Being isolated to an island of intellectual worldliness as a Christian can be quite difficult, particularly in light of this day. Throughout the week, my college has endeavored to encourage and exonerate a certain “holiday” known as “Halloween”. Professors give extra credit to students dressed in costumes and bars around Milledgeville add liquor to the holiday spirit. Through film and literature, the traditions of Halloween have been pressed upon all as being the norm for our culture on this day. And this holiday being a Sunday, men and women and children all across this land will all join together in worship, but of which god? Some honor the god of candy, or Bacchus, or nostalgia; yet others (among which I am one) worship the Living and True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This Lord’s day is not only special in the way that we enjoy resting in the promise of his grace from our labors and celebrating his Resurrection, but also because of an event that occurred 493 years ago. It was on this day that a young German monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg.
Most of us know this already, we have been taught this almost from infancy and this is boorish to us yet there are brethren amongst us who do not know or understand the significance of this day. I would issue a warning though, let not our zealousness for Reformed history and doctrine precede our humility and love for younger brethren who have not been in the faith as long as we. I speak from recent experience having been overzealous to my roommate in this matter and having made myself proud in his eyes; forgive me then sir. This blog post is for him and others like him who are young in the faith and zealous in their love for the Lord and others and who do not yet know the joy of knowing where you have come from and why you are here.Here is a brief description of the event that happened this day so many years ago, why it came about, and its significance and relevance today. Although many would mark the start of the Protestant Reformation on this day in the year 1517, I would disagree and say it started much earlier though not in its full blast as it did after October 31, 1517. Martin Luther was not the first man to split from the established Roman Catholic Church and return to the Scriptures. In fact, there was a small spark in the 12th century by a group called the Waldenses. They were a group of French people who sought to return to the Scriptures and who believed the Catholic Church was teaching doctrine contrary to that found in the Gospels. As James Wharey states in his book Sketches of Church History (a book every Christian should read),
And although their history is involved in much obscurity, there is every probability that the Waldenses were the successors of those pious and faithful witnesses for Christ. The doctrines and order which they maintained, have been much disputed. Yet it is believed that no candid reader of the creeds, confessions, and other public documents which they have left, can hesitate to conclude that their leading opinions were very nearly the same with those which were afterwards entertained by Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers, so that they fell en very readily with the church of Geneva, in the sixteenth century. That they taught,substantially, the system of free grace which is now received in orthodox Protestant churches, and that they were also Pedobaptists and Presbyterians, is too evident to admit of a reasonable doubt (175).
These men, it would seem, started the Reformation long before Luther was even born! Yet there is another man who turned from the established Catholic Church and returned to the Scriptures (just a side note: At its heart, that is what it means to be Reformed… not being Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran or even Calvinist….though these have a significant part in being Reformed). in the 14th century, an Englishman by the name of John Wycliffe, an English doctor and professor of theology at Oxford, was the first to translate the Bible into the vernacular English. We so often take for granted our English Bibles which can be found in multiple versions. At the time, only the clergy (and sometimes they couldn’t even read it) could get access to the Word of God which was in Latin. One must also understand that during the height of the Catholic Church, the Pope was the supreme head of the Church and his teachings and the traditions of the Church were ranked higher than that of the Word. They watered down the Gospel and added things to it which made it of little worth to the lay people. That is one of the reasons why Luther wrote his 95 theses against the Catholic Church. At any rate, Wycliffe translated the Latin Vulgate into English and distributed it to the common folk. His efforts were opposed and persecuted by the Catholic Church but they never could kill him. When he died, his remains were dug up, burned, and dumped into the Thames by the authorities due to his “crime” or “heresy” against the Church. His legacy lives to this day, due to his efforts and the efforts of a man named William Tyndale, we now have the Word in our own tongue.Wycliffe is known as the “Morning Star of the Reformation”.
The status of the established Church grew more and more corrupt as the centuries progressed and the people of the land grew more dependent on the church for survival and acceptance. The leaders of the church were exceedingly wicked and instituted ordinances clearly not found in Scripture such as Indulgences, Purgatory, and other things. They abandoned the Scriptures for the wisdom and philosophies of men and Aristotle and Plato were esteemed as high as we consider the Word of God. In the fourteenth century a man named John Huss, another Morning Star of the Reformation, was martyred for his belief in doctrines we believe today and his return to the Scriptures as “our only rule of faith and practice”. An interesting fact about Huss was that he got his “ideas” from Wycliffe who translated the Bible into the vernacular. Huss was not English but he read Wycliffe’s theology and returned once again to the Scriptures. Luther said of Huss that he was the most rational expounder of the Scriptures he had ever met.
I hope one can see a pattern with these great men of faith, they returned to the Scriptures and declared it powerful unto saving and our only rule of faith and practice as well as reading the writings of other wise men who rightly wrote about and understood the Scriptures. Our minds are too feeble to understand the Word without the Holy Spirit and good writing of those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to write about the Word. Now we can return to Luther who we can rightly say, I think, was not the first Reformer but the first one to put the Reformed movement into a blaze that Lord willing will never fade. Martin Luther, for all his faults, is a man dear to my own heart. Perhaps it is the fact that we share the same birthday, November 10th (though he was born 506 years before I was) or the fact that share the same faith or that we’re both sinners in need of grace more than we realize but whatever it is this man was indeed a man after God’s own heart and lion for Christ.
His father wanted him to be a lawyer but due to a dramatic and scary experience with a thunderstorm, Luther became a monk and so began his life changing career with the church. Luther was not, as we say, a believer at the time, his reaction to God was one that was marked with a fear of God’s wrath beyond what we can imagine. God’s providence was strong in his life for he did not choose any branch of monasticism, but the Augustinian branch. Augustine is the one saint Catholics and Protestants cherish together yet for different reasons. Augustine was a true defender of the faith and a pillar in regards to his defense of the worth of the Scriptures. Luther began to train as a priest and was sent to Wittenburg where he became the local priest and also a professor of theology at the university there. There was something at that University that would become life changing and monumental in Luther’s life; the entire Word of God. There Luther spent long hours studying and began to realize that salvation is not achieved by works or money but by faith. After nailing his theses on the door of Wittenburg church (his theses were declarations of the heresies and errors of the Roman Catholic Church), his works were published and spread to all corners of the Holy Roman Empire and even to the doors of the Vatican. His works became condemned and Luther was excommunicated in 1520. A year later, Luther was required to appear before the emperor and a cardinal to order his recantation at Worms. It is at this session that Luther spoke these famous words:
“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 will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
For this he was declared a heretic but the church thankfully never killed him. The Lord used him to translate the Scriptures in the German language and to reform the church. Being a priest, it was unlawful for him to marry but he married anyway and wrote incredibly helpful treatises on marriage, family, as well as regular Christian life. He wrote numerous commentaries and helped write many confessions and catechisms.
So what is the significance of all this? The reformation didn’t end thankfully with Luther but continued and is still continuing today. Many others followed him like John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and still many others. Their efforts have split us from the Roman Catholic Church yet, though some deem church splits as evil, this split strengthened the church as it brought her near to the true pillar, Christ and his Holy Word. Because of their efforts we can read the Bible in our own language and we understand and believe that men are saved not as a result of works but by faith and grace alone. We now have creeds, confessions, and catechisms which help us to understand the things found in Scripture. Their commentaries also help us understand Scripture. Their practices of church worship are still practiced today where now the preaching of the Word is central to the worship of God. They wrote many of the beautiful hymns we now sing today. I don’t know about you, but I sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” today, a hymn written and composed by Martin Luther. The work of these men is still felt today and by them we are constantly reminded to return to the Word where we find life and help and joy and peace. I hope that by now you understand and appreciate the lives of these men and how they have helped, in an indirect way, in bringing us to Christ. Praise then be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who used sinners like Luther, Knox, and Calvin to point us to Himself.
If you wish to learn more, I would strongly suggest you read Wharey’s Sketches of Church History, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and other such books which explain the history of the Protestant Reformation. I hope this post helped you. The Grace of the Lord be with you.