On October 31, 1517, a German monk posted a list of 95 talking points on the town bulletin board, hoping to start a conversation about what he perceived to be issues in the church. Though reformation in the church did not start with that event, it did serve as a catalyst for more rapid and sweeping changes, and has traditionally been considered the start of the Protestant Reformation. That means, of course, that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which is cause for remembrance, reflection, and celebration. We have hardly recovered from our recent celebrations of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin, and the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism, and here we go again. The Calvin 500 celebration was a grand event celebrated across America and Europe; the Reformation 500 celebration promises to be even greater, with a flood of books and conferences throughout the year. Many of them, naturally, focus on Martin Luther, but most seem to be looking at the broader Reformation.
We should pause for a moment to consider our celebrations of these events in history, to reflect on the Reformation itself, and perhaps to ask ourselves several questions. Why do we or should we study history and celebrate past events? Who or what exactly are we celebrating? Is our conception of our past and our heritage too simple, romantic, and idealized? What were they protesting exactly? Were they overreacting? We call ourselves Protestants; are we still protesting today, and what are we protesting? What is reformation in the church anyway, and are we still reforming? (What does the motto, semper reformanda, really mean?) How can or should the reforms of that time be applied today? Are they even relevant? How does any of this apply to me, my family, my church, and my Christian life? Isn’t the Reformation just something we study in history class in school? Was it anything more than an historical hiccup bridging the Renaissance and the Enlightenment?
These are all valid questions; Lord willing, we will have the opportunity to explore some of them throughout this year of celebration. In the meantime, there are some fundamental points to remember as this celebration takes place all around us in the Reformed world this year:
- When we celebrate the Reformation, and the people who were the key players in the events that transpired, we need to first and foremost focus on God himself and what he was doing in and through his church and the people involved. While we can learn from and be inspired by the lives of the men and women involved, we primarily celebrate the reformation and revival that the Holy Spirit worked in his church.
- The Reformation was not about novelty or innovation, nor was it an effort to bring the church up to date with the times and the culture. It was a return to the Bible and to historic Christianity. It was a reformation according to God’s Word, not an effort to be more relevant, hip, culturally sensitive, or with the times.
- It was not new; reformation in the church had been occurring already.
- It was positively (and negatively) influenced by the rise of humanism during the Renaissance period, and cannot be properly understood apart from the times in which it occurred.
- It was a Reformation of worship, particularly but not exclusively of the Mass (the Lord’s Supper). Many would do well to remember this point today; worship was their primary concern, or at least as important to them as the doctrine of salvation.
- It was a Reformation of doctrine, particularly concerning salvation, our justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
- The ultimate concern of the Reformers was the glory of God in everything, including but not limited to worship and salvation, and the supreme authority of Scripture, because it is God’s very Word. God’s revelation to man is his Word; God is found and encountered and known and worshipped and obeyed and loved through his Word.
- Central to the doctrine of the Reformers, because it is central to the Bible, is the sovereignty and the glory of a majestic, holy, eternal, supreme, almighty, wise, righteous, just, loving, merciful, and gracious Triune God. The ultimate end of all his creation and all his works is his own glory.
- Reformed doctrine and Calvinism should not and cannot be limited to the Five Solas and certainly not to the doctrines of grace (TULIP), which deals with the gospel and our salvation. Although our salvation is obviously extremely important, is not the whole of faith and life. God reveals more to us in his Word than just the gospel itself.
- The Reformation was concerned with living all of life, not just worship and salvation, under the authority of God and his Word. It was not only concerned with doctrine, but that through the transformation of our minds our hearts, wills, affections, and actions are transformed. We worship and serve the Lord with our whole lives: head, heart, and hands.
- Because of the sovereignty and character of God, and the authority, sufficiency, and surety of his Word and the promises contained therein, Christians can set their hope fully in God, rest in and trust his promises, be confident and assured of their salvation, their hope, their eternal rest, and his presence now, and run the race with endurance, trusting God for his past, present, and future presence and persevering power. He who promised is faithful, and he will surely do it. And that is good news indeed.
The Reformation was a return to historic, biblical, apostolic faith found in the Word of God, which, since God has not changed and the Word of God has not changed, is exactly the faith we need today. That faith is focused on an all wise, supreme, sovereign, loving, holy, gracious, majestic God, viewed through the lens of infallible, inerrant, sufficient, authoritative Scripture, aimed towards the glory of God, lived in union with Christ and the Father through the Holy Spirit, resting on and hoping in his great and precious promises. That is the Word we need today, and that needs to be proclaimed to the lost, to the seeking, and to the church and Christ’s disciples everywhere. “That word above all earthy powers” shall abide and accomplish his purposes, then, now and forever. And that is cause to remember, to celebrate, and to give thanks to God.