October 31st is a day worth celebrating for reasons that have nothing to do with candy, costumes, ghosts or things that are spooky (unless you grew up believing John Calvin is the bogeyman).
October 31st holds historical significance every year, but this year it is worth particular emphasis. Oct. 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, beginning the Protestant Reformation.
In today’s culture of “open-mindedness” (I took issue with our definition of tolerance a couple of weeks ago) the Reformation may not seem significant. Everyone’s beliefs are equally valid, they don’t really matter, or, even if you think the Reformation was necessary in its time, there’s the big push that it’s over now, right? How far our assumptions have fallen, we are oh so wrong.
One battle cry of the Reformation was “Semper Reformanda,” or “always reforming.” In its original intent, the Reformation was about aligning the Church to the Word of God, a task which the Reformers knew would never be finished and must always be guarded. We would be foolish to think differently.
Sadly, not only do the heresies that ran rampant in the Catholic Church persist within that system today, there are also major parallels between the climate of the 16th century Church and the 21st century Protestant Church that necessitate this Semper Reformanda attitude.
The primary issue of the Reformation was justification. Martin Luther was at the same time immersed in the Roman Catholic doctrines of earning grace and fully aware of the fact that a sinner could never do anything to work his way into favor with a holy God. Luther’s awareness of this fact stirred his soul deeply to anguish and despair, a struggle he called “anfechtungen” – to which there is no English translation.
One day while climbing the Holy Steps in Rome, a Catholic tradition that would guarantee one that his mother would be exempt from purgatory, Luther had his final doubts on the works based system. After spending years trying to work his way to God, Luther opened the Bible and discovered the core doctrine the Catholic Church had been keeping from the people, justification by faith alone.
From that moment, Luther sought to spread to the people who had fallen prey to the Catholic Church that works could never save. The only way one could be considered righteous before God was through trusting in Jesus Christ in his perfect life, death and resurrection to pay the penalty for sin and impute His righteousness on the one who believes.
The core doctrines of the Reformation are summed up into the Five Solas. “Sola” is Latin for “only.” Justification is summed up in three of those Solas: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus. We are saved by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone.
The doctrine of justification by faith alone is no less questioned in the church today. Faith and works or the idea of a “good person” complex run rampant in the church. When is the last time you heard in church, chapel or a Bible class or study more about what Christ has done than about what it is you need to do?
Works are important, they are a litmus test of sorts for a truly changed life, but they are not what saves. Faith and repentance save, and learning more about the God who grants that faith spurs us on to good works. This is the primary doctrine on which the church must have a Semper Reformanda attitude, those who have strayed from it must turn back, and those who hold to it must cling until the end.
The second issue within the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century was that they fought to keep the Word of God from the people. Only priests were properly equipped to handle the Scriptures, and as that attitude persisted, they were more and more able to abuse that power, hence the doctrines of justification by works, the taps of grace and a host of other hopeless heresies.
The issue was that the Bible was not written in the language of the people, it was only in Latin. One of Luther’s primary aims in life was to change this. After being condemned as a heretic at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther hid out in Wartburg Castle where he translated the New Testament into the people’s German in just twelve weeks.
Why was this aim so important to Luther? The fourth Sola, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The abuses of the Catholic Church came because the popes and priests exercised their authority over the Word of God as the final authority in the Church. Luther dogmatically disagreed. The more he opened the Scriptures, the more he saw the truth in them, and the more he realized they are in fact the final authority for the Church and the individual Christian.
There is perhaps no more of a debated doctrine within the Church today than the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The Pope still speaks Ex Cathedra, “Jesus Calling” is the number one seller on the Christian bookstore shelves, personal testimony is held as equally important as the gospel in evangelism. All of these have one thing in common – they undermine Scripture for human opinion.
The doctrines of justification by faith alone and Sola Scriptura are those on which the battle cry of “Semper Reformanda” hinge. It is in these doctrines that the light of the gospel shone through the dark pit the Catholic Church had enslaved the people to.
Why does the Reformation matter? On what basis are we supposed to hold to the Semper Reformanda motto? These things only matter in as far as they look to the Word to shed light on the gospel. Martin Luther said it himself,
“Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble…. I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.”
Celebrate the Reformation and cling deeply to the truth that God has saved us in Christ alone. Discover these truths in the Scriptures. Do this all Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone.