It’s easy to be what C. S. Lewis called a “chronological snob,” only caring about our own time period and ignoring the wisdom of those who lived before us. This particular illness probably afflicts us more than it did Lewis’ contemporaries in the middle of the twentieth century, because we live in the digital age, in which new versions of software and hardware come out nearly every year and render the older versions obsolete. Would anyone want to buy an Apple 2E from the eighties? Of course not. But is it the case that God’s truth needs to be updated as frequently as we update our technologies? On the contrary. The truth of God’s word remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. And yet it can be lost or forgotten.
Such was the case in the centuries leading up to what became known as the Protestant Reformation. During the Middle Ages, the freeness of God’s grace and salvation through faith in Christ alone increasingly became shrouded by an emphasis upon human merit and penitential works; the Scriptures were lost to the people of God and trumped by the authority of the bureaucratic church hierarchy; worship lost its biblical simplicity and became filled with idolatry and superstition; and the truth of the priesthood of all believers and divine blessing upon every lawful calling was swallowed up by a secular-sacred distinction of unbiblical proportions.
Into such a world the Lord sent godly shepherds to set things right; a few here and there in the 1300s and 1400s (John Wycliffe, John Hus, Savanorola), and a whole slew of them in the 1500s. Martin Luther was the primary catalyst, and it is his actions that “Reformation Day” recalls – nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, was not an act of vandalism, but a call for an academic debate over the matter of indulgences (Luther’s theses were written in Latin, the language of scholars, and church doors served as bulletin boards in his day). Luther’s carpentry work turned out to be an act of revolution as well, because it was a catalyst for a great movement of God’s Spirit among the church. His labors, along with those of men like John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Ulrich Zwingli, Henry Bullinger, and John Knox (plus many more lesser known figures all over Europe), set the church on an entirely new course, recovering to the people of God both the word of God and the gospel of God.
On this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we celebrate the fact that the Reformers restored the word of God to the people of God. The Scriptures had been lost under heaps of unbiblical traditions, and only the priests had access to them. It wouldn’t have mattered if the common man had gotten his hands on a Bible anyway, as it was written in Latin, which only a few could read. So the Reformers set about to translate the Bible into the language of the people, and (thanks to Mr. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in 1450) to get the Bibles into the homes of the people. Now Christians were free to be Bereans, comparing what they heard preached and taught to what was actually written (see Acts 17:11). The rallying cry of “Scripture alone!” (sola Scriptura) declared that the Bible was the only inherently authoritative norm for doctrine and practice. The Reformers discarded the accretions of manmade religion, and brought the church back to its Scriptural roots.
Second, the Reformers restored the gospel of God to the people of God. Obviously, as the church had lost the Bible, she had lost the message of salvation that the Bible taught. Grace had been replaced by merit, faith had been replaced by works, the finished work of Christ on the cross had been replaced by the continuing sacrifice of the Mass, dying and being with Jesus had been replaced by dying and going to purgatory for continued punishment from sin.
These matters came to a head when Johann Tetzel came to Luther’s town selling “indulgences.” An indulgence was essentially salvation for sale – by buying an indulgence, you could lessen the time you spent in purgatory suffering for your sins, or even help get your deceased relatives out of purgatory. As Tetzel cried out, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” Luther’s 95 Theses denounced the evil of these indulgences, which were being sold to raise money for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The Roman Catholic Church’s false gospel was explained fully in its Council of Trent (1545-1563): God declared men righteous (He justified them) only if they were actually righteous in and of themselves; salvation was on the basis of works such as confession, penance, rote prayers, and the sacraments. Throughout Europe the Reformers began to write against these errors. They exclaimed, “No! Salvation is sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone), and solus Christus (in Christ alone)! God declares sinners righteous through faith alone, on the basis of what Jesus has done in His sinless life and death as a substitute for His people. Do not steal glory from the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Priest men need to make them acceptable before God!”
As the Reformers restored to the people of God both the Word of God and the gospel of God, they were bringing back the glorious truth of the priesthood of all believers. All believers can read and interpret the Word of God, for the Holy Spirit dwells within them and enlightens their minds to understand the Word. All believers in Jesus Christ have direct access to the Father through the Son, without need of a human intermediary. And all believers serve the Lord God in whatever lawful calling God has given them; it’s not just the priests and monks and nuns who are doing “spiritual” work.
These truths are worth remembering and worth preserving, because they are at the heart of the gospel of our God and Savior. Christians of all people must never succumb to the worldview of Henry Ford, who declared, “History is bunk.” Rather, we know that there are a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on as we run the race of faith, men and women who have gone before us, who have much to teach us, and who suffered so that we might be free. I pray it will never be said of the saints at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church that we neglected or forgot history, for it is His story; indeed, He is still writing it through us. May He continue to reform His church, and keep us firm in His truth.