It is the beginning of October 2020, and we know what this means, do we not? No, I’m not talking about Halloween, a questionable practice amongst Americans. Whether or not you celebrate Halloween, it is a tragic thing that this tradition in America has overshadowed one of the most important anniversaries of October 31st. For myself, the greatest tragedy is that I spent my entire youth without ever being told about it (even though I was raised in a Christian home). It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties that I learned of this historic event, and even then, I only learned about it through self-education, not as a tradition among my Christian brethren.
What I’m speaking about, of course is the Reformation. 503 years ago from this October 31st, the famous 95 Theses that Martin Luther is said to have hammered to a Wittenberg church door, as was custom for the scholars of the day to do when they made propositions such as these, became the iconic moment that started it all. It was the posting of these theses on October 31st, 1517 that began the spark of the Reformation, which would change western civilization forever. But of course, we don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves here. I want to discuss in this article why the Reformation still matters today, and why every Protestant Christian should celebrate it, and if I can speak personally, I prefer we celebrate this day over Halloween. While I find dark themes interesting, the sheer fact and weight of the Reformation is far too important to pass over, especially for a relatively meaningless holiday.
Remembering The Reformation
There are many factors that lead to an ignorance of the Reformation; some of them are unintentional, others are intentional, while still more others have a bit of both. For the unintentional ignorance, I will save for a later section. For now, I want to discuss the group that decidedly rejects any kind of allusion to the Reformation of 1517.
I once spoke briefly to a brother at church about the Reformation and church history, and he did not want to go there. He didn’t like church history, and his reasoning was because the men of church history were bad, filled with so much error and sin, and did terrible things. I smiled at him and had to say what I hope you the reader is thinking, “Strange. Sounds like you’re describing sinners!” Which is of course correct. They were sinners, just like we. I suppose we’ll stop reading about David, because after all, David was an adulterer, and a murderer.
Of course we read about David, and we read about him for two reasons (three, technically, it being divine revelation): One, he is central to the biblical story, and two, because from reading about David’s mistakes, we learn how to not do those things, and from his great successes, how we can glorify God in our own lives. In other words, it is to learn from the past of the men who walked the faith before us. To read about how their humanity limited and conflicted with them, and then how God in spite of such, used such a man (or woman) for His glory.
And that’s exactly why we should read and know church history. They were connected to the biblical story (how God works through His church, even in the darkness of pre and post-Renaissance), and two, because they did great things for God, and they did terrible things in His name. If we claim to be part of the body and church of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord and King of all, we should desire to know about the body that came before us. There is a rich history in studying the church throughout the ages.
Truly, if you are not a Roman Catholic or of Eastern Orthodox, you owe your roots in some way to the Protestant Reformation, especially if you are Baptist, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Calvary Chapel, Pentecostal, Charismatic and probably more (aside from the NAR and groups like it). The Five Solas are the basis for essentially all of these groups (in their basic form; whether they are consistent with these is not the point I am making) and those five solas find their origin in the Reformation. It is an inescapable fact.
It would seem to make sense then to want to discover the roots, history and tradition that gave rise to whatever denomination you ascribe to. Please understand, I am not here saying that everyone should become reformed as I am, but I do think that everyone who is connected to these groups in some way should celebrate this day, one of the most memorable moments in the history of humanity.
The Reformation in the West
The importance of the Reformation extends into various different areas. Firstly, let’s consider the Reformation in the west as a whole. What it did was it led to a revolt of a certain kind against the papal authority, which claimed to hold the Church in its hand, and consequentially the whole western world, and ultimately the salvation of anyone who lived in its domain. To be saved, therefore, required loyalty to the Church and its holy sacraments and dogmas.
This ultimately led to a darkness and corruption in the west. As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts, absolutely. The papal sea truly carried with it tremendous power, and with that centralization of power, history always tells us it never ends well. That kind of power typically always attracts the most ambitious, and most ruthless of men, and sure enough, it did.
This was until 1517, when Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Ironically, Luther had no intention of messing with papal authority at first. His only desire was to discuss the matter of indulgences and the abuse of them in Germany. When he did not receive his audience to discuss this matter, the consequence for the Church was that the people of Wittenberg got a hold of the theses, translated them into the vulgar (common tongue), and distributed the copies across Germany, causing the people to rise up against the papacy and its abuses of them.
While Roman Catholics today can cry foul and make a big issue about the “Revolution” (as they often call it), the fact is that the Roman Church had itself to blame in Luther’s day. Imagine what would have transpired if, instead of ignoring Luther, they responded to the theses immediately. But they opted to ignore it, which allowed the theses to stay up long enough for the people to get wind of it. The rest was history.
With the Reformation underway after Worms in 1521, when Luther was excommunicated, the result would be a split in Christendom that exists unto this day, leading to great wars across Europe, and a battle between the Protestants and the Roman Church over control of the land. While in the end, no one won, one thing the Reformation did achieve was breaking the Roman Catholic Church’s hold on Europe, never to have it again. The result of Protestantism would eventually lead to the Enlightenment (something we may see as a detriment and consequence of the Reformation, but not a direct result), the nation states, and the fall of feudalism and monarchical reign across Europe and further west.
The Reformation in the American Revolution
While the Reformation itself is not to be considered a revolution, it’s impact would lead to an eventual revolution. Two, to be exact. However, one of these—The French Revolution—was a terrible event, the other was a far greater revolution that did not lead to the rivers of blood and gore in the streets from headless, limbless bodies in the Reign of Terror carried out by one Maximilien Robespierre. This revolution would spark the conception of the most remarkable country ever to exist in history. That of course is the United States of America.
Yes, the Reformation was an important role in the American Revolution. In fact, most Americans, even among conservatives, don’t realize just how much they owe to the traditions that came out of the Reformation. These traditions would be extremely influential on the lives and thinking of the Puritans (who were Calvinists) that came to the Americas, seeking refuge from the persecution in Europe.
That unique Puritan tradition would raise generations after it that reach to the founders themselves. The majority of the leading founders were themselves Calvinists, and those that were not, owed their influences in some way to Protestantism, or in other words, the Reformation. Even for Benjamin Franklin, who was not a Christian by confessional standards, loved Jonathan Edwards’ preaching, and George Whitefield, two major Protestant reformers in America during his time.
As with the five solas, the simple fact of the matter is that every American who loves America, and the history of America owes much credit to the Reformation, and what came out of it in the next three centuries.
The Reformation in Liberty
While Luther and Calvin after him did not intend the Reformation to lead to what the American Revolution envisioned and realized (that is to say, the Reformation was a magisterial one), their work and influence would inevitably lead to these things. As we have shown, in brief, the Reformation led to the breaking of Roman Catholic control over the west, and sub-sequentially, it lead to the United States.
Remember, the five solas were a radical idea during the Reformation. Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, who came before Luther, had a less crystallized view of the concept of the five solas, and one of them ended up martyred over it. Imagine when Luther and Calvin come along, and especially with Calvin’s brilliant systematic thinking, putting these together in ways no one had done before, what that would end in. In other words, it was the most radical form of what Hus and Wycliffe were preaching.
The reality is that the Roman Church realized the danger of the solas. If the solas were true, it completely and utterly shattered Roman Catholic control over all of Europe. It meant that the Church could not control salvation, could not be the mediator between God and man. It had no right to stand in the way, and dictate to any man whether he was a sinner or saint. Only God had that power, and the church’s job therefore was a steward, a faithful servant to God on behalf of those whom God has Himself saved and is saving.
The consequence of this truth, therefore, meant that the church did not have the authority it claimed, and when the Reformation’s ripple effect of those who followed after the Reformers, continued to crystallize what they themselves started, the result was the recognition that no man, no matter how pious and godly he may appear, has a right over any other. The life of every man is squarely in the hand of the Almighty Himself, who owns all peoples by His sovereign right as God of the universe.
The church’s responsibility, therefore, was to be a witness to the world on behalf of her Bridegroom, her Lord and God in heaven. She is never to be seen as He the Judge on earth. Once this concept took shape in the Puritans, which would then influence the founding fathers, the concept of true liberty took form in the United States of the eighteenth century.
The Reformation Today
Now I wish to begin addressing those who are unwittingly ignorant of the Reformation. With this brief overview of the impact of the Reformation, my hope is that we now have the context to understand where we are today, and perhaps a greater insight as to why our society is crumbling around us. Listen to your standard talk show host on either left or right, and you will likely never get to the root of the problem. If you understand what led to the American Revolution and the government it produced, it would make more sense why the government that claims to be the same one of two-hundred years ago is nothing like it.
It is not an increase of God in America that is causing our societal collapse, it is a removal of Him from American society. The fact is that man was made to worship something. When the One to whom proper worship is owed becomes obscured and removed, who do we then go to for hope? Someone has to be our god, and hence, the government must come in to take that place. When man no longer has a God over him that gives him light to see who he is and who the world is, man will be left in darkness and decay, and will rot, taking everything else with him, including his neighbor, and eventually his society.
Hence it requires a recognition of the holiness of God, that He has the right to rule over us, and when we recognize that, and repent of our sins, then true liberty reigns. The Reformation restored that idea to the western world, and the United States adopted the crystallized essence of it, recognizing that true liberty is not when man is freed from all authorities, but freed from all man-made authorities, so that nothing stands in his way of being fulfilled and thus truly free in the God he belongs to.
I hope that this will inspire many of my readers to begin to study the Reformation, and the rich history from it. Not all of its history is great; there are many terrible things that Luther did. And if I can speak frank here, I don’t even think I could stand to be around Luther. In fact, Luther and Calvin both would consider me a heretic. I might not even be safe in Calvin’s Geneva because I am of a baptist persuasion.
Why then do I love Calvin and Luther? Because I look past these things, and see the value in studying what they gave to us. We have to be willing to do the same. I cannot stress to you, my reader, in these written words the deep conviction of my heart when I say this: You who do not study the history of your heritage as a Christian, who denies to your children the history of your heritage as a Christian set them up for disaster in the future. I pray that in that case, God is merciful to them, and will keep them safe despite your failure to show them these things. That is how strongly I believe in this.
I am not saying that you will lose your salvation in the slightest over it. Nor am I saying that you need to learn about the Reformation and be reformed. I believe you can truly celebrate what the Reformation gave us without being uber-reformed. You don’t need to be a Calvinist, or Lutheran to believe in the five solas, nor to celebrate the Reformation. To my Calvinist and Lutheran brothers, please understand, I am not talking about consistency here, I am just stating a mere reality, that you and I must realize: Not everyone who holds to the central tenants of the Reformation are themselves reformed. You have to deal with that, just like I have to deal with it. Maybe the best way to do it is to meet your local church family that does not share your reformed convictions, buy them lunch and talk it over in brotherly love and grace.
My simple point is that those who do not learn from history are always doomed to repeat it, and even as Ronald Reagan said, freedom is always one generation from extinction. Franklin also said it is only in the religion of ignorance that man will lose his freedom. A people who know their heritage, know their history cannot be enslaved, and are far greater prepared for the future when they learn from the mistakes of their forefathers, as well as their successes.
The Reformation is, of course, not the gospel, but what it gave to us was a lesson in history that there is hope even in darkness, that God can and does do amazing things, with sinful human beings, and each and every one of us are connected to it in some way. Take some time this month and discover how you are connected to the Protestant Reformation, to the glory of God, Soli Deo Gloria!