Luther nailed his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg door, he was challenging the power base of a very powerful religious system.  And they did not like it.  Luther was quickly denounced as a man preaching “dangerous doctrines.”  In the year 1521 he was called to the Diet (or assembly) of Worms (pronounced Verms) – a small town on the Rhine river in Germany, where he was called upon to recant his heresies.  Luther responded with this, now famous declaration:

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. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Luther at the Diet of Worms 1521

With those words, Luther set his course.  What followed is what we know as the Great Reformation.  A number of strong and very courageous men followed Luther – William Tyndale in England, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin in France, and John Knox in Scotland.  They were not perfect men by any stretch of the imagination.  They made their mistakes.  But they were God’s men for the day, to lead the church back to the simplicity and purity of the gospel.

But does it really matter today?

There are some who say the Reformation has been and gone – it doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s something that happened in the past so let’s leave it in the past.  Well, this part of the past matters.  Here’s three reasons why:

1. The Reformation matters because it had world-changing effects
The Reformation gave us the Bible – now freely available in our own language.  The reformation also gave us religious freedom, liberty of conscience, and separation of church and state.  As a result of the Reformation Christians have made more positive changes on earth than any other force or movement in history.  More schools and universities have been started by Christians than any other religion, nation or group.  It was Christian Reformers that succeeded in bringing about the abolition of slavery, cannibalism, child sacrifice, as well as the degrading treatment of women.  None of these things would have occurred, if it were not for the Reformation.

 2. The Reformation matters because it brought about the recovery of the gospel
The glorious gospel, which teaches that sinners can be made righteous – not by works but by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was rediscovered.  And the result was new life.  The result was true regeneration of men and women, who were brought from darkness to light, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.

3. The Reformation matters because it serves as a warning to the church today
It serves as a warning of what can happen when authority is abused and truth is ignored.  It serves as a warning of when God’s grace is peddled for profit, power and personal gain.  And it serves as a warning when the gospel becomes eclipsed and overshadowed by the methods, programs, and teachings of men.

If the gospel matters to you, if the glory of God and purity of the church matters to you, if religious freedom and liberty of conscience matters to you, if women’s rights and the abolition of slavery and education for all people – regardless of age or gender or race matters to you, then you cannot and should not remain ignorant of the Reformation.

Because these are the very things that the Reformers fought and in some cases, died for.

Addendum: just for the sheer pleasure of it, check out this video (a trailer for Ligonier Ministries 2017 National Conference).  It’s a powerful visual of the world-changing impact of Luther’s actions that day October 31, 1517.

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I stand, p.59

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.
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2 thoughts on “The Reformation: why it still matters

  1. Thank you for your blog. Currently reading Luther’s “Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians”, which makes this post especially meaningful to me and a great reminder of the importance to remain steadfast in preaching the gospel.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Getting your head around Luther’s insults | Feeling God's Pleasure

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